Not Quite Year of the Woman: Just 30 Percent of 2023’s Movies Had Female Leads

Although Barbie won the box office last year, a demographic analysis of the rest of 2023’s releases indicates that Hollywood is still investing primarily in male-centered movies.

Just 30 percent of the top 100 films of 2023 featured a female lead or co-lead, the lowest share in a decade, according to the latest research brief from USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. AI2 has compiled this data annually since 2007 (which, at 20 percent, featured the lowest-ever percentage of women protagonists), and last year’s mark is a substantial drop from 2022’s record-high of 44 percent.

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“This is a catastrophic step back for girls and women in film,” AI2 founder Stacy L. Smith said in a statement. “These numbers are more than just a metric of how often girls and women are in protagonist roles. They represent the career opportunities offered to women in the industry…. Even by looking at the films that were moved to 2024 because of the strike, we cannot explain the collapse of women leads/co-leads in 2023 other than to say that this is an industry failure.”

Just three movies featured female leads or co-leads who were 45 or older: Cocaine Bear (Keri Russell), My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3 (Nia Vardalos) and Magic Mike’s Last Dance (Salma Hayek). AI2 noted that its report did not include pure ensemble films, such as 80 for Brady and Book Club: The Next Chapter. By contrast, 32 movies were led or co-led by men in that age demographic – and 24 of those specifically starred white men.

That’s more than the total number of movies that centered a woman of color (14). Overall, among the 37 total lead or co-lead actors of color in 2023 (up from 31 in 2022), 15 were Black, 10 were multiethnic or categorized as “other,” nine were Asian, three were Hispanic or Latino and one was Middle Eastern/North African.

“The film industry continues to not show up for girls and women and the backpedaling on progress for women of color in leading roles is disappointing,” lead author Katherine Neff said in a statement. “This is true not only for young women of color but for underrepresented women in middle age and older, whose stories are often completely erased.”

Among the major studios, Disney was the top distributor for both female- and POC-led movies, with nearly half its slate (41.61 percent) featuring a girl or woman protagonist. Disney and Warner Bros. tied for having the highest percentage of its releases led by a character of color (38.5 percent), but by contrast, more than half (56.5 percent) of films from the aggregate of smaller distributors (like A24 and Roadside Attractions) centered characters from historically excluded backgrounds.

“Notably, the increase in underrepresented leads was not driven by content from the legacy studios,” Smith said. “It was films from smaller distributors and international fare that were responsible for the uptick we found in 2023. This year should have reflected the commitments major studios made in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, but these are not the places responsible for the push for greater inclusion.”

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