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Diversity falls short on the big screen

Latinos are 'almost invisible' in movies, a six-year USC Annenberg study finds

by USC Annenberg staff
film survey
Katherine Pieper discusses data collected for a film study. (Photo/courtesy of USC Annenberg)

Steve McQueen may have been the first black director to win an Academy Award for best picture (12 Years a Slave), but 2013 was otherwise business as usual in Hollywood regarding on-screen diversity.

The Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative (MDSCI) at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism released a study demonstrating that diversity on screen falls far below that of the U.S. population. The study found that individuals from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups comprise just over a quarter (26 percent) of all speaking characters. Researchers assessed every character who spoke one or more words on screen — more than 25,000 characters in all from the top grossing films released in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2012 and 2013.

The voices heralding that 2013 was a banner year for black characters in film must be thinking of a few salient examples.

Stacy Smith

While films such as The Butler, 42, Holiday or The Best Man might be notable examples of diversity, the new study revealed that they do not represent the full story.

“The voices heralding that 2013 was a banner year for black characters in film must be thinking of a few salient examples,” said USC Annenberg Professor Stacy Smith, the study’s author and director of the initiative. “In reality, we saw no meaningful difference in the representation of characters from underrepresented backgrounds across the six years we studied.”

Hispanics and Latinos get minimal representation

Characters from Hispanic/Latino backgrounds were the most underrepresented across the groups studied. Just 4.9 percent of characters were identified as Hispanic or Latino, despite representing 16.3 percent of the U.S. population and purchasing 25 percent of all movie tickets.

“Hispanics and Latinos are one of the fastest-growing groups in the U.S.,” said Marc Choueiti, one of the study’s authors. “If popular films were the only way to gauge diversity, viewers would be completely unaware of this. Individuals from this group are almost invisible on screen.”

Individuals from all underrepresented groups face a similar plight in animated films. Across three years examined (2007, 2010, 2013), less than one-eighth of characters were from any underrepresented group. The high occurred in 2013 when 12.4 percent of characters were from diverse backgrounds, while in 2007, 8.1 percent of speaking characters were from underrepresented racial and/or ethnic groups. The year 2010 was the worst, when a mere 1.5 percent of characters reflected any racial and/or ethnic diversity.

“Animated characters often live in imaginary worlds,” Smith said. “But even when the constraints of reality are removed, underrepresented characters still seem to be an impossibility.”

Examining diversity behind the camera, 2013 also was on par with prior years. “There were seven black directors of top-grossing films last year, and none of them were females,” Smith said.

In fact, only two of the 23 unique black directors across the 600 films studied were female. According to Smith, “Hollywood has basically shut out women from underrepresented groups who want to direct popular films.”

The MDSCI releases yearly in-depth analyses of the prevalence and portrayal of gender and race/ethnicity in film. More than 65 students at USC Annenberg worked on the study, including a team of 17 Harnisch Foundation/MDSCI interns.

Key findings

On-screen prevalence of underrepresented characters

  • Just over a quarter (25.9 percent) of the 3,932 speaking characters evaluated were from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups. A full 74.1 percent were white, 14.1 percent black, 4.9 percent Hispanic, 4.4 percent Asian, 1.1 percent Middle Eastern, 1 percent American Indian or Alaskan Native and 1.2 percent were from “other” races/ethnicities. No meaningful change has been observed in the frequency of any racial/ethnic group on screen in 600 popular films between 2007 and 2013.
  • The prevalence of underrepresented characters across film genres was evaluated in 2007, 2010 and 2013. Less than 15 percent of all characters are from underrepresented groups in animation. Between 2007 and 2010, there was a 6.6 percent drop to 1.5 percent, followed by an increase between 2010 and 2013 to a high of 12.4 percent. Action and/or adventure movies increased and then decreased in the percentage of underrepresented characters. Comedy showed a slight increase across the three years evaluated, from 23.1 percent to 27.8 percent, but failed to cross the threshold for meaningful change.
  • Nearly a fifth of all films in the sample (17 percent) depict no African-American or black speaking characters across their unfolding narratives. Fifteen films depict black characters as 2.2 to 5.9 percent of the cast and another 22 movies portrayed black characters in 6 to 10 percent of the cast. Taken together, over half of the movies in the sample are under indexing in comparison to U.S. population statistics. Only 14 percent of the movies showed black characters at or within 2 percentage points of U.S. Census (10.8 to 14.5 percent).
  • Male characters within each racial and/or ethnic group outnumbered females from the same racial and/or ethnic group. The percentage of female characters ranged from the high of 37.3 percent of Hispanic/Latino characters to 23 percent of characters from “other” races/ethnicities.

Portrayal of characters from underrepresented groups

Hispanic females (37.5 percent) were more likely than females from all other races/ethnicities to be shown partially or fully naked on screen. In comparison to black females (23.5 percent), white females were more likely to be shown with some exposed skin (31.9 percent) and Asian females were less likely (18.2 percent).

  • Hispanic males (16.5 percent) were the most likely to be shown in tight, alluring or revealing clothing. Asian males (13.7 percent) were more likely than white males (8.3 percent) to be depicted in sexy attire. In terms of some nudity, male characters from “other” (18.2 percent) races/ethnicities were more likely than white male characters (9.9 percent) to be shown partially or fully nude.
  • Black males were the most likely to be shown in a committed relationship (68.4 percent). Further, white (58.1 percent) and Hispanic (57.1 percent) males were more likely than “other” males (37.5 percent) to be depicted as boyfriends or spouses. Asian males were the least likely to be depicted in a romantic relationship (28.6 percent).

Prevalence of black directors in top-grossing films

  • The study assessed whether each film in 2013 was directed by an African-American or black director. A total of 107 directors were attached to the 100 top-grossing films. Only seven (6.5) were black.
  • Although there were seven total directors, two of them repeated across the sample, leaving only five unique black directors in 2013. There were no black female directors of the top 100 grossing movies in 2013. Across the six-year sample, there are only two black females represented across 23 unique black directors in all six years and 600 films.
  • Films without a black director were responsible for casting black characters in 10.8 percent of speaking parts. Black directors, conversely, cast black characters in 46 percent of all of the speaking roles. This is a 35.2 percent increase and is consistent with our previous research.

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