Popularity of Films with Women First Billed Over the Last 50 Years

Popularity of Films with Women First Billed Over the Last 50 Years

To find out how the prevalence of films with women as the main character has changed over time, I did a little research. By comparing the top 50 grossing films of each year for the last 50 years, some interesting trends emerged.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last couple years or so, you are aware of a strong movement to promote gender equality in films. For too many years, women have been underrepresented in major film roles both in front of and behind cameras. Evidence is shown in the frequency of films being written around male characters, and the fact that in many areas of film production women are hardly ever recognized for their work (only 5 Academy Award nominations for best director and 1 nomination for cinematography so far). Women also face discrimination through wage disparity (as seen in the Michelle Williams/Mark Wahlberg All the Money in the World reshoot fiasco) as well as a history of sexual abuse in the industry (brought to light with the Weinstein alligations and #MeToo movement).

Recently, some progress has been made to better utilize and recognize the talents of women in major film production. Movies like A Wrinkle in Time, and Wonder Woman are not only major motion pictures starring females as the main character, but they are both directed by woman. Major franchises such as Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe have been adding prominent female characters in their more recent films, and the Academy Awards is in the process of bringing in younger voters that will be more receptive to diverse filmmakers and stars. However, the effort to instill a sense of equality among the genders in cinema (and also race, but that discussion is for another day) still has a long way to go.

To determine just how much gender disparity has existed in film, I decided to do a little research. Now, there are many different areas where gender equality can come into play regarding a film’s production and release - all of which I cannot look into myself. I decided to focus in one area in particular; on the frequency of films starring women. I chose this focus because women-led films are clearly not common. Almost every film has a woman in a “starring” role, but those roles aren’t often the main character. I wanted to look for movies that focused squarely on a woman. To get the best representation of how often these types of films are released, I looked at each of the top 50 grossing films (per domestic box office results) of the last 50 years. I chose the top 50 because these are the films that mainstream audiences actually went to see in theaters. Comparing the number of women-led films each year, (and also the genres of those films), should give us a general idea of how the industry has represented females on screen. Here is a graphical overview of the results:

Click on a chart to bring up the image in another window


For each of the films in the above chart, here is how the genres compare:

chart 1

Looking at the female first billed films in the top 10 grossing films of each year, here are the genres:

chart 2

Finally, here is a look at the genres overall:

chart 5

The general observations are as follows:

  • Historically about one fifth of the 50 top grossing films of each year feature a woman in the lead role. I can’t say if this extends to all films, but it has shown fairly consistent over the top-50 grossing films years I researched. The most of any year was 18/50 (36%) and the fewest was 3/50 (6%).

  • There is definitely a trend in recent years towards more women-led films, and women-led films are grossing more (compared to male-led films, year-over-year) on average than ever before. There have never been more top-10 grossing first billed female films than there have been in the last few years.

  • Female first billed films in the 70’s is fairly consistent**, but there was a drop in the 1980’s, until 1989, the worst year. The 90’s saw a slow increase, but the 2000’s was another low period. Between 1999 and 2008, there were only 2 years with women first billed films in the top 10 grossing for a given year.

  • Women-led action films are not necessarily a new thing, but they seem to be more popular now than previously. In fact, before only one woman first billed action film (Aliens) was in the top 10 grossing films of a given year.

  • Horror films with women first billed have remained consistent, but they seem to have been most popular in the 70’s. This was before the slasher film became popular.

  • Dramas with women first billed were most popular and prevalent in the 70’s, and are no longer as popular. Comedy/romance has been the most consistent, and along with drama is the genre that traditionally will have the greatest chance for a woman to be first billed.

  • Animations have been consistent with female first billed, but the numbers are a bit skewed. In the 70’s and 80’s, Disney had a number of re-releases that were popular in theaters. Those films, such as Cinderella and Snow White, were included, even though they weren’t “new” for the year.


* Prior to 1980, box office data is difficult to come by. For some films, it is not easily obtained. This has resulted in some movies that we know had good runs at the box office, but didn’t show up in the top 50 grossing films of a given year. I tried to use my own judgement as best I could in these situations, but there may be some inaccuracies prior to 1980.

** Around 1982, the number of wide-released films increased dramatically. For instance, in 1967, you only had about 3 movies released every month. Because of this, many small released movies are included in the Top 50 highest grossing simply to fill in the space. Many of these movies are small indie films, re-releases, and even exploitation movies. These types of films happen to frequently have women-first billed. Therefore, numbers before 1980 may be a bit skewed, especially in the 21-50 top grossing rang e. That is why I believe 2016 is the best year for women first billed films because the data set from 2016 is the most complete.

-Deciding on whether or not a movie is female-led was difficult in some situations. For the most part, I considered films female-led if a woman was first billed. In instances when a woman is prominently featured, I also considered whether or not their name was first listed on the films’ promotional material and I also considered their screen time in relation to the top-billed male character. For example, I considered The Terminator to be female-led even if Arnold is first-billed and the only name on the promotional material. Likewise, I did not consider Star Wars: The Last Jedi as female led because “main character” duties were split between several main characters, and Mark Hamill is the first billed (however, The Force Awakens WAS considered female-led thanks to Rey’s prominence throughout).


- Data was obtained from the following websites: IMDB,, Box Office Mojo, and