During the Oscars telecast earlier this month, a video montage of "popular heroes" was noticeably short of female actors, and the failure to feature Linda Hamilton or Carrie Fisher in their classic roles was considered a snub. But a new study reveals, in fact, there simply aren't that many film characters in the mold of Sarah Connor or Princess Leia.
In the top-grossing films of 2013, females comprised 15 percent of protagonists and 29 percent of major characters, according to a study released Tuesday by San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film.
Moreover, only 13 percent of the top 100 films featured equal numbers of major female and male characters, or more major female characters than male characters—and this was during what Oscar-winning actor Cate Blanchette described as "a year of extraordinary performances by women."
"I think that people will be surprised by these findings because we did see some very high-profile female protagonists in 2013," Martha Lauzen, who conducted the study, told Backstage. "I think people might look at those performances and think everything's OK for women, that the number of female characters must be improving, which is why it's important to actually count the number of female characters."
In the films surveyed by Lauzen, there were over 2,300 characters, with women occupying 30 percent of all speaking roles. That's about the same number as in previous years when the study, titled "It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World," was conducted.
"I would characterize it as gender inertia," said Lauzen, who's executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film. "If you look at the numbers over the last decade, you will see little change in the representation of females characters as protagonists."
Female characters in the survey were younger than their male counterparts; more than half were in their 20s and 30s. Women 40 and over comprised 30 percent of all female characters. Meanwhile, males 40 and over accounted for 55 percent of all male characters.
Additionally, female characters were less likely than males to have clearly identifiable goals or be portrayed as leaders of any kind. Male characters were also more likely to have an identified occupation. In films in which female characters did have jobs, they were most likely to hold blue-collar positions.
There was some good news for female actors in the study. In 2013, the percentage of African-American females rebounded to 14 percent from 8 percent in 2011. But that's still down from 15 percent of all female characters in 2002.
The female characters broke down as 73 percent Caucasian, followed by African American (14 percent), Latina (5 percent), Asian (3 percent), other worldly or alien (3 percent), and other (2 percent).