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Don’t be fooled by the prominent success of recent films like Wonder Woman and Get Out – Hollywood still has an inclusion problem, according to the latest study from USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative.
The group’s ever-expanding annual report – today’s release, “Inequality in 1,100 Popular Films,” covers the top 100 movies each year from 2007 through 2017 – shows no significant statistical improvement in the representation of women, people of color, LBGT characters or characters with disability over the past decade. “We’re not seeing an interesting trend either downward or upward across multiple years to suggest there’s a concerted effort to be inclusive,” AII founding director Stacy L. Smith tells THR.
The latest numbers: Although women represent 50.8 percent of the U.S. population, they represented just 31.8 percent of speaking characters last year, a disparity of almost 20 percentage points. This prevalence has held constant; among the 48,757 speaking characters in the 1,100 top-grossing films since 2007, just 30.6 percent have been female. One major reason for this gender disparity is that women have a much shorter onscreen “lifespan” than men: There tends to be gender balance among child characters (52.7 percent male to 47.3 percent female in 2017), with the gap slightly widening in the teens (55.3 percent to 44.7 percent). But by age 40, 75.4 percent of characters were male.
In 2017, 70.7 percent of the 4,454 speaking characters were white, 12.1 percent were black, 6.2 percent were Hispanic, 4.8 percent were Asian, 3.9 percent were mixed-race, 1.7 percent were of Middle Eastern descent and less than 1 percent each were coded as Native American or Native Hawaiian. It’s worth noting that these designations are for characters, not actors – in 2015, one of the 3.6 percent of mixed-race speaking characters was Aloha‘s Allison Ng, played by Emma Stone.
It was a dissonance the researchers were prepared for. “A lot of us were familiar with the most notable examples of whitewashing,” says study co-author Marc Choueiti, who adds that the team counted Stone’s character announcing her mixed-race ethnicity three times during the film.
More than 99 percent of the speaking characters in 2017’s films were straight and cisgender, and 81 out of the 100 movies had no lesbian, gay or bisexual characters at all. Only one transgender character has appeared onscreen in the top 400 movies since 2014.
Of the 2.5 percent of 2017’s speaking characters depicted with a disability, 73 percent were white and 69.6 percent were male. (Here, it’s important to note that characters with disabilities are still most prominently played by able-bodied actors, such as Sally Hawkins, who received an Oscar nomination for her mute leading lady in The Shape of Water.) Characters of color and LGBT characters are underrepresented onscreen compared to their respective real-world prevalence in the U.S. population, but people with disabilities (18.7 percent of Americans) and Latinos (17.8 percent) suffer the greatest disparities in onscreen inclusion. Two films in 2017 achieved proportional representation of people with disabilities, but not a single movie did so for Latinos – 43 had no Latino characters at all.
In terms of who serves as the focus of a story, female-centric films hold steady at about a third of each year’s crop of movies, but in 2017, only four women of color and five women over the age of 45 played leads or co-leads. Seven black men, four Asian men, four mixed-race men and two Latino men had lead or co-lead roles in last year’s 100 highest-grossing movies.
Onscreen representation is often driven by the person at the helm; it’s no wonder that among the 1,223 directors of the 1,100 films in the study, 4.3 percent were women, 5.2 percent were black and 3.1 percent were Asian. It continues to be possible to name all the women of color who directed a film in the past 11 years in a few lines of text: Ava DuVernay, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Sanaa Hamri, Stella Meghie, Patricia Riggen (the only Latina on the entire list), Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Loveleen Tandan (who co-directed Slumdog Millionaire).
Among the 109 individuals who directed a movie in 2017, eight were white women, four were black men and four were Asian men. Everything Everything‘s Meghie was the only woman of color who directed a top 100 movie last year.
Although 2017 saw breakout hits, including Get Out and Girls Trip, it would be a mistake to assume that Hollywood’s diversity gap is finally closing. That inclination is what study co-author Katherine Pieper calls the availability heuristic, “the tendency of people to overestimate the occurrence of a particular item because of examples that easily come to mind,” she tells THR, cautioning industry decision-makers to slow down and be aware of such cognitive biases when making personnel calls. “Patty Jenkins did a great job with Wonder Woman, but she can’t direct a hundred films a year. And there are other groups that are missing.”
To address the issue, the report concludes with several application points, one of which is the inclusion rider mentioned by Frances McDormand during her Oscar acceptance speech in March. An even simpler fix: adding five female speaking characters – even in minor supporting parts – to each of the top 100 movies each year would make 50-50 onscreen gender parity achievable by the year 2020.
“The most important thing is not thinking about this as storytelling,” Smith says, adding that setting quantifiable inclusion targets behind the camera and below the line is also helpful. “These are hiring decisions.”
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