Happy to fire, reluctant to hire: Hollywood inclusion remains unchanged

Across 1,100 popular films from 2007 to 2017, new report finds little change in representation for women, underrepresented racial/ethnic groups, LGBT community, or people with disabilities.

The rhetoric in Hollywood may be changing when it comes to inclusion, but the numbers are not, says a new study out today on diversity in popular films. As The Spy Who Dumped Me and Crazy Rich Asians gear up for their box office launch, the investigation suggests that these films are a departure from the film industry’s status quo.

The report, from Professor Stacy L. Smith and the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, reveals that progress toward inclusion remains to be seen among top movies with regard to females, underrepresented racial/ethnic groups, the LGBT community, and individuals with disabilities. 

The investigation is the most comprehensive and intersectional look at film and examined 48,757 characters in 1,100 top films from 2007 to 2017. Female speaking characters on screen filled just 30.6% of all roles across the 11-year time frame. In the 100 top movies of 2017, 29.3% of characters were from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups, 2.5% were characters with disabilities, and less than 1% of all characters were from the LGBT community. 

“Those expecting a banner year for inclusion will be disappointed,” said Professor Stacy L. Smith, founding director of the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. “Hollywood has yet to move from talking about inclusion to meaningfully increasing on-screen representation for women, people of color, the LGBT community, or individuals with disabilities.”

The report provides an “invisibility analysis” to determine how many movies are missing female characters from different groups. In 2017, 43 films did not include a Black/African American female character, 65 were missing Asian or Asian American female characters, and 64 did not depict even one Latina character. Further, 78 films did not portray a single female character with a disability and 94 were devoid of even one female lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender character. Across 400 films from 2014 to 2017, only 1 transgender character appeared on screen.

“In prior years, I have referred to these findings as the ‘epidemic of invisibility’ in film,” Professor Smith said. “After witnessing little change in these numbers, it is clear that Hollywood must do more to ensure that marginalized groups are a part of the fabric of storytelling.”

A look at who is driving the story shows that 33 of 2017’s 100 top films had a female in a leading or co-leading role. Four of these females were from an underrepresented racial/ethnic group. These findings represent no change from 2016. 

“The lack of inclusion on screen is matched and exceeded by the exclusion behind the camera,” Professor Smith said. Across 1,223 directors over 11 years, just 4.3% were female, 5.2% were Black or African American and 3.1% were Asian or Asian American. “Once again, we see that women of color are most affected by exclusionary hiring practices. Just four Black/African American women, three Asian women, and one Latina directed a film across the 1,100 we examined.”

The report also examines how characters are depicted on screen, with a focus on parents, relational partners, age, and sexualization. Consistent with previous years, female characters were more than twice as likely as male characters to be shown in sexually revealing clothing, partially naked, or referenced as attractive. Teenage (13–20) and young adult (21–39) females were equally likely to be sexualized in films from 2017. 

The report offers solutions, focusing on the inclusion rider, which Professor Smith introduced to the entertainment industry. The study’s authors encourage industry stakeholders to collaborate with them to augment and amend the existing template for the contractual clause. They suggest envisioning new ways to implement best practices and contract language that can contribute to changing on-screen and behind-the-camera diversity. Additional solutions for individuals, executives, and policymakers are also offered.

“Good intentions are not enough to create change,” Professor Smith said. “Hollywood needs tangible, actionable solutions that will usher in real transformation. Our work brings to light the steps that companies and individuals can take if they want to see results.”

The study is the latest from the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, which produces an updated report annually.

Key Findings

Gender. A total of 4,454 speaking characters appeared across the 100 top films of 2017, with 68.2% male and 31.8% female. This translates into an on screen gender ratio of 2.15 males to every one female. The percentage of females on screen in 2017 was only 1.9 percentage points higher than the percentage in 2007.

Only 19 stories were gender balanced across the 100 top movies of 2017. A gender-balanced cast refers to a story that fills 45% to 54.9% of the speaking roles with girls/women. The percentage of gender-balanced movies was higher in 2017 than in 2016 and 2007.

Thirty-three films in 2017 depicted a female lead/co-lead. The percentage of female leads in 2017 was nearly identical to 2016 (34%) and 2015 (32%) but represents a notable increase from 2007 (20%).

Only 4 movies were driven by a woman of color. All four of these women were from mixed racial/ethnic backgrounds. This number deviates little from 2016 (3) or 2015 (3). Thirty movies featured a male 45 years of age or older at the time of theatrical release whereas only 5 films depicted a female in the same age bracket. Only one movie was led by a woman of color 45 years of age or older across the 100 top films of 2017.  

Female characters (28.4%) were far more likely than male characters (7.5%) to be shown in tight or alluring apparel, and with some nudity (M=9.6%, F=25.4%). Females 13-20 years old were just as likely as females 21–39 years old to appear in sexy attire or with some nudity. 

A total of 1,584 individuals worked above the line as directors, writers, and producers. 81.7% were male and 18.2% were female. Of 109 directors, only 7.3% were female. Only 10.1% of writers were female and 18.2% of producers.   

Only 4.3% of all directors across 1,100 movies were women, with 2008 the 11-year high mark during the sample time frame. Assessing the total number of unique female directors, a full 43 women have helmed one or more top-grossing films in 11 years.

Out of 111 composers across the 100 top movies of 2017, only 1 female worked. No more than two female composers have ever been employed per year during the 11 years studied. Only 1.3% of all composers across 1,100 movies were women.  

A full 43% of all speaking characters on screen were girls/women in female-directed content (8 movies). In comparison, only 30.9% of all on screen roles were filled with girls/women under male direction.

Race/Ethnicity. Of characters with an ascertainable race/ethnicity, 70.7% were white, 12.1% Black, 4.8% Asian, 6.2% Hispanic/Latino, 1.7% Middle Eastern, <1% American Indian/Alaskan Native, <1% Native Hawaiian, and 3.9% Mixed Race or Other. Overall, 29.3% of all speaking characters were from an underrepresented racial/ethnic group. In comparison to the U.S. population (38.7% underrepresented) and underrepresented movie ticket buyers (45%), film still lags behind.

Forty-three films were missing Black female characters, 64 did not include any Latinas, and 65 did not include one Asian female speaking character. In contrast, only 7 films were missing white females.

Underrepresented characters in movies from 2017 were least likely to be shown in action/adventure films (28.1%) compared to animated (34%) and comedy (35.6%) films. 

Of the 109 directors in 2017, 5.5% were Black or African American. Only one of the Black or African American directors working last year was female. Of the 1,100 movies studied, only 5.2% have been helmed by a Black/African American director. Only 4 Black or African American women have worked in the top 100 movies in the years examined, representing less than 1% of all directors.

The percentage of Black characters in 2017 films increased by 41.8 percentage points when a Black director was behind the camera then when the film did not have a Black director. Of the speaking characters in movies from 2017 with a Black director, 18.5% were Black females, compared to just 2.5% of the speaking characters in movies without a Black director.

In 2017, 4 Asian directors helmed one of the 100 most popular movies—all of these individuals were male. This translates to 3.7% of the 109 directors working in 2017. A mere 3.1% of all directors were Asian or Asian American across 1,100 films and 11 years. Asian female directors are nearly invisible in the sample — of the three slots held by Asian women, two represent the work of Jennifer Yuh Nelson on the Kung Fu Panda films.

LGBT. A total of 4,403 characters were evaluated for apparent sexuality. Of those, 0.7% (n=31) were Lesbian, Gay, or Bisexual. Over half of the LGB characters were Gay (51.6%), while 29% were Lesbian and 19.4% were Bisexual. In addition, there was not one transgender character who appeared across the 100 top movies of 2017.

There has been no change over time in the depiction of LGBT characters on screen since 2014. Out of 400 popular films from 2014 to 2017, only one transgender character has appeared.

A total of 81 films did not include one LGBT speaking character. Examining films missing LGBT females reveals that 94 movies were devoid of these characters. 

Over half (58.1%) of LGB characters were male and 41.9% were female. LGB characters were predominantly white (67.7%), while 32.3% were underrepresented. Only 8 characters of the 4,403 examined were LGB teens.

Of the 19 LGB characters who were shown with enough cues to evaluate this measure, only 1 was depicted as a parent or caregiver (5.3%).

Characters with Disabilities. Only 2.5% of all characters were depicted with a disability across the 100 most popular movies of 2017. 

Forty-one films in 2017 did not feature one speaking character with a disability. A total of 78 movies did not include one female character with a disability. Two films featured characters with disabilities in proportion to the U.S. population (18.7%).

Fourteen movies featured a lead or co-lead character with a disability at any point in the film. The majority of films with lead or co-lead characters with a disability featured males and few females. Only 1 film revolved around an underrepresented leading character with a disability and 1 a leading character from the LGBT community.

Physical disabilities were depicted most often, with 61.6% of characters with a disability included in this category. Communicative disabilities occurred for 30.4% of characters. Finally, 26.8% of characters with disabilities were classified in the mental domain.

More than two-thirds (69.6%) of characters with disabilities were male while 30.4% were female. Nearly three-quarters of characters with disabilities were white, while 27% were underrepresented. Only 1 character shown with a disability was LGBT. Only the percentage of female characters with a disability has increased meaningfully since 2015.

Solutions to inequality in entertainment are outlined in the conclusion of the report. The researchers discuss inclusion riders, setting target inclusion goals, adding female characters to get to #5050by2020, and exploring policy changes.

Read the full report here.