Does Hollywood Have a Diversity Problem?

kate hudson smiling for photographers on the red carpet
Actress Kate Hudson arrives at the Universal Pictures premiere of 'You, Me & Dupree' at the Cinerama Dome on July 10, 2006 in Hollywood, California.

 Kevin Winter/Getty Images

In recent years many women and people of color in Hollywood have become outspoken about the lack of diversity of characters in major films, as well as the problem of being cast in stereotypical roles. But just how bad is Hollywood's diversity problem?

A report released in August 2015 by USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism found that these problems are more substantial than many think.

Dr. Stacy L. Smith and her colleagues—affiliated with the school's Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative—analyzed the top 100 films from 2007 through 2014. They looked at speaking and named characters by race, gender, sexuality, and age; examined elements of character traits; and took a look at race and gender demographics behind the lens.

01
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Where Are All the Women and Girls?

In 2014, just 28.1% of all speaking characters in the year's top 100 films were women or girls. The percentage is slightly higher for the seven-year average, at 30.2%, but this means that there are 2.3 speaking men or boys to every one speaking woman or girl in these films.

The rate was worse for 2014's animated films, in which less than 25% of all speaking characters were female, and still lower for the action/adventure genre, at just 21.8%. The genre in which women and girls are most well-represented in speaking roles turns out to be comedy (34%).

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Gender Balance Exceedingly Rare

Out of the 700 films analyzed, spanning 2007 to 2014, just 11%, or slightly more than 1 in 10, had a gender-balanced cast (featured women and girls in about half of the speaking roles.) It seems according to Hollywood at least, the old sexist adage is true: "Women are to be seen and not heard."

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It's a Man's World

The vast majority of the top 100 films of 2014 were lead by males, with just 21% featuring a female lead or "roughly equal" co-lead, nearly all of whom were white, and all heterosexual. Middle-aged women were completely shut out from lead roles in these films, with no women actors over 45 years of age serving as leads or co-leads. What this tells us is that most films revolve around the lives, experiences, and viewpoints of men and boys. Theirs are considered valid story-telling vehicles, whereas those of women and girls are not.

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We Like Our Women and Girls Sexy

With the gray bars showing results for males and red for females, the study of 2014's top 100 films makes clear that women and girls—of all ages—are portrayed as "sexy," naked, and attractive far more frequently than are men and boys. Further, the authors found that even children 13–20 years of age are just as likely to be portrayed as sexy and with some nudity as are older women.

Taking all of these results together, we see a picture of women and girls—as presented by Hollywood—as unworthy of focus and attention as people, as not having equal right as males to vocalize their thoughts and perspectives, and as sexual objects that exist for the pleasure of the male gaze. This is not only gross, but terribly harmful.

05
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Top 100 Films Whiter Than the US

If you judged just based on the top 100 films of 2014, you'd think the United States is much less racially diverse than it actually is.

Though whites made up just 62.6% of the total population in 2013 (per the U.S. Census), they comprised 73.1% of speaking or named film characters.

While blacks were slightly under-represented (13.2% of the population versus 12.5% of named or speaking characters), it was Hispanics and Latinos who were practically erased from reality at just 4.9% of characters, though they were 17.1% of the population at the time those films were made.

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No Asians Allowed

Though the percentage of total speaking and named Asian characters in 2014 are at parity with the population of the United States, more than 40 films—or nearly half—feature no speaking Asian characters at all.

Meanwhile, just 17 out of the top 100 films featured a lead or co-lead from a racial or ethnic minority group.

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Homophobic Hollywood

In 2014, just 14 of the top 100 films featured a queer person, and most of those characters—63.2%—were male.

Looking at the 4,610 speaking characters in these films, the authors found that just 19 were lesbian, gay, or bisexual, and none were transgender. Specifically, 10 were gay males, four were lesbian females, and five were bisexual.

This means that among the speaking population of characters, just 0.4% of them were queer. A conservative estimate of queer adults in the United States is 2%.

08
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Queer People of Color?

Of those 19 speaking queer characters in 2014's top 100 films, a full 84.2% of them were white, which makes them proportionally whiter than straight named or speaking character in these films.

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Behind the Lens

Hollywood's diversity problem is hardly limited to actors. Among the top 100 films of 2014, for which there were 107 directors, just 5 of them were black (and just one was a woman.) Over seven year's worth of top 100 films, the rate of black directors is just 5.8% (less than half of the percentage of the U.S. population that is black.)

The rate is even worse for Asian directors. There were only 19 of them across the 700 top films from 2007–14, and just one of those was a woman.

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Women Directors?

Across 700 films spanning 2007–2014, there were only 24 unique female directors. This means that the storytelling vision of women is silenced by Hollywood. Is this connected to the under-representation of females and the hyper-sexualization of them?

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Diversity Behind the Lens Improves It On Screen

When the authors of the study looked at the impact of women writers on the representation of women and girls on screen, they found that the presence of women writers has a positive effect on on-screen diversity. When women writers are present, so too are more named and speaking female characters.

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Black Directors Seriously Improve Diversity of Films

A similar, though far greater, effect is observed when one considers the impact of a black director on the diversity of a film's characters. 

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Why Does Diversity in Hollywood Matter?

The cast of 'Orange is the New Black' poses during TNT's 21st Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards at The Shrine Auditorium on January 25, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

Hollywood's serious diversity problem matters because how we tell stories, collectively as a society, and how we represent people not only reflect the dominant values of our society, but they also serve to reproduce them.

This study makes clear that sexism, racism, homophobia, and ageism shape the dominant values of our society, and are overwhelmingly present in the worldviews of those in charge of deciding which movies get made and by whom.

Erasing and silencing women and girls, people of color, queer people, and older women in Hollywood films only serves to bolster the worldviews of those who believe that this group of people—who actually represent the majority of the world's people—do not have the same rights and do not deserve the same amount of respect as do straight white men.

This is a serious problem because it gets in the way of achieving equality in our everyday lives and in the greater structure of our society.