The cast of popular films is broader today than it was 16 years ago, according to a USC-Annenberg study released Thursday. But who plays the leading roles in front of and behind the camera has hardly changed.
Each year since 2007, the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative (AII), led by USC communications professor Stacy L. Smith, has tracked the gender and race/ethnicity of the characters in the top 100 domestic films. In 2014, the study added LGBTQ+ status to the data, and in 2015 disability status.
AIIs latest report shows that years of advocacy and activism have failed to substantially increase the inclusion of underrepresented groups in popular films.
“Such a lack of progress begs the question of whether Hollywood wants to change,” Smith wrote in a statement accompanying the report, “or whether it would rather rely on platitudes and promises than make progress.”
If the industry were interested in change, Smith told The Times, the easiest way to start would be to address the inequalities in hiring underrepresented girls and women.
While the proportion of films with girls and women in lead and co-lead roles reached a 44% highest level in 16 years in 2022, fewer than half of these leading actresses were women of color and only five were aged 45 or older.
Additionally, since 2007, there has been no significant change in the percentage of speaking characters identified as female, with women of Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, Native American/Alaskan, and Middle Eastern/North African backgrounds being almost completely wiped out.
Only one 2022 character was encoded as non-binary.
The AII team, which has been writing versions of the same report for years, isn’t shocked by those numbers, Smith said.
“It’s so predictable, it’s almost tragic,” Smith said. But change is possible and not complicated, she added.
“Let me tell you how easy it would be,” she added. “You would add five female voice characters to each of the 100 top-grossing films, establish a new norm, repeat the process based on the new norm for four years — and for the first time in the history of … have equal rights to cinematic content.” “
Smith calls this concept “Just Add Five” and has recommended companies to implement it in previous reports.
Another proven way to diversify the cast is to hire more directors who are women and people of color.
Fewer than one in ten directors in 2022 was a woman – an increase since 2007 but no significant change from 2008. Of all minority ethnic groups, only Asian directors accounted for more than 10% of all directors (10.6%). Hardly any director represented several fringe groups.
But when films were directed by women, black or Asian, the report shows, characters with these identities were far more likely to be cast in lead roles or co-lead roles.
Since 2007, only one on-screen community has seen notable progress: the proportion of Asian characters increased from 3.4% in 2007 to 15.9% in 2022. Although the proportion of white characters declined over the same 16-year period, there was there are no other differences observed for characters from underrepresented races/ethnic groups.
The report shows that Hollywood’s problems are even more pronounced for the LGBTQ+ and disability community.
Of the top 100 films of 2022, 72 did not even contain a speaking or named LGBTQ+ character, and 84 were completely absent of LGBTQ+ girls and women.
Additionally, of the tiny 2.1% of speaking or named characters who were LGBTQ+, more than 40% were irrelevant to the story.
These are characters who typically say five lines or less, Smith said. Removing them entirely would not affect the story. These roles often enable young professionals to enter the company.
“But when you see identity correlated with inconsequential agency, that’s a red flag,” Smith said.
Even when taking on speaking roles, LGBTQ+ characters typically fall into an archetype.
“The image of the LGBTQ community in popular film is one that, if not renouncing invisibility, continues to produce a portrait of white, male, adult characters,” the report states.
While the highest number of Trangender characters was observed in 2022, there were five characters in total — and four of those appeared in a movie, Bros.
A similar trend can be seen in the representation of people with disabilities.
Of the already low percentage of speaking characters with a disability (1.9%) in 2022, three quarters have physical disabilities. Those with communication disabilities (i.e., difficulties speaking, hearing, and seeing) account for another third, and those with cognitive impairments (i.e., depression, dementia, and PTSD) account for less than a fifth. Because characters may be portrayed with more than one disability, these numbers are not 100% accurate, the study said.
As with LGBTQ+ characters, most of the characters with disabilities were white and male. Only one character with a disability in 2022 was LGBTQ+.
Movies don’t just have problems with representation; According to the report, they fall far short of a differentiated and intersectional understanding of minority identities.
To achieve this, according to Smith, the industry must implement radical changes at all levels of production.
In addition to adhering to the “Just Add Five” rule and hiring more women and non-white directors, Smith recommends that the industry use clear criteria in hiring and staffing processes – rather than resorting to implicit bias or nepotism.
To incentivize companies to make such changes, AII recommends leveraging shareholders and publicizing “inclusion riders” — contractual provisions that actors may include in their contracts that would require a degree of diversity in a film’s cast and crew .
Ultimately, the film industry will only move forward “when everyone across the industry commits to pulling a lever in the same direction for inclusion,” Smith said.
At the moment she sees no such progress.
“These data are really indicative of poverty,” Smith said. While she affirms her commitment to progress, “the entertainment industry has no power to self-regulate and change the way they do business to support inclusion from testing to hiring to experiences on the set.”
As he has since 2007, Smith continues to wait for Hollywood to deliver on its promises.