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How Diverse is American Cinema?

There is a group that’s made a lot of noise recently, the Media, Diverstiy, an Social Change Initiative (MDSCI) based out of USC Snnenberg School for Communications and Journalism  Why?  on August 5th, 2015 they released a “landmark report’ on gender, race/ethnicity and LGBT characters in 700 popular films from 2007 to 2014.

So why would this be bothersome?  Isn’t diversity in media a good thing? Isn’t social change how we got landmark pieces of humanitarian legislation like the Civil Rights Act? Yes, racial/gender diversity IS a good thing for consumption, for any individual’s choice diet of films, television, music, etc. But for production, that is something different entirely. Bear with me for a moment as I point out why something like USC’s Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative is something that can ruin movies as we know them.

Enjoy this Michelle Rodriguez placeholder image.  You'll get to see her again later.

Enjoy this Michelle Rodriguez placeholder image. You’ll get to see her again later.

-Media portrayals of gender and race in popular narrative and documentary films and TV.

Let’s take a look at some of the findings from their report:

Race/Ethnicity. Of those characters coded for race/ethnicity across 100 top films of 2014, 73.1% were White, 4.9% were Hispanic/Latino, 12.5% were Black, 5.3% were Asian, <1% native American or Alaskan native…. Just over a quarter of characters in action and/or adventure and comedy films are from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups across the top 100 films of 2014…. In 2014, 17 films did not feature a Black or African American speaking character….

LGBT. Across 4,610 speaking characters in the 100 top films of 2014, only 19 were Lesbian, Gay or Bisexual. Not one Transgender character was portrayed.

Gender. Only 30.2% of the 30,835 speaking characters evaluated were female across the 700 top-grossing films from 2007 to 2014… Less than a quarter of all speaking characters were in the top animated films of 2014…. In 2014, females of all ages were more likely than males to be shown in sexy attire (27.9% of females vs 8% of males), with some nudity (12.6% of females vs 3.1% of males).

Now to analyze these findings. This initiative and most media choose to present these findings as problematic, as signs of a greater issue. Only 5.3% of characters are Black?!! Why, that’s just oppressive, isn’t it! Well, let’s compare that racial breakdown of films in the United States with the racial breakdown of the United States…

From the 2010 US Census:

Non-Hispanic White: 63.7%

Non-Hispanic Black or African American: 12.2%

Non-Hispanic Asian: 4.7%

Non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaska native: 0.7%

Hispanic or Latino: 16.4%

US Census does not poll for sexual preference, however the NHIS reported in July 2014 that 1.6% of Americans identify as gay or lesbian and 0.7% consider themselves to be bisexual. A Gallup Poll places that amount higher at 3.4%.  Still, out of 100 films polled, 19 had an LGBT character when, statistically only 3.4 movies, at most, would have accurately appeased the demographic.

So the findings of the report from USC’s Media, Diversity and Social Initiative are an accurate depiction of the nation’s racial/ethnic breakdown. There IS no disparity in the representation of different races in media. 12.5% of films have black characters versus 12.2% of the nation being black. 5.3% were Asian in comparison to 4.7% of the nation being Asian. <1% films feature a Native American character exactly corresponds to <1% of the nation being Native American. The amount of LGBT characters in media is analogous to the amount of LGBT people in the country. The only great difference is that 16.4% of Americans are Hispanic/Latino represented by 4.9% in media – but oddly, that’s not brought up a whole lot. The ONLY underrepresented ethnic group are Hispanics and the only article I could find specifically about that was this one which doesn’t say anything more than “Hispanics are the most underrepresented race/ethnicity.”

Look at it this way… Whites are “woefully” underrepresented in Asian cinema and blacks are almost non-existent. Asians are “depressingly” absent from African films. For the most part, the ethnic make-up of American cinema is pretty true to the the ethnic make-up of America.

I am not going to argue against Gender disparity because that DOES exist. Women are not proportionally represented in media but that is not a cause of the media, it’s a symptom. Movies, television, etc are a reflection of society’s values, not the cause of them. Women are represented a certain way in film because that is how society chooses to see them, the successful films polled for this study were successful because they catered to audiences expectations, and audiences expect female characters to be portrayed in a certain way. The issue, should one want to affect social change, does not start with the media but rather society’s point-of-view in general.

Underrepresentation On the Screen

USC’s Meida, Diversity & Social Change Initiative is not just about getting statistics. They are about affecting change – they get these statistics in order to show a problem and then seek solutions to it. The ONLY severe disparity is that of gender. Hispanics are slightly underrepresented but all other races correspond to the racial demographics of the USA. However what’s only reported are the findings of the study, not a lot of analysis behind the CAUSE of those numbers.

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Keep in mind 24 SUCCESSFUL female directors. Toss in the work women have done in independent film there are many MANY more.

Hollywood Reporter simply regurgitates the statistical findings and states there is no diversity in American movies. The same can be said of Time.  The Washington Post gets more detailed in their look but still says the only group thriving in Hollywood is white, straight men. The predominance of “white” and “straight” is understandable since that is what a majority of the nation’s racial and sexual make-up is. I want to again emphasize the point that the only issue that is clear with the statistics is GENDER. And there was an ACLU report on the gender disparity in Hollywood’s hiring practices in May, reported on by several media outlets.

Professor Stacy L. Smith, who runs the Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative at USC has her own solution: “If filmmakers just added five female speaking characters to their current slate of projects and repeated the process, we would be at parity.” In addition to her ‘just add five” campaign Smith has argued that the Film industry adopt NFL’s ‘Rooney Rule” which requires NFL teams to interview at least one minority candidate when they are trying to fill head coaching positions and other senior-level jobs.

Just like Communism did, this plan looks WONDERFUL on paper.

Just like Communism did, this plan looks WONDERFUL on paper.

Smith brings up The Fast and the Furious franchise quite often. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/act-four/wp/2015/05/14/how-hollywood-stays-white-and-male/) as if this franchise is supposed to be a representation of how underrepresented women and minorities are in cinema. However only ONE film of this series was directed by a white man, the first film. John Singleton (black) directed the second installment, Justin Lin (Chinese) directed parts 3-6, and James Wan (Malaysian) directed the most recent and is slated to direct upcoming installments. In addition to that the franchise has frequently featured Michelle Rodriguez (Hispanic AND female), Eva Mendes, and Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges. I’m not a fan of The Fast and the Furious franchise but I’ll certainly laud it’s diversity. Many people cite the lack of strong female characters in comic book films but never seem to cite the source material – these films are based upon a media historically targeted exclusively to teenage boys and their interests.

The hiring practices of Hollywood is a separate issue and if there is indeed an active case of gender discrimination, as the ACLU argues that there is, that should indeed be looked in to. As far as the representation of women on the screen, however, that’s a decision made by the audience, by the consumer because Hollywood is, after all, a business.

Business Vs. Art

Hollywood is in the business to make money. They’re not trying to create art or make great social statements (though, occasionally, those slip through the cracks but with far less frequency than 40 years ago). There is no reason why a woman can’t direct a Hollywood feature or produce any number of films for a major studio – why women aren’t involved more with production is a good question and worth looking in to. As far as representation on the screen, however, Hollywood only responds to the general demand and interests of the public – film is a reflection of society’s values NOT the cause of them. Hollywood is only going to produce content that will make money by catering to the interests of the general public, they’re not going to push boundaries, not going to break new ground. Films respond to current trends in gender and racial portrayals – they don’t create these trends.

This poor Latina woman so exploited in a movie directed by an Asian man.  Curse you patriarchy!

This poor Latina woman so exploited in a movie directed by an Asian man. Curse you patriarchy!

You know who DOES create those trends, at least cinematically? Independent cinema. The thoughts and ideas expressed in a smaller independent film are those aped by Hollywood. The major studios will never be the ones to take a risk with new content, but when an independent filmmaker finds success with that risk, every major studio will immediately copy it citing the cultural and popular interest in that material. A talented filmmaker, regardless of gender or race, is almost guaranteed studio work if its shown that they can resonate with public strongly enough. Hollywood is not creative, it is REACTIVE. The lack of onscreen representation, if we were to assign fault, lies on the shoulders of the audiences.

Let’s discuss artist intent for a moment. It is a common practice for a writer or director to stick with what they are familiar with, this is the best films about minority issues come from directors and writers of that minority. For the post part, a white writer and/or director is going to portray things from a white perspective, its what they know, the same can be said about any race. The dumbest sentence I’ve come across was from The Hollywood Reporter article on these findings: A black director featured casts that were more than 40% black. OF COURSE it would! A director is going to stick with their peer groups, what they know and what they’ve experienced – and black people tend to have black friends; how is this a “shocking” statistic? When one forces an artist to work outside of their comfort zone, outside of their realm of knowledge, its not going to come out authentic or entertaining. Take the 2004 film Crash for instance – a movie about racism made by a white guy who’s never experienced racism. It’s a terrible film, often cited as the worst film to win an Oscar, and is remembered as an example of how NOT to make a a film about racism. An artist is going to, and should be encouraged to, stick with what they know and the issues they are familiar with or have a passion for. When one tries to force upon them issues and character types beyond their usual comfort zone it’s going to come off as inauthentic and shallow as Crash was.

Hard to believe but this movie would have been WORSE if directed by a white man.

Hard to believe but this movie would have been WORSE if directed by a white man.

Ideas like Ms. Smith’s “just add five” campaign or applying the Rooney Rule to onscreen representation would do a disservice to the filmmaker and a disservice to the audience. It would make archetypes of characters only present because of their race or gender – they would be a token minority and nothing that contributes to the actual story. Adding women into a film just for the sake of having a woman is a will be as inauthentic as all of 2004’s Crash. HOWEVER, those ideas would apply to the hiring process and the end result would be reflected on the screen. If one wants more women or more minorities on screen in successful and quality films they need more women and minorities behind the camera – and one needs look no further than the vastly diverse Fast and Furious franchise to see that in action.

Ultimately this MDSCI accomplishes nothing. Well, less than nothing because it has the potential to cause more harm to the artistic integrity of American cinema rather than good. Their study on gender and race/ethnic diversity show a racial breakdown of film representation analogous to the racial breakdown of the American population (except for Hispanics and the only possible reason I can think for that is that Hispanics aren’t bothered by it – I see nobody complaining about this). The gender disparity onscreen is equivalent to the gender disparity behind the camera – employment practices already addressed by an ACLU study months earlier. The solutions offered by the MDSCI for onscreen representation threaten to weaken the quality and entertainment value of American film – relegating female characters to an obligatory “token” status does far more harm than good. It’s a form of censorship to force creative demands that are contrary to the artist’s intent. The employment practices of Hollywood may or may not be an active form of discrimination – that is still being investigated as a result of the ACLU study. However, more women behind the camera would relate to more believable and stronger female characters onscreen – not “token” appearances to satisfy a Bechdel Test.

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CRASH is with happens when someone with no concept of race relations tries to make a (well-intended) movie about another race. Do you want every movie to be CRASH?

The media produced by any society, any culture is reflective of what that society values. Hollywood profits upon exploiting what are proven values held by the public. Media does not create these values, films, books, etc only react to the public’s demands and interests. Altering the media only makes weaker and inauthentic films and television. If one wishes to change the values of American art they would need to change the people creating that art as well as the values of the public who consume it – which is not something the MDSCI or any one organization is capable of. Compelled diversity is not truly diverse and carries with it far more animosity than good-will. The most one can do is create an environment where diversity has the capability to flourish naturally and then hope for the best – something already inherent with art anyway.

About The Author
Matthew Coats
Matthew Coats
Formerly known under the pseudonym of Alex Jowski. Site owner, movie aficionado, and film school grad. Matthew Coats presents reviews, some written, some as vlogs, and some as weekly shows, for a variety of different movies and television shows. After years of struggling to get his own projects off the ground amidst the normal routine of living, Matthew Coats decided to create a site in order to share and promote movie reviews, video games and much much more from talented and original people all across the internet.

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