New study finds no significant improvement in film inclusion over past decade

"There's a level of just callousness in storytelling, every year."

Art by Adam Peck
Art by Adam Peck

The numbers are in. The numbers are abysmal. The most appalling findings are detailed helpfully in all-caps, like a presidential missive about how YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES: “NO PROGRESS FOR FEMALES ON SCREEN IN FILM IN OVER A DECADE.”

This is a typical takeaway from the Annenberg Inclusion Institute’s annual study on inclusion in film, produced by researchers Dr. Stacy L. Smith (you may remember her as the coiner of the “inclusion rider”), Marc Choueiti, and Dr. Katherine Pieper. Their data quantifies diversity and representation in the 100 top-grossing films of the year; this year’s study digs into both the 2017 numbers on their own and as part of a massive overview of 11 years in cinema. The resulting work, “Inequality in 1,100 Popular Films: Examining Portrayals of Gender, Race/Ethnicity, LGBT & Disability from 2007 to 2017,” is…not exactly uplifting reading.

You know how a lot of women felt during Wonder Woman when Gal Gadot ditched her dumb mortal disguise, power-strutted through a place that is literally called “No Man’s Land” and deflected dopey German bullets with her Themysciran super-bracelets? To read this study is to feel the opposite of that.

Women — at press time comprising just over half of the United States population, not that this matters at all! — were only 31.8 percent of the speaking characters in the top 100 films in 2017. By early adulthood, rather than just be silent, women totally disappear: 75.4 percent of characters over 40 were male.

The on-screen status quo is also pathetic for characters of color: 70.7 percent of 2017’s speaking characters were white. Only 12.1 percent were black, followed by Hispanic characters (6.2 percent), then Asian (4.8 percent) then mixed-race (3.9 percent), Middle Eastern descent (1.7 percent). Less than one percent were Native American or Native  Hawaiian. Forty-three of the top 100-grossing films of 2017 included no Latino characters at all.


LGBT representation is — plot twist! — also extremely lacking! More than 99 percent of 2017’s speaking characters were straight and cisgender. Literally only one transgender character has appeared in one of the top 100 movies of the year since 2014. Portrayals of characters with disabilities are also extremely limited: They’re generally white (73 percent in 2017) and male (69.6 percent, also in 2017) and tend to be played by actors who are able-bodied, not actors with disabilities.

Will it surprise you to learn that, behind the camera, it gets worse? Because it gets so much worse. For instance: Out of the 1,100 films covered by the full study, there were 1,223 directors. Only 43 were women. Only 64 were black, and only four were black women. Only 38 were Asian, and only three were Asian women. 

To better understand this year’s findings — why, given what feels like an unprecedented amount of awareness and conversation around inclusion and discrimination in the entertainment industry, Hollywood has made virtually no progress in this arena in over a decade — ThinkProgress spoke with Smith, Choueiti, and Pieper. (Choueiti was on the call but listened more than he spoke, which is honestly something we recommend men do more often.)

What were your expectations coming into this research this time around? On the one hand, you have seen that in ten years, the needle barely moves. We’ve talked about this study in previous years, and the data is consistently damning. At the same time, in the last year, you’ve seen the foundation of Time’s Up. You’ve seen Frances McDormand talk about inclusion riders and a handful of stars commit to adopting them in their contracts. You’ve seen several years of #OscarsSoWhite, and outrage around that.

Obviously it takes considerable time for these changes to be implemented. What kind of progress were you realistically hoping for?


Stacy Smith: I think every year, we’re hopeful. Because there’s so many different data points where you could actually see movement. But the one thing that makes us very cautious going into our data is that really hiring practices haven’t changed in Hollywood. There’s no rush to move to inclusion on screen; there’s no public commitments coming out from the multinationals. There’s an unspoken quota system dictating these stable trends. No matter what happens, these seem to line up really similarly year after year.

For us, we go in always rooting for change. But when the numbers are run and the report is done, I don’t think any of us is terribly surprised.

So you don’t expect to see what you could call the Time’s Up effect for quite some time.

Stacy Smith: Absolutely. The gestation of film can be anywhere from months to a few years, if not longer. I think the power of Time’s Up and women coming together across all aspects and levels across the industry, we’ll start to see those changes, as they focus on equity, dignity, and inclusion. That’s really a 2019, 2020 reality, where we might see some things.

Talk about focusing your efforts on the top 100 grossing movies of the year. Presumably some of these numbers are a little less depressing in the world of independent film, where budgets are smaller and women have a little more access. And there’s an argument to be made for zeroing in on the most critically-acclaimed movies of the year — the movies that win prestige and Oscars, that make careers in a more highbrow way. Why does mass culture matter to you?  

Stacy Smith: These are the agenda-setting films. They are seen by the greatest number of audience members, not only in the U.S. but typically internationally as well. And they’re the films that typically have the highest price tags associated with them.


We know the financial impediments, the mythologizing around what female directors can allegedly handle in terms of a budget or a large-scale crew. A lot of our early work, when we looked at the barriers facing female directors, showed they faced this gendered marketplace: They are excluded from comic book movies and action movies — those tentpole movies.

We want to say, what agenda is the United States setting not only for this country but for the world, in terms of what is valued, in on-screen representation and and behind the scenes diversity? What we see is, there is very little concern for groups outside of cis, straight, white, able-bodied men. This should be a rallying cry to mobilize the entertainment industry.

Though the data reveals otherwise, it seems like people do feel like things are changing, as far as diversity in the film industry. And I see that from both sides: from people who are rooting for it — audiences who are heartened by the success of Black Panther or Love, Simon or Wonder Woman or Crazy Rich Asians — and people who feel threatened by it, who insist that popular culture is moving toward marginalizing white men, that it’s becoming misandrist or reverse-racist or whatever.

Since, as your research demonstrates, the reality is that the status quo has yet to change in any meaningful way, where do you think that perception comes from?

Stacy Smith: I think folks are hanging on to very high-profile, salient examples. Those single instances, those few instances, are driving hope and driving this desire that things are changing. I think the sobering reality is that, if you look at our data, those high-profile examples aren’t doing anything across this entire ecosystem where we see, really, a stagnation of movement.

Movies like Girl’s Trip or Love, Simon or Moonlight or Black Panther, they are unbelievably important. But this can’t be about a single film. There has to be a real understanding at the top of these companies that target inclusion goals matter and when you’re leaving out the audience, year in and year out, no wonder they’re flocking to television and streaming content, because these results show a pattern of a lack of acceptance and understanding of who the audience is and what they want.

In 2017, only four films out of 100 featured an underrepresented female lead. Four! That’s no different from last year, when it was three. So I think that there’s a real lack of understanding that moviegoers are diverse. It’s a Hollywood that’s not inclusive, and we need to see a change in the executive ranks, we need to see a change with production companies.

Speaking of the executives: How has reading all the stories about the alleged sexual abuses by men in positions of power in the entertainment industry — the men who dictate, really, what ideas become movies, what stories get told, who gets to tell them, and so on — influenced the way you think about this data you’re collecting?

Stacy Smith: I don’t think it influences how we collect data at all. It’s a longitudinal analysis. We use the same approach. Marc is the same person who has trained the hundreds of individuals that have worked on this project. So the project goes on, independent of whatever is occurring in culture.

But I think, parallel to that, the Time’s Up movement is really something that we haven’t seen before: Women coming together across all these aspects of the entertainment industry. For us, it’s exciting to see them leveraging their power, from an A-list actor to an executive, to producers, writers, people working below the line, agencies, that cacophony of voices that I find so hopeful.

They have taken the reins and they want safety, equity, and dignity across, not only Hollywood but other industries as well, and I think they’re a force to be reckoned with. So moving forward, we’re hopeful that using their voice and vision, that these numbers will start to move.

I want to ask about one specific data point: You found that “13-20 year old females are just as likely as 21-39 year old females to be shown in sexy attire with some nudity, and referenced as attractive.” That’s an illuminating statistic, but it strikes me as a strange place to draw a line — that it’s conflating a 13-year-old girl with a 20-year-old woman in a way that doesn’t really represent the maturity of those individuals, and that it suggests it is equally upsetting for an adult to be portrayed in a sexualized way as it is for a minor. Why did you divide the age groups that way?

Katherine Pieper: That’s a demarcation that we’ve had from the very beginning. It’s done with a recognition of how long adolescence lasts. There’s a lot of work on emerging adulthood and development, and a lot of our work comes out of that developmental perspective. When we think about the developmental process over the teenage years, in terms of decision-making, it is important for us to take that longer, wider view of adolescence in the way that we study characters.

“Every year when we do the invisibility analysis, just how many women or girls, black, African American, Latina, LGBT, how many are just erased altogether from the top 100 films. EVERY year. There’s really no excuse for those data points.”

Interestingly, we did a study last fall where we zeroed in on the demographic of teenagers and younger girls, and we looked at this question of sexualization, and a lot of the time, actors playing teenagers are outside of that age group. They’re older than 20 years old, playing someone much younger. And that is going to influence the nature of that sexualization. The bodies of women 20 and older are very different than the bodies of teenagers! So that’s one of the things that we think is important to consider.

You’ve been at this for a while and as you say, the numbers haven’t changed much. Are any of these latest findings shocking to you?

Stacy Smith: Every year when we do the invisibility analysis, just how many women or girls, black, African American, Latina, LGBT, how many are just erased altogether from the top 100 films. Every year.

There’s really no excuse for those data points. In 2017, 43 [of the top 100] films do not feature one black female speaking character on screen. Not one that says one word. Sixty-five films do not feature an Asian female speaking on screen. Sixty-four erase Latinas. There’s a level of just callousness in storytelling, every year.

These findings are so easy for casting directors to change! And yet they move very little, year to year. And this is one of the reasons why the inclusion rider was so important, because this epidemic of invisibility can be taken care of in casting and auditioning really simply.

For me, these are some of the most troubling findings, as well as the lack of women that get to work behind the camera. Year after year, our research on female directors shows this. Only 43 women get to work as directors across 1100 films, and only four of those women are black or African American! This paints a really problematic picture of who is getting access or opportunity. There just seems to be an erasure of these vast communities of talent.

In your study, you have this idea called “just add five,” where you state that to “achieve 50/50 by 2020,” screenwriters would only need to add five female characters to scripts per year to achieve gender equality on screen by 2020.

What is the significance of that to you? Is that just a jumping off point? Because while I can see how that addresses just the total invisibility, it doesn’t really mean women will get meaningful, central roles in these movies. By that logic, you can just say, “Okay, this cashier is a woman, she says ‘paper or plastic?’ and that checks the box. One down, four to go.’”

Stacy Smith: That’s a great question. Different biases have different solutions. “Just add five” is really to deal with the fact that we’re looking at 11 years of no change in on-screen portrayals, just of speaking parts, for girls and women.

“Movies like ‘Girl’s Trip’ or ‘Love, Simon’ or ‘Moonlight’ or ‘Black Panther,’ they are unbelievably important. But this can’t be about a single film.”

The entire ecosystem is a different problem for leading and supporting roles. and we’d never advocate, just populate stories with more females! Females need to be driving stories. Women need to be part of the rich, multidimensional cast that carries stories. But you have to have different solutions to different problems.

When we talk about the greater landscape of storytelling, it’s really occupational stereotyping and small roles that are being conceived of in the minds of casters. They see the word “police officer” and think “male,” or they see a particular occupation and it restricts their imagination rather than opening up. So “just add five” is really an attempt to say, add five roles. Individuals only need to say one word. We can eradicate the epidemic of invisibility, to make sure that the ecosystem of stories reflect the world you live in.

We called SAG-AFTRA and it’s actually quite cheap to do this. And lastly, it doesn’t take away any parts from male actors. It’s additive, not exclusionary. It turns out you can actually get to 50/50 by 2020 with this simple strategy.

That won’t fix the problem with leading and supporting characters. Both need to be done in tandem.

The top three films last year had females driving the actions: Star Wars, Beauty and the Beast, and Wonder Woman. We’re doing the economic analysis to test what does well on screen, and that will be out later this fall with the Sundance Institute and Women in Film, to challenge the mythology around what is bankable and successful when you have leads that aren’t just white men. We’re going to tackle that argument with a different answer. So it’s taking each of these issues, each of these challenges, and providing solutions, so that folks are really without excuse.

You wouldn’t need “just add five” if you had writers that are women. Women only clocking in as 10 percent of screenwriters — that’s your problem right there. [With better representation behind the camera], you’d start to see inclusion on-screen overnight. We need more women of color writing, directing, and producing. We need more from the LGBT community, and we need actors and content creators with disabilities to be given access and opportunity. We need auditioning rooms to be ADA compliant, so actors with disabilities can access those spaces and audition, in the same way their peers are able to.

There need to be a set of solutions that attack all the different problems, really to counter all of the excuses that we have heard in our previous research, that these companies come up with simply to perpetuate inequality and exclusion.

When you began this study in 2007, you started just by looking at gender and race. Over the years you expanded your research to include data on LGBT representation, then the visibility of people with disabilities. Do you have any other area of population in mind that you want to start tallying in the future?

Stacy Smith: We’ve been working on a really big investigation on portrayals of mental health in film and TV. We’ll be rolling that out in mid-to-late fall. It’s really an extension of the work we initially started when it came to portrayals of disability, and then we wanted to extend it into this area that we haven’t seen a great deal of research and thought we could really provide a missing piece to this representational portrait that we’ve been working on.

Do you sense that the public is more receptive to this analysis than they were 10 years ago? Just in the responses you get from the work that you do, I’m curious if you’ve noticed a cultural shift. Do you feel like the fluency is higher in these issues, that people care more?

Katherine Pieper: This conversation wasn’t industry specific. It’s a national conversation. Through the work that we’ve done and the way that we’ve used the research to broaden out who might be interested in the topic — by putting the studies out both as an alarm bell and an educational topic for the public — that means people are more able to talk about and understand and see when content falls short. And it’s very rewarding to see the ramifications of that. So to the extent that you get people data and you give them a language to speak about it, it’s hopeful to us to see that this is such a public conversation.

“There just seems to be an erasure of these vast communities of talent.”

To look at it another way, are people too optimistic about the impact of the activism by and around Time’s Up? Is all the talk about how we’re finally “having an important conversation” meaningless, given that the numbers haven’t moved?

Stacy Smith: That’s a good question. I don’t know the degree to which the activism has been very successful, because the numbers aren’t moving. But what I think is hopeful is that there is a new group in town that’s doing things differently, and that’s Time’s Up.

I think that, for me, the one thing that needs to change in Hollywood is hiring. So whoever makes hiring their central point of activism and advocacy, and gets the multinationals on board to do that — we will see change. But until that happens, there will be no movement in these numbers, because the resistance behind the camera, year in and year out, really illuminates why all of these numbers don’t move.

So I think we’re hopeful that the degree to which groups like TIme’s Up and others can really focus in on hiring, then we should be able to see change. But that is the magic word. That is the only thing to focus on, to ensure that stories actually look like the world we live in. Mentorship programs, sponsorships, trainings: all important. But the only way to move the needle is to get multinationals to commit.

It’s helpful to hear you use that language, because I think we often use “casting” instead of “hiring” when we think about the entertainment industry, and when you “cast” someone, you can use all these ephemeral, weird factors: Did the leads have chemistry? Did she have star quality? Was he watchable? And it can seem like those decisions are exempt from hiring policies that every workplace actually needs to follow. “Hiring” puts it back into the realm of a workplace, subject to civil rights laws, where it is supposed to be illegal to discriminate.

Stacy Smith: If I was writing this story interviewing you about this study, that is quote I would use.