Hollywood has embraced diversity on-screen, but progress has been much slower off-screen.
When Issa Rae and John Cho announced the 92nd Oscar nominations on January 13, they exemplified the qualities the Academy had been endeavouring to refashion itself as: younger, gender-balanced, and less white.
However, only one of the twenty acting nominations went to a non-white actor (Cynthia Erivo for Harriet), and while one of the five directing slots went to Bong Joon-ho for Parasite, none were women. “Congratulations to those men,” Rae said wryly.
Does Hollywood have a diversity problem? Yes. And every year during Oscar season, it is at the forefront of public consciousness.
The problem goes beyond awards. Minorities and women are underrepresented in all echelons of Hollywood.
But it isn’t to say that the industry hasn’t taken positive steps to correct this myopia. Yet there remains a significant discrepancy of representation, particularly in non-acting roles that hold the most power in the business.
The slow march towards inclusivity
Institutional discrimination in media industries is significant given the effects that representation – including that of race and gender on screen – can have on society.
According to media scholars George Gerbner and Larry Gross, “representation signifies social existence; absence means symbolic annihilation.” It provides a clear message about those who are valued in a culture and who are marginalised.
In recent years, the predominant whiteness of the Oscars has sparked scrutiny of representation on the silver screen. This crystalised in 2015 when #OscarsSoWhite went viral as a criticism of Hollywood after not one non-white actor in any of the four acting categories was nominated. That abysmal outcome would be repeated in 2016.
Critics pointed to subpar demographic figures to claim that the lack of diversity was a reflection of a systemic industry-wide problem.
Film executives appear to have responded to the criticism. Of course, it is smart business – why wouldn’t you create content that caters to diversity if that’s what consumers want to see on screen?
Studios have poured big money into promoting a host of films with non-white and female leads and directors. From Universal’s multi-cultural cast in the Fast and the Furious franchise and it’s bankrolling of Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Us, Disney’s Black Panther, Warner Bros. Crazy Rich Asians, to Netflix’s Roma, are some prominent examples.
UCLA’s latest Hollywood Diversity Report focused on the top-grossing films between 2018-2019, finds that the number of acting jobs for people of colour and women is closer to being proportionate with the US population.
In addition, the latest annual study by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative revealed that 31 of the top 100 grossing films in 2019 cast non-white actors in a leading or supporting role, up from 14 in 2015. Women were cast in 43 of the top-100, up from 32 in 2015. Disney’s female and minority-led films grossed more than any of its competitors.
On the face of it, the data illustrates the entertainment industry’s slow march towards an inclusive future. The #MeToo and Time’s Up movements further compelled a reexamination of whose stories are being told and by whom.
As Hollywood catches up with television in terms of generating more inclusive stories and connecting with diverse audiences, there is still a disconnect between what sells tickets and who is being selected for awards. A systemic bias still sits at the heart of entertainment institutions.
Paleness behind the camera
While diversity has become a business imperative for every major studio, its important to understand how uneven its distribution is. Only then does it become clear who wields power in the creative and decision-making process.
Diversity in films is at its highest on-screen; off-screen, the industry is even more homogeneous.
Women account for only 27 percent are producers, 19 percent are writers, and 13 percent are directors, according to a study of the top 250 grossing films of 2019.
The UCLA report also included a workplace analysis of major and mid-level studios, finding that over 90 percent of C-level roles were held by whites and 82 percent by men. For senior executives, 93 percent were white and 80 percent male.
A feminist media critique would suggest that on-screen representation of gender stereotypes, or the lack of representation, is systematically a consequence of power in media content production.
The more women involved in decision-making roles and the creation and production of media content, the higher the prospect of structural change. The same applies to minorities.
One could legitimately make the argument that by implementing diverse casts, studios can resist how they fundamentally do business behind the camera.
Directing and writing credits are crucial for women and minorities in an industry that is primarily driven by those metrics. What gets green-lit matters, and white men still enjoy tremendous, unchallenged power in that arena.
Hollywood still has some ways to go in levelling the playing field on-screen and behind it. But that doesn’t mean the Academy can blanket blame the film industry for lack of diversity in its award nominations.
In 2016 the Academy promised an aggressive inclusion drive by launching the A2020 initiative, with an effort to double both the number of women and members of colour who can vote for Oscars in their ranks by the end of this year.
It claims to have accomplished this goal for members of colour, up from 8 percent in 2015 to 16 percent in 2019. Women went from 25 percent to 32 percent. While undoubtedly progress, it should be contextualised considering how overwhelmingly white and male-centric the Academy was, to begin with.
Nominations come down to who votes, and the Academy is still overwhelmingly old, white, and male. It is an entrenched power structure whose decision-making process is imbued with their preferences in judging the quality of a film or performance.
Upon accepting a BAFTA award for his role in Joker, Joaquin Phoenix addressed the topic in no uncertain terms: “I think we send a very clear message to people of colour that you’re not welcome here. I don’t think anybody wants a handout or preferential treatment, although that’s what we give ourselves every year. I think people want to be appreciated and respected for their work.”
Diversity should not slide into tokenism – which ultimately erases any genuine recognition of merit.
The larger problem Hollywood needs to tackle is democratising the showbiz profession and its workplace. After all, applying genuine representation of identity on-screen, while immensely symbolic, can be attained without any substantive changes behind the curtain.
Until then, the celluloid ceiling will prove hard to shatter.
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