Hollywood’s Diversity Problem: When Will the Industry Reflect The World We Live In?

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It’s no secret: Hollywood has a diversity problem.

The homogeneity of this year’s slate of Best Actor and Actress and Best Supporting Actor and Actress Oscar nominees—every single one of them Caucasian and able-bodied—is both symbolic and symptomatic of the problem (although not out of character for the Oscars, which saw no minority nominees last year either, nor in 1997, 1995, or between 1975 and 1980). Although this alarming lack of diversity has sparked a campaign to call attention to issues of racism in Hollywood and has generated a plethora of well-considered pieces about race and the politics of the Oscars, another way to view the problem is to say that in addition to blatant racism, one of Hollywood’s problems is that its demographics no longer match the demographics of the US population—a mismatch Hollywood has been stubbornly unwilling to fix and that impacts all minorities, including the queer community.

US-ENTERTAINMENT-FILM-OSCAR-NOMINATIONSMARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

If Hollywood mirrored reality, you’d have to assume that the US was almost exclusively white, heterosexual, and able-bodied, when in fact the US is a wonderful patchwork of different races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, ages, socioeconomic statuses, religions, etc. You name it, we have it. To show the magnitude of Hollywood’s diversity problem, consider this: According to US Census data from 2014, the US population is:

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According to the same data, 12.3% of the population reports having some kind of disability. When it comes to sexual orientation, according to a Center for Disease Control (CDC) National Health Statistics Report published in January 2016 using data from 2011-2013, 1.3% of women and 1.9% of men ages 18-44 self-identified as gay, while 5.5% of women and 2% of men said they were bisexual—with 17.4% of women reporting having had same-sex “sexual contact.”

Although the #OscarsSoWhite movement has focused on racial bias as the source of inequality in movie award nominations, when US population demographics are compared to Hollywood’s demographics, a clear picture of discrimination emerges that includes and transcends race. In short, all minorities are suffering in favor of Caucasian males. For example:

Film 'A view to kill' in France on August 17th,1984.In 24 official Bond films, Bond has slept with 57 women in 75 implied sexual encounters. 15 were then killed off. Really, Hollywood? Really? (Photo by Chip HIRES/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

  • Race: In the 2012-2013 TV season, white actors held 93.5% of the lead roles on broadcast dramas and comedies, according to the same UCLA study. Despite the fact that Latinos comprise almost a fifth of the population, only one Latino actor has ever won the Oscar for Best Actor and no Latina has ever won Best Actress. Since 2000, just 3% of Oscar nominations have gone to Latinos, 10% to African Americans, and 1% to people with Asian backgrounds, according to analysis by The Economist.
  • Disability: Although 12% of the US population self-identifies as disabled, less than 1% TV characters were disabled in the 2015-2016 season, according to GLAAD—and only two of those characters are played by actually disabled actors. When it comes to film, The Washington Post calculates that since 1989, 52% of the Best Actor winners have played a character with a mental or physical disability, but only three Best Actor or Best Actress Oscars have gone to actors with publicly acknowledged physical disabilities—a 1.7% representation rate.   

Sexual Orientation and Hollywood

At last, the question that will be most interesting to AfterEllen readers: How do queer nominees stack up in the awards process?

Harkening back to the CDC study mentioned previously, the US population is approximately 7% queer women and 4% queer men (yes, I know, these numbers, particularly for the men, are almost certainly low). When it comes to openly queer actors who have won acting Oscars, there have been just two: Linda Hunt and Angelina Jolie, although other winners, such as Joel Grey and Jodie Foster, subsequently came out. Of the 1,668 acting nominees since the Oscars began in 1929, only about five (analysis was a bit hard here), or 0.29%, of the nominees were out at the time they were nominated. 

y_huntLinda Hunt, who has hyper-pituitary dwarfism, is so awesome she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for playing someone of the opposite sex. (Photo via Paul Harris/Getty)

The discussion of discrimination in Hollywood is not about “which minority is most discriminated against in Hollywood,” but about how Hollywood’s demographics do not accurately represent the demographics of its viewers, a problem that has been known and publicly discussed for some time. That said, by focusing on race and gender, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s commitment to double its number of female and “diverse” (read: racial minority) members and weed out older members may not help those who appear to statistically have the lowest representation rate: out queer actors and disabled actors (and almost certainly also religious minority—for example Muslim or Mormon—actors).

There are a variety of reasons why Hollywood has the demographics that it does, ranging from acting school acceptance demographics, talent agency representation demographics, director demographics, and film board demographics. These are all legitimate contributing factors, but it’s easier to just say, with an eye towards being charitable.

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For decades, Hollywood has been an old boy’s club run by white men who replicated the casting demographics of the generations that came before them because they didn’t notice that US demographics were changing, and if they did, unconscious bias whispered to them that viewers would rather a white Thor than a Latino Thor. These powerbrokers were able to legitimize their casting choices by citing movie attendance and ticket sales, the engines of capitalism in the entertainment industry.

But Hollywood is now waking up in 2016 to realize that approximately a quarter of the population is not white, half of its population—the female half—now wants a seat at the executive board table, and minimizing the presence of minorities on film and TV will simply not be feasible going forward—nor is it necessary anymore. As my girlfriend pointed out as we left Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the world’s highest grossing movie of all time was led by a woman, an African American, and a Guatemalan-American. Woah.   

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