Massive study finds nearly no increase to diversity in popular films

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It’s tempting to believe that the recent groundswell in talk about Hollywood’s diversity problem would result in actual improvement. But the numbers — at least so far — paint a sobering story.

A new comprehensive study from USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that the top 100 grossing films from 2007 to 2017 (1,100 total) show minimal to no change over the stated 11 years of the study. Both on- and off-screen, exclusion of marginalized races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and genders, as well as people with disabilities, remains as high as ever.

Zeroing in on 2017 alone — when the rhetoric around inclusion started reaching its recent peak — shows that talk is cheap. Change requires action. We should take this as a reminder that a shift in rhetoric does not necessarily equal a shift in reality. Hard numbers will help keep Hollywood accountable for its promises to work toward a more inclusive future.

“As the reverberations of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements continue to resonate in the entertainment industry and beyond, this investigation marks how far we still have to go,” wrote researcher Dr. Stacy L. Smith. “Workplace safety goes hand in hand with workplace equity.”

When examining on-screen representation in 2017, the researchers looked at more than 4,454 speaking characters. 

A full 68.2% of these characters were male, vs. 31.8% female. That’s only a 1.9 percentage improvement from 2007. The number of female protagonists has basically remained stagnant since 2015, actually decreasing in 2017 from 2016’s 34% down to 33%.

Image: USC ANNENBERG/Dr. Stacy L. Smith, Marc Choueiti, Dr. Katherine Pieper, Ariana Case, & Angel Choi

Unsurprisingly, women of color show the most dismal percentage of inclusion, with only four (FOUR!) of the top 100 films in 2017 featuring them as leads or co-leads. It’s also notable that these few women of color were all of mixed race and ethnicity.

Overall, the invisibility of white, cis, heterosexual, able-bodied women pales in comparison to that of all other marginalized identities.

As far as speaking characters in 2017 went, 70.7% were white. That means only 12.1% were black, 4.8% Asian, 6.2% Hispanic/Latino, 1.7% Middle Eastern, and less than 1% American Indian/Alaskan Native and Native Hawaiian, while 3.9% were categorized as mixed race or other. 

Image: USC ANNENBERG/DR. STACY L. SMITH, MARC CHOUEITI, DR. KATHERINE PIEPER, ARIANA CASE, & ANGEL CHOI

Image: USC ANNENBERG/DR. STACY L. SMITH, MARC CHOUEITI, DR. KATHERINE PIEPER, ARIANA CASE, & ANGEL CHOI

As if that wasn’t bleak enough, little progress has been made in the area of diverse sexuality. We’ve pointed out before that despite creators and actors being happy to retroactively tout a character’s non-heteronormativity off-screen, on-screen visibility is what really matters.

Out of 4,403 characters in 2017, only 0.7% were lesbian, gay, or bisexual, with a much higher percentage of gay representation (51.6%) than lesbian (29%) or bisexual (19.4%) representation combined. Again, those numbers have basically remained stagnant since 2014. And since 2014, only a single transgender character appeared, back in 2015.

Image: USC ANNENBERG/DR. STACY L. SMITH, MARC CHOUEITI, DR. KATHERINE PIEPER, ARIANA CASE, & ANGEL CHOI

By far, the most underrepresented group of all were people with disabilities. They made up 2.5% of the characters in the most popular films of 2017. In terms of protagonists, 14% of the films included leads with disabilities. In the breakdown of types of disability represented, mental illness and disorder remains the predominant stigma. Physical disability accounted for a whopping 61.6% of representation, communicative disabilities were 30.4%, and only 26.8% represented mental disabilities. These numbers were also roughly the same over the past several years.

But the real kicker are the diversity numbers behind the camera. Spoiler alert: Terrible on-screen representation does indeed appear to flow from those who are in charge of casting.

Image: USC ANNENBERG/DR. STACY L. SMITH, MARC CHOUEITI, DR. KATHERINE PIEPER, ARIANA CASE, & ANGEL CHOI

Of the 1,584 of directors, writers, and producers in 2017, 81.7% were male and 18.2% were female — only 7.3% were women directors. In fact, across all 11 years of the study, only 43 women had the opportunity to helm top-grossing films. However, when women do direct, their casts are much more equal as far as gender, with 43% of speaking characters being women and girls.

Once again, though, that number is a vast improvement compared to the numbers for directors of color. 

Out of the 109 directors of top-grossing films in 2017, 5.5% were black, and only one was a woman (hi, Ava). While that percentage has remained basically the same over the past 11 years, only four black women helmed any of those movies. As with women directors, black representation on-screen increases to 41.8% with a black director. 

Asian-American directors were nearly nonexistent, with only four helming top movies in 2017. Only three Asian-American women directed movies over the time spanned by the study.

Image: USC ANNENBERG/DR. STACY L. SMITH, MARC CHOUEITI, DR. KATHERINE PIEPER, ARIANA CASE, & ANGEL CHOI

Image: USC ANNENBERG/DR. STACY L. SMITH, MARC CHOUEITI, DR. KATHERINE PIEPER, ARIANA CASE, & ANGEL CHOI

What all of this does is give inarguable evidence supporting what we’ve heard countless marginalized people working in the industry say before: Exclusion is endemic to popular films.

Dr. Stacy L. Smith suggests multiple solutions to fixing these numbers. Chief among them are inclusion riders (which Frances McDormand mentioned in her acceptance speech for best actress at the 2017 Oscars), target goals, revamping diversity policies, and demanding #5050by2020 for female representation in popular films.

The full document offers a lot more nuance in terms of trends in how marginalized characters are portrayed, and how diversity behind the camera influences on-screen portrayal. So be sure to check it out for yourself here.

We have yet to see whether 2018 will reflect more substantive change. Working to make sure it does isn’t just the right thing to do morally. It’s the right thing for the health of the industry.

“Addressing the lack of inclusivity in cinema is an essential part of building a future in which talented individuals can safely create, inspire, and entertain audiences who are finally able to see their own challenges and triumphs on screen,” Dr. Smith concluded.

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