Disturbing New Study Shows Women of Color Are Being Almost Completely Sidelined in Movies

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The past year has seemed like a banner one for inclusivity in film. We saw Moonlight become the first film with an LGBTQ protagonist (not to mention an essentially all-black cast) to win the Oscar for Best Picture, and movies starring women of color like Hidden Figures did gangbusters at the box office.

But despite these high-profile successes, a new study coming out of the University of Southern California finds that representation in Hollywood didn’t actually improve very much in 2016 compared to 2015—especially for characters played by women, Latinx people, and people with disabilities. Women of color, in particular, were vastly underrepresented both in front of and behind the camera.

A few of the key takeaways from the study:

Women are less than a third of all characters

USC’s study analyzed the demographics of the 100 top-grossing films of 2016, considering only speaking roles or named characters. Out of this pool, women made up only 31.4% of all characters—despite being slightly more than half of the entire U.S. population. As The Hollywood Reporter notes, that number hasn’t changed in nine years.


Women of color barely feature

If you’re looking for films where a female character is one of the lead characters, you’ll only find 34 out of the top 100 grossing films in 2016. And if you’re looking for women of color? Good luck. Only three of those films featured women of color as a lead character.

In fact, nearly half of the top 100 films had no black women characters, period. Meanwhile, 66 films had no Asian women, and 72 had no Latina characters.

Even with those paltry numbers, it was considered a banner year for women in film. In fact, a Hollywood Reporter article from Feburary this year lauded Hollywood for its “record number of women protagonists” in 2016.


Stacy L. Smith, one of the study’s lead authors, told the Associated Press that the new data shows “a real epidemic in intersectional invisibility in film.”

“We can’t just talk about females in film anymore,” Smith said. “If you cross gender with race and ethnicity, you see that the bottom really drops out for females of color on screen.”


Almost no women behind the camera

Out of 120 total directors with movies out last year (including co-directors) only five were women—and none were black women.


C’mon now, we can’t be leaning on Ava DuVernay alone for representation here!

In fact, DuVernay herself responded to the study via Twitter. She posted a graphic of one of the study’s statistics: Out of 900 of the top-grossing movies released between 2007 and 2016, only three black women and two Asian women served as directors.


“Being one of these [directors] doesn’t make me proud,” the Oscar-nominated DuVernay wrote in her tweet. “It upsets me. Audiences have power. Demand more kinds of directors making the movies we consume.”


Failing by every measure of inclusion

The study also found Hollywood lacking in representation for LGBTQ, women, Latinx, and characters with disabilities. Despite making up nearly 18% of the U.S. population, Latinx characters had only 3% of all speaking roles in the films surveyed. Similarly, 18.7% of Americans identify as having a disability, but only 2.7% of the characters in the study were depicted this way.


What can be done?

The study did offer recommendations to address Hollywood’s lack of diversity.

One suggestion is for A-listers to demand equity clauses, which require gender-balanced casting for minor roles, in their contracts. Another would be to add five speaking roles for women to each film—a move that would help Hollywood reach gender parity in three years.


Fortunately, 2017 has already seen big box office returns for some of these under-represented groups: Get Out smashed expectations earlier in the year, as has Girls Trip and Wonder Woman this summer. But as 2016 shows, whether this translates to more opportunities across the board is a different matter.

Staff writer, The Root.

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