For the last few years, diversity has become one of Hollywood’s biggest talking points, with huge commitments made from the hugely powerful to improving representation in film. But a new study on diversity in top-performing movies has put into perspective the progress truly being made in terms of inclusivity – and it’s nowhere near as good as we think.
The report, from the University of Southern California's (USC) Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, has shown that, when it comes to the representation of women, underrepresented racial/ethnic groups, the LGBTQ+ community and individuals with disabilities in popular films, there is still serious work to be done. Despite the success of 2017 films like Get Out, Girls Trip, Wonder Woman and Black Panther, both in front of and behind the camera, straight, white, able-bodied men continue to dominate the silver screen.
In the study, 48,757 characters in 1,100 “top films” (the top 100 at the domestic box office each year) were examined, from 2007 to 2017, and the results left a great deal to be desired. Women characters with speaking roles were just 30.6% of all roles across the 11-year period and less than 1% of all characters were from the LGBTQ+ community.
Last year, an apparent tipping point for diversity, 43 films did not include a black/African American female character at all. Sixty-five were missing Asian or Asian American female characters and 64 did not depict a single Latina character. As far as speaking characters in 2017 went, 70.7% were white.
Across 400 films from 2014 to 2017, only one transgender character appeared on screen. People with disabilities (who make up 18.7% of Americans) and Latinos (who make up 17.8%) suffer the greatest disparities in onscreen inclusion – they made up 2.5% and 6.2% of the characters in 2017’s most popular films, respectively.
Last year, an apparent tipping point for diversity, 43 films did not include a black/African American female character at all
The percentage of female characters with speaking parts in the top 100 films has remained largely unchanged, at around 30% over the past decade, despite women representing 50.8% of the US population. In the survey of the top 100 films of 2017, only 33 featured women in a lead or co-lead. Four of those were from an underrepresented ethnic group, and five were over the age of 45. According to the study, these findings represent no change from 2016.
It was also found that women have a much shorter on-screen "lifespan" than men: child characters are roughly equal (52.7% male to 47.3% female in 2017), with the gap slightly widening in the teens (55.3% to 44.7%). By age 40, women almost disappear with 75.4% characters being male. Consistent with previous years, female characters were more than twice as likely as male characters to be shown in sexually revealing clothing and referred to as “attractive”. Teenagers (aged 13-20) and young adult women (aged 21-39) were equally as likely to be sexualised in films from 2017.
"It was an unprecedented year where you had the top spots at the domestic box office driven by female leads, and yet we find ourselves in another year where almost nothing has changed," said Dr Stacy L Smith, founding director of the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. "In the aggregate, Hollywood isn't embracing any solution. It's business as usual or embracing the status quo as usual."
The problem isn’t just on the screen, too. Across 1,223 directors over 11 years, only 4.3% were female, 5.2% were Black or African American and 3.1% were Asian or Asian American, somewhat explaining the lack of diversity in characters.
“Once again, we see that women of color are most affected by exclusionary hiring practices. Just four Black/African American women, three Asian women, and one Latina directed a film across the 1,100 we examined,” commented Smith.
The biases from behind the camera bleed into castings, too, no doubt manifesting in bit parts and tokenism for marginalised groups, if they are included at all. Before Hollywood pats itself on the back for a small crop of success stories, it must first realise that, according to statistics, there is still much to be done.