Hollywood Still Sucks at Lesbian Visibility

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Until the entertainment industry truly commits to inclusivity, we’re never getting a movie about lesbian Amazons who save the world. Boo.

2016 and 2017 have been banner years for revealing the seedy underbelly of American prejudices. Grass roots activism pushing for greater social inclusivity and respect for minorities has sparked reactionary opposition throughout other parts of American society to anything non-white, Christian, and heterosexual, a shameful myopia epitomized by white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, VA in August claiming their voices as white males are being muffled. As if.

One of the lessons of this internecine cultural war is that it seems that to a much larger than previously anticipated extent, many Americans “support” diversity only when diverse people are disadvantaged and kept in the background. One way to benchmark the extent of America’s prejudice problem is through the entertainment industry. Film is often a mirror to society, and according to this mirror, progress on diversity is going nowhere.

Getty Images

Getty Images

 

Every year, the University of Southern California Annenberg’s Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative produces a report detailing demographic representations on screen and behind the camera for the 100 top grossing US films. This longitudinal analysis provides a unique perspective on (the lack of) inclusivity and historic inequities on screen and in creative roles. And every single year, the study proves in stark and disappointingly clear ways that the needle has barely moved an inch on minority representation.

To be clear, the top 100 grossing films are not representative of all diversity in Hollywood. For example, the movies “Below Her Mouth,” “Women Who Kill” and “Almost Adults,” were released in 2016 and have lesbian protagonists –  minority representation not captured in the study. However, the top 100 are probably a good representative sample of Hollywood movies.

Moreover, they tend to be movies into which studios have sunk millions of dollars, and as such they are carefully crafted to reflect what producers think the American public most wants to see (answer: super hero movies and kids’ movies). Thus, while diversity aplenty exists in independent films like “Moonlight,” for anticipated blockbusters diversity is generally cast aside in favor of…well, white guys.

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No white man left behind.

How bad is this minority representation problem? In a word: bad. For example, the US population is 50.8% female, but in the last 9 years, the percentage of speaking roles occupied by women has not exceeded 32.8%, and in fact has varied by a mere 1.5%. In 2016, women were 31.4% of speaking roles, the exact same percent as in 2015. This means that women are half the population, but not even a third of speaking roles. The statics are even more damning for race. In 2016, 25 of the top 100 movies had no black speaking characters, 44 had no Asian speaking characters, and 54 had no Latino speaking characters. Worse yet, 47 of the 100 had no black women at all (speaking or otherwise), 66 had no Asian women, and 72 had no Hispanic women. Ouch.

 The US population is 50.8% female, but in the last 9 years, the percentage of speaking roles occupied by women has not exceeded 32.8%

LGBT representation fares no better. Of 4,544 speaking characters in the top 100 movies of 2016, only 9 characters were lesbian, and none were protagonists. Although that’s marginally up from 7 in 2015 and 4 in 2014, it’s a statistically insignificant change. Gay men, at least, did numerically better, with 36, 19, and 12 characters, respectively, during the same years. Bisexuals, who the study does not break out by gender, weigh in at 6, 5, and 5 speaking characters during the same period.

Getty Images

Getty Images

According to the study authors, the LGBT community is doing comparatively okay at representation because LGBT characters represent 1.1% of speaking characters while in real life LGBT people make up 3.5% of the US population, a representation difference of 2.4%. As I noted in last year’s analysis of the 2016 study, however, this math is misleading.

Of 4,544 speaking characters in the top 100 movies of 2016, only 9 characters were lesbian, and none were protagonists. 

Lesbians were only 0.19% of all speaking characters in 2016, but are about 2% of the global population. Moreover, 49% of LGB characters were coded in the Annenberg study as being inconsequential to the movie’s plot, meaning that more realistically only 0.08% of speaking characters with consequential roles were lesbians. To make 2% of all speaking characters lesbians who actively contributed to the plot would have necessitated 91 lesbian characters. In short, lesbians are actually 90% underrepresented, just as we were in 2015.

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No. Just no.

The Annenberg study used this list of the top 100 grossing movies for its data set. Although I don’t know how the study coded all the characters because there is no appendix to the study showing the full coding, it’s clear that of the 9 lesbian-coded characters, one was a lesbian taco in the movie “Sausage Party.” Great. 11% of lesbian characters in 2016 were “horny lesbian” animated tacos. It’s unclear how Kate McKinnon’s character Jillian Holtzmann in “Ghostbusters” was coded, particularly since director Paul Feig gave it a quiet thumbs up to her being gay, but said that the studio wouldn’t allow this to be shown overtly.

  Of the 9 lesbian-coded characters, one was a lesbian taco in the movie “Sausage Party.” Great. 11% of lesbian characters in 2016 were “horny lesbian” animated tacos.

The 2016 Annenberg study concluded: “We saw little to no meaningful change in the representation of females, underrepresented racial/ethnic groups, the LGBT community, or characters with disabilities.” Even this ostensibly dry academic study takes a dim view of Hollywood’s ability to adapt to show greater inclusivity.

The 2016 Annenberg study concluded: “We saw little to no meaningful change in the representation of females, underrepresented racial/ethnic groups, the LGBT community, or characters with disabilities.”

There is some small measure of hope for an improve scorecard in 2017. “Atomic Blonde,” for example, represents a huge step forward with its bisexual female protagonist in an action genre. There are also bisexual protagonists/major characters in “Wonder Woman” (Robin Wright’s Antiope, based on the comic book), “Rough Night” (Frankie and Blair) and “Power Rangers” (Trini, the yellow ranger), all of which so far are in the top 100 grossing films for 2017. However, there’s little reason to anticipate that the male-female ratio will shift in 2017, or that 2018 will build on any lesbian representation increase in 2017. Until the entertainment industry truly commits to inclusivity, we’re never getting a movie about lesbian Amazons who save the world. Boo.

Why is this not a movie yet?

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