Here's Why 2018 Was a Record Year for Women-Led Movies

"Female protagonists aren’t just in romantic comedies anymore."

Given the controversy over the last few years about the Oscars being #sowhite and #somale, it's cheering to note that this year's Academy Awards feature a much more diverse range of nominees than we've ever seen. While there's still some criticism over the fact that the nominees for Best Director are still all male—as well as the fact that women still only make up 25 percent of the nominees in the non-gender specific categories—there's no debating that while progress may be slow, it appears to be happening.

But, at the end of the day, the Academy Awards are only one representation of what's happening in the film industry, and one whose viewership is increasingly sinking. What is perhaps worth celebrating even more is the fact that, according to a new study from San Diego State University's Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, 2018 saw a record number of female protagonists in the year's top 100 domestic-grossing films. While the percentage of women in lead roles in these movies in 2018 was still only 31 percent, that's a notable jump from the 24 percent represented in 2017.

"Frankly, 2017 was a bad year for female protagonists," Martha Lauzen, professor and executive director of SDSU's Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, told The LA Times. ""[Last year's movies] were a record high since I've been doing this research since 2002. Protagonists are tremendously important, because it's from their perspective that the story is told, so it's wonderful to see more women in those roles."

Asian female actors had a particularly good year thanks to the success of the film Crazy Rich Asians, which is now the most successful domestic studio rom-com in practically a decade. While the film may fail the Bechdel test, it's become a cultural milestone for featuring a majority Asian cast and several women in prominent speaking roles.

But one of the best findings of the study is that female actors are also increasingly being cast in a more diverse body of genres. While comedies still feature the most female protagonists (32 percent), there's also a more notable amount of them in dramas (29 percent), horror films (19 percent), science fiction features (10 percent), and action features (7 percent),

"Female protagonists aren't just in romantic comedies anymore," Lauzen said. "In fact, they were fairly well-presented across genres. This is a positive because, if one genre falls out of favor temporarily—as genres sometimes do, the way the romantic comedy did for a while—we won't see a dramatic decline in the numbers onscreen."

And it seems like all of the recent discussion surrounding the need for more female directors wasn't for nothing. According to the study, women made up 57 percent of protagonists in films in which at least one director or writer was a woman. Though it's worth noting that one of the year's most highly acclaimed films about women—The Favourite, which centers around two women vying for the favor of a frail and cantankerous queen in 18th century England—was directed by a man (Yorgos Lanthimos).

In terms of race and ethnicity, the percentage of black female protagonists increased from 16 percent in 2017 to 21 percent in 2018, and Asian female protagonists increased from 7 percent in 2017 to 10 percent in 2018. However, the percentage of Latinas actually decreased from 7 percent in 2017 to 4 percent in 2018.

"Latinas remain the most underrepresented group, especially when considering this group's representation in the U.S. population," Lauzen said. "That needs some work."

And if you're looking for more great movies from last year that feature a diverse body of actors, check out the The 7 Best Movies from 2018 You Didn't See—According to Famous Directors.

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Diana Bruk
Diana is a senior editor who writes about sex and relationships, modern dating trends, and health and wellness. Read more