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Hollywood is still 'a straight, white boys club,' study finds

USC Annenberg

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A new study finds Hollywood's diversity problem runs much deeper than minority representation at its premier awards show.

Researchers at the University of Southern California say the entire media landscape "is still largely whitewashed" and that women and minorities are caught in an "epidemic of invisibility" running throughout popular stories, whether on film, TV or digital platforms.

The Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity in Entertainment analyzed 414 different stories, including 109 motion pictures and 305 broadcast, cable, and digital series, for performance in diversity and inclusion.

The report, released by USC's Institute for Diversity and Empowerment as part of their Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative comes from USC's journalism and communications school. It uses data from 2014 that was collected by 100 researchers to identify which film studios and TV networks hired women behind the camera and represented women and other "underrepresented" people — by race, ethnicity and sexuality — on screen.

The study authors concluded that the "film industry still functions as a straight, White, boy's club."

Among the key findings, women and girls made up less than one-third of speaking characters.

Behind the camera, for every one female screenwriter there were 2.5 male screenwriters. In film, only 3.4 percent of all directors were female. Television and digital series did slightly better, with 37.1 percent of characters and 42 percent of series regulars being female, and a higher proportion of women steering the production as directors or writers.

USC Annenberg

The study also found that there is still no platform that matches anything like a proportional representation of racial and ethnic minorities.

More than half of all productions featured not a single Asian with a speaking part, and 22 percent included no black characters. As one of the USC researchers, Stacy L. Smith, PhD, told The Frame:

There are certain groups that are still facing erasure or complete invisibility on screen.

She notes that among the 414 stories they studied:

Over 20% didn't feature one Black or African-American speaking character and over 50% didn't feature one Asian or Asian American speaking character. So when we talk about the issue of diversity in Hollywood, it's not a problem. It's a crisis.

Even more underrepresented were people who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. In all, only 2 percent of speaking roles were LGBT. Only seven transgender characters were represented in the sample, and four of those characters were in the same series. LGBT characters were also predominantly white and male, according to the study.

USC Annenberg

The study did not examine reality or talk shows. It also only looked at the first episode of each series when evaluating content and the race and ethnicity of the director.

The study's authors noted that a closer look at producers might be warranted, as well, since they "may arguably play a more important role in hiring and casting."

In addition to analyzing individual stories, the study scored distributors with an overall diversity index that included five metrics: female character inclusion, underrepresented character inclusion, LGBT inclusion, percent of female directors and percent of female writers.

"The company scorecard illustrates that film distributors are failing when it comes to representing their audience on screen and in their behind the camera hires," the authors concluded.

USC Annenberg

Only two companies, Sony and Paramount, managed "Full Inclusivity" on the study's scale.

Other notable exceptions were the CW, The Walt Disney Company, Amazon and Hulu, all of which "demonstrated strong performances across television and digital programming."

USC Annenberg


Host John Horn is joined by the study's authors, Stacy L. Smith and Katherine Pieper, to discuss the findings and their suggestions for how to make Hollywood more inclusive. They say "It's not a problem. It's a crisis...What we're seeing is a straight, white boys club." Click the blue play button at the top of this post to hear the interview.

This report involves a lot of research — more than a year and more than 100 research assistants. How'd you break down the research areas and the approach to collecting data?

Smith: It was a large and daunting process, to be perfectly honest. We broke this study into three different silos — the on-screen component, where every story in the study, there were 414 stories from film, television, and digital offerings. Every story was watched independently by three research assistants, disagreements were discussed with a member of the leadership team at MDSC, and then it was quality-checked by a fourth person.

So imagine — 414 stories times four. Then there's the length of time it takes to evaluate that story. That's a tremendous undertaking, but it also gives us the confidence to discuss the types of findings we have that are really unique to this investigation.

When a student gets a failing report card, their parents meet with the school. Are you hoping there's some of that involved, or is there an element of public shaming to this?

Pieper: We're never interested in shaming anyone, and if you look across the report cards, you'll see that we're categorizing this as "room for improvement." The conclusion of the executive summary and the longer report outline concrete steps that companies can take.

We're absolutely hoping that they take these steps, that they enact real strategies for creating more inclusive content, for improving hiring practices so that they become more open to women and people of color behind the camera, and we're happy to help!

We're invested in grading not because it brings shame or punishment, but because it acts as a metric for how much we can watch these companies improve over time.

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