The Diversity Game: The Oscars’ Whitest Year?

For those of you who have paid slight attention to the recent announcement of the 2015 Oscar nominations, it should come as no surprise that both journalists and social media users have questioned the award’s apparent lack of diversity. ‘Questioned’ is perhaps not the correct word in this regard: the Oscars have been accused by several commentators of promoting “appalling” racial bias, and for completely ignoring women outside of the designated “female categories”.

And sadly, it is not particularly hard to see why. No non-white actors or actresses featured among the 20 nominees in the four acting categories, and all of the nominations for Best Original and Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography and Best Director went to white men. As such, the 2015 Oscars have been characterised as the “whitest year” in over a decade; not since 1998 have no non-white actors been nominated in the four major acting categories. As NY Daily News’ film critic Elizabeth Weitzman aptly remarked: “I, for one, am taking great comfort in the fact that all of this year’s Best Actress nominees are women,” implying that had we not had the designated “female” categories, we may very well have seen no women featured either.

Such statistics are not made better by the fact that, out of the more than six thousand members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science who are responsible for the nominations, 94 per cent are white and 77 per cent are men. The average age, perhaps not surprisingly, is 63. As such, it appears that the various commentators are right in claiming that the true Oscar winner is a white middle-aged man.

One could perhaps argue that this is a problem only relevant to the Oscars. With the nominations being directly dependent on the votes of the Academy’s members, it is perhaps unsurprising that the diversity (or lack thereof) amongst the nominees reflects that of the Academy. However, is the Oscars’ lack of diversity representative of the TV and film industry as a whole?

Unfortunately, according to the 2014 Hollywood Diversity Report developed by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA, this appears to be the case. Of the top 172 films examined in 2011, minorities claimed only 10.5 per cent and women only 25.6 per cent of lead roles. In addition, over half of the films examined featured casts that included a ten per cent minority or less. The results are, with a few exceptions, pretty much mirrored when examining the level of diversity in television. The report concludes that, “across all arenas, for both minorities and women, underrepresentation is the norm. The only variation is the degree of underrepresentation, which extends from marginal to extreme.”

Why is this so? The first, and perhaps most intuitive, argument that needs to be examined is that of the ‘bottom line’ or profits. If it could be shown that increased diversity in film and television leads to a reduction in profits, then this could explain why so few female and minority actors are represented in the industry. However, this appears not to be the case. The Hollywood Diversity Report found that, in fact, out of the 172 films that were examined in 2011, the 25 films that featured a 21-30 per cent minority cast saw a total median box office revenue of $160.1 million. In contrast, the films that featured less than a ten per cent minority cast only earned $68.5 million.

Last year was the first time the Hollywood Diversity Report was published and, as such, one should be hesitant to draw any definite conclusions from its findings. However, it does give a strong indication that increased diversity does not, in and of itself, lead to reduced profits. In contrast, it may actually lead to an increase. And it is not that hard to see why. In the US, although minorities amount to ‘only’ 36.3 per cent of the overall population, they make up 44.1 per cent of so-called ‘frequent moviegoers’. As such, they are in fact underrepresented on the screens they themselves frequently watch. As the cinematic experience to a large extent is about finding stories and situations to which one can identify and relate, the fact that both women and minorities are underrepresented compromises the very point of the art itself.

If the lack of diversity in the film and TV industry is not due to profits, what is then to blame? Unfortunately, we must once again return to the Oscars, its TV equivalent the Emmy, and the like. These are not like any other awards ceremonies; they are deemed the best of their kind. As such, they are not only a product of the society in which they are set, but actually help form and maintain that society. When awards like the Oscars and the Emmy do not recognise female or minority actors, that helps to create a standard which spreads to the wider industry. By not including such actors, directors and screenwriters in the category of cinematic and television excellence, it may by some be taken as a sign that they perhaps should not be included in the industry at all.

Thus far we have only looked at the situation in the Hollywood film and TV industry. How are we doing in terms of diversity in the UK? This week, in the aftermath of the Oscars diversity row, Benedict Cumberbatch stated on the Tavis Smiley PBS talk show that it is actually easier to be a black actor in the US than in the UK. He said, “a lot of my friends have had more opportunities here [in the US] than in the UK and that’s something that needs to change.” Although it is hard to find concrete evidence supporting such a statement, if it is shown to be true, this is a worrying trend indeed. Considering how little diversity we have found in the American film and TV industry, the UK should, if nothing else, ensure that it does not fall further behind the US in this regard, and even better, work towards improving an industry that should be representative of the broader society which it purports to represent.

It is perhaps a cliché that white middle-aged men tend to hire other white middle-aged men. However, in an industry which is so clearly skewed in favour of a certain group of the population, one can question whether this cliché is not in fact the root of the problem. The make-up of the Oscars Academy clearly goes a long way in proving this, as do the priorities of the large acting agencies whose list of clients tend to feature members of the same privileged group (as shown by the 2014 Report).

So what can be done about the lack of diversity in the TV and film industry? It is hard to pinpoint any definite solutions to a problem that is so ingrained in the industry and society as a whole. However, as always, the changing of attitudes seems to be the only way forward. Viewer ratings and box office numbers, as shown, do not seem to be sufficient in this regard. What is needed is a general demand from us, the viewers, for an industry that is representative of the society in which we live, which reflects and reproduces the values of a multicultural and diverse society, and not just that of the white middle-aged man.

 

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