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Studios Need to Address Diversity in a Changing World

Criticizing Hollywood, its products and players is hardly new. Since the industry’s inception, cultural watchdogs, pundits and movie-goers have hurled disparaging potshots and voiced more legitimate concerns.

In the early years of the past century, members of various religious groups and politicians clamored over the racy content of pre-code Hollywood’s films, urging the business to clean up its act. The social outrage inspired a patchwork of state regulations, and threatened federal legislation at a particularly ticklish moment in film history when the studios were becoming increasingly dependent on financiers to expand and develop the industry.

In a move that had no precedent at the time, and has yet to be repeated, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America created the Production Code Administration to oversee the implementation of guidelines intended to rein in the various perceived excesses of movie content. This act of self-regulation quieted the movement against the fledgling industry and ushered in decades of prosperity.

Fast-forward almost 100 years, and Hollywood finds itself standing on another precipice facing down a similarly disgruntled grassroots movement. This time, the challenge comes not from representatives of religious organizations and politicians, but from members of culturally under-represented social groups such as women and minorities. Armed with abundant channels to communicate their message, including social media and websites, members of these groups, as well as individuals supporting the cause, have raised public awareness of the lack of diversity in Hollywood, and are intent on keeping the issue in the public spotlight until progress is made.

To date, the mainstream film industry has demonstrated little inclination to meaningfully address the complaints of those calling for greater diversity behind the scenes. From its relative indifference to the investigations conducted by the Dept. of Justice and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the 1970s to the failed lawsuit filed by the Directors Guild of America in the 1980s charging the major film studios, television networks and independent TV production companies with sex discrimination, the industry has evaded calls for greater equality.

In part, the cultural zeitgeist was in Hollywood’s favor. But diversity was not the juggernaut in those days that it is today. In television, some of this season’s most successful shows — “Empire,” “How to Get Away With Murder” and “Black-ish” — feature diverse casts, and star or co-star women. Further, the explosion of social media and the Internet has solidified the notion that culture belongs to everyone, not just the demographically privileged. It is a clash between a Culture “R” Us popular movement and an entrenched megamedia system inclined to perpetuate the status quo.

A variety of grassroots organizations is also calling for greater visibility for their members onscreen. The studios have largely responded that their hands are tied by the imperatives of an international marketplace that does not favor films featuring female faces or faces of color.

This objection should be recognized as the self-fulfilling prophecy it is. Hollywood doesn’t just respond to market forces. Rather, it creates demand for its movies by spending millions of dollars on advertising and promotion domestically and globally. Not much is “natural” about these markets. Just as the industry plays a role in creating markets here in the U.S., it also has a hand in molding audience preferences internationally.

The notion that little can be done about the current dearth of diversity in the mainstream film industry reveals a startling lack of vision on the part of executives, who have yet to recognize the potential creative and box office bounty a more diverse film world would yield.

Martha M. Lauzen, PhD, is executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film. She is the author of numerous studies on
women working on screen and behind the scenes in film and television.

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