Movies like Emma Stone’s “Poor Things” made us think 2023 was the “Year of the Girl.” But a new study brings bad news. (Credit: Gage Skidmore, Flickr)

The film industry still has a lot of work to do.

When it comes to representation for women on screen, a new study finds that we’re taking steps back, rather than forward. The report – published by Dr. Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University – says just 35% of all speaking roles in 2023’s top films were given to women.

It’s a decided drop-off from the 37% logged in 2022 – and a continued failure to get back to 40%, the peak in representation for women on screen that was achieved in 2019.

It’s also somewhat surprising, given recent cultural discussions about the importance of movies made by and for women, sparked by the success of several movies – from last year’s smash hit “Barbie,” to critical darling “Poor Things” and gripping biopic “Priscilla.” Lauzen told Variety, of the seeming misalignment: “Because ‘Barbie’ claimed so much of our cultural space in 2023, female characters may have seemed more abundant in films last year.”

But the numbers paint a different and disappointing picture, she adds. Indeed, her research also shows that, despite hype over 2023’s status as the “Year of the Girl,” 77% of last year’s 100 top-grossing movies were fronted and disproportionately populated by men. 

It’s an especially grim situation for women from older generations. “In spite of high-profile performances by Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, Rita Moreno and a handful of other actresses, females over 60 remained dramatically underrepresented,” Lauzen wrote in her report. They accounted for “just 7% of all female characters – well below the percentage of women in this age cohort in the U.S. population.”

These findings further solidify a worrying trend highlighted in a separate study released earlier this year by the Center, which pointed to similarly frustrating findings on representation for women behind the scenes. According to that report, just 12.1% of the 100 top-grossing U.S. films of 2023 – only 14 in all – had women directors.

And researchers, including Lauzen, were left similarly frustrated by those findings. “Until studios, executives and producers alter the way they make decisions about who is qualified and available to work as a director on top-grossing films, there is little reason to believe that optimism is warranted,” the team wrote at the time.

Lauzen added that what is truly needed, in front of and behind the camera, is “a sea change.”