Media Diversity in American Films

Even During A "Good Year," A Recent Media Study Finds Little Diversity in Top-Grossing Films
by VERGE Staff | ViewPoints | Saturday, August 9, 2014

Film Diversity Research

Steve McQueen may have been the first black director to win an Oscar for Best Picture, but 2013 was otherwise business as usual in Hollywood when it comes to on-screen diversity.

The Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative at the University of Southern California (USC) Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in Los Angeles released a study demonstrating that diversity on screen falls far below that of the U.S. population. 

The study found that individuals from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups comprise just over a quarter (26%) of all speaking characters. Researchers assessed every character who spoke one or more words on screen -- over 25,000 characters in all from the top grossing films released from 2007-2013. While films such as The Butler, 42, Holiday or The Best Man Holiday might be notable examples of diversity, the new study unsurprisingly reveals that they do not represent the full story.

"The voices heralding that 2013 was a banner year for black characters in film must be thinking of a few salient examples," said Professor Stacy L. Smith, the study's author and director of the Initiative. "In reality, we saw no meaningful difference in the representation of characters from underrepresented backgrounds across the six years we studied." 

Characters from Hispanic/Latino backgrounds were the most underrepresented across the groups studied. Just 4.9% of characters were identified as Hispanic or Latino, despite representing 16.3% of the U.S. population, and purchasing 25% of all movie tickets. 

"Hispanics and Latinos are one of the fastest-growing groups in the U.S.," said Marc Choueiti, one of the study's authors. "If popular films were the only way to gauge diversity, viewers would be completely unaware of this. Individuals from this group are almost invisible on screen."

Individuals from all underrepresented groups face a similar plight in animated films. Across three years examined (2007, 2010, 2013), less than one-eighth of characters were from any underrepresented group. The high occurred in 2013 when 12.4% of characters were from diverse backgrounds, while in 2007, 8.1% of speaking characters were from underrepresented racial and/or ethnic groups. 2010 was the worst year, when a mere 1.5% of characters reflected any racial and/or ethnic diversity.

"Animated characters often live in imaginary worlds," said Professor Smith. "But even when the constraints of reality are removed, underrepresented characters still seem to be an impossibility."

Examining diversity behind the camera, 2013 also was on par with prior years. "There were 7 black directors of top-grossing films last year, and none of them were females," says Professor Smith. In fact, only two of the 23 unique black directors across the 600 films studied were female. According to Smith, "Hollywood has basically shut out women from underrepresented groups who want to direct popular films." 

Source: USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism


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