The Rise of Female Protagonists in Film: A Causal Analysis

By Madysen Rufener

During the 16th and 17th centuries, women were rarely seen acting on stage, even in minor roles. Male actors would play female characters, and women were contained to the audience. This was the societal norm. However, over time, this inequality has decreased, and now America is experiencing what is considered a revolutionary period for female actors and characters. Due to the rise of the #MeToo movement, the normalization of modern feminism, and Hollywood’s desire to capture the younger generation’s attention, more big box office movies are featuring female protagonists. No longer are women reduced to merely onlookers. Rather, they are gradually becoming a major part of Hollywood and its films.

Arguably the most important cause of this trend is the #MeToo movement, which has eliminated several well-known influencers from Hollywood such as Harvey Weinstein (film producer), Louis C.K. (comedian, filmmaker, and actor), and Chris Savino (animator and writer). This eradication of male gatekeepers has caused a dearth of roles in Hollywood, which female producers and actresses are quickly replenishing. For example, Wonder Woman, Beauty and the Beast, and Lady Bird were all highly anticipated, female-centric films that were released in the midst of the #MeToo movement’s peak. According to a study by Souha R. Ezzedeen, “[w]ith the exception of the romantic comedy genre (or ‘chick flick’), mainstream films generally cater to men.” However, since the surfacing of sexual assault accusations against several male Hollywood influencers, more mainstream films are featuring female casts, directors, producers, etc., regardless of the movies’ genres.

Another major reason for the rise of feminine portrayal in films is the increasing normalization of modern feminism. Rather than be considered an abnormality, as it was during and prior to a majority of the twentieth century, feminism is now a widely accepted ideology. In fact, in America, it is the cultural norm. According to a 2015 poll by Vox, 85% of respondents support gender equality, the basis of feminist ideals (Kliff). While these respondents may choose not to label themselves as feminists, they are supportive of the movement’s principles (Kliff). In other words, if one is a member of Western society, he or she is statistically more likely to think of women and men as equals. Because of this, the number of films that positively represent female protagonists is increasing. According to Dr. Martha Lauzen, 33 percent of the characters in the year 2011’s top 100 movies were women, and only 11 percent were female protagonists (qtd. in Ezzedeen). This is significantly less than 2016’s statistics, which is reported to be 18 percent higher in regards to the quantity of female protagonists (Lauzen). As shown by Lauzen, feminine representation has increased acutely throughout this century, along with the normalization of feminism. Due to this ideology’s growing acceptance, it is natural to portray in film the main aspect of feminist belief: powerful women. As culture changes and gradually approaches gender equality, Hollywood does the same.

Aside from naturally mirroring the culture of Western society, Hollywood incorporates female characters into its films for another reason: its desire to maintain relevance. Throughout each generation, the normalization of the pro-woman ideals becomes increasingly pronounced; therefore, the youngest generation as a whole holds the most feminist beliefs in comparison to all previous generations. Due to these womanist values, the younger generations hold different interests than their ancestors, including an enthusiasm for seeing females in power and in greater quantity. Hollywood, therefore, has decided to implement more positively portrayed female characters in its films as a way to capture the attention of younger folks. As is stated in an article for the Huffington Post by Julia Brucculieri, Hollywood has discovered that it is “actually beneficial for studios to feature women in roles beyond the love interest.” For example, Bad Moms features three women who desire to leave behind the responsibilities of parenting, and despite its unconventional representation of motherhood and women, the film grossed a total of $183.9 million worldwide (“Bad”). Similarly, Hidden Figures tells the story of the three intelligent women at NASA that were responsible for successfully launching the astronaut John Glenn into space (a major divergence from the traditional love interest role) and grossed a worldwide sum of $235.9 million (“Hidden”). As shown by the success of these woman-centric movies, “female-driven projects are connecting with audiences,” reports Bret Lang in an article for Variety. Hollywood is beginning to learn what is popular and modern versus what is old fashioned, leading to the creation of more feminist films.

Due to these three major developments in Western culture, women are finally being recognized in Hollywood. While the industry certainly has not achieved gender equality (which will only occur once females make up 50 percent of the cast), it is gradually nearing a critical tipping point. With the help of more trends such as the #MeToo movement, the wider acceptance of feminism, and Hollywood’s desire to remain relevant, the quantity of women in the movie industry will continue to increase. In fact, these rates are already growing, as is proven by the creation of many female-centric movies in the past few years. However, the film business (in regards to the portrayal of men and women) is not yet equal. As Brucculieri so rightly phrases it, “Hollywood definitely seems to be moving in the right direction, but of course, there’s plenty of room for improvement.”



Works Cited

“Bad Moms (2016).” Box Office Mojo,

Brucculieri, Julia. “The Number Of Female Leads In Film Hit A Historical

High In 2016.” The Huffington Post,, 21 Feb. 2017,

Ezzedeen, Souha R. “Portrayals of Career Women in Hollywood Films: Implications for the Glass ceiling’s Persistence.” Gender in Management, vol. 30, no. 3, 2015, pp. 239-264. ProQuest, url=, doi:

“Hidden Figures (2016).” Box Office Mojo,

Kliff, Sarah. “Most Americans Don’t Consider Themselves Feminists.”, Vox

Media, 8 Apr. 2015,

Lang, Brent. “Number of Female Film Protagonists Hits High in 2016

(Study).” Variety, Variety, 21 Feb. 2017,

Lauzen, Martha M. “It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World: Portrayals of Female

Characters in the Top 100 Films of 2016.” It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World Report, San Diego State University,