This new study might just explain the root of Hollywood's diversity problem
Most of us don’t need John Oliver to tell us their is a diversity problem in Hollywood. With the popularity of #OscarsSoWhite and the interest in Chris Rock hosting the 88th Academy Awards, which feature all-white nominees, it seems fitting (and nonetheless depressing) that the latest study confirms what we already know: Most studios are, as the study frankly puts it, a “straight, white, boys’ club.”
The study, conducted by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, concluded that women, ethnic minorities, and LGBT people were excluded at all levels of the industry, thereby creating an “epidemic of invisibility.”
Titled “Inclusion or Invisibility? Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity in Entertainment,” the study represents one of the broadest and most thorough Hollywood examinations to date. USC’s researchers examined 414 feature films and TV shows from major studios — such as Walt Disney Co. and 20th Century Fox — and analyzed the prevalence of women and minorities in front of and behind the camera.
What they found was incredibly disheartening:
Only one-third of speaking characters were female (33.5%), despite the fact that women represent just over half the population in America. Just 28.3% of characters with dialogue were from non-white racial/ethnic groups, although such groups are nearly 40% of the U.S. population. Only 2% of roles were identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual.
The bad news doesn’t end there: The study revealed an even larger disparity behind the camera. 85% of directors and 71% of screenwriters are male. Only 7% of films examined had a cast whose balance of race and ethnicity reflected our country’s diversity. In broadcast television, 17% of directors were female and 19% of programs were ethnically balanced.
Across television and film, the underrepresentation of non-white characters fell mostly on Hispanics. Among more than 10,000 characters whose race could be identified, proportions of white, black and Asian characters came close to U.S. population figures. But there were only 5.8% Hispanic characters, despite Hispanics making up around 17% of the U.S. population. What the heck?!
“We don’t have a diversity problem, we have an inclusion crisis,” stated researcher and one of the study’s authors Stacy Smith. “We’re really talking about a lack of inclusivity across the landscape. There are people that are just missing from storytelling, and that’s not consistent with the demography of the United States.”
Smith continued, “I think we’re seeing, across the landscape, an erasure of certain groups; women, people of color, the LGBT community … this is really [an] epidemic of invisibility that points to a lack of inclusivity across [film and TV].”
When looking at how women are depicted, the study found female characters were four times more likely to be shown in sexy attire, three times more likely to show some nudity and nearly four times as likely to be referred to as physically attractive.
Researchers studied 109 films and 305 TV series across broadcast, cable, and digital platforms. They also examined more than 1,500 executives and graded ten media companies for their onscreen and behind the scenes representation of women and people of color. The results were not something the media companies should be proud of.
None of the six film distributors evaluated — 21st Century Fox, NBC Universal, Sony, The Walt Disney Company, Time Warner or Viacom — received a passing grade for inclusion. But among the TV companies they examined, Disney and The CW performed best, at 70%. That’s a low, low C, guys.
Researchers partly blamed the diversity problem on an absence of women and minorities in top jobs at the large media corporations. Although a large number of women work in senior vice president positions, their ranks are much, much thinner at the top of the corporate ladder. Eesh. Women make up just 21% of top executive positions and barely 19% of board seats.
“The further you go up, you find there are fewer women,” explained USC researcher Marc Choueiti, coauthor of the report.
But, ladies, let’s not give up hope quite yet. The study pointed out some positive signs in the entertainment business. (Whew.) Most media companies scored higher marks for their television shows, which the report portrayed as being significantly more diverse than films. When we look at racially inclusive shows such as Jane the Virgin, Black-ish, and Fresh off the Boat, we can start to understand how that might be the case.
The CW, Disney, Viacom, and the streaming services Amazon and Hulu each received positive scores for their inclusion of female TV characters. (I’m curious as to why Netflix, which is often lauded for the diverse cast of Orange is the New Black, is left off that list.) For minorities in television, five of ten major media companies were considered “largely inclusive” or better, according to the study. Disney (which runs ABC, Freeform and Disney Channel) and the CW ranked highest for inclusion in television.
The study’s authors don’t just drop the mic with a boatload of bad news. They list solutions for the lack of diversity, including creating public target goals for inclusion and drawing up lists of potential hires for writing and directing jobs that would be 50% female and 38% people of color. Considering how much press Samantha Bee received for having a diverse writers room, this idea is incredibly radical — and necessary.
“It’s about who is greenlighting those decisions and who is giving the okay for certain stories to be told,” Smith said. “When a very narrow slice of the population is in control of power and has the ability to greenlight a project, then we are going to see products and stories that reflect that narrow worldview.”
Maybe this will finally be a wake-up call to studio executives. It is time to expand our worldview.