By Anushka Joshi.
As the Oscars approach and we celebrate the best films of the year, it’s important to take a step back and think about what stories we are watching, and who is telling them. Hollywood is notorious for being dominated by white men (shocker), and without diverse directors, writers, and actors, the stories being shared are limited. There were zero women nominated for best director at the Oscar Awards. In the 92-year history of the Oscars, only five women have been nominated for best director. The Annenberg Inclusion Initiative releases studies on Inequality in Hollywood’s Top 100 Films annually. At the beginning of this year they released a study, “Inclusion in the Director’s Chair”. They found that across the 1,300 top films from 2007 to 2019, only 4.8% of those directors have been female. In 13 years there have only been 57 individual female directors, yet male-directed films and female-directed films earn the same average rating for Metacritic Scores. Within the small pool of female directors is an even smaller pool of underrepresented female directors. Out of the 57 female directors, 11 of them are from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups. In the past 13 years across 1,300 top-grossing films, less than 1% of directors have been underrepresented females. According to the same study, underrepresented female directors earn the highest average Metacritic Score compared to white males, underrepresented females, and white females. The problem isn’t that females and underrepresented groups aren’t producing quality content–it’s the systemic marginalization that has limited recognition and subsequently has minimized many of the stories that represent diversity.
When I was 10 years old, I remember watching TV with my dad, and him having a viscerally irritated reaction when the Metro PCS commercial featuring two Indian men came on. For those of you who do not remember, or are unfamiliar with this ad, it featured two Indian men employed as tech-help jockeys in a dingy room. CBS describes the advertisement as filled with “belly dancers backing two dorky, fast-talking Indian American computer wizards, it's veritably stuffed with flat, racist stereotypes”. One could argue that the ad is critiquing racism through ironic satire about Indian stereotypes, but most viewers just see it as making fun of Indians instead. I never understood the gravity of that advertisement until I realized it wasn’t a one-off––rather it embodies the deep rooted issue of race in television and movies.
It’s no secret that the media we consume influences the way we perceive ourselves and others. But did we realize that the movies and media we grew up watching marginalized and “othered” many groups of people? Whether a lack of presence on screen, or an inaccurate one when portrayed, Hollywood perpetuates discriminatory norms. it’s time to put an end to that cycle.
Ironically, the people who view films most frequently are also the ones erased from the big screen. According to a study by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the most frequent movie go-ers are minorities––Asians, hispanics, African Americans and lastly caucasian. Yet, the top 100 films each year rarely reflect these consumers or our very own melting pot society.
The Annenberg Inclusion Initiative is the leading think tank in the world studying diversity and inclusion in entertainment. In their 2017 report about inequality in 1,100 top films from the past decade, they found that 70% of the characters on screen are white, 12% black, and 6% hispanic and asian. There is an inverse relationship between who goes to the movies, and who appears on screen.
There are two glaring issues with this. For one, we are far from proportional representation, which is what I’m fighting for. Another issue, which should concern filmmakers, is that they aren’t making the movies that truly resonate with their audiences. If the primary audience is constituted by minorities, box office success is inevitable by creating more films with underrepresented characters. Diversity sells, yet Hollywood remains white.
There is an epidemic of invisibility in film, and the numbers are staggering.
In the top 100 films of 2017, 43 films lacked a Black or African American female. 65 were without Asian or Asian American females, 64 without Hispanic/latina females, and 94 movies were without a single LBGT female character.
I don’t know what world filmmakers are living in; it’s certainly not mine.
There is a direct correlation of who the storytellers are to what stories are being told. Across the 1,100 popular films in the past decade and 1,223 directors, only 5.2% (64) were Black or African American, and 3.1% (38) were Asian or Asian American. These numbers explain limited exposure to diverse and original films. We tell the stories we know, but we need to diversify the voices who have access to large audiences.
To achieve gender equality in speaking roles in 2020, the Inclusion Initiative has proved how easy it can be: just add five. By adding five females to scripts each year, we will achieve gender equality quickly. Diversity is also stalled behind the scenes––there are not enough diverse directors whose stories are being heard. To break this cycle of marginalized voices, we need to create a new cycle.
As a consumer it feels like we are perhaps detached from the creation of films, but really the power is also in our hands. Cash is king, and by supporting inclusive films (such as Black Panther, Crazy Rich Asians, Coco, To All The Boys I've Loved Before, Pacific Rim: Uprising, Ocean’s 8, A Wrinkle in Time all in 2018!), it lights a fire under executives. Diversity sells, and the financial potential is sure to motivate executives to catch up with the times.Behind all of the numbers are people. My friend’s Asian American mother and I gushed over Crazy Rich Asians. She recounts that the last Asian American majority movie cast was 25 years ago. That is more than my lifetime to go without seeing yourself on screen––and I’m glad I didn’t have to wait that long. Crazy Rich Asians for her was a breath of fresh air.The media we consume affects us on a micro (individual) level and a macro (societal) level. It dictates what we value, and how valued we feel. At some point we will achieve representational inclusion and the stories we tell will not revolve around the color of someone’s skin. Rather, we’ll collectively connect to the stories for what they are, rather than who they are about.Read the report here: http://assets.uscannenberg.org/docs/aii-inclusion-directors-chair-20200102.pdf