Hollywood Has Made ‘No Meaningful Change’ In Representation On Screen, New Study Finds

Analyses of diversity and representation in Hollywood often play out like an endless blockbuster movie franchise or a long-running, past-its-prime television series. Year after year, the entertainment industry has faced very public criticism over its lack of diversity and pledged to make changes, but progress has been incremental at best.

The newest report from one of the leading research groups on the issue concludes that 2019 was yet another abysmal installment in the saga.

For more than a decade, Hollywood has made “no meaningful change” in ensuring equitable on-screen representation, according to a study published Thursday by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, which has produced annual reports scrutinizing diversity, inclusion and representation in Hollywood since 2007.

Examining the characters in each of the 100 highest-grossing movies annually from 2007 to 2019, the researchers found that the percentage of female characters in speaking roles has inched up and down, hovering between 28% and 34% each year — a statistic that’s been essentially unchanged for 13 years.

Last year, just 14 of the 100 top-grossing films had a gender-balanced cast (defined as having girls or women in 45-55% of a film’s speaking roles), an increase from nine in 2018. But it was only a slight increase over 2007, when 12 films did.

“These numbers illuminate that Hollywood continues to fail girls and women on screen by reducing their visibility across the entire ecosystem of stories year after year,” the researchers wrote in their report.

In 2019, 43 of the top 100 films featured a woman in a leading or co-leading role, an increase from 2018 and a substantial increase from 2007. Seventeen of those lead actors were women of color, an all-time high — but still an abysmally low percentage of those roles, given how long the entertainment industry has pledged to make representation a priority.

Last year, just 14 of the 100 top-grossing films had a gender-balanced cast (defined as having girls or women in 45-55% of a film’s speaking roles).

Among the 100 top-grossing movies of 2019, only 34.3% of the speaking characters were people of color. Fifteen films still had no Black actors in speaking roles, 36 had no Asian actors in speaking roles, and 44 had no Hispanic or Latino actors in speaking roles.

Over the last 13 years, “there has been no meaningful increase in Black, Hispanic/Latino, or Asian characters,” the researchers wrote.

The study, which examined representation in gender, race/ethnicity, LGBTQ identity and disability, stresses that Hollywood has fared even worse in intersectional representation. For example, while the industry has made strides in featuring LGBTQ characters overall, there are still relatively few stories about queer women and queer people of color.

Transgender people in major films are rendered practically nonexistent, the study found. In the 100 top-grossing movies from 2014 to 2019, only four speaking characters were trans. All were “inconsequential to the story, and had a total screentime of 2 minutes,” the researchers wrote.

Only 2.3% of all speaking roles in 2019’s top movies involved characters with disabilities, among several underrepresented groups that have been essentially “erased” in major films, the study found. Native, Pacific Islander or Middle Eastern/North African characters and performers have also been almost nonexistent in major films.

As many studies about Hollywood have pointed out time and time again, on-screen representation goes hand-in-hand with representation behind the camera. Ensuring equitable representation has to start from the very beginning of the production process, which means institutions and gatekeepers have to hire, promote and value the careers of people of color and other underrepresented groups in producing, directing, writing and casting.

For instance, the researchers found that 71% of casting directors working on the films included in the study were white women. 

The study is a snapshot of some of the deep issues exposed by the racial reckoning unfolding in industries and institutions across society right now. But in some ways, the lack of sustained progress in Hollywood is even more glaring because the entertainment industry had already been publicly grappling with these problems, spurred in part by #OscarsSoWhite more than five years ago.

Only 2.3% of all speaking roles in 2019’s top movies involved characters with disabilities. Native, Pacific Islander or Middle Eastern/North African characters and performers have also been almost nonexistent in major films.

This week, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which awards the Oscars, announced a set of new representation and inclusion standards for films vying for Best Picture, which will go into effect in 2024.

Films have to demonstrate inclusivity in two of four categories: on-screen representation or story; leadership or behind-the-camera roles; interns or apprentices; and marketing, publicity or distribution teams.

But some industry observers noted that the standards are a fairly low bar and provide a pretty generous amount of flexibility. Therefore, while they might help to keep these issues in mind during awards season, they may not amount to meaningful changes.

For example, to meet the on-screen representation requirement, a film only has to do one of the following things: cast at least one person of color in a lead or “significant supporting” role, ensure that 30% of the cast comes from two underrepresented groups (women, people of color, LGBTQ+ or disabled people), or make the story about one of those groups.

On Wednesday, the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative’s researchers ran the numbers on the Oscars’ new standards, using data from 2019’s top 100 highest-grossing movies. They found that 95 of the films would have met the on-screen representation or story requirement, and 71 would have met the leadership or behind-the-camera requirement.

“If everyone meets the criteria, then how is it a challenge to do better?” the researchers tweeted, noting that these low standards will likely just maintain the status quo.

Read the full report here.

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