Seeing is Believing: Why Representation Matters

While growing up, the characters we see on screen shape us. Their personal struggles, stories, and setbacks inspire us, having a monumental impact on our lives. The influence of media is understood universally. The world of fiction is inspired from real life, so therefore the characters and stories we see on screen should be a reflection of real life. However, that is not the case. Despite the diversity of our society, mainstream media is anything but diverse.

The big screen rarely features minorities in leading roles.

The most recent Academy Awards received tremendous backlash due to the fact that all acting nominees were white actors. This was the second time that this had happened in 2 decades, and inspired the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite on Twitter, which mocked the academy and motivated many people to boycott viewing the awards.

The 2015 Oscars attracted a viewership of over 36.6 million people, reaching fans in more than 200 countries. Since 1928, the Oscars celebrate the very finest in filmmaking. But the message that was heard by the most recent ceremonies was painfully clear: some stories matter more than others.

Let’s take a look at the stats: In the past 85 years, only one woman of colour has won best actress. Only 6 men of colour have won best actor. And in the past 10 years, no awards have been given to those of Latino, Asian, or First Nation descent. Upon hearing this, many people argue that the lack of racial minorities winning awards is not about race, but simply whomever deserved the award received it. But that is hard to believe when 94% of Oscar voters are white, 77% are male, 23% female, and only 6% are people of colour.

Hollywood doesn’t discriminate when discriminating, however. Hollywood is a man’s world, with most movies revolving around the stories of men. In 2013, Dr. Martha M. Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television, released a survey entitled “It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World” focusing on the representation of women in the Top 100 grossing films of 2013, and yielded shocking results:

  • Females only accounted for 15% of protagonists, 29% of major characters, and 30% of all speaking roles
  • Only 13% of top 100 films featured equal numbers of major male and female characters
  • 73% of female characters were white, 14% were African American, 5% were Latino, 3% Asian, 2% other
  • Moviegoers were as likely to see an other worldly character (alien, mythical creature, etc) as they were to see an Asian female character

Dr Lauzen says, “If (white) men are directing the vast majority of our films, the majority of those films will be about (white) males from a (white) male point of view.”

Representation of the LGBTQ+ community is also miniscule. In 2013, GLAAD (formarlly known as the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) released a report called the, “Studio Responsibility Index” which analyzes the rperesentation of the LGBTQ+ communiuty in the movies released by 6 major motion picture studios in 2012. The report revealed:

  • Only 14 movies released in 2012 contained characters identifying as other than straight
  • Of these films, 55.6% of characters were cisgendered-male
  • 9% of the characters were white
  • The most representation of the LGBTQ+ community was in comedies

Sadly, a lot of the times when people of said under-represented groups are in films, the characters are stereotypes. We’ve all seen the flamboyant gay best friend, damsel in distress, Indian princess, and smart Asian. What is lacking is not only quantity, but also quality. Having people of minorities on screen is great, but not when it includes perpetrating stigmas and stereotypes.

The lack of women and minorities on screen is a mirror image of the lack of women and minorities off screen. How can there be diverse films when the majority of writers, directors, and producers are white males?

In 2014, UK writer and producer Stephen Follows released at a report looking at gender in film crews. Stephen studied the 100 highest grossing films at the US Box Office for each year between 1994 and 2013 (a total of 2,000 films). Also, to see how a film’s genre affects things, he looked at the 100 highest grossing films for each genre. In summary:

  • Women make up only 23% of crews
  • Under 2% of all directors are females
  • 11% of writers are female
  • Special Effects is the largest department on most major movies and only has 17.5% women
  • Of all the departments, the Camera and Electrical department is the most male, with only 5% women
  • The departments with the majority of women are makeup, casting, and costume.
  • There has been no improvement in the last 20 years. The percentage of female crew members has decreased between 1994 (22.7%) and 2013 (21.8%).

I don’t believe that everybody in Hollywood is sexist or racist. But what these reports I’ve described outline is that what is going on right now is not right, and has not been getting better.

A potential band-aid-on-the-situation solution would be more female directors. According to Lauzen, at least one woman working in a position of power behind the scenes, we see more female characters on screen. In films with a woman director, females comprised 42 percent of all characters. Furthermore, films with women directors also tend to employ greater numbers of women writers, editors, and cinematographers.

The fact of the matter is not that there are less women applying for these jobs. The ratio of men and women who graduate from film school hoping to be directors is 50/50 . Then where is the disparity coming from? Unfortunately, women face more trouble reaching the top. The director of a film is considered a leader, and sadly many people associate leaders with men. Perhaps the toughest thing about filmmaking for women is not making it, but having to deal with sexism, discrimination, and sexual harassment.

This is not something that can be fixed overnight and the solution isn’t to hire more women and minorities for diversity’s sake. It would be ridiculous to hire someone not qualified for the job. But we must be willing to give the same opportunities to everyone.

Activist, author, entrepreneur, and founder of the White House Project Marie C. Wilson said, “You can’t be what you can’t see,” a quote that has impacted me greatly. It is important for young people to look on screen and the see role models with whom they can relate and identify with. This can only happen if the representation of women and minorities increases.