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Groundbreaking New Research Concludes “Hollywood Still Functions As A Straight, White, Boy’s Club”

Groundbreaking New Research Concludes "Hollywood Still Functions As A Straight, White, Boy’s Club"

With #OscarsSoWhite — and male — just under a week away, USC Annenberg’s Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative has released a groundbreaking new study offering a harsh, ugly overview revealing the extent to which the entertainment industry is failing us. The lack of inclusivity in the Academy Award nominations are, as many have pointed out, symptomatic of bigger, longstanding problems: The Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity (CARD) offers unprecedented insight into the roots of what the team, led by Dr. Stacy Smith, calls “an inclusion crisis in media.” As Smith commented in an interview, “The prequel to OscarsSoWhite is HollywoodSoWhite.” 

The goal of the CARD is “to accelerate the advancement of a media environment that represents the world we inhabit — where the voices and visions of a diverse population are valued and visible.” 

The exhaustive report evaluates every speaking character across 414 films, television and digital stories released in 2014-2015, and 11,000 speaking characters are analyzed on the basis of gender, racial/ethnic representation and LGBT status. 

It’s crucial to bear in mind that who works behind the scenes affects who is seen on screen — studies have proven that when women and people of color work behind the camera as writers, directors, executive producers, etc., we see more portrayals of female characters and people of color on both the big and small screen. This study is remarkable for its both its breadth and depth. In addition to analyzing on screen representation, the CARD assesses over 10,000 directors, writers and show creators on the basis of gender and race. The gender composition of more than 1,500 executives at different media companies is also considered. 

Then the CARD goes even further. Included in the wide-ranging study is an inclusivity index of 10 major media companies, such as Sony and Time Warner. A failing grade is assigned to every movie studio as well as the majority of TV networks.

The Walt Disney Company and The CW network rate the best at inclusion in television. The study reports, “[b]oth companies evidence hiring practices behind the camera for writers and show creators that approach balance.” And as previously stated, balance off-camera is more likely to result in balance on-camera:”Given that women fill a greater share of the writing roles on programs distributed by these companies, it is not surprising that more females appear on screen.”

The CARD speculates that “[c]reators such as Lizzy Weiss (“Switched at Birth”), Susanna Fogel and Joni Lefkowitz (“Chasing Life”), Jennie Snyder Urman (“Jane the Virgin”), or Leila Gerstein (“Hart of Dixie”) may be one reason these networks feature more girls and women. Additionally, notable show creators like Shonda Rhimes (“Grey’s Anatomy”), Kenya Barris (“Blackish”), and Nahnatchka Khan (“Fresh Off the Boat”) on ABC may contribute to the percentage of characters from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups and Disney’s Largely Inclusive rating on this indicator.” 

The study’s findings are summarized succinctly in its conclusion: “The film industry still functions as a straight, White, boy’s club.”

Contrary to what the entertainment industry seems to suggest, white men aren’t the only people whose lives matter. We want to see stories as diverse as the world we live in. We need to pay attention to how Hollywood whitewashes our understanding of the world, and reinforces the notion that women are unworthy of playing leading roles in media and in life. As Ava DuVernay has explained, “For there only to be one dominant voice determining what’s said and saying it is something that all like-minded people who believe in the dignity of everyone should be concerned about.”

The past year has marked an unprecedented increase in conversations — and headlines — about gender and race in the entertainment industry. Maybe it’s finally time that decision-makers will start to take notice. As audiences we can help steer them along by putting our time and money behind content that is inclusive. We recognize that these companies are profit-oriented. We aren’t trying to appeal to their consciences or humanity. If profit is their bottom line, fine: This study and previous studies demonstrate that diversity sells.

The CARD features suggestions for effecting change. Its recommendations include building “inclusive consideration lists for writers and directors” and “counter mythologizing in decision-making with evidence, especially related to the financial performance of films with female or underrepresented leads and/or directors.” (Tip: use the Ms. Factor Toolkit: The Power of Female Driven Content to make the economic case for women-centric and women-created content.) 

Here are some of the highlights of the multi-faceted study, which is absolutely worth reading in full. Findings are divided by gender, race and LGBT but the intersectional research draws parallels between these sections. 

On gender: 

– Female characters fill only 28.7% of all speaking roles in film. For scripted series, less than 40% of all speaking characters were girls and women (broadcast=36.4%, cable=37.3%, streaming=38.1%).
– Almost three-quarters of the leads, co leads or actors carrying an ensemble cast in film were male (73.5%) and 26.5% were female. This is in stark contrast to TV/digital series. A full 42% of series regulars were girls/women. Streaming featured the most females in the principal cast (44.2%), followed by broadcast (41.6%) and cable (41%).
– In both TV and film, the vast majority of characters 40 years of age or older are male. (In film, 78.6 percent of characters 40+ are male. 73.1% of 40+ characters in broadcast series are male.)
– Females were more likely than males to be shown in sexy attire (Females=34.3% vs. Males=7.6%), with some nudity (Females=33.4% vs. Males=10.8%) and physically attractive (Females=11.6% vs. Males=3.5%).
– Only 3.4% of all film directors were female. The ratio of male to female film directors is 28.5 to 1. Among TV and digital series, broadcast had the highest percentage of female directors (17.1%) and streaming the lowest (11.8%). 
– Across 6,421 writers, a full 71.1% were male and 28.9% were female. This means that for every one female screenwriter there were 2.5 male screenwriters. Females were the least likely to have screenwriting credits in film (10.8%) and the most likely in broadcast (31.6%).
– Almost a quarter of show creators were women (22.6%) and 77.4% were men. Show creator gender did not vary by platform. Of show creators, 22% were female on the broadcast networks, 22.3% on cable channels and 25% on streaming series.
– The relationship between director gender and character gender was significant. Stories with a female director attached had 5.4% more girls/women on screen than those stories without female direction (38.5% vs. 33.1%). For writers and creators, the relationship was more pronounced (10.7% and 12.6% increase, respectively).
– Women represent roughly 20% of corporate boards, chief executives, and executive management teams.
– Females represent 39.1% of executives across the media divisions of companies evaluated.

On race/ ethnicity:

– Of those speaking or named characters with enough cues to ascertain race/ethnicity (n=10,444), 71.7% were White, 12.2% Black, 5.8% Hispanic/Latino, 5.1% Asian, 2.3% Middle Eastern and 3.1% Other. Thus, 28.3% of all speaking characters were from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups, which is below (-9.6%) the proportion in the U.S. population (37.9%).
– The percentage of underrepresented speaking characters did not meaningfully vary by media platform. The number of shows featuring “racial/ethnic balance” was evaluated. If a show featured any underrepresented characters within 10% of the U.S. Census statistic, it was considered balanced. Only 22 stories depicted racial/ethnic balance on the broadcast networks (19%), 18 on cable (13%), 1 on streaming (2%) and 8 in film (7%).
– At least half or more of all cinematic, television, or streaming stories fail to portray one speaking or named Asian or Asian American on screen.
– 21.8% of leading characters in film were coded as underrepresented, which is 16.1% below U.S. Census.
– The distribution of characters was gendered, with 65.6% of underrepresented characters male and 34.4% female. Focusing only on leads, the vast majority were Black (65.6%). Only 12.5% of underrepresented leads were Latino and 6.3% were Asian. Roughly a sixth (15.6%) of all underrepresented leads were from “other” races or ethnicities.
– Looking to television and digital content, only 26.6% of series regulars were from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups. Underrepresented series regulars were slightly more likely to occur in broadcast (27.6%) and streaming stories (29.6%) than in cable stories (24.6%).
– Overall, the landscape of media content is still largely whitewashed. Relative to the U.S. population, the industry is underperforming on racial/ethnic diversity of leads (film), series regulars (TV/digital) and all speaking characters.
– The race/ethnicity of every film director as well as those helming the first episode of every live action television show and scripted series was assessed. Out of the 407 directors evaluated, 87% were White and 13% were from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups. Only two of the 53 underrepresented directors in film and television/digital series were Black women: Amma Asante (“Belle”) and Ava DuVernay (“Selma”).
– The relationship between the presence/absence of an underrepresented director and underrepresented characters on screen was evaluated. The percentage of on screen underrepresented characters increases 17.5% when an underrepresented director is at the helm of a scripted episode or film. Only 26.2% of characters were underrepresented when directors were White whereas 43.7% were underrepresented when directors were from racial/ethnic minority groups.


– Only 2% of all speaking characters across the 414 movies, television shows and digital series evaluated were coded LGB. This point statistic is below the 3.5% of the U.S. population that identifies as Lesbian, Gay or Bisexual, as reported by the Williams Institute at UCLA.
– Only seven speaking or named characters identified as transgender sample wide, which calculates to <1%. Four of the seven transgender characters appeared in one digital show. All but one of the transgender characters appeared on streaming series.
– Almost a third of the 229 LGBT characters appeared in cable shows (31.4%), 28.8% in film, 24% in broadcast and 15.7% in streaming. Over half of the portrayals (58%) in movies were accounted for by two films: “Pride” and “Love is Strange.”
– Of all LGBT characters, nearly three quarters (72.1%) were male and 27.9% were female. The vast majority of LGBT characters were White (78.9%) and only 21.1% were from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups.
– The majority of LGBT characters are White males, excluding women and people of color who are part of the LGBT community.

[via Media, Diversity, & Social Change]

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