LOS ANGELES — "Frozen," Disney's animated musical about a pair of royal sisters, was last year's highest-grossing film worldwide — and also one of its most unusual, according to a study released Thursday by researchers at University of Southern California.
That's because one of its directors, Jennifer Lee, is female, and so are its lead characters. Just 1.9 percent of the directors of 2013's top-grossing films were women — a six-year low — and just a quarter of all the speaking roles in animated films belonged to girls or women, researchers found.
The study by USC's Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative, which evaluated more than 25,000 speaking characters in 600 top-grossing films between 2007 and 2013, found that women continue to be underrepresented both behind and in front of the camera, especially in animation and action-adventure.
"As Hollywood moves to more serialized content, comic books, tent-poles, this is where we see a big problem," said USC Annenberg associate professor Stacy L. Smith.
On screen, women were most represented in comedies, with films such as "The Heat," "Pitch Perfect" and "Bridesmaids" helping drive up the percentage of female characters in that genre to 36 percent.
Women were least represented in action-adventure films. Marvel movies such as "The Avengers" and fantasy and science fiction franchises such as "Star Trek" and "The Hobbit" drove the percentage down to between 20 percent and 23.9 percent for the years studied.
Women behind the camera, meanwhile, are scarcer than ever, according to the study. In addition to the low percentage of directors, just 7.4 percent of writers of the top-grossing movies were women.
"Women just aren't moving into the higher-budgeted, top-grossing fare," Smith said, contrasting the numbers to research USC has conducted into independent film, where women constituted 28.7 percent of directors at the Sundance Film Festival last year. "The No. 1 barrier is financial. … The people who fund films and greenlight content are mostly male. Women are perceived to lack confidence and to be less trustworthy with resources."
In addition to issues of prevalence, the study also looked at how gender influences the way characters are presented on-screen, finding female characters much likelier to be sexualized More than 30 percent of females were portrayed in tight or revealing clothing versus 9.7 percent of males, while 29.5 percent of females were shown with full or partial nudity versus 11.7 percent of males.
One factor that influenced those portrayals was who was behind the camera: Films with at least one female producer were 10.6 percent less likely to depict female characters partially or fully naked.