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Films with women leads are scarce
Despite financial success at box office
Lucy
Scarlett Johansson in Lucy (2014) - photo by Universal Pictures

This past summer, women ruled at the box office. Hits like “Lucy,” “The Fault in Our Stars” and “Maleficent,” each earned north of $40 million during their respective opening weekends, Box Office Mojo reports.

Given these successes and the unstoppable powerhouse that is Disney’s “Frozen,” one might assume there is no shortage of women on the big screen. However, a recent study found less than a quarter of films released feature a female protagonist.

In fact, when you look at all speaking characters in films rated G, PG or PG-13, only 31 percent are female, according to research by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.

The main reason given to the lack of films featuring leading women is their assumed lack of universal appeal and thus lack of profitability.

“Women will go to a male-oriented movie, but men have to be dragged to a female-oriented one,” Catherine Paura, chief executive of Capstone Global Marketing & Research told The New York Times. Additionally, many film executives assume films with central female characters will not fare well in international markets, the International Business Times reports.

Cate Blanchett quieted these assumptions when she picked up the Best Actress Oscar earlier this year for her role in “Blue Jasmine.” The film centered on two sisters, raked in just short of $100 million with two-thirds of that coming from international audiences, reports Box Office Mojo.

“Those of us in the industry who are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films with women at the center are niche experiences, they are not,” Blanchett said. “Audiences want to see them, and in fact they make money. The world is round, people.”

Entertainment Weekly‘s Simon Vozick-Levinson wrote that a double-standard is at play. He finds it baffling when a movie with a female lead is categorized as “a women’s movie” and its profitability is then questioned. “Why is this weird?” he asked. “Because I don’t think anyone would ever dream of raising similar questions about a movie where the main characters are all male.”

Oscar-winning actress Reese Witherspoon noticed these assumptions at play as she saw the number of roles for women dry up.

“I think there was literally one studio that had a project for a female lead over 30,” she recalled to Variety. “I thought to myself, ‘I’ve got to get busy.’ … My daughter was 13, and I wanted her to see movies with female leads and heroes and life stories. ”

Witherspoon joined forces with producer Bruna Papandrea to form their own production company. Today, they have three films set for release, each with dynamic female characters at the helm.

Colin Stokes, the communications director for the non-profit Citizen Schools, thinks girls are not the only ones being negatively affected by the lack of female protagonists on the big screen.

“(Are boys) absorbing the story that a male hero’s job is to defeat the villain with violence and then collect the reward, which is a woman who has no friends and doesn’t speak?” he asks in his TED Talk which has been viewed over 2.5 million times.

Stokes suggests parents can reverse these negative effects by using movies as a tool to cultivate appreciation for both genders.

“I think we really have to show (our sons), and model for them, how a real man is someone who trusts his sisters and respects them,” Stokes said. “And I think our job in the Netflix queue is to look out for those movies that (have heroines) who show real courage, who bring people together, and to nudge our sons to identify with those heroines and to say, ‘I want to be on their team,’ because they’re going to be on their team.”