White, straight, able-bodied male roles remain the norm on screen, says study

Hollywood continues to underrepresent women; differently-abled people; lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people; and those coming from ethnic minority backgrounds on- and off-screen. This is according to a comprehensive report on issues of representation in the film industry. 


In “Inequality in 900 Popular Films: Examining portrayals of gender, race/ethnicity, LGBT and disability from 2007-2016”, Dr. Stacy L. Smith, Marc Choueiti and Dr. Katherine Pieper conducted a detailed intersectional and longitudinal representational analysis by examining every speaking or named character on screen for gender, race/ethnicity, LGBT, and disability across the 100 top fictional films as determined by US box office from 2007 to 2016 (excluding 2011). Each character is evaluated for demographics, domestic roles, and sexualization indicators. The gendered nature of employment patterns behind the camera (e.g. writers, producers, composers) were also assessed, with a detailed focus on female, Black, and Asian directors. A total of 900 movies were examined, involving 39,788 characters.

The report found that there was little to no meaningful change in the representation of diverse groups in popular movie content, with “white, straight, able-bodied men remaining the norm on screen in film”.

The report was commissioned by the Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative (MDSC) at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

Some of the key findings include:

  • A total of 4,583 speaking characters were assessed for gender across the 100 top fictional films of 2016. A full 68.6% were male and 31.4% were female, meaning viewers will see 2.18 males for every one female character on screen. The prevalence of female speaking characters has not changed meaningfully across the nine years evaluated, with the difference between 2007 and 2016 only 1.5%.
  • Females were much more likely than males to be shown in sexually revealing attire (F=25.9% vs. M=5.7%) and partially or fully naked (F=25.6% vs. M=9.2%).  This gender difference extends to attractiveness as well (F=10.7% vs. M=3.2%).
  • A total of 1,438 content creators worked across the 100 top films of 2016. Only 17.8% of these jobs were filled by women, compared to 82.2% filled by men.  Focusing on directors, 120 helmers were attached to the sample of films with 4.2% (n=5) female and 95.8% (n=115) male. This is a gender ratio of 23 male directors to every one female director.
  • Of those characters whose race/ethnicity could be ascertained, 70.8% were White, 13.6% Black, 5.7% Asian, 3.1% Hispanic/Latino, 3.4% Middle Eastern, <1% American Indian/Alaskan Native, <1% Native Hawaiian, and 2.7% Mixed Race or Other.
  • Of the 4,544 characters that could be evaluated for apparent sexuality across the 100 top films of 2016, only 51 or 1.1% were Lesbian, Gay, or Bisexual (LGB).  The majority of these characters were gay males (n=36 or 70.6%), 9 were lesbian (17.6%), and 6 were bisexual (11.8%).  Not one character across the 100 top movies of 2016 was coded as transgender.
  • Across the 100 top-grossing movies of 2016, just 2.7% of characters (n=124) were depicted with a disability.
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“The vocal and vociferous advocacy surrounding inclusion in entertainment has brought the issue to the forefront of news and created industry pressure. Despite the noise and intensity of protest, activism and awareness have generated little real or lasting change,” the authors of the report stated. “Perhaps this is because good intentions are no substitute for expertise when it comes to fixing long-standing problems. Or, because programs that support filmmakers have focused on developing skills—particularly for women and people of color—rather than influencing hiring practices.”

To “truly move the needle,” the study recommended “strategic solutions”, including: setting target inclusion goals with companies creating inclusive consideration lists when hiring, and with film schools and film festivals setting benchmarks for inclusion to help bolster the pipeline for diverse talent; making efforts to learn about stereotypes in working spaces; and calling for consumers to support content that is driven by or features females, underrepresented groups, LGBT individuals, and people with disabilities.

This study is particularly relevant to a country like the Philippines, where the highest grossing films actually also come from Hollywood. In the estimation of Box Office Mojo, for instance, the top five biggest-earning films in the country are not local but from Hollywood, i.e. Beauty and the Beast (released in 2017, earning ₱676,440,999); Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015, ₱634,243,871); Iron Man 3 (2013, ₱625,840,211), The Avengers (2012,₱60 1,105,508); and Jurassic World (2015, ₱502,681,938).

“We cannot expect that films will heal our political differences. But we can ask that the landscapes of imagination and storytelling on display at the multiplex resemble the audience there to be entertained. By taking inclusion seriously and acting to address it, companies, consumers, and creators can ensure that entertainment moves away from a vision of the past and toward content that resembles the audience of the present,” Smith, Choueiti and Pieper ended.

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