In the past decade, the prevalence of leading women in films and TV shows has increased dramatically. In fact, a 2018 study found that movies with a female lead now perform better in the box office.
This pattern has defined every area of the entertainment industry, as major roles, producer and director positions and writing opportunities are increasingly given to women across all broadcast television, cable and streaming services. In the past year alone, the percentage of women in major roles increased from 40% to 45%, according to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film.
Though Netflix, Amazon and Hulu have been creating original content since the early 2010s, their popularity has boomed in the last five years. As these streaming services and others such as rookies HBO Max and Disney+ have picked up momentum, hundreds of original, wildly popular series have been released, many of which feature diverse cast members. Shows like Amazon Prime’s Transparent, starring Jeffrey Tambor, a transitioning female named Maura Pfefferman, have introduced content that is geared to reach audiences that were previously deemed too small for targeted entertainment on broadcast and cable television networks.
In the same way, streaming services introduced more female protagonists despite the historic inequality in the representation of women in television both on-screen and off-screen. With the meteoric rise of hit shows with female leads like Netflix’s Orange is the New Black or Hulu’s Handmaid’s Tale, at a glance, it seems like streaming services are featuring more women than ever before seen on broadcast television.
To get a report on how streaming services are representing women, we analyzed the full cast and crew of every Netflix, Hulu and Amazon original series that aired at least one season in 2019. What we found is though some services are making huge strides in creating diverse roles and equality in representation on-screen, others still have a ways to go.
Using data from IMDb, we analyzed every original series from Hulu, Netflix and Amazon that aired at least one season in 2019. We excluded series that were not aired in English, documentaries, comedy specials and talk shows. We then analyzed the full cast and crew from each series to get an accurate picture of the women represented on streaming services in 2019.
The definition of a leading role is up for debate but for the purpose of this study, a leading role is the protagonist from whom the plot line revolves around and who appears in every episode. For example, in the Netflix Original, The Series of Unfortunate Events though Count Olaf is arguably the main character, Violet Boudelaire is the protagonist who held the plot line through the course of the season. To collect this data we utilized IMDb synopsis and cast lists.
Like the leading role, the executive producer on a TV show can be a confusing distinction. To avoid counting producers in title only we uncovered the show runner of each series to represent the producer data point. For example, Lorne Michaels is the titled executive producer of Hulu’s Original Shrill, though it was written and produced by showrunner, Ali Rushfield. To gather this data we pulled information from IMDb’s credited writers and producers for each show. Finally we collected data on female directors for each episode of every series using IMDb’s director credits by episode.
Hulu is first in female representation on-screen
We found that when it comes to representing women on-screen, Hulu’s original series are ahead of the competition. Out of the 198 episodes that were analyzed, 135 featured a leading female which is over 68% for this year. In addition, several of Hulu’s top-rated shows of 2019, such as Harlots, Pen15 and Shrill boast an entire female-led production featuring women as leading ladies, co-leads, producers and directors. These headliner series also feature women in diverse roles including leadership positions and non-traditional professions.
Diversity is a priority for Netflix
During our study, we also analyzed the percentage of leading characters who are women of color. Despite Hulu’s excellent representation of women as leads, out of the 15 shows with female leads, only three series feature a woman of color. Amazon Prime is also failing in this as they also only feature two women of color as leading ladies in their series, Undone and Modern Love. In contrast, Netflix has prioritized equal opportunity in casting roles to women of color in top-rated shows such as Dear White People, One Day at a Time, On My Block and Tuca & Bertie.
Which streaming services have the most female representation?
When we compared the data, out of all three of these streaming giants, we found that Amazon had the least amount of women on-screen and off-screen this year. While Fleabag, Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Undone and Catastrophe feature powerhouse leading ladies, episodes featuring women as the protagonist only amount to a little over 44% of the total episodes from 2019 and a mere 6% of episodes featured a leading woman of color. Behind the screen, only 20% of the episodes were produced by women and 21% of episodes were directed by a woman.
Netflix and Hulu have above average female representation
Data from all three streaming services shows that less than half of all episodes from 2019 were produced by women. This is an issue across all broadcast television, cable and streaming services, as women are only 31% of behind-the-scenes positions are held by women. However, the trajectory is looking promising as key positions on broadcast network programs increasing from 27% to 31% in the last year.
After analyzing the data for each of the three powerhouses, it is clear that while Hulu is making great strides in women’s representation and Netflix is excelling at featuring diverse cast members, there are still several steps to go until equality is achieved across streaming services and the entertainment industry.