Uprooting Hollywood

Photo Courtsey: Xiqinhosilva

Maureen Wolff || Editor in Cheif 

The #OscarsSoWhite hashtag swept over social media for the second year in a row surrounding the Feb. 28 Academy Awards. With no minority groups nominated for acting awards, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was criticized for being a mostly white voting body that overwhelmingly honored the narratives of the white male Hollywood persona. A 2012 L.A. Times study found that of the 5,765 Academy members, 94 percent were white and 77 percent were male, a statistic that has resurfaced because the Academy demography deviates so sharply from that of the national population.

The discomfort of the Oscars show was visceral. As the camera cut to squirming actors during Chris Rock’s opening monologue, the audience offered constrained laughter as the host satirized both the racial and gender climate of Hollywood. In a poignant moment of solemnity, Rock offered a simple request on behalf of African Americans in Hollywood: “We want opportunity. We want black actors to get the same opportunities as white actors.”

The Academy took steps earlier this year to address the issue, amending its membership requirement rules. In an effort toward “doubling the number of women and diverse members of the Academy by 2020,” the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences now restricts previous lifetime Academy membership to 10 years of voting status, according to a Jan. 22 Oscars.org press release. To retain and renew voting rights, Academy constituents must actively participate in the motion picture industry.

Junior animation major Shawnté Wilson contends that although the people who watch the Academy Awards change, Hollywood doesn’t, pointing out that the lack of red carpet diversity is all but news.

“I think we’re going to move on from Hollywood. I think we’re going to get tired of what Hollywood is doing,” said Wilson, predicting a shift of younger generations toward alternative platforms and independent films to spark change. “There is hope, but there is not necessarily hope in Hollywood.”


Hollywood’s Multi-Level Issue

Recent research indicates that a lack of film industry diversity may be more complex and systemic, pointing to trends rooted in multiple levels of the film industry. Calling Hollywood a “straight, white boy’s club,” a study released in February by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism indicates that the white male majority is a pervasive trend in speaking characters, directors, writers, media platform staffing and beyond. Titled  “Inclusion or Invisibility? Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity in Entertainment” (CARD), the study looked at over 400 series and films from 2014 and 2015. Results analyze gender, race, ethnicity and LGBT identity, also breaking down demographics by film company both on and off screen.

“We believe that evaluating company output is a crucial aspect of pushing the conversation on media inclusion forward to create real change,” said a statement signed by study authors Stacy Smith, Marc Choueiti and Katherine Pieper. “Accountability and awareness can only take us so far, though. This report is not about shame or punishment. Rather, our aim is to help companies align their products with the values they hold.”

Race and Ethnicity in the Media

Chris Rock’s Oscars remarks suggested an incongruency in awards categorization; the “best female” awards ensure that women in Hollywood are honored every year, but there are no racial categories to promise the coveted gold figurines to racial minorities.

Of the films examined by USC, the proportion of speaking characters from “underrepresented racial/ethnic groups” was nearly 10 percent less than the actual U.S. population. While the proportion of underrepresented characters on screen increases when the director is part of an underrepresented group, 87 percent of directors are white, leaving little room for this to happen.

While studies and data can be illuminating, Washington Post opinion blogger Alyssa Rosenberg writes that there must be distinction and specification in order for the Hollywood diversity uproar to accomplish anything constructive.

“Is the goal for women and people of color to create and star in more programming and movies in the aggregate, even if their contributions are concentrated in niche networks or small independent pictures? Or is it for women and people of color to achieve proportional representation in mainstream studio movies and established television networks?” Rosenberg asked in her Feb. 24 article. “Is it for people to watch shows and movies about people whose experiences reflect their own? Or is it for all audiences to see characters of color and female characters as admirable and relatable?”

In the wake of #OscarsSoWhite, actress Gina Rodriguez started a social media campaign using the hashtag #MovementMondays in an effort to unite the Latino Hollywood community and recognize the work of Latino actors and actresses.

“With all this Oscar talk and lack of diversity I decided to start a movement and speak from the perspective of a Latina American who desires to see more Latinos on screen…Let us use our numbers and powerful voices to prove we support all the various Latino cultures in the media,” Rodriguez wrote in an Instagram caption of Guatemalan American Actor Oscar Isaac.

Rodriguez’s posts on Instagram and Twitter have generated significant responses as other platform users tweet and post pictures using #MovementMondays to honor a wide spread of Latino individuals in Hollywood.

As a film student, Wilson acknowledges the reality of Hollywood’s lack of diversity, but refuses to let it stop her from pursuing a film career after graduation.

“Sometimes, I’ll be in my class and I’ll think, ‘Oh, not only am I woman, but I’m black, and there aren’t a lot of black directors, and there aren’t a lot of black women directors, or there aren’t a lot of women period,’” said Wilson. “But I feel like, so what?…There’s a difference between being aware of the problem and letting yourself be held down by it…I think I can let it be an issue. But if I have a story I want to tell, and I believe it’s a good story, then it’s going to be told one way or another.”

Women in the Media

Female characters make up only 28.7 percent of speaking characters on screen, according to the USC study. In addition, nearly 85 percent of directors and about three quarters of writers, creators and top media platform executives are male.

Seeking to promote gender parity both in front of and behind the camera, The Representation Project uses films and social media to explore female media roles and the concept of masculinity. The project also strives to break patterns of stereotypes in film and media surrounding race, class, age and sexuality, conceding that the shift to a holistically diverse media will not be instantaneous.

“We don’t think that that’s going to happen overnight, and so we look for ways in which we can make progress. We can move that metaphorical needle a little bit closer to a more equitable, free society,” said Cristina Escobar, director of communications for The Representation Project.

The San Francisco-based nonprofit works to transform the predominantly white male film world into an industry of equal representation, focusing on specific cases of misrepresentation with a commitment to long-term change. Escobar expressed the organization’s goal of comprehensive diversity, acknowledging that Hollywood  represents a massive force for cultural storytelling and is one of the project’s main focuses.

“Since our founding five years ago, we’ve been looking at studies like this USC one that recently came out, and we haven’t seen as much progress as we would have liked,” said Escobar. “We’ve seen progress in other spheres, like in political representation, but we’re still not as far as we would like to be, and we’re going to keep pushing at it.”

Future Films

In an effort to anticipate the climate of diversity for films to be released in 2016, USA Today graded 14 movie studios on their casting and directing demographics, analyzing roles in nearly 200 movies slated for production this year. The study scored movies based on both the total percentage of females and minorities and the male-to-female ratio. Studios received a wide range of grades, with most scoring in the “C” range. Sony Pictures appears promising with a “B” rating, whereas Paramount Pictures received an unequivocal “F”.

“I believe that Hollywood is pretty much forever going to be relevant as long as we still have celebrity culture and as long as we still worship celebritydom and make them our idols,” said Wilson. “But as for intentional storytelling that gets audiences, we’re not going to depend on Hollywood anymore. I have so much faith in this generation. I think we’re going to start making our own production companies and being like, ‘Screw you, Hollywood! This is what a movie should look like.’”

A large-scale shift toward Hollywood equality in representation provides numerous challenges. However, Smith, Choueiti and Pieper remain dedicated to a piecemeal process, writing in their study statement, “There is more to do, and we look forward to continuing the conversation. Our work to foster inclusion in storytelling will continue until the landscape of media characters and creators is as varied as the audience it serves.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked. *

Related articles