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Why Hollywood’s diversity numbers haven’t budged

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Despite a flourish of social activism and record levels of visibility in recent years, the latest report on the Hollywood film industry shows that there has been no significant progress when it comes to diversity and inclusion. Systemic discrimination is complex, deeply rooted, and often tied to how that system operates economically. This is as true for Hollywood as it is for other systems, in the law, in politics, and elsewhere. 

Inequality in 1,100 Popular Films: Examining Portrayals of Gender, Race/Ethnicity, LGBT & Disability from 2007 to 2017,” the latest report from the University of Southern California (USC) Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, by Stacy L. Smith, Marc Choueiti, Katherine Pieper, Ariana Case, and Angel Choi, confirms the findings of a number of studies over many years: Women are far from equality in front of or behind the camera in the Hollywood film industry. In fact, the 11-year study of 48,757 characters and 1,100 movies indicates that diversity and inclusion in Hollywood — whether in terms of gender, race, sexual orientation, or ability status — continue to be abysmal. This is frustrating given public campaign efforts like #OscarsSoWhite and #TimesUp and calls for inclusion riders to catalyze change beyond raising visibility.

The Numbers Don’t Lie: Diversity and Inclusion Efforts are Stagnant

Male speaking characters outnumber female speaking characters by a ratio of 2.3 to 1, according to the report, which focused on analyzing the 100 top-grossing films of each year from 2007 to 2017. The percentage of female speaking characters has hovered around 30 percent over a decade, with peak representation reaching 32.8 percent in 2008 and 2009, while the percentage dipped one percent to 31.8 in 2017. 

Leading roles for women are equally uncommon, with only 33 of the top 100 films of 2017 starring a female lead or co-lead. This number is on par with the number of female leads or co-leads in 2015 (32 films) and in 2016 (34 films). Numbers are drastically worse when it comes to women of color and older women: Of the 33 female leads or co-leads in 2017, “only 4 of those leads were from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups and only 5 were of women 45 years of age or older.”

The same dismal results hold for other minority groups: Of the top 100 films of 2017, 81 had no LGBT characters, 43 had no Latino speaking characters, 37 had no Asian speaking characters, and 20 had no black speaking characters. For women in these communities, the numbers are worse: 94 of the top 100 films of 2017 had no LGBT female characters, 65 had no Asian or Asian-American female characters, 64 had no Hispanic or Latina female characters, and 43 had no black female characters. And, the report notes, “out of 400 popular films from 2014 to 2017, only one transgender character has appeared.”

The problem is even more dire for women behind the camera in 2017: “Of 109 directors, only 7.3 percent were female,” the USC Annenberg researchers found. “Only 10.1 percent of writers were female and 18.2 percent of producers. Additionally, there was 1 female composer out of the 111 individuals hired to score the 100 top films.” 

Who is behind the camera — in terms of writing, directing, and producing — matters because there is a strong correlation between the identities of those behind the camera and the identities of those in front of it. There is a greater likelihood of women playing leading parts when a woman is directing. The report’s 2017 figures substantiate this correlation and intimate how Hollywood’s diversity and inclusion failures can be understood as an intricate network of consequences: “A full 43 percent of all speaking characters on screen were girls/women in female-directed content (8 movies). In comparison, only 30.9 percent of all on screen roles were filled with girls/women under male direction. A similar pattern was observed for writers.Films with female writers attached have more girls/women in their stories (37.3 percent female) than films written by male writers (29.5 percent).” 

These numbers are comparable to those of “The Celluloid Ceiling: Behind-the-Scenes Employment of Women in the Top 100, 250, and 500 Films of 2017” and “It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World: Portrayals of Female Characters in the Top 100 Films of 2017,” both studies conducted by Martha Lauzen, the executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film and professor of television, film, and new media at San Diego State University. 

In “The Celluloid Ceiling,” the most comprehensive and longest-running study of women working in key behind-the-scenes roles, Lauzen found that “women comprised 18 percent of individuals working as directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers on the top 250 domestic grossing films” of 2017. It is an improvement of merely 1 percent from her 1998 findings. Women accounted for only 11 percent of directors working on the top 250 films of 2017 — the same percentage as those working as directors in 2000.

In “It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World,” Lauzen reported that women were only 24 percent of protagonists in the 100 top-grossing domestic films of 2017, a 5 percent decline from 2016. 

The dire statistics on women included in the USC Annenberg report also hold for other underrepresented groups. For example, “the percentage of Black characters in 2017 films increased by 41.8 percentage points when a Black director was behind the camera [as opposed to] when the film did not have a Black director.” The numbers are more striking in regard to black female characters: “Of the speaking characters in movies from 2017 with a Black director, 18.5 percent were Black females, compared to just 2.5 percent of the speaking characters in movies without a Black director.” 

Why? History Reveals the Answers.

No matter the virality of social movements symbolized by hashtags or promises to adopt inclusion riders, systems cannot change overnight. This is especially true of systems that have codified discrimination through both social prejudice and capitalism. 

The roots of misogyny, particularly in the form of sexual harassment and abuse, run deep in the industry. A 2018 USA Today survey of women in the entertainment industry found that “94 percent of women said they have experienced sexual harassment or assault.” 

Women’s professional success in Hollywood has always depended upon the men in power. Tippi Hedren, the star of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, has spoken widely — notably in a 2017 Twitter post— about how Hitchcock abused her and then threatened to ruin her career if she didn’t submit to him. This is precisely the same kind of abuse suffered by countless women whose careers were controlled by Harvey Weinstein. There is an entire generation of brilliant female actors who have had their careers destroyed because of this one man’s actions. There’s no telling how many other women there are whose careers have been undermined because of an industry that runs on — and profits from — the sexual assault and harassment of women. 

There is also arguably a connection between Hollywood’s increasing reliance on international investors and foreign markets to maximize profits and its poor record on inclusion.

This is despite the fact that movie ticket sales are driven by these underrepresented communities. Women, the report notes, “comprise just over half (51 percent) of the U.S. population and buy 49 percent of the movie tickets at the U.S./Canada box office.” And underrepresented racial and ethnic groups comprise 45 percent of movie ticket buyers. Furthermore, the 2016 Hollywood Diversity Report, conducted by UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies, concluded that “America’s increasingly diverse audiences prefer diverse film and television content,” based on an analysis of ticket sales and social media engagement.

On how Hollywood’s increasing reliance on international markets affects its diversity and inclusion efforts, Aynne Kokas, assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia and author of Hollywood Made in China, said in a phone interview, “I think there is actually a very strong connection.” 

“Right now,” Kokas explained, “the films that Hollywood studios make that get the marketing push, that get funding, and that get the push for international distribution — and, to a certain degree, the films that travel the best — are these kinds of big-budget, muscular blockbusters. Helmed by men, directed by men, led by male actors for the most part, with a few recent exceptions [Black Panther,Wonder Woman]. And frequently not just male actors but white male actors, straight white male actors.” She elaborated that Hollywood remains a “conservative space” because “it is based upon a model which has historically been profitable, and which relies on a small number of directors and a small number of stars, and then attempts to replicate that model again with other actors and other stars that look like those same people.”

The consequence is that diverse stories that demand diverse casts are being cast aside for traditional blockbusters. The “increasing reliance on global markets,” Kokas continued, “means that women, people of color, LGBTQ folks, and disabled people are increasingly being crowded out by the most important of these big-budget, muscular blockbuster films.” 

Recently on Twitter, Sorry to Bother You director Boots Riley expressed his frustration at how the lack of international investor interest in his film has hindered the breadth of its distribution: “Even tho we’r outperforming a gang of other movies, distributors r claiming ‘Black movies’ dont do well internationally and r treating it as such. There’r films that bombed here, that theyr distributing.” In a piece on Riley’s tweet, Vulture cited “Hollywood’s time-cherished belief that movies with black actors don’t sell well overseas.”

If Hollywood traditionally has relied on a financial model that banks on films made by and about straight white men, then industry power players — studio executives — will be reluctant to change, for fear of losing profit.

Can Hollywood Change?

This new USC Annenberg study affirms that visibility does not equal substantive change. Visibility is the first — not the final — step of an activist movement.

Hollywood has taken some steps, such as the Academy’s diversity push over the past four years for diversity in its membership, with the 928 inductees of 2018 representing the Academy’s most diverse class yet. This inclusion effort is just one example of how institutional change happens from the inside out. 

“There has been very little numeric change in the opportunities for women and what we see for women in the industry,” Women and Hollywood founder Melissa Silverstein said in a phone interview. “Anecdotally, I think things are in a completely different place than when I started doing this work in terms of people understanding that this is a problem,” she said, commenting that conversations about gender and racial discrimination in Hollywood have been ongoing for decades. 

Like Silverstein, Lauzen has articulated the difference between popular rhetoric and the real experiences of women in Hollywood — most recently in an article for Variety, “It’s Time for Action, Not Promises, to Get More Women in Filmmaking.” In an email, Lauzen explained that “women working in film have yet to benefit from the increased dialogue regarding women’s representation and employment. Generally speaking, the current small and piecemeal remedies, while they may be well-intentioned and benefit a handful of individuals, are simply too meager to create the kind of shift that is needed.” 

When asked about solutions to the unchanging landscape for women in Hollywood, Lauzen wrote, “This is an industry-wide problem that requires an industry-wide solution. It is possible that only a significant intervention by an external source, such as the EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission], will provoke the change that is needed. The industry has shown no real inclination to address the issue on a larger, coordinated level. It is possible that the most recent efforts will take more time to yield results, but whether they will achieve far-reaching and lasting results is unclear.”

Change is an incremental and, in terms of large systems or industries, a slow and complex process. Diversity and inclusion efforts demand bravery by those few women and minorities who are in positions of power to hire, promote, tell the stories of, and give voices to underrepresented communities. 

But institutions do not give so easily. Caroline Heldman, research director at the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, compared Hollywood to other male-dominated industries, such as finance, academia, and politics, that are “steeped in masculinist ideology.” 

An industry-wide solution she recommended would be the implementation of “mechanisms of accountability for inclusion” beyond visibility campaigns. These mechanisms demand that change happen from the inside out. The problem, Heldman noted, is that Hollywood is a difficult industry to reform from the inside out because it’s a male-dominated profession that runs on masculinity rules (e.g., informal networks that favor men, the myth that men are more creative than women). 

“What is surprising is how much money media producers are leaving on the table,” she continued. “We now have five years of data showing that films with female protagonists, racially diverse leads, and inclusive casts make more money.”

Silverstein pointed out the current forms of small-scale change, which can lay the groundwork for more permanent, systemic change in the long run: “What we’re having now is an intense disruption of how content is produced, of how content is engaged with, how we see it, who makes it, what stories do we want to be told, who is able to make those stories, and at this moment right now people are demanding accountability for storytelling,” she said. 

Like other experts, she asserted that real systemic change depends on those working within the industry: “The numbers keep emphasizing that it can’t just be people on the outside pushing in; it needs to be people on the inside who have the power and who make the decisions to say, ‘I want to see change.’ And those people are mostly white men with lots of money and lots of power, who are beholden to corporate boards, and who are averse to change.” 

Outside pressure, from social justice movements and online activism, creates visibility, but structural change to a system demands insider accountability. This is how systemic change happens. 

While disheartening, the USC Annenberg report and studies like it should encourage us to continue the fight for equal representation in front of and behind the camera. “What makes me very happy,” Heldman reflected, “is that despite the lack of progress there are, now, all these institutions that are shining a light on it and have established themselves in the past decade.”



More articles by Category: Arts and culture, Disability, Media, WMC Loreen Arbus Journalism Program
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