Awards Season Shows the Fight For Diversity Is Still Losing

2016 was a big year—we had our first woman nominated on a major party ticket for the presidential elections, Beyonce released Lemonade and Leonardo DiCaprio won his first Oscar. But just as important was the accusation of the Oscars being whitewashed and the increased use of the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite.

Before the 2016 ceremony even commenced, the Oscars faced criticism for having an all-white lineup of acting nominees. It’s been an ongoing battle within the industry for decades now—diversifying Hollywood. And unfortunately, it hasn’t been going as well as many would have hoped.

Epidemic Of Invisibility

Studies have shown that for years, the vast majority of lead roles and speaking parts have been given to white males. Only in the past 30 years have the roles of minorities in movies increased, but the number of meaningful roles they receive still pales in comparison to those that white actors receive.

A report that analyzed the 100 top-grossing films from 2015 in the U.S. showed just how lopsided the casting in Hollywood is. Out of 4,370 speaking roles, 68.6 percent were given to male actors, and 73.7 percent of them were white. 12.2 percent of the speaking roles featured black actors, 5.3 percent of them were Latino actors, 3.9 were Asian American actors, 3.6 percent were actors of a mixed race, and less than one percent of the roles went to Pacific Islanders or Native Americans.

Needless to say, casting in Hollywood is hardly representative of the movie-going audience or the population of this country. And don’t even get me started on the stereotypical representation of non-white characters in these movies or we’ll be here for days. That’s a whole other issue that deserves its own attention.

I was so hopeful that something would change after the controversy surrounding last year’s ceremony. It certainly looked that way with Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation, featuring a predominantly black cast, being set for a clean sweep—that was until his college rape accusations resurfaced.

Not only did Nate himself completely fail to address this in an acceptable way, but with a number of high-profile sexual assault cases coming to light this year, it’s no surprise that the film industry has tried to distance itself from the project. And so once again, it looks as though awards season will be ruled by white people for a second year in a row.

Now, let’s talk about gender diversity. That same report demonstrated that just 32 percent of the movies analyzed featured a female co-lead. While this represented an 11 percent increase from 2014, the study also found that these women were 30.2 percent more likely to be wearing “sexually revealing clothing.” That’s not exactly the cost at which women want their roles in the film industry to expand.

I know I’m not the only one who’s sick of women just being the love interest or something for men to objectify. It’s for this reason that I now make a conscious effort to rent and buy movies that pass the Bechdel Test, because maybe if enough of us do the same, casting directors and screenwriters will start paying attention.

Looking beyond the on-screen performances from those 100 films, only two of the directors were female. Less than 20 percent of writing and producing positions were given to women, demonstrating even more exclusivity behind the camera than in front of it.

The low percentages are alarming, but perhaps even more shocking is that they represent little to no change from an identical study that was conducted back in 2007. That’s almost a decade with effectively no progress. Studios are still greenlighting movies that are almost exclusively directed by, produced by, and starring white males. In 2016, that is not OK.

National Culture

These statistics are, sadly, quite reflective of the national culture, one in which white men still seem to have the lion’s share of advantages in life—in the workplace, in court, in the home—the list goes on. Diversity problems don’t exist just in the film industry— they permeate every aspect of American culture. Due to its high visibility and popularity, the film industry is a prime target for claims of diversity issues, but it is a widespread epidemic.

The business world is another arena in the battle for diversity, with many policies being amended to help businesses be more inclusive. It seems that employees and potential employees are measured first by their characteristics—race, gender, sexual orientation—rather than their qualifications and merit.

Change will have to come from the top to the bottom. No matter how hard they try, no matter how well they do their job, the security of less-represented groups still rests in the hands of the bosses.

This includes the film industry—big budget studios are greenlighting films that feature an astonishing majority of white directors, producers, and actors. As difficult as it is to accept, there is little an actor or actress can do but show their finest quality work and hope for the best.

Hollywood studio executives must be the ones to implement policies that encourage diversity in casting, as well as in directing and producing roles. The culture must be changed, and it starts at the top. As we head into the next awards season, time will tell whether the industry has learnt any lessons over the past 12 months.

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