A Look into Female Representation in Hollywood Hits Over 7 Decades

Between Back to the Future, E.T., the Harry Potter series, and The Lord of the Rings, most of the Hollywood classics we’ve all grown to know and love feature a male lead with only a supporting Hermione or Éowyn. Sure, some classics like Titanic feature a Jack and a Rose, but by and large, male leads have dominated Hollywood films for decades. This raises the question: How many box office hits do feature female leads? 

It’s taken Hollywood several decades to figure it out, but movies can still generate high earnings without a white male lead. In fact, between the rise of the #MeToo movement and a large share of women in Congress, more and more women want to see women headline movies (and call the shots behind the camera). 

Despite that progressive push towards greater representation for women in Hollywood in recent years, women haven’t always received fair representation in film. According to our data, in the 2000s, only 6% of all box office hits were female-led. In 2017, 43% of the top 100 movies featured zero black female characters. What’s worse, 94% of those movies featured zero LGBTQ+ female leads. 

So, how have female movie leads evolved in comparison to male movie leads, if at all? We analyzed fifty box office hits per decade for seven decades (1950–2020) to find out.

Female movie leads by decade

According to our findings, the movie genres that feature the most female-led movies are action, comedy, and drama. 

Female leads have been showcased more significantly in action in recent years—especially in action hero movies. Instead of Superman, Batman, and Bond hogging up the limelight, Wonder Woman, Jean Grey, and Black Widow (to name a few) have claimed their share of screen time. Women also headlined hits like Hunger Games and Divergent, instead of playing Bruce Wayne’s love interest or the Mary Jane Watson-esque damsel in distress. 

On the flip side, of all the movie genres we analyzed, westerns have the lowest percentage of female-led movies. Westerns are characterized by untamed plains, rugged cowboys, and lots of standoffs and shootouts—scenes and scenarios that rarely featured women historically.

Mystery is another genre in which women take a backseat. From the onset, the mystery genre at large was categorized by mustache-donning Magnum P.I.s and suave con artists that pose as pilots (you know the one), with women starring in only supporting roles—usually as a lover, heroine in need of saving, temptress, or all the above. 

Female movie leads Genre

Box Office Busters 

  • In the 2000s, 94% of all top movies were male-led, leaving only 6% female-led. In the 2010s, those numbers changed dramatically: 66% of all top movies were male-led, and 34% of all top movies were female-led. 
  • Of all the decades we analyzed, the 2010s saw the highest average gross box office earnings: roughly $445 million. Coincidentally, the 2010s were also when women had the highest percentage of female-led movies (34% of all top movies). 
  • Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens was the highest-grossing film in the past seven decades, earning $936.66 Million—and it was also female-led. 
  • The percentage of female-led movies dropped sharply from the 1960s to the ‘70s. In the ‘60s, 26% of all top movies featured female leads, and in the ‘70s, only 10% of all top movies featured a female lead. 
  • In the past seven decades, from the seventy top box office hits (ten per decade), only twelve top-grossing films were female-led. 


We looked at the top fifty box office feature films for the following decades: 1950, 1960, 1970, 1980, 1990, 2000, and 2010. From there, we determined which decade and genre had the most and least male and female movie leads. We used the following criteria to choose our movies:

  • Movies that premiered in the U.S. 
  • Movies that are in English 
  • Movies that qualify as a top 50 movie for each respective decade

What’s Your Favorite Movie Genre? 

Do you prefer to see Jane Does kicking bad guys to the curb in action movies, or are you a fan of a female-led horror plot? No matter your preference, watch any show, genre, or movie lead of your choosing with USDirect’s premium channels

Are you a reporter? Feel free to get in touch by emailing media@usdirect.com.

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