More women in minor roles of popular TV shows – but leading roles go to men

The share of female leads/co-leads needs to double to achieve gender parity, study finds
More women in minor roles of popular TV shows – but leading roles go to men

The most popular programming on U.S. cable and television is still dominated by white male characters, especially at the lead/co-lead level, even though gender parity on minor roles has been achieved over the last five years, new research shows.

According to the “See Jane 2021: Looking Back and Moving Forward” report, published by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, over the last five years the representation of women/girls as leads/co-leads in the top ten broadcast and cable scripted television shows has been below parity, despite the progress women/girls have made as leads in children’s programming. 

On average, female characters were 26.9% of all leads/co-leads in popular programming from 2016 to 2020. Representation of female characters in supporting roles has been steadier – between 39.0% and 45.0% for the years examined. The greatest share of female characters in supporting roles occurred in 2019, when 45.0% of supporting roles were played by women/girls.

Women have reached parity in minor roles

One upward trend that researchers observe is female characters in minor roles. In 2016, female characters were 37.8% of characters shown, but in 2020 their representation jumped to 52.7%.

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Thus, female characters are better represented in minor roles, compared to their representation as leads/co-leads, and supporting characters. “The share of female leads/co-leads would need to double to achieve parity with their male counterparts given their representation in 2020. Put simply, in popular programming stories about men/boys are still being viewed at three times the rate of stories about women/girls in 2020,” the study says.

More women seen and heard

Generally, female characters’ screen time increased by 8.4% and female characters’ speaking time increased by 7.0% from 2016 to 2020.

Female characters accounted for 36.1% of all screen time in 2016, but in 2019 that number jumped more than 10 points to 46.5%. In 2020, there was a small decline to 44.5% of all screen time, but still an improvement from 2016, 2017, and 2018.

Inclusion of other identities

Apart from gender, researchers have also analyzed the inclusion of characters with five more identities – race/ethnicity, LGBTQIA+, disability, age (50+), and large body type – in the most popular broadcast and cable scripted television shows. The findings were mixed.

Apparently there has been progress in the representation of Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) in supporting roles. In 2020, 40.4% of all supporting characters in popular programming were BIPOC, compared to 32.2% in 2016. Also, in 2020, 19.4% of leads/co-leads were disabled characters, an increase from 2016 when there were no disabled leads/co-leads.

On the contrary, there were no LGBTQIA+ leads/co-leads from 2016 to 2020 in the most popular programming, while characters 50+ were less than a quarter (24.8%) of leads/co-leads. Furthermore, for all years analyzed, less than 10% of lead/co-lead characters in popular programming had a large body type.

“Although there are efforts in the industry to tell more diverse stories and greenlight programming that better reflects the public, our findings suggest that the most popular programming on cable and television is still dominated by white male characters, especially at the lead/co-lead level,” the report notes.

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