Dr. Stacy L. Smith and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative released a research brief titled “Inequality in 1,500 Popular films”. The title explains it all and resumes the Initiative’s annual look at gender and race/ethnicity of lead/co leads of top-grossing films, spanning 2007 to 2021.

Good news: nothing has really changed when it comes to representation of women and people of color in leading roles in film. Bad news: nothing has really changed when it comes to representation of women and people of color in leading roles in film. Being stagnant in growth is not exactly a safe zone.

Across the 100 top-grossing films of 2021, 41% of movies had a female lead/co lead, which is up from 36% in 2020 and slightly below the plateau of 43% in 2019.

2021 demonstrates the progress made since 2007, when the percentage of films with a female lead/co lead was 20%. Yes, you read that right: 20%. Despite the progress, popular films still do not present girls and women as leads/co leads on par with their share of the U.S. population.

“The advocacy and activism surrounding girls and women on screen in film has been at a fever pitch for more than 10 years,” said Dr. Smith. “While the industry reckons with the fallout of the pandemic and the evolving theatrical market, decision-makers must be wary that the progress they have made can stagnate or even reverse.”

The percentage of films with a lead/co lead from an underrepresented racial/ethnic groups also remained consistent with prior years. In 2021, 32% of movies had an underrepresented lead/co lead, compared to 28% of films in 2020. 2021 was similar to 2019 (32 movies) and represents a significant increase from 2007 (13 movies). The percentage of films with an underrepresented lead/co lead is still below proportional representation to the U.S. population (39.9%), however.

“We cannot underestimate the positive impact these 32 movies can have on young audiences of color,” said the study’s lead author, Katherine L. Neff. “To be able to see yourself on screen, and to see yourself and people that look like you as the hero or leader in a variety of different films was not an option when I was younger. People of color deserve to be at the heart of storytelling.”

The research brief also examines the percentage of girls and women of color at the center of storytelling. Only 11 films had an underrepresented female lead/co lead in 2021, which is similar to 2020, when 9 films were centered on an underrepresented female lead/co lead. 2021 represents a decrease from the high of 17 films with an underrepresented female lead/co lead in 2019, though an increase from 2007 (1 film).

Movies were far less likely to have women aged 45 or older in lead/co lead roles than men in the same age bracket. Seven films in 2021 and 4 in 2020 featured women at mid-life and older, compared to the 27 in 2021 and the 22 in 2020 that featured men in this age range. No films in 2021 or 2020 had a woman of color age 45 or older in a lead/co lead role, though 7 men of color in that age bracket were the focus of top films in 2021 and in 2020.

“It is clear that the industry still believes women have a ‘sell-by’ date in film,” said Dr. Smith. “The lack of stories about women age 45 and older demonstrates the industry’s regard for women in this age bracket. Additionally, women of color age 45 and older are invisible in leading roles. What does this convey to audiences about the power and strength of women in mid-life and beyond?”

The brief also presents the findings across films released in 2021 by major and mini-major distributors. Walt Disney Studios led, as 85.7% of the company’s films had a female lead/co lead and 57.1% had an underrepresented lead/co lead. 20th Century Studios (54.5%) and Paramount Pictures (50%) both met or exceeded population-level representation for female leads/co leads, while Warner Bros. (41.2%) did so for underrepresented leads/co leads.

The full research brief can be read here.