Have you ever turned on a television show or film and identified with an admirable character on screen? If you happen to be a white man, that answer will more than likely be “yes”. Superman, Han Solo, James Bond, the most iconic characters in film share your general appearance and values that society teaches you to hold in high esteem (honor, wealth, power, etc.). Where does this leave women and minorities? While it’s not impossible to find great female, black, and LGBTQ role models in film, it’s far too difficult in comparison to our white cisgender male counterparts. This gap in representation on screen and behind the camera throughout Hollywood is largely unfounded in 2016, yet studios are still resistant to the progress audiences have been calling for. When we see ourselves represented on screen in a powerful and positive way, it can boost self-esteem. Isn’t it about time the diversity we see in our American society be reflected in the entertainment we consume?
The first movie that I can remember seeing as a little girl was Return of the Jedi, a film that sparked millions of teenage wet dreams as the fetishization of women in bondage became mainstream. Carrie Fisher was twenty-seven years old when her name became synonymous with a sex-slave fantasy. Now, as adults living in a Star Wars loving society, I can imagine many of you rolling your eyes at the suggestion of “Slave Leia” being problematic. Let me note that this was an image seared into my memory at five years old. Young women in film and television being overtly sexualized is nothing new, and it should come as no surprise that a USC study entitled “Inclusion or Invisibility? Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity in Entertainment” found that in 2014-2015, 84.8% of directors in film and television were men (page 3). In the same study, through a comprehensive survey of over 4,000 films and television programs, women make up an average of only 33.5% of speaking roles (2). Given the fact that women make up just over half of the entire U.S. population, that statistic is unacceptable.
In a report for Communication Research, Indiana University professors Kristen Harrison and Nicole Martins confirm that exposure to today’s entertainment in television can lower young girls’ self-esteem, “The roles that they see are pretty simplistic; they’re almost always one-dimensional and focused on the success they have because of how they look, not what they do or what they think or how they got there.” (qtd. in, “Self-esteem”). How do we break this pattern? Some say audiences should protest with their wallets by supporting films that promote equality. It might surprise you to learn that audiences already do. Reporter for fivethirtyeight.com Walt Hickey looked into this very issue, using the Bechdel test as a benchmark. The Bechdel test was made famous in 1985, named for its creator Alison Bechdel. The rules are simple: the film must have at least two named women in it, and the women must have a conversation with each other about something other than a man. Sounds easy, right? On the contrary, Walt Hickey’s findings concluded that only 53% of films between 1970 and 2013 pass the test. Looking further, he found that films which pass the Bechdel test actually have higher returns on investments both domestically and internationally than those that fail (Hickey, “Dollar-And-Cents”); spurning the yet unanswered question; why is this still a reoccurring issue?
Of course, women are not the only victims of this entertainment bias. In “Inclusion or Invisibility?”, there is an even wider gap between race in casting. Of all the speaking roles in film and television analyzed, only 12.2% were Black, 5.8% Hispanic/Latino, 5.1% Asian, and 2.3% Middle Eastern (page 7). These low statistics are particularly alarming considering how many high budget studio films have cast white men and women as people of color over the years (ex: Christian Bale as Moses in Exodus, Johnny Depp as Tonto in The Lone Ranger, Rooney Mara as Tiger Lilly in the recent Pan, etc.). If young girls can have poor self-esteem as a result of seeing women cast as one-dimensional tropes in films, how does this whitewashing of ethnic roles in Hollywood effect young people of color? When Black, Latino, Middle Eastern and Asian men do appear in television programs and film, they’re often negatively portrayed as criminals, terrorists, shop keepers, etc. Harris and Martins’ work again finds that when young Black men don’t see positive role models to aspire to in the entertainment they consume, the result is low self-esteem. The LGBTQ community also still faces its share of injustices in the entertainment industry as well. A current hot-button issue is the trend of cisgender men being cast as transgender women. One of the most famous cases of this was actually a woman, Hillary Swank cast as a trans teenage boy in 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry, a performance that earned her the Academy Award for Best Actress in 2000. More recently, Jared Leto accepted his Academy Award for playing Rayon in 2013’s Dallas Buyers Club, and Jeffrey Tambour who has won an Emmy for playing Maura in the Amazon TV program, Transparent. Critics of this trend of casting are calling for an end to it entirely. One of these critics is trans actress and filmmaker Jen Richards, who argues that the refusal to give trans actors the roles as trans people in these high-profile films not only denies them jobs and resources, it robs the film of an authentic and informed performance.
We can see how problematic perpetuating this belief that trans women are “just men” is today in our political climate, in which the Governor of North Carolina has been actively trying to deny trans people the right to use the public restrooms that match their gender identity through legislation. There is no shortage of diverse talent in Hollywood, from actors to directors, producers and writers. Some of the most memorable and critically acclaimed films over the past few years have been acted, directed and produced by women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community and the controversy of these talents not being rewarded has been coming to a peak during each new film awards season. During the 2016 Academy Awards, the host Chris Rock roasted his own show with #OscarsSoWhite. Out of all the talent that appeared in the critically acclaimed films that year, only white people were nominated in the top four categories. The 2016 awards contender list also again featured a nomination for a cisgender man, Eddie Redmayne, playing a trans woman, Lilly Elbe.
There is hope for progress. From the 2016 Emmy stage, Jeffrey Tambour and Laverne Cox gave emotional pleads for producers and directors to give transgender talent a chance. As #OscarsSoWhite took off on social media, the President of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, Cheryl Boone Isaacs has responded by leading sweeping changes to the rules by doubling the number of women and minorities in the academy by 2020. Simply by virtue of living in a time that information is readily available at our fingertips, younger generations seem to be increasingly socially conscious of the effects of whitewashing and inequality in entertainment. While audiences already financially support films that promote equality, studios and organizations like the Academy appear to respond more readily to controversy and active protests. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “a riot is the language of the unheard”. Let us riot by utilizing the platforms of social media that are increasingly crucial to the success of businesses. Let us continue to fight the powers that be with the power of our choice and dollars. If we want to see changes in entertainment to reflect the diverse society we live in, we have to keep speaking out louder still. Young women, minority children, and LGBTQ youth deserve to see themselves as heroes.
Sources in order of appearance: Inclusion or Invisibility? Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity in Hollywood Study finds TV can decrease self-esteem in children, except white boys The Dollars-And-Cents Case Against Hollywood’s Exclusion of Women
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