There's a reason Sandra Bullock felt so alone in Gravity: not only was her character stranded in space, but she was starring in one of the few box office hits featuring a female protagonist.
According to a new study from Martha Lauzen, only 15 percent of protagonists in the 100 top grossing films of last year were female. That figure is up four percentage points from findings from 2011 and down one percentage point from 2002. Get that: representation for women in movies has not changed drastically in the past ten years. To make matters worse, last year, women made up only 30 percent of speaking characters, a figure that also hasn't changed a lot over the last ten years.
"Overall, we have seen little movement in the numbers of female protagonists and females as speaking characters over the last decade," Lauzen told The Hollywood Reporter in a statement. "Moreover, female characters are less likely than males to have identifiable goals or to be portrayed as leaders of any kind." Lauzen is the executive director for the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University.
It's even more depressing when you look at the demographics. The study reveals that 73 percent of the female characters in 2013 were Caucasian. Women in film also tended to be younger than men, making Amy Poehler and Tina Fey's Golden Globes joke about Clooney's role in Gravity—that he would rather "float away into space and die than spend one more minute with a woman his own age"—all too real.
Of course, looking at the very top films of the year, you might get a different picture. Three out of the six top grossing have female leads: Catching Fire, Frozen, and Gravity. (Yes, we are counting Frozen despite the fact that the women are, well, animated.) But compare that with the overall results of Lauzen's study and things look a lot worse.
Cate Blanchett used her Best Actress acceptance speech at the Oscars in part to praise the fact that her film, Blue Jasmine, a story about a woman going through a break down, managed to "stayed in the cinemas for as long as it did." The film was the 86th highest grossing film of the year. She thanked the people at Sony Pictures "for so bravely and intelligently distributing the film and to the audiences who went to see it and perhaps those of us in the industry who are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films with women at the center are niche experiences. They are not. Audiences want to see them and, in fact, they earn money. The world is round, people." Put it like that and it's simple: studios need to listen to audiences, who clearly aren't turned off when films like Gravity or Catching Fire focus on women. That seems like a big hurdle looking at the data.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.