tello Perspectives: How to Fix Representation Stagnation in Movies

By Karen Frost

Every year, the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at the University of Southern California Annenberg publishes a study examining the presence of gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, and disability in the top 100 grossing films of the year. And every year, the report reads like a heartbeat that has flatlined. Despite the prominence of themes like #OscarsSoWhite and #TimesUp, Hollywood isn’t becoming any more diverse. The following are key points made by the study: 

In 2017, women were 31.8% of speaking characters in the top 100 movies. In the last ten years, women have averaged only 30.75% of speaking roles, meaning that 2017 measured no improvement. There were on average 2.15 men for every woman on screen in 2017. Moreover, only 33 of the top 100 grossing films had female leads, no change from 2015 and 2016, although an increase from 2007, when the number was 20. Depressingly, the trends for hypersexualization variables were consistent throughout 2007-2017: there has been no meaningful change in the overall amount of “sexy attire” or nudity for female characters, indicating that the sexploitation of women is alive and well. In fact, nudity for girls age 13-20 is up 13% over 2007.

The percentages of black, Hispanic, and Asian characters have not changed since 2007. Of the top 100 films, 20 had no black speaking characters, 37 had no Asian speaking characters, and 43 had no Latinx speaking characters. More specifically, 43 had no black women, 65 had no Asian women, and 64 had no Latinas, speaking or otherwise. Entire segments of our population are missing on screen.

While technically the number of lesbian characters more than doubled between 2014 and 2017, the increase from four to nine speaking characters out of about 4,403 characters annually is the difference between 0.091% and 0.21%. Meanwhile, the number of gay male characters more than halved between 2016 and 2017, dropping from 36 to 16. The number of bisexual characters has remained relatively constant since 2014. Only 19 of the 100 films studied in 2017 had LGBT characters, and of them 41.9% were judged to be inconsequential to the movie’s plot. 94 movies had no queer women at all, and in the 400 top grossing movies since 2014, there was only one transgender character. 

In 2017, only 2.5% of the characters studied were depicted as having a disability despite 18.7% of the US population having a disability. Since 2015, only the percentage of female characters with a disability has increased meaningfully. Of the groups studied, people with disabilities and LGBT individuals were the most underrepresented.

Of the top 100 films since 2007, fewer than 1% had female composers, 7.3% had female directors, 10.1% had female writers, and 21.7% had female producers. In fact, the number of female composer has alternated between one and two per year, while the number of female directors has only varied between two and nine. Women are being largely shut out of the creative roles behind the camera. 

The Annenberg study notes that in the eight movies directed by a female director in 2017, on average 43% of the speaking characters were women, compared to only 30.9% under male directors. Movies written by women have 7.8% more female characters than movies written by men. Movies helmed by a black director in 2017 had 41.4% more black characters than movies directed by a white director, while the number of black speaking characters jumped from 2.5% under white directors to 18.5% under black directors. In short, diversity fosters diversity.   

The study’s authors have begged for years for the addition of just five more speaking roles for female characters in each movie. The inclusion of these characters would quickly cut down the gender gap without requiring any other changes. Moreover, the use of inclusion riders and diversity demographics goals could easily resolve representation issues by mandating greater diversity on screen. And yet every year, the study wonders, “Why is Hollywood so obstinate to change?” The answers are many. There is, for example, an admitted selection bias in choosing the top 100 grossing movies. Perhaps less financially successful movies are more likely to be diverse, although this doesn’t absolve Hollywood of its biases in casting and writing its tentpole blockbusters. Without offering an answer to Hollywood’s resistance, tello Films suggests a new idea: Hollywood is amoral. Not immoral, but amoral. The Annenberg Study appeals to Hollywood’s sense of racial and gender justice; its morality. It should appeal to Hollywood’s wallet.  

Consider the following: in 2017, the top five grossing movies were “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Wonder Woman,” “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” and “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” in that order. Although one would rightly call all of these ensemble movies, the ostensible protagonist at least for “Beauty and the Beast” and “Wonder Woman” were a woman, while the protagonists of “Star Wars” and “Jumanji” were split half female, half male. Cumulatively, the top three movies raked in $1.637 billion dollars, a juicy plum for Hollywood. The argument that will convince Hollywood to have more diversity is likely not morality, but box office receipts: “Wonder Woman” outperformed both “Spider-Man: Homecoming” (#6) and “Justice League” (#10) in the super hero genre. “Get Out” (#15) dominated “Split” (#23) in the horror genre.  “Pitch Perfect 3” (#29) just edged “Daddy’s Home 2” (#30). “A Bad Moms Christmas” (#44) scooped “Baywatch” (#48), and “Atomic Blonde” (#53) blew both “xXx: The Return of Xander Cage” (#63) and “American Assassin” (#71) out of the action/adventure waters.

The key to convincing Hollywood to have more diversity is not to browbeat it about diversity, but to ask, “Which would you rather have, the $620 million made by ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi,’ the $532 million made by ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,’ or the $213 million made by ‘Solo: A Star Wars Story?” The former two showcase a cast full of women and people of color. The trailer for the latter mostly features a white guy and some of his token minority friends. While it might be an oversimplification of the issue, it seems likely that at least in part, some of the failure of “Solo” when compared to the other movies in the same franchise is its return to the white male hero. Been there, done that, viewers are signaling with their dollars.

Ultimately, Hollywood has shown that it won’t fix itself in the near-term. It will rectify some tropes (no longer is the bisexual woman the creepy, evil or sex-crazed villain, for example) and it will provide a minimal level of representation in its blockbusters, but there are limits to how far it will go to improve representation. At least when it comes to movies, Hollywood continues to cling to the idea that white men are the saviors of the box office. Two things need to happen to challenge this mindset: first, Hollywood must be presented over and over again with the metrics showing that diversity is now selling better than white men (“Black Panther” over “Deadpool 2,” “Ocean’s 8” over “Pacific Rim Uprising,” the resounding success of “Crazy Rich Asians,” etc.). Second, minorities have to create their own content and push it onto platforms. Diversity fosters diversity.