Hollywood: Land of the White

by JohnGalt on April 21, 2017 - 4:21pm


    Hollywood has long been plagued by a lack of diversity and a tendency to misrepresent minorities. In recent years, the lack of Academy Awards nominations for minority actors has angered actors and spectators alike. The tip of the iceberg came in 2016 when the Academy released its list of nominees for the 88th Academy Awards and not a single actor of colour had been nominated. (Robehmed) The hashtag #OscarsSoWhite was coined and began trending on Twitter as people expressed their outrage at what they felt was racial discrimination on the part of the Oscar voters. Others noted that there simply weren’t many minorities actors being cast in leading or otherwise signifiant roles, and so if anyone was to blame, it was the film industry itself. In the midst of this social commentary, an important ethical question was raised: does Hollywood have a diversity problem, and if so, how should it be addressed? This paper will argue that there is a serious lack of diversity amongst Hollywood actors, screenwriters, directors and producers, that this racially-exclusionary culture is morally condemnable, and that the problem is best addressed from a utilitarian perspective.

    Firstly, there is a severe lack of diversity amongst Hollywood casts, screenwriters, directors and producers. The 2016 Hollywood Diversity Report, published by the Ralph J. Bunche Centre for African American Studies at UCLA, found that minorities represented only 12.9% of lead roles in Hollywood films released in 2014 (13). The report then states that “because minorities collectively accounted for 37.9% of the US population in 2014, they were under represented by a factor of nearly 3 to 1 among lead roles in the films examined for that year,” (13). Film isn’t the only media where minorities are underrepresented. The Bunche Centre report found that only 17% of broadcast TV shows released in the 2013-2014 season had casts that reflected the US population race-wise (Patterson). Furthermore, onscreen talent isn’t the only area where film and TV productions are lacking in diversity. According to a report released by the Writers’ Guild of America in 2015, minorities made up only 13.7% of staff employment in the 2013-2014 season (Harris). The same report also found that 94.5% of executive producers were white. In a study from the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, researchers analyzed 407 directors and found that 87% were white. They also found a significant correlation between the the diversity of a production’s director and the diversity of its cast:

    The percentage of on screen underrepresented characters increases 17.5% when an underrepresented director is at the helm of a scripted episode or film. Only 26.2% of characters were     underrepresented when directors were White whereas 43.7% were underrepresented when directors were from racial/ethnic minority groups.

Evidently, minorities are severely underrepresented in both the casts and crews of Hollywood movies and TV. 

    In light of this racial disparity, some try to defend Hollywood by arguing that films and TV are shaped by viewer demand, meaning that if anyone is to blame for the current state of affairs, it is the consumer. This assertion is categorically false. First and foremost, the Ralph J Bunche Centre report found that “films with relatively diverse casts enjoyed the highest median box global box office receipts and the highest median return on investment,” (2). Specifically, Hollywood films with 41-50% nonwhite casts had median global sales of $122 million, whereas films with less than 10% nonwhite casts had median global sales of only $53 million (49). This phenomena is not exclusive to film, as evidenced in the report’s findings:

    Median 18-49 viewer ratings (as well as median household ratings among whites, blacks Latinos, and Asian Americans) peaked for broadcast scripted shows featuring casts that were     greater than 40 percent minority. Social media engagement peaked for broadcast scripted shows with casts that were greater than 30 percent minority. Median 18-49 viewer rating […]       peaked for cable scripted shows with casts that were at least 31 percent minority. Social media engagement peaked for cable scripted shows with casts that were majority minority (5).

The most popular films and TV shows amongst viewers, the ones people are paying to see in at the cinema and choosing to tune in to on their TVs at home are the productions with the greatest diversity. Furthermore, the argument that the majority of films are white-centric because white people buy more movie tickets is refuted by the report’s finding that for the four top-10 films of 2014, including the highest grossing film of the year, minorities accounted for the majority of ticket sales (5). Therefore, the systemic lack of onscreen and behind-the-scenes diversity cannot merely be ascribed to capitalistic interests, as defenders of the status quo claim.

    With such a mountain of evidence supporting the notion that Hollywood has a diversity problem, the question then becomes whether or not Hollywood has a moral obligation to address and correct it. By all accounts, the answer is yes. From a deontological perspective, the racial exclusion of writers and directors fails the categorical imperative since no rational being would that they be passed over for a job because of their race. The immediate deontological solution would therefore be to hire writers and directors without knowing their race or ethnicity in order to prevent prejudice. From a utilitarian perspective, the lack of diversity in the creative team of Hollywood productions leads to both a lack of representation of minorities on screen and the creation of inauthentic token minority characters which misrepresent the members of that minority, which is unquestionably harmful racial equality. The utilitarian solution would therefore be to have a purposefully diverse crew creating characters that are authentic to the experiences of and relatable to the greatest number of people from the greatest number of races, ethnicities and creeds. In this case, the utilitarian solution is both more realistic and convincing than the deontological one. For one thing, it would be exceedingly difficult to consistently remain unaware of the ethnicities of potential creative hires, particularly in a heavily-collaborative industry like film and TV production. Secondly, even if total racial anonymity of prospects was achievable, there would be no guarantee that a film would end up with a diverse creative team since diversity had been removed from the decision-making process. The utilitarian solution of being purposefully diverse would ensure that every film and TV show has a solid multiracial foundation to build upon, resulting in the best viewing experience for the greatest number of people. Darnell Hunt, director of the Bunche Center, put it the following way: “People want to see themselves reflected in media. You relate better to characters who kind of look like you, who have experiences that resonate with your own,” (Patterson).

    In conclusion, Hollywood has a serious diversity problem that needs addressing. The vast majority of movies and TV shows produced in Hollywood feature white leads and relegate minority actors to tokenized secondary roles, portrayals ring false to viewers who identify ethnically with the characters, causing them to feel misunderstood and marginalized. Not only that, but producers are missing out on the revenue benefits of onscreen diversity. This is a serious problem that would be best resolved by film and TV producers making the utilitarian decision to make the diversity of their creative teams a top priority.


Works Cited

Patterson, Brandon E., and Edwin Rios. "Hollywood's lack of diversity is costing it millions. Here's why." Mother Jones. N.p., 26 Feb. 2016. Web. 17 Apr. 2017. http://www.motherjones.com/media/2016/02/oscars-hollywood-lack-diversity-costing-millions.

Robehmed, Natalie. "Hollywood's Diversity Problem Begins In The Writing Room, New Study Shows." Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 23 Feb. 2016. Web. 15 Apr. 2017. https://www.forbes.com/sites/natalierobehmed/2016/01/21/hollywoods-diversity-problem-begins-in-the-writing-room-new-study-shows/#4415c0f4164f

"2016 Hollywood Diversity Report." Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA , 25 Feb. 2016. Web. 16 Apr. 2017. http://www.bunchecenter.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/2016-Hollywood-Diversity-Report-2-25-16.pdf.

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"From C-Suite to Characters on Screen: How inclusive is the entertainment industry?" USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. N.p., 22 Feb. 2016. Web. 16 Apr. 2017. http://annenberg.usc.edu/news/faculty-research/c-suite-characters-screen-how-inclusive-entertainment-industry.