A UCLA Report Says Diversity Sells — So Why Isn't Hollywood Onboard?

Why is Hollywood delivering the same old story when audiences are explicitly asking for more?
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Why is Hollywood delivering the same old story when audiences are explicitly asking for more?

UCLA's Bunche Center just released a report on diversity (.pdf, sorry) in Hollywood, focusing specifically on race and gender diversity, and revealing two important findings: 

1) People want more racial representation in film and television — regardless of their own race.

2) Hollywood is not delivering.

While this research examined race and gender, the findings can likely be extended to other forms of diversity, including disability, religious faith, and sexuality. Particularly among the 18–49 set, the study revealed, film and television audiences aren't just responding positively for diversity but actively asking for it. Over the past few years, it seems, we have reached a critical tipping point for Hollywood, and it's time for the industry to respond, just like the publishing industry is starting to slowly increase the diversity on shelves and in editorial offices, agencies, and other literary professions. 

Actress Lupita Nyong'o at an awards ceremony

Lupita Nyong'o is bringing biracial representation to Hollywood. Disney | ABC Televison/Creative Commons

In terms of directors and upper management, women and people of color in Hollywood are radically underrepresented, and the same holds true on-screen. In the films analyzed, 6.3 percent were directed by women — and 17.8 percent were directed by people of color, who make up an estimated 40 percent of the population. Meanwhile, half of moviegoers are minorities. 

Darnell Hunt, the lead author of the study, told The Hollywood Reporter:

It's a high-risk industry. People want to surround themselves with collaborators they're comfortable with, which tends to mean people they've networked with — and nine times out of 10, they'll look similar. It reproduces the same opportunities for the same kind of people: You're surrounding yourself with a bunch of white men to feel comfortable.

Eighty-one percent of actors on broadcast shows are white, with 77 percent on cable. Racial diversity, in terms of representation behind and in front of the camera, might be slowly edging forward. But it's by no means keeping pace with the reality of a world where white people aren't as prevalent as we think we are, and a world where the bottom dollar matters, and people are voting with their wallets for a broader representation of races and ethnicities.

Producer Shonda Rhimes at a panel

Shonda Rhimes is perhaps the most well-known woman of color behind the camera. Disney | ABC Television/Creative Commons

You can also see a good breakdown of representation for women at Women and Hollywood, which notes that, for example, only 30 percent of speaking characters on film in 2014 were women. Nearly two-thirds of women on-screen were identified by personal roles — as mothers, for example — and most were in their 20s and 30s, with limited roles for older actresses. The statistics behind the camera are even more grim: for example, one percent of film composers are female. (You'll note that their numbers vary slightly from those of the UCLA study, because they're drawing upon a different data set for a different year — for the full data, check out "The Celluloid Ceiling.")

But diversity isn't just about gender or race. And unfortunately, statistics on representation for the LGBQT community and the disabled community are tougher to track down. Fortunately, GLAAD takes the subject on annually with their "Where We Are on TV" report — and the most recent research, from 2014, reveals a fuller spectrum of the problem of representation on television, at least. While their focus is on television and the study doesn't compile statistics for film, the issues they raise extend to all of Hollywood and indirectly reflect problems with the movie industry. 

According to GLAAD, 1.4 percent of characters on television are disabled. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 20 percent of the population lives with one or more disabilities. Yet, this dismal statistic is actually better than last year's one percent, and for the first time ever, there will be a regular disabled character on every major broadcast network. However, there's a caveat to the increased percentage of disabled characters on TV: that number was heavily inflated by the Red Band Society on Fox, which takes place in a children's hospital and features children with cancer and other health conditions. 

Actor Peter Dinklage at a panel

Peter Dinklage represents on Game of Thrones. Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons

Anita Hollander, who chairs SAG-AFTRA's National Performers With Disabilities Committee, noted that most of these were roles in which a nondisabled actor plays a disabled role, with a much greater representation of actual disabled people in disabled roles on reality television and in advertising. She pointed to Switched at Birth as a rare example of a show that's actually working with disabled talent but, on the bright side, she pointed out that some of television's failed shows included nondisabled actors as disabled lead characters, suggesting "a lack of authenticity affects what viewers decide to watch." Maybe viewer expectations for disability representation are higher than they used to be.

In terms of LGBT representation, nearly four percent of series regulars were lesbian, gay, or bisexual on primetime broadcast shows. It's very difficult to pin down accurate statistics on sexuality, but recent data suggests roughly 3.5 percent of the population is lesbian, gay, or bi — though a much higher percentage has engaged in same-sex sexual activities and reported same-sex attraction, illustrating that sexuality isn't exactly cut-and-dried. GLAAD identified just one trans character — on scripted cable. 

Director-producer Bryan Fuller at a panel

Bryan Fuller represents gay talent behind the camera. Alan Ball is another high-profile gay director/producer. Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons

GLAAD also took note of original streaming programming on Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu, and found, as many of us already know, that these sites have a much more diverse spectrum of sexuality and gender than broadcast and cable networks. It's clear that when it comes to diversity across the spectrum, streaming may represent more opportunities, perhaps because as an entirely new form of media, it's not bound by the same rules as traditional Hollywood — and, not for nothing, but audiences have been flocking to original web-only series. 

Actress Laverne Cox at an awards ceremony

Laverne Cox is taking original streaming by storm, but can we see more trans characters and talent on broadcast and cable, please? GLADD/Creative Commons

According to GLAAD, there's a general trend upward for women, people of color, and LGB people on television. Trans representation is still so minimal that it's hard to make firm commentary on trends — last television season, for example, there was one trans character on prime time, and now there are none.

These analyses of diversity fail to take a look at issues like class, religion, and origins — also important and underrepresented aspects of our lives. Sadly, much of the conversation about diversity in media has focused on race to the exclusion of other subjects, which results in fewer empirical and useful studies on broader representation. It's definitely time to change that, because we need to know if audiences are responding to and asking for other forms of diversity. Do we know if people want more disabled characters? Are films with LGBQT characters grossing more? 

We need this information to push Hollywood when it comes to diversity. But even as we demand better representation, we also need to ask a key question: Is some representation better than no representation? As Hollander points out, the answer may be, at least in some cases, "no." 

Inauthentic, stereotyped, and actively harmful diverse characters may do more hurt than good, and turn audiences off. If, for example, the number of people of color on screen increased but they were all depicted as drug dealers and prisoners, that wouldn't exactly be racial progress for film and television. Likewise, if we saw a sudden increase in Muslim characters but most of them were terrorists, that's not what we mean when we talk about wanting more diversity. 

Calls for diversity are important, and they need to go hand in hand with demands for good representation.

Featured Image: NCLR/Creative Commons

Editorial note: the above piece has been edited to remove the term "cripface." We apologize for the offense and pain this term caused some of our readers.