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Source: Warner Bros


Even with Barbie as the year’s biggest domestic earner, the representation of women in hit films took a “catastrophic step back” in 2023, according to one of the authors of a report on diversity and inclusion in North American theatrical releases. 

According to the latest annual report from the Los Angeles-based USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, only 30 of the 100 top-grossing films of last year had a girl or woman in a lead or co-lead role, compared to 44 in 2022. The 2023 representation level was the same as the level recorded in 2010. 

The report shows a modest increase, however, in the on-screen ethnic diversity of successful films, with 37 of last year’s top-grossing films having had a lead or co-lead from an underrepresented racial/ethnic group, compared to 31 in 2022. 

The report covers 1,700 top-grossing films from 2007 to 2023 and examines the gender, race/ethnicity and age of the leading and co-leading actors for each film. 

Among major distributors, says the report, Walt Disney, Paramount and Warner Bros scored the biggest percentages of films with female leads or co-leads and Universal and Lionsgate the smallest. Disney and Warner Bros, along with smaller distributors, had the best track records in racial/ethnic representation, and Sony, Paramount and Lionsgate the worst. 

In its conclusion, the report suggests that its findings for 2023 “point to an industry grown apathetic about efforts surrounding diversity and inclusion. While it is critical to celebrate the achievements of significant films like Barbie, there must be more than one or a handful of films that reflect the experiences of women and people of colour each year. Until the industry stops hiding behind a single exemplar, change will remain elusive.”

Dr Stacy L Smith, founder and director of the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative and one of the authors of the report, said the 2023 figures represent “a catastrophic step back for girls and women in film. In the last 14 years, we have charted progress in the industry so to see this reversal is both startling and in direct contrast to all of the talk of 2023 as the ‘year of the woman.’ 

“These numbers are more than just a metric of how often girls and women are in protagonist roles,” Smith added. “They represent the career opportunities offered to women in the film industry. This year, we found that those opportunities have drastically constricted. Even by looking at the films that were moved to 2024 because of the strike, we cannot explain the collapse of women leads/co leads in 2023 other than to say that this is an industry failure.”