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Despite Diversity Push, Women and Minorities Aren’t Getting Better Movie Roles (Study)

Time’s Up and #MeToo is dominating the talk in Hollywood, and not an awards show nor a red carpet interview seems to take place these days without filmmakers and actors being peppered with questions about pay equity and diversity. Everyone says the same thing: they want change. Yet the rhetoric doesn’t appear to be making an empirical difference when it comes to movie making.

A deep dive into the 1,100 highest grossing films from 2007 to 2017 reveals that women, minorities, and members of the LGBT and disabled communities rarely grace the big screen. More troubling, the study by USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism reveals that little has changed over the past decade in terms of representation even as the issue of inclusion has become more widely talked about. In fact, men are two times more likely to have a speaking role in a movie than women and the number of female speaking roles in films has actually slipped from where it was in 2008 and 2009.

“Unfortunately, it’s largely been the status quo,” said Dr. Stacy L. Smith, the report’s co-writer. “There’s been essentially no movement by the multinationals that run studios when it comes to hiring practices on screen.”

Female speaking characters on screen accounted for 30.6% of the 48,757 characters in the films surveyed, while 29.3% of these characters were from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups, 2.5% had disabilities, and less than 1% of were members of the LGBT community. And many of these groups failed to even register in major Hollywood movies.

Last year, 43 films lacked any black or African American female characters, 65 were missing Asian or Asian-American female characters, and 64 did not depict even one Latina character. Seventy eight films didn’t offer up a single female character with a disability and 94 were devoid of even one female lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender character. It was the transgender community that got shut out most completely. Across 400 films from 2014 to 2017, there was only one trans character.

The lack of representation on screen may be partly attributable to a failure of diversity behind the camera. Just 4.3% of the 1,223 directors behind the top grossing films were female, 5.2% were black or African-American and 3.1% were Asian or Asian-American.

This summer there have been a few big studio films such as “The Spy Who Dumped Me” and “Crazy Rich Asians” that were anchored by female characters, but these movies remain the exception to the rule. In 2017, only 33 of the top 100 grossing films had a woman in a lead or co-leading role. Of those films that did feature women in primary roles, only four were from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. And even when women do get the part, their roles often require them to be sexualized. Female characters were more than twice as likely as male characters to be shown in sexually revealing clothing, partially naked, or to have their looks talked about in the context of the film.

USC, the Center for Women in Film & Television, and other academic institutions have done a great deal of research in recent years into the topic of diversity on screen and behind the camera. Most of the time, the results have been dispiriting, showing an industry whose progressive politics fail to influence its hiring decisions. Smith thinks that may be changing. The sexual harassment reckoning that’s unfolded over the past year has toppled the careers of Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Brett Ratner, Dustin Hoffman, and other major stars accused of misconduct. It has also amplified calls for more diversity in the board rooms and executive suites at entertainment companies and has led to the popularization of ideas such as inclusion riders, which enables filmmaking talent to demand more diversity in staffing on their films and shows. That could be critical, Smith, who helped come up with inclusion rider concept, says.

“I’m hopeful that moving forward as Time’s Up and other movements take effect, this will be the last year that we see these kind of numbers,” said Smith, adding, “Folks need to wake up and think more inclusively.”

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