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In A Seemingly Endless Sequel, Women And People Of Color Still Lag Behind White Men For Leading Roles

A black and white photo shows a tall man smoking a pipe next to a shorter woman with her hair in a long braid holding an oversized megaphone.
Mary Pickford, in a circa 1925 photo, is on the set of the silent movie 'Little Annie Rooney' with director William Beaudine. While Pickford was an early an influential force in Hollywood, a century later women and people of color still lag behind white men of all ages when it comes to starring in top-grossing films.
(Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive)
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The pandemic turned the movie business upside down. But even amid so much COVID turmoil, Hollywood nevertheless was able to maintain one tradition: excluding women and people of color from starring movie roles.

Every year, USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative scrutinizes the 100 highest-grossing films, cataloging who’s getting lead roles, and who’s not. And like a bad movie sequel that keeps repeating itself, women and people of color continue to be underrepresented.

According to the report, there has been progress over the medium-term. Ten years ago, just 23% of the 100 most popular films had women in leading or co-leading roles. The best year in the study was 2019, when 43% of the top films had female leads. Yet the numbers dropped last year, when women (who account for slightly more than half of the U.S. population) received just 41% of lead and co-lead roles last year.

A chart shows the figure of seven women on the left to represent women age 45 or older who had lead roles in films. At right, 27 films starred men in that age bracket.
(Courtesy USC)
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What’s more, only seven films had female leads or co-leads 45 years and older. Men the same age — think Daniel Craig (54) as James Bond or Vin Diesel (54) in the “Fast & Furious” franchise — starred in nearly four times as many movies.

Ultimately, until Hollywood distributors agree to push for more diverse storytelling across the board, we will not see sustained progress
— Annenberg Inclusion Initiative

People of color — who account for more than 40% of the country — collected less than a third of starring roles, and it was worse for non-white women. Only 11 of 2021’s Top 100 movies featured a woman of color as the lead or co- lead of the story.

If you add ageism to the mix, the numbers are even worse. For the last two years, not a single woman of color aged 45 or older starred in any of those Top 200 releases.

Movies distributed by the Walt Disney Co. were by far the most diverse, while Universal Pictures was the worst for casting women. 20th Century was in last place for casting people of color.

The report’s authors, Katherine Neff, Stacy Smith and Katherine Pieper, said their findings prove how much work remains.

“It will also be imperative to monitor how companies fare relative to pledges they have made following George Floyd’s murder in 2020 and if the growth we would expect from companies focused on equity and representation occurs in future years,” they said. “Ultimately, until Hollywood distributors agree to push for more diverse storytelling across the board, we will not see sustained progress.”

What questions do you have about film, TV, music, or arts and entertainment?
John Horn, entertainment reporter and host of our weekly podcast Retake, explores whether the stories that Hollywood tells about itself really reflect what's going on?