For Box Office, America—that surreal address that brings us all manner of Hollywood fantasy and fun—it’s business as usual. Racial inequality has been decried for decades in U.S. films, but aside from intermittent token non-white characters, not much has changed, according to a study by the University of Southern California.
America just marked a 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights movement, and census data reveals a more diverse U.S. population than ever, but as USC professor, Stacy L. Smith puts it, “Our film content. . . depicts something very different.”
In the USC’s study, researchers evaluated speaking characters from the 100 top-grossing films of 2013 for ethnicity, as well as how they were (or were not) hypersexualised. Then, they compared that data to similar research done to 500 films from 2007-2012. A lot of work and grant money down the drain, frankly. They didn’t find anything we don’t already know.
Nearly three-quarters of these roles were white; 26% were from under-represented racial/ethnic groups. And directors? Of 107 directors, only seven were of African heritage (though two were repeats, so really, only five). The study doesn’t mention how many other ethnicities are represented in the director’s chair, presumably because there were none. Just as there were no black female directors represented. And the comparison between 2013 and the six prior years? No meaningful change in the situation.
Sounds like a shabby state of cinema in America. But do American movie-goer’s care?
It would seem not. For example, though Hispanic people comprised only 4.9% of the speaking roles in 2013, nearly a quarter of all movie tickets were purchased by Hispanics. And unfortunately, this ethic segment is shown to be portrayed in a hypersexualised way more than any other group. Hispanic females were more likely than females from all other ethnicities to be shown partially or fully naked on screen—37.5% were depicted this way. While it may be hard for some to be outraged when facing a beautiful carmel-skinned girl half naked in a film, we all should be—regardless of our cultural heritage. Beautiful people come in every colour, but apparently the L.A. sun has ruined filmmakers’ eyesight.
Furthermore, in that same period, annual box office gross receipts went from $9.6 billion in 2007 to nearly $11 billion in 2013. We’re not saying we’re annoyed with our pocket books, that’s for sure. It seems no one notices the disparities.
Nevertheless, it could be asserted that in spirit, Americans do (or would) care, when it comes to employment opportunities. Opportunity is a belief woven into the American tapestry. Right or wrong, few want to believe that anyone has less opportunity than anyone else. If asked, it’s likely that most would want people to have a chance to work in filmmaking without consideration of their ethnic background.
But for racial representation as they’re watching a movie, I doubt many give it a second thought. They go to the movies to escape, not consider social problems. But here’s a thought: Maybe this isn’t entirely a bad thing. Simply put, movie-goer’s aren’t seeing colour. We’re just seeing heroes and stories unfold that touch us in a way that has nothing to do with ethnic heritage, but everything to do with the heritage of being human. Nearly half of the children under age five in the US are not white. But should we tell any child that they can only identify with characters who are the same as them? Doesn’t that only further promote segregation? If Superman is portrayed by someone of African heritage, does that mean that only black kids can recognise that he conducts himself with honour and tries to help people? Kids are smarter than that, and so should be the rest of us.
In the end, the USC study doesn’t tell us much that’s new in the state of racial diversity in film, and sure, there are some things to be fixed, but there are a few things in this world that never fail to make sense, and among those, is the wisdom of children.