Gender and Lead Roles: A Look at the Numbers

The battle of the sexes has long been great TV show fodder, but who is winning? Over time there has been some advancement in women’s roles, but has there been any improvement in equality when it comes to male and female leads on television? A recent article from Direct Packages, an authorized DIRECTV dealer, studied 250 internationally top-ranked shows on IMDb to analyze the demographics of lead roles and discovered a number of intriguing details, including a distinct lack of opportunities for women to command shows and achieve critical success.

Out of the programs studied, only 7% were led by actresses with 61% of the most featured roles going to men. The remaining 32% of shows (such as Friends or Game of Thrones) were ensemble-based and could not be said to be helmed solely by a male or female protagonists.

While ensemble based programming with protagonists of both sexes seems to demonstrate a move toward parity, the study shows that programs with male and female leads have actually undermined gains that female dominated programs have made over the last few decades. At the same time, this growth has not affected the rising percentage of male-dominated programming in the slightest.

When looking into women leading specific genres, the story isn’t funny. Comedy makes up a much smaller percentage than drama when it comes to female led programming with only 2 of the 17 female led shows on the list falling into the comedy category.

While gains have been made in entertainment for female representation on screen over the past 60 years, this proves how far there still is to go when moving toward equality. The first step in generating improved lead characters for women is likely to have more women characters in general. According to a recent study by USC’s Annenberg School, out of the 11,306 speaking characters they evaluated across TV, film, and streaming services from 2014 – 2015, only about one-third (33.5%) were female.

There are also many miles to go behind the scenes. The same study shows that women writers and directors are extremely underrepresented (5 to 1 in the case of male to female directors). If there is to be any significant progress toward equal representation in this arena, more women need to be given the chance to direct. A study performed by UCSD regarding women in independent film demonstrated that most movies that feature a female director also employ women writers. In fact, 74% of female led projects were written by women compared to only 7% of female writers on films directed by men. The percentages of female editors and cinematographers on female directed movies were also significantly higher. As for lead actresses, according to, in a study by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, in films with a female director or writer women were given 50% of the protagonist roles (compared to only 13% in films directed and written by men).   

This demonstrates that women may have the opportunity to control their own fate in future productions. Successes with action films like Wonder Woman and the female led Ghostbusters prove that projects helmed by women can result in both profitability and more expansive opportunities for women to command leads. Women hold the lion’s share of purchasing power (73% of all household purchases according to this Adweek article from 2014) — and consume more television than men (about 45 minutes more per day according to a recent study). Ultimately, it is up to all consumers to demand greater representation through the creation of more stories with women at the helm. 

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