The American entertainment industry is not diverse, inclusive or representative, behind or in front of the camera. But according to a recent report from the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, its representation problem is worse than you think (even if you already thought it was bad). Given the ubiquity and importance of media in modern American culture and daily life, a lack of diverse representation is a crucial, serious problem, and we need to solve it.
The report examined 109 popular films from 2014 and 305 scripted shows from various networks and streaming services. While it’s too detailed to fully summarize, here are a few highlights: In the films and series surveyed, only 28.7 percent of all speaking film roles were for female characters, 28.3 percent are for underrepresented racial/ethnic groups (which make up 37.9 percent of the U.S. population) and 2 percent of all characters identified as LGBTQ.
But we knew this already. So why keep beating the dead horse? Well, as the report says, the horse isn’t really dead at all — It’s just fat and lazy, and it won’t move unless we make it. And given this particular horse’s current role in American society, we kind of need it to get up and run.
There are many issues of identity and discrimination associated with this subject, but I’m not going to talk about them. Not because they’re unimportant, but because they’re complex and others have written about them in greater depth than I ever could here. Moreover, I’m a little white boy with less than half a bachelor’s degree and little to no authority on any of those subjects anyway, so I’m not sure my two cents would even be worth two literal cents. Instead, I’m going to focus more generally on media (and its lack of diversity) as it relates to the modern American cultural landscape.
Some have said that fair representation in Hollywood is trivial compared to political problems facing American women and minorities, like equal pay and criminal justice reform. Chris Rock, for example, said in his Oscar monologue this year that the public is only protesting the problem now because they had more important things to deal with in the ’50s and ’60s.
But even if pressing political problems rendered representation in media inconsequential (which they don’t), media has become the foundation of our entire societal landscape. For instance, when was the last time you went a week — or even a day — without watching a YouTube video, an episode of television or a movie? Because I can’t remember the last time I did.
Now, I don’t mean that in an Upworthy-video-telling-you-we-all-need-to-look-up-from-our-phones kind of way. It’s not necessarily bad; it’s just the way things are. Media isn’t just a luxury or an escape, it’s spliced into our cultural DNA, and that means equal representation within it is that much more vital.
Since we spend more of our lives behind screens than ever before, we need what’s on those screens to contribute to the discussions of issues facing underrepresented groups. If minority groups cannot partake in discussions on such a pervasive platform, then the conversation can’t happen and, as a society, we can’t exchange experiences and grow as people — or at least not efficiently. As in Hegelian dialectic, if we only have a thesis and no antithesis, then we can’t have a synthesis.
Lastly, on a somewhat selfish note, I want media to be more diverse because I want to learn about experiences different from my own. As a straight white guy, if I didn’t actively search for movies and shows that reflected others’ experiences, I would never hear about or see them. And that just doesn’t make any sense.
If American film and television fail to tell the stories of what adds up to over half of the U.S. population, it’s a stretch to call them American at all. Now, more than ever, diversity in media is essential to the progression of American culture and American life, and we’ll all be better, smarter people for having it.
Greg Feiner is a sophomore theater major. He can be reached at [email protected]