Two USC studies show numbers for women on movie screens and behind the cameras remain dismal

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Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson, center, in a scene from "Hidden Figures." Twentieth Century Fox photo

Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson, center, in a scene from “Hidden Figures.” Twentieth Century Fox photo

Two studies released in the past week out of the University of Southern California confirm that films remain predominantly white and male both in front of and behind the cameras – meaning that basically everyone else — from women and people of color to LGBT individuals and people with disabilities — remain woefully underrepresented.

Although “Moonlight” won the Academy Award for best picture and “Hidden Figures” was an Oscar-nominated box-offic hit, exclusion remained the norm in Hollywood — not the exception – in 2016.

That’s according to the new report from the Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, according to The Associated Press. This year’s report finds that the representation of women, minorities, LGBT people, disabled characters in films remains largely unchanged from the previous year — despite the heightened and attention to diversity in Hollywood.

For nine years since 2007, USC has analyzed the demographic makeup of every speaking or named character from each year’s 100 highest-grossing films at the domestic box office (with the exception of 2011), as well as behind-the-camera employment for those films including directors, producers and composers.

“Every year we’re hopeful that we will actually see change,” Stacy L. Smith, a USC professor and the study’s lead author, told the AP. “Unfortunately that hope has not quite been realized.”

Women remain egregiously underrepresented when it comes to both speaking roles and lead or co-leading parts in films.

Of the 4,583 speaking characters analyzed from the top 100 films of 2016, 31.4 percent were female, a number that is basically unchanged since the USC study started in 2007. Also, only 34 of the films depicted a female lead or co-lead — and only three of those were from other underrepresented groups.

Along with staying mostly male, the cinematic landscape is still mostly white, with Hispanics especially underrepresented compared to the breakdown of the U.S. population.

Of the speaking characters surveyed in the study, 70.8 percent were white; 13.6 percent black; 5.7 percent Asian; 3.1 percent Hispanic; and less than 1 percent American Indian, Alaska Native or Native Hawaiian.

According to the latest U.S. Census, the nation is 61.3 percent white, 17.8 percent Hispanic, 5.7 percent Asian, 13.3 percent black, 1.3 percent American Indian and Alaska Native and 0.2 percent Native Hawaiian.

The study’s film “invisibility” breakdown finds that 25 of the 100 films did not feature a single black character in a speaking role; 54 films had no Hispanic characters (14 higher than in 2015); 44 had no Asian characters (a rare improvement from 2015, when the study found 49 films with zero Asians).

Despite the success of “Hidden Figures” — the 14th highest grossing film of 2016 – women of color on the silver screen are almost entirely nonexistent. According to the study, 47 films featured no black females; 66 had no Asian females; and 72 had no Hispanic females.

“We can’t just talk about females in film anymore. What our data shows most powerfully this year over any other year is the real epidemic of intersectional invisibility in film,” Smith told the AP. “If you cross gender with race and ethnicity, you see that the bottom really drops out for females of color on screen.”

Also largely invisible in movies are LGBT females, who were excluded from 91 of the top 100 films of 2016. There was a notable increase in films with gay speaking characters in 2016 — 36 up from 19 – but 79.1 percent were white. According to the study, 76 of the 100 films had no LGBT characters, and only one, top Oscar winner “Moonlight,” featured a gay protagonist.

For the second year, the USC study also looked at the numbers for characters with disabilities and found that despite nearly 18.7 percent of the U.S. population identifying as disabled, only 2.7 percent of all speaking characters were depicted as disabled.

Angelina Jolie, right, and Loung Ung appear behind the scenes of the film "First They Killed My Father." Directed by Jolie, the film is being released via Netflix instead of into movie theaters. Netflix photo

Angelina Jolie, right, and Loung Ung appear behind the scenes of the film “First They Killed My Father.” Directed by Jolie, the film is being released via Netflix instead of into movie theaters. Netflix photo

Starting behind the scenes

A new study from the USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s Signal Analysis and Interpretation Lab (or SAIL) –which creates automatic tools for signal analysis and linguistic assessment – has uncovered how media communicates about gender, race and age – and found that in the majority of films, females roles are not central to the plot.

Using a tool the SAIL Lab developed in conjunction with existing cognitive and developmental language tools, researchers Anil Ramakrishna, Victor R. Martinez, Nikolaos Malandrakis, and Karan Singla, doctoral students in Computer Science at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, together with Professor Shrikanth Narayanan, the Niki and C. L. Max Nikias Chair in Engineering, were able to quantify the sophistication and the tone of language of 7,000 characters and more than 53,000 dialogues in nearly 1,000 film scripts pulled from The Daily Script and the Internet Movie Script Database. According to a news release, the authors analyzed content of characters’ language and their interactions across gender, race and age.

Beyond the cast, the researchers also looked at genre, the production teams across films including writers, directors and casting agents.

Of the scripts and dialogues reviewed, the USC SAIL Lab study found that men had more than 37,000 dialogues, while women had just more than 15,000. Women portrayed just in excess of 2,000 characters, while men portrayed more than twice as many at almost 4,900.

As research has found time and again, the problem with representation on screen starts behind the scene. In 2016, the new report from USC’s Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative found that in 2016 there were only five female directors out of 120, including co-directors. None were black.

Of the nearly 1,000 scripts studied by the USC SAIL Lab researchers, there were seven times more male writers than female writers, almost 12 times more male directors than female directors, and a little more than triple the number of male producers than female producers.

While casting directors were the only exception to this trend – there were twice as many female casting directors as female — the casting directors’ genders seemingly had no impact on characters’ genders.

According to the SAIL Lab researchers, the biggest difference came from the writers’ room. If female writers were in the writers’ room, female character representation on screen was on average 50 percent higher.

Nicole Kidman appears in a scene from Jane Campion's "Top of the Lake: China Girl." SundanceTV photo

Nicole Kidman appears in a scene from Jane Campion’s “Top of the Lake: China Girl.” SundanceTV photo

Representation matters

While the USC Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative noted that U.S. films are coming up well short of representing America’s current demographics, the USC SAIL Lab’s linguistic analysis reveals that the lack of representation has even deeper and more insidious side effects.

With male screenwriters dominating the cinematic landscape, female characters regardless of race, tended to be about five years younger than their male counterparts, which means fewer older women’s stories are told (and fewer actresses of a certain age are able to keep working in film).

The researchers also looked at character portrayal across gender, age and race for topics such as emotional arousal (excitement), valence (positive and negative emotion), sex, achievement, religion, death and swearing and for gender-ladenness (dialogue along stereotypical lines), according to the news release.

The authors found that the dialogue of Latino and mixed-race characters had more dialogue related to sexuality. African-American characters had a greater percentage of swear words in their dialogues than other races.

Overall, researchers also found that female characters tend to be more positive in valence, meaning they are more positive, but this tended to be correlated with using language connecting with family values. Beyond the volume of dialogue attributed to men, male dialogue contained more words related to achievement, death and more swear words than the dialogue scripted for women.

The researchers used graph theory to determine how central characters are to the plot of a movie by analyzing the ties and relationships to the other characters within the film. The researchers would then model the network and web of relationships between the characters in a similar fashion to the way one would study a transit hub. They then segmented the dialogue, putting each character as a “node” or hub.

What the researchers found is that when removing the female character nodes from most movie genres, the plot and the relationships did not need to be altered significantly, according to the news release.

The exception was when women were in horror movies when they were most likely to be portrayed as victims. Otherwise, to leave out female characters unfortunately did not cause much of a disruption, the USC SAIL Lab researchers found.

Director Patty Jenkins, left, and star Gal Gadot appear on the set of "Wonder Woman." Warner Bros. photo

Director Patty Jenkins, left, and star Gal Gadot appear on the set of “Wonder Woman.” Warner Bros. photo

Making real changes

The USC’s Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative reported noted that year there are indicators of change, including the successes this year of “Wonder Woman,” ”Get Out” and “Girls Trip.”

“The question is with all of these high-profile examples, will the memo to Hollywood be read seriously and will they actually start engaging in more inclusionary hiring practices,” Stacy L. Smith told the AP.

Her new report comes with a number of recommendations for change, according the AP. The suggestions include adding five female speaking parts to each top film – that would result in gender equity in just three years — and encouraging A-listers to implement equity clauses into their contracts. The organization is also available to studios and content creators looking for advice, understanding or even lists of working female directors to consider.

“Diversity is not just something that just happens,” said Katherine Pieper, a research scientist on the report. “It’s something you have to think about and aim for as an objective and achieve.”

But as slowly as the U.S. film industry has been to adapt to continued calls for better representation for women, minorities and other nonwhite, non-male communities, there may be opportunities passing the movie business by.

Although it will screen next at the Toronto Film Festival, Deadline Hollywood reports that A-lister Angelina Jolie’s latest directorial effort, “First They Killed My Father, “a harrowing Netflix drama about young Cambodian girl Loung Ung as she and her family struggled to survive the brutal genocide of the Khmer Rouge regime that murdered one-quarter of the population after the United States withdrew from Vietnam, will be released not into theaters but on Netflix on Sept. 15.

Starring in two major TV series in 2017 and having earned an Emmy nomination for her turn on “Big Little Lies,” Oscar winner Nicole Kidman says that the diversity and complexity of roles for women in TV are making the small screen more appealing, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

Speaking at the Australian premiere of “Top of the Lake: China Girl,” Kidman, who stars alongside Elisabeth Moss and Gwendoline Christie in the second season of Jane Campion’s drama, said that “great roles are being developed for women right now — they are not in film they are in television.”

She added, “They’re on both, but they’re rare in film though.”

“I think in television right now, there’s great opportunity for women because it’s a place in which there is money and directors of this caliber (Campion and Ariel Kleiman) who are willing to work in that medium and write and explore their storytelling,” Kidman added.

“I think there’s an enormous appeal for actors working there because you have time to develop a character and for stories to unfold. Like ‘Big Little Lies,’ where there was five amazing roles for women. That’s where obviously the great roles are being developed for women right now.”


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