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Editorial issue 72: Diversity in U.S. Cinema


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By Daniel Lindvall.

At the time of writing [20 August 2015] the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism has just published what is described as ‘the most comprehensive analysis of diversity in recent popular films ever conducted’, focusing on ‘data assessing gender, race/ethnicity and LGBT status in movies’ (Public Affairs Staff 2015). The study includes the 100 top-grossing films in the U.S. for every year from 2007 to 2014, with the exception (I know not why) of 2011, i.e. 700 films in all. As these films are overwhelmingly American productions we may legitimately treat this study as one of the situation in the U.S. film industry. However, as American films also dominate many other national markets – accounting for 65.11% of admissions in the European Union in 2012, for instance – the study is clearly of international cultural interest.

WiFThe results should be shocking, but are probably not too surprising for most of us, and neither is the conclusion: that there has been virtually no progress in half a century. Thus, out of 30,835 speaking characters only 30.2% were female, a gender ratio of 2.3 to 1. And only 11% of the films had a gender-balanced cast. If female actors had a hard time on the whole, those who have reached middle age are all but invisible. In the age bracket 40-64 year olds, the male to female ratio has remained in the neighbourhood of 4 to 1. And these 40+ women are highly unlikely to find themselves in starring roles. As a result, in 2014, while 21% of the films featured a female lead or co-lead, not a single woman over 45 years of age could be found in such a role. Ageism as regards women also leads to the bizarre situation where teenage girls are far more likely to be sexualized on screen, through attire, nudity or references to attractiveness, than are women who have turned 40. Unsurprisingly, women of all ages are four of five times more likely to be sexualized compared to males.

Inequality also plagues U.S. cinema in terms of race/ethnicity (the report makes use of the categories White, Hispanic, Black, Asian and Other). Here, Hispanics are by some distance the most underrepresented group. Despite comprising 17.1% of the U.S. population in 2013, the figures for on-screen representation range from 2.8% (in 2009) to highs of 4.9% (in 2013 and 2014). This is, the report notes, all the more surprising ‘given that Hispanics purchased 23% of U.S. movie tickets in 2014’. On the whole, while ‘individuals from underrepresented racial and/or ethnic groups amount to 37% of the population and, in 2014, bought 46% of movie tickets at the box office’, they accounted for just 26.9% of the named or speaking characters in 2014 and only 17 films featured an underrepresented character in a lead or co-lead role.

CCHowever, the most striking figures of the report are perhaps those that relate to LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and/or Transgender) characters, a category that was inlcuded in the study only in 2014. With no more than 19 out of 4,610 speaking or named characters being coded as LGB and not a single Transgender character to be found in the top 100 films, LGBT people were virtually invisible on screen last year, making up 0.4% of all characters. Furthermore, two-thirds of these characters were male, while 82.4% were White. The report also notes that, among LGBT characters, ‘depictions of healthy romantic/sexual relationships were scarce’, ‘no Gay or Bisexual male characters were portrayed in a committed relationship’ and ‘no LGB characters were depicted as parents raising young children together’. Clearly, despite its supposed ‘liberalism’, Hollywood is lagging far behind progressive social developments in this area.

The report also scrutinized the situation behind the camera, taking into account the categories of director, writer and producer. Unsurprisingly a similar pattern of inequality emerged here. Overall, 82.4% of the key creative personnel were male, with the category of director being the most skewed. Only 28 women (3.6%) were to be found among the 779 directors of the 700 films (some were co-directed). Out of these, a mere three were Black women and not a single one was an Asian-American woman.

Finally, I can’t refrain from mentioning the missing mammoth in the room, the category of class, which would have immensely enrichened this, already invaluable, study. I wonder, how many working class kids get to direct top Hollywood movies these days?

Daniel Lindvall is Film International’s editor-in-chief.

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