Pat yourselves on the back, Hollywood–you done good. Well, you did okay. According to the annual study (PDF link) from USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, representation for black and Asian actors soared last year. While this is good news, a closer look reveals that Tinseltown still has a long way to go.
What the Diversity in Film Study Found
The Initiative looked at 1200 films from last year, with a special emphasis on the 100 top-grossing movies. This is understandable, as the latter films are, after all, the ones most people see. Likely due to popular films like Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians, the percentage of black and Asian speaking roles rose to 16.9 and 8.2 percent, respectively. That’s a 12-year high, which is pretty good. In fact, speaking roles for non-white actors rose overall. However, as the study reveals, there are still big disparities.
For example, while black and Asian characters got a bump, Latinx actors made up only 5.3% of the characters in the top 100 movies. It’s even worse for Middle Eastern/North African actors, multiracial actors, and native actors. American Indian/Alaska Native actors, for instance, got less than 1 (one) percent of speaking roles in the top 100 films. Out of the top 100, 99 did not feature a single American Indian/Alaska Native actress. Hollywood, probably: Y’all see that Westworld episode, though?
Other Representation Still Lags
I mention actresses in particular because gender parity is a specific sticking point in the study . A survey of those top 100 found that only 39 featured a woman as a lead role or co-lead, for example. That’s no surprise, though, when you look behind the camera. Women are hard to find there, too, with few in the director’s seat or as producers or even writers.
Race and gender are not the only things the Initiative counts, though. They also look at other marginalized groups, like characters with disabilities and LGBTQ characters. Unsurprisingly, those numbers weren’t impressive, either. Only 2 of the 100 top-grossing films, for instance, featured a lead character from the LGBTQ community.
Why Representation Matters
Representation isn’t just about fairness, although fairness is a nice concept. What we see shapes and colors our view of the world. That doesn’t mean the oft-repeated simplistic trope that if you see something violent that you’ll be violent in turn, though. Rather, it means that when you don’t have experience with a group of people, TV and movies can influence what you think of them. It can even influence what you think of yourself. If you don’t see yourself, then do you even exist? Do you even matter?
I was almost a teenager before I ever saw an American Indian onscreen who wasn’t a dead warrior. But I was also lucky to grow up in a strong community. Other kids out there weren’t and aren’t so lucky. They could be, though, if we tried a little harder. As the Initiative’s founding director Stacy L. Smith said, “While we are pleased to see progress in some areas, efforts cannot end here. There are several arenas where much more growth is needed.” So let’s get growing.
Talk to me about representation–did you like what you saw growing up?
Salomé Gonstad is a freelance writer who grew up in the swampy wilds of south Alabama. She now splits her time between the Appalachian wilds (of Alabama) and the considerably more refined streets of New York City. When she's not yelling about pop culture on the internet, she's working on a supernatural thriller about her hometown. Also, we're pretty sure she's a werewolf. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.