Hollywood is very white. Minorities are underrepresented by a factor of three to one as in lead roles in film and as film directors. Oscar voters are 94% white. Out of the hundreds of actors and actresses nominated for Academy Awards, only 45 of them were of African-American descent. Out of the 45, only 13 have actually won, the most recent being Lupita Nyong’O, winner of Best Supporting Actress for her role as Patsy in 12 Years a Slave. Lupita’s win can be seen as a step forward, but it has also highlighted the grave inequalities of the current entertainment industry.
The UCLA Ralph J. Bunche Center for African-American Studies recently released a study examining the lack of diversity in films and television from 2011-2012, both onscreen and off. The study concludes that women and minorities are strongly outnumbered by white males in all aspects of the industry. Women are underrepresented by a factor of more than 12 to 1 as directors, making them less likely than minorities, who are underrepresented by a factor of 3 to 1, to direct major films. Only one woman, Kathleen Bigelow, has won an Academy Award for Best Director in the 85-year history of the Academy Awards, and not one person of color has won, though a few have been nominated. However, the UCLA study shows that this lack of representation counters the goals of the industry, namely making money and earning high ratings.
With respect to film, moderately diverse casts have excelled with regards to both box office success and return on investment. Films like Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, with 21-30% minorities, had higher median box office earnings in comparison to films with less diversity. Their median box office earnings of $160.1 million compares favorably with films who have less than 10% minorities on their cast—those films only earn $68.5 million dollars on average. Regarding television shows, shows with casts that reflect the diversity of America are more highly rated on average, which is the main indicator of success of a show. People often excuse a lack of diverse casts and crews because producers’ main goals are money and ratings, so they are not worried about racial equality. However, since it is known that having more diversity correlates with a more successful show or film, why are shows still not diversified? Beyond just money and ratings, diversity and representation have broader implications.
A 2012 study showed that watching TV boosted the self-esteem of Caucasian boys and lowered the self-esteem of Caucasian girls, African-American girls, and African-American boys. On television, the lack of representation in lead roles, the frequent portrayal as villains and/or sidekicks, and the common reinforcement of gender and racial stereotypes all contribute to the lowered self-esteem of people of color and girls. These factors also relate to the racial empathy gap, the demonstrated phenomenon that white people show less empathy for those of other races. One study shows that when shown a video of a Caucasian, Asian, or African-American person being pricked with a needle, participants of those races feel the least empathy for the pain of the African-American, indicating that the pain felt by that of the black person is somehow less than that of both the Asian and Caucasian people. This gap leads to the under-prescription of pain medication for black people, recommendation for harsher prison sentences, greater likelihood of being tried as an adult in court, and even has implications for how differing races are punished in school. This connects to representation because the portrayal of people of color on TV and in films, predominantly African-Americans, leads to the formation of racial biases from childhood.
Developmental psychologist Rebecca Bigler said in an interview with Racebending.com, “Children hold stereotypes, and distort stories and movies to make them fit their views.” Her studies have indicated that children notice the stereotypical portrayals of other races in media and interpret them as truths. They see the lack of women and people of color as leaders both onscreen and in real life and interpret that as an inability or an inadequacy, not an inequality in the world. When asked why there were not any female presidents, one-third of the participants said “‘They’re not smart enough to be. They’re not strong enough to be. They have bad leadership skills. They must be bad at it!’” To combat these false assumptions, the media must change.
If children are able to see positive portrayals of their race and gender, as white males are subject to, their self-esteems could rise. When people of all races see equity in the representation of people of color and women both onscreen and off, there is a chance of decreasing the racial empathy gap, which in part comes out of inaccurate media portrayals. Greater leadership of people of color and women behind the cameras in Hollywood will result in more diverse casts, and this will benefit both the industry and society by creating media that is actually reflective of the diversity and complexity of American culture. In the end, representation can help all aspects of society, both the individual and the collective.
[Image Attribute: Al Jazeera]