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Hit Movies Have More Female Characters—and Stronger Ones Too

New research finds females still make up a minority of the onscreen population, but they are depicted more often in leadership roles.

Greater gender equality has long been a stated goal of Hollywood studios. Behind the scenes, the results have been less than robust. But new research suggests the way women are portrayed onscreen has shifted in a positive direction.

An analysis of 50 of the top-grossing films of 2016 finds females make up only one-third of all characters. But that's a significant improvement over the last such survey, which looked at films released in 2002. And, perhaps more importantly, it reports females are now far more likely to be depicted in positions of power.

"There is a trend since 2002 toward women having a greater presence in film," as well as "occupying greater proportions of leadership roles," write psychologists Conor Neville and Phyllis Anastasio of St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia. Their study is published in the journal Sex Roles.

The researchers analyzed 50 of the 56 highest-grossing movies of 2016. Using a template from an earlier study of the top-grossing films of 2002, they noted the sex of each major character, as well as their status and ambitions.

Specifically, they determined "whether the character engaged in any kind of leadership activity; " whether they were portrayed in a managerial or supervisory role; whether they "worked toward achieving something" over the course of the film; and whether the succeeded at their goal.

"Fully 67 percent of total characters within our sample were male," the researchers report, "demonstrating that women are still severely underrepresented in Hollywood's top-grossing films."

That said, the percentage of female characters rose from 28 percent to 33 percent. And there was a similar increase in female "major characters," from 27 percent in 2002 to just under 32 percent in 2016.

The researchers also noted "a slight but important shift away from the passive, subservient roles often found in (female) film and television characters. Our sample's proportion of female characters in leadership roles was equal to the proportion of their male counterparts in all age groups—an improvement since 2002."

In the most popular movies of 2002, women characters were less likely to clearly have goals than men. By 2016, that gap had completely closed. Furthermore, the 2016 female characters were actually more likely than males to achieve their goals.*

The researchers speculate that this may reflect the fact that "more antagonists and movie villains are male." Nevertheless, they write, "achievement of goals is a show of competence and power, and not of passivity, and it is intriguingly more prevalent among younger female than male characters."

Neville and Anastasio also found older characters were, overall, portrayed more positively in 2016 than they were in 2002. They found a trend toward "older characters maintaining or even increasing their leadership roles, occupational power holding, and ability to achieve their goals."

So this study suggests the onscreen world is, in fact, getting more diverse. While the gender-related gains "are mitigated by the fact that male characters outnumber female characters by a two-to-one ratio," young female filmgoers are being exposed to more, and more dynamic, role models. That will play a role in shaping their expectations for themselves, and for the society they will help create.

*Update—August 16th, 2018: This post has been updated to reflect the year in which the gender gap in characters' motivations was closed.