Think Television Is Diverse? Researchers Say It’s Just as Bad as Film

A comprehensive new study assesses diversity on-screen and behind-the-scenes across the industry.

Christian Bale, an English actor, plays the role of Moses, an Egyptian prince, in the film ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings.’ (Image: YouTube)

Feb 22, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

The Academy Awards are once again under fire for their lack of nonwhite acting nominees, but a new report says the diversity problem at Hollywood's biggest awards show is just one symptom of "an epidemic of invisibility" that plagues the industry. In a far-reaching study that analyzed on-screen and behind-the-scenes roles in film and television and for the first time ranked media companies and CEOs for their content's racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual inclusivity, researchers at the University of Southern California suggested that #OscarsSoWhite ought to be changed to #HollywoodSoWhite.

More than 74 percent of speaking or named characters across 109 feature films released theatrically in 2014 were white. Of those movies, nearly 20 percent lacked black characters and 50 percent omitted Asian and Asian American characters, according to the Inclusion or Invisibility? study. Those statistics were roughly parallel in television, despite its reputation for producing more culturally and socially nuanced stories than the film industry does.

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Roughly 70 percent of characters across 305 broadcast, cable, and digital series produced in 2014 were white, and about a quarter of all television shows had no black characters. More than half rendered Asians invisible. Television streaming services, such as Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu, had the highest exclusion rate for black and Asian characters, even though streaming services are the most inclusive of transgender characters among all entertainment platforms.

The researchers at USC's Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative said the study was intended as a public answer to two questions they commonly are asked: Isn't television more inclusive than film, and how are various companies performing with regard to diversity? To answer the second question, researchers used an academic grading system to assess the inclusion rates of female and LGBT characters and characters of color, as well as the percentage of women executives working at six major film companies and 10 television networks.

Every film distributor surveyed failed the inclusivity test in every metric. Female characters made up less than 30 percent of all on-screen characters in every movie examined from all six studios, and half the studios scored a zero for hiring female directors. Among all television networks, Amazon scored the highest percentage of women directors (28 percent, thanks in part to the inclusive hiring efforts of Transparent creator Jill Soloway), and at just 5 percent, Hulu earned the lowest rating among TV networks for hiring female directors. Researchers found that as the percentage of women executives increased, so too did women's representation on-screen.

The study comes less than a week before the Academy Awards, which have been largely overshadowed for the second year in a row by questions about its lack of diversity and inclusion given that in nearly every category the majority of nominees are white and male. Some analysts have posited that the problem stems from a deep lack of roles for black, Latino, and Asian actors. But comedian John Oliver sees a major flaw in that argument: Even when movies offer leading roles for nonwhite actors, they too often are cast with white people.

That was the subject explored on Sunday during a Last Week Tonight segment dubbed "Hollywood Whitewashing: How Is This Still a Thing?" The video montage shows clips of Jake Gyllenhaal playing the Prince of Persia in the 2010 movie of the same name, Emma Stone portraying half-Asian character Allison Ng in last year's Aloha, and Christian Bale playing the Egyptian prince Moses in 2014's Exodus: Gods and Kings. But Hollywood's whitewashing is nothing new, dating back at least to John Wayne playing Genghis Khan in The Conqueror and Natalie Wood cast as Maria in West Side Story. Who can forget Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany's?

Researchers at USC said the industry won't correct its problem simply by "checking a box" or making a "diversity hire" when casting a film or series. Instead, they urged film and television studios to create inclusion goals and make them public to hold companies accountable, create a system of checks and balances to review storytelling decisions for bias, and build lists of writers and directors that are populated by women and people of color.

Other solutions the researchers proposed are less about implementing initiatives and more about recognizing subconscious bias. They stressed that film executives must rely on evidence rather than mythology—especially in relation to the financial performance of movies starring women or people of color—and stressed the need to recognize and alter "stereotypical thinking" before making a hiring decision or finalizing a script.

TakePart’s parent company, Participant Media, is a partner on Beasts of No Nation, as well as on Oscar-nominated films Spotlight, Bridge of Spies, and The Look of Silence. Participant Media was also a partner on The Help, one of the films shown in the Last Week Tonight With John Oliver montage.