Culture is slow to change, especially when money is involved. Though recent years have seen Hollywood film studios more likely to take a chance on a minority- or female-led blockbuster — see the success of 2017’s Wonder Woman and 2018’s Black Panther — white, male protagonists are still vastly over-represented relative to their proportion of the general population.
A disparity was apparent for race as well as gender, but the latter divide was much more pronounced.
Males compose 49.2 percent of the United States population, and racially white alone, not Hispanic or Latino, residents compose 60.7 percent of the population. An American Unionist analysis of the 20 highest-grossing, domestically-produced films of 2018 shows males over-represented as protagonists by an additional 30.8 percent, whereas whites were over-represented by an additional 9.3 percent.
For the purposes of this study, only domestic box office figures were used. Films without a clear main character, such as Incredibles 2 (Bob or Helen) and Ocean’s 8 (ensemble cast), as wells as films with a non-human main character, such as Peter Rabbit, were excluded from our count. Domestic gross totals were obtained from Box Office Mojo.
The results of our analysis are listed below.
Top 20 domestic films of 2018
- Black Panther
- Avengers: Infinity War
- Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
- Deadpool 2 (our review)
- Ant-Man and the Wasp
- Solo: A Star Wars Story (our review)
- Mission: Impossible — Fallout
- A Quiet Place
- Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation
- Ready Player One
- The Meg
- Mama Mia! Here We Go Again
- Crazy Rich Asians
- The Equalizer 2
- A Wrinkle in Time
- Fifty Shades Freed
- Christopher Robin
- I Can Only Imagine
- The First Purge
Protagonists of top 20 films, with presumed gender and race
- T’Challa (male, black)
- Tony Stark (male, white)
- Owen Grady (male, white)
- Wade Wilson (male, white)
- Scott Lang (male, white)
- Han Solo (male, white)
- Ethan Hunt (male, white)
- Lee Abbott (male, white)
- Dracula (male, white)
- Wade Watts (male, white)
- Jonas Taylor (male, white)
- Sophie Sheridan (female, white)
- Rachel Chu (female, Asian)
- Robert McCall (male, black)
- Meg Murry (female, biracial/black)
- Anastasia Steele (female, white)
- Davis Okoye (male, black/Samoan)
- Christopher Robin (male, white)
- Bart Millard (male, white)
- Dmitri (male, black)
Analyzing the data
United States population statistics, from the U.S. Census Bureau (2017 estimates):
Gender: 49.2 percent male; 50.8 percent female
Race: 60.7 percent white alone, not Hispanic or Latino; 13.4 black or African-American alone; 5.8 percent Asian alone
Protagonists of top 20 films statistics, from our study:
Gender: 80 percent male; 20 percent female
Race: 70 percent white alone, not Hispanic or Latino; 15 percent black or African-American alone; 5 percent Asian alone
Comparing these statistics, it seems white protagonists are moderately over-represented (60.7 to 70 percent), while male protagonists are vastly over-represented (49.2 to 80 percent). That’s a 9.3-percent gap for over-representation of whiteness on screen, and an astounding 30.8-percent chasm for over-representation of maleness on screen.
What’s to be said of this divide? Hollywood has a problem with racial representation, but it has a much larger problem, it seems, with gender representation.
Of course, it must be noted that these numbers only paint a partial picture. 2018 is only one year, which hasn’t even concluded; the top 20 films are only the most prominent of theatrical releases; and analyzing main characters, exclusively, ignores the representation of minor characters, villains and ensemble casts with no singular protagoinst.
Further, the order of these films matters, as well. The top 11 films feature male protagonists. The No. 1 film on our list features a black main character. Superhero films and action blockbusters maintain a prominent place atop box-office rankings, which will likely remain the case for the foreseeable future.
If Hollywood is to diversify its on-screen representation, it would be well suited to include more women and people of color in leading roles in comic book and action-oriented films. It seems audiences are willing to support top-billing for women and minorities when given the chance, but studios, even in 2018, seldom afford them that opportunity. ■