In a guest column, GLAAD president and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis asks “Why have we come so far with so little to show for it?”
I can barely read the news these days without seeing headlines like “An Inclusion Crisis” or “An Epidemic of Invisibility” — describing the current state of Hollywood. To be fair, we see more LGBT and people of color on television and film than ever before; but unfortunately, and all too often, they lack significant backstories or thoughtful character development, leaving their presence to be little more than window dressing.
This week’s Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity in Entertainment (CARD) by USC’s Annenberg School is not the first time major television and film companies were roundly criticized for “whitewashing” and creating a “straight, white boy’s club.” This issue of invisibility is not a new one.
In 1977, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights published “Window Dressing on the Set: Women and Minorities on Television,” finding that “minorities and women — particularly minority women — continue to be underrepresented in dramatic programs and on the news and their portrayals continue to be stereotyped.”
In 1993, the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School released Women and Minorities on Television: A Study in Casting and Fate, stating, “The world of television seems to be frozen in a time-warp of obsolete and damaging representations.”
Then in 1999, upon finding out that no major characters in the fall lineup of 26 new shows planned by ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC were minorities, then-NAACP president Kweisi Mfume convened a landmark hearing to challenge the “Virtual Whitewashing of Network Television.”
Nearly 40 years have passed since “Window Dressing” and very little has been done to move the needle in a meaningful, systemic way. Diversity is not a trend or weighted stick wielded every few years to get studio executives in line; diversity is the cornerstone of American society, with TV and film remaining the most impactful mediums in creating lasting cultural shifts.
Studies like CARD are incredibly important, but it should not require a decade’s worth of research to figure out that there is something awry in Hollywood.
In addition to tracking the presence of LGBT characters on television for over 20 years, GLAAD has prepared more detailed yearly report cards that evaluate diversity across networks and film studios in order to determine the level of representation of LGBT, Black, Latino, and Asian Pacific Islander characters, as well as characters with disabilities. Throughout this time, we have moved from a place of critiquing content creators to collaborating with them in order to create fair, accurate, and diverse LGBT characters. It is this persistent and necessary yearly examination that has helped to accelerate acceptance of LGBT people, and it’s this same annual evaluation that will continue to hold Hollywood accountable.
While TV remains ahead of the game having made many progressive strides outpacing the film industry, the entertainment industry as a whole seems impervious to change. The question remains, why have we come so far with so little to show for it?
At GLAAD, we know all too well that images and words matter. TV and film are our greatest cultural export, so how is it that just 18% of casts are considered gender-balanced? And how is that women still only represent only 20% of top corporate executive positions in media?
As the demographics in our country continue to shift, it is imperative that images and words in entertainment media reflect the richness of our society.
It is abhorrent that CARD finds just 28% of all speaking characters are from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, almost 10% lower than the national population. The numbers are even worse for the LGB population, with just 2% of all speaking characters over 414 films, television and digital series being labeled as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, often and unfortunately playing into stereotypes or being ushered on screen to play up a punch line.
Studies repeatedly show that in the absence of someone knowing an LGBT person in real life, media with LGBT characters can help foster understanding and accelerate acceptance, particularly in places where our LGBT brothers and sisters still don’t feel safe enough to live openly.
Diversity on both sides of the camera should not be a lofty or idealized goal; it should be a reality.
Though the CARD report allows us to once again bang the drum for needed change, the question remains as to how Hollywood will respond — and when. In the meantime, GLAAD continues working with content creators to amplify the voices of our diverse community and to empower real people to share their stories. It will take all of us to push Hollywood to rewrite the script on diversity. From the C-Suite to the screen, every one of us is worthy of visibility.