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Though the conversation on inequality in Hollywood is now at peak volume, a new report released in Los Angeles reveals that little has changed on screen or behind the camera.
Authored by Professor Stacy L. Smith and the Media, Diversity & Social Change (MDSC) Initiative at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, the study is the largest intersectional analysis of characters in motion picture content to date. The group examined the 800 top films from 2007 to 2015 (excluding 2011), analyzing 35,205 characters for gender, race/ethnicity, LGBT status and – for the first time – the presence of disability. The results reveal that Hollywood remains impervious to change.
Just 31.4% of all speaking characters across the 100 top films from 2015 were female, a figure that has not changed since 2007. While race/ethnicity has been a major focus of advocacy in the wake of #OscarsSoWhite, characters from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups were 26.3% of all characters. LGBT-identified characters represented less than 1% of all speaking characters. The report includes data on characters with disabilities, who filled a mere 2.4% of all speaking roles.
“The findings reveal that Hollywood is an epicenter of cultural inequality,” said Dr. Stacy L. Smith, Founding Director of the MDSC Initiative. “While the voices calling for change have escalated in number and volume, there is little evidence that this has transformed the movies that we see and the people hired to create them. Our reports demonstrate that the problems are pervasive and systemic.”
The research exposes the depth and breadth of exclusion. Of the top 100 films of 2015, 49 films included no speaking or named Asian or Asian-American characters and 17 featured no Black/African American characters. Similarly, 45 films did not include a character with a disability and 82 did not feature a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender character.
One bright spot was an 11% increase in female lead or co-lead characters from 2014 to 2015. Even there, however, only 3 of the films featured a female lead or co-lead actor from an underrepresented racial/ethnic group. Not one of the males or females in leading roles was Asian, echoing the concerns expressed by prominent Asian and Asian-American actors and others in that community.
The report illuminates why these inequalities may exist by coupling new data on 2015 films with evidence from the group’s previous reports, reaching back to 2007. Behind the camera, female directors were just 4.1% of those hired on the 800 films evaluated. Women of color were almost absent from these ranks, with just 3 Black or African-American females and 1 Asian female in the director’s chair. Overall, directors from underrepresented racial groups fared poorly. Only 5.5% of the 886 directors examined were Black or African American and 2.8% were Asian or Asian American.
“Despite the advocacy surrounding female directors, film is a representational wasteland for women of color in this key role,” said Dr. Smith. “Advocates need to ensure that their work reflects the barriers facing all women, not just a select few.”
For the first time, the researchers present data on characters with disabilities. The few portrayals that exist—just 2.4% of all characters—are predominantly male, as just 19% of the characters with disabilities were female. There were also no LGBT characters depicted with a disability across the study sample.
“This is a new low for gender inequality,” said Dr. Smith. “The small number of portrayals of disability is concerning, as is the fact that they do not depict the diversity within this community.”
The report provides multiple solutions to addressing what Dr. Smith has previously referred to as the “inclusion crisis” facing Hollywood. These include simple strategies for reaching gender equality on screen within a short time frame—just three years. Other solutions invite prominent Hollywood figures to tackle the problem contractually and encourage institutions to set transparent inclusion goals for achieving change.
“Raised voices and calls for change are important, but so are practical and strategic solutions based on research,” said Dr. Katherine Pieper, one of the study’s co-authors. “The momentum created by activism needs to be matched with realistic tactics for creating change.”
The report is the latest from the Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative.