In the literary context, Merriam Webster defines heroine as “the principal female character in a literary or dramatic work” and they give “the heroine of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet” as an example. There’s a problem with that.
According to opensourceshakespeare.org, Romeo speaks 163 times to Juliet‘s 118. Juliet is clearly the lead female and second character by size of role, but by appearing in both opening and closing scenes while Juliet does not, Romeo clearly has the primary lead. This is often the case in movies. If there’s a leading man in a movie, the leading female may play more of a supporting role than an actual lead. This has been a way to blur the lack of true female leads. This is also reflected by the way awards are given for movies. For example, Oscars are listed with leading and supporting men coming before any women are listed.
However, there is hope. The Me Too movement may be making a dent.
I just finished writing a screenplay for a company that produces a lot of movies for television. They provided a rough treatment for a starting point, along with the instructions that not only did they want the villain to be a woman, the primary protagonist was to be female as well. I’m calling her a female hero because she is definitely not playing second fiddle to any of the actors and she is the one who takes action to save the day. In reality, the leading actor is playing a supporting role to her lead.
Creating a female hero to triumph over the evil woman made this really fun to write. And since these guys have a good track record for selling their films to major outlets, I have to believe they’ve checked the market and found that the industry wants more women in leading roles. We’ll see.