Story at a glance

  • The Oscars and other major Hollywood players have made commitments towards increased representation in film and media.
  • But a new study from the University of Southern California shows not much has changed in recent years, especially for women.
  • The study looks at on-screen and off-screen representation of gender, race, ethnicity, LGBTQ+ and disability.

There are more leading and co-leading characters from underrepresented characters on screen than in years before, according to a study by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative on "Inequality in 1,300 Popular Films." But if they look around, they're often alone. 

Out of the 100 top films of 2019, 33 had no Black girls or women on screen, 71 had no Latinas, 55 had no Asian or Asian American girls or women, and 45 were missing girls or women from mixed racial backgrounds. Those numbers were even higher when counting films excluding American Indian, Alaskan Native, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, Middle Eastern and North African characters. Another 94 films did not have even one female-identified LGBTQ+ character.

“The erasure of girls and women from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups, the LGBTQ community, and those with disabilities remains a hallmark of top-performing Hollywood films,” said Stacy Smith, a professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. “Intersectional inclusion on screen must be an area for targeted intervention.”


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The study breaks down representation of gender, race, ethnicity, LGBTQ+ and disability for 57,629 characters in 1,300 top films from 2007 to 2019. It also looked at who’s holding the purse strings. 

Disney made roughly $1 billion per film with a woman lead or co-lead and more than $1 billion per film with an underrepresented lead or co-lead, more than any of seven major legacy studios. Universal came in next, followed by 20th Century Fox. But when it came to inclusion measures, Universal and Paramount Pictures were the top, with overproportional representation for leads and co-leads from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups and protagonists that were women of color. 

“After 13 years, it is not clear what might convince entertainment companies to change,” said Smith. “Despite public statements, the data reveal that there is still apathy and ambivalence to increasing representation of speaking characters overall in popular films. This is both the easiest representational gap to address and one that is essential to strengthen the pipeline to more prominent roles.”


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But streaming platforms are changing the game by getting into the game. 

“In contrast to our findings on top-grossing films, 20.7% of Netflix directors of U.S. based films in 2019 were women,” said Smith. “The legacy studios may want to take a note out of the streaming giant’s playbook on how to hire more inclusively behind the camera.”

Just this week The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced a new set of standards for the Academy Awards's best picture category to improve representation in film for underrepresented racial minorities, women, LGBTQ+ people and people with disabilities.

"Just shy of the five-year anniversary of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, and seemingly inspired by the British Film Institutes funding standards; The Oscars will now have to meet diversity standards that finally include people with disabilities to be eligible for competition. The truth sells," said Keely Cat-Wells, the founder and CEO of C Talent, which represents disabled artists, in a statement. 

Only 2.3 percent of all speaking characters across the 100 top-grossing films of 2019 were depicted with a disability, the study found, and just 19 movies featured a lead or co-lead with a disability. Forty-eight movies "erased" the disability community on screen with no representation, less than 2018 but more than 2017. The Annenberg study concluded, "no meaningful change was observed."

"I am excited for the time when we do not need people to meet regulations and when it is done out of pure integrity as well as opportunity, when authentic casting is made out of love for the truth, love for differences, acceptance of change and diversity is truly inclusive. I am excited for that to be the natural progression. This certainly is a terrific start and the disability community is celebrating the Academy's move," said Cat-Wells.


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Published on Sep 10, 2020