Black Women ‘Missing’ in a Third of 2019’s Top Grossing Films, New USC Report Shows

Asian women were absent from more than half of the top 100 films, while Latina women did not appear in 71 of the top movies

Us Lupita Nyong'o
Universal Pictures

Black women and girls were completely absent from at least one third of last year’s 100 top-grossing movies, while Asian women were missing from 55 and Latina women did not appear in 71, according to data from USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative’s annual report released Thursday.

The “invisibility analysis” was one of many insights as part of the latest study of 2019’s top-grossing films as led by Professor Stacy L. Smith. Dr. Smith demonstrates that while Hollywood has shown improvement in giving representation to women, people of color and LGBT individuals as the lead characters in films, the industry has hardly budged when it comes to giving under-represented groups speaking roles on screen overall, with these groups often erased from movies altogether.

White women, by comparison, were missing from 7% of the top films from last year. Among other racial groups, only one film had a Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, three had an American Indian or Native Alaskan and eight films had any Middle Eastern or North African characters. Meanwhile, 77 films did not portray a single girl or woman with a disability and 94 films were devoid of even one female-identified LGBT character.

As a whole, just over a third of all speaking characters from the top movies from 2019 (34.3%) were under-represented characters, men or women, 15 of which had no Black speaking roles at all, 44 with no Hispanic or Latino speaking characters, and 36 with no Asian roles.

“The erasure of girls and women from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups, the LGBTQ community, and those with disabilities remains a hallmark of top-performing Hollywood films,” Dr. Smith said in a statement. “Intersectional inclusion on screen must be an area for targeted intervention.”

The report, titled “Inequality in 1,300 Popular Films,” shows an uptick in the number of lead roles given to people of color and women between 2018 and 2019, with 32 films showcasing people of color in the lead role, while 17 featured a woman or girl in the lead, compared to just 11 in 2018. But on the whole Smith argues that the work of under-represented groups is still minimized.

As for LGBT roles, the report said that 78 of the top 100 films had LGBTQ characters, and even among those films, many had no women identified as LGBTQ. The report even noted that although there were three transgender characters compared to none dating all the way back to 2016, these characters were “inconsequential” to the film and had a total screen time of just two minutes.

Finally, the report addressed a lack of disabilities shown on screen, with just 2.3% of all speaking characters also depicting a disability. Nearly half of the top 100 did not have any disabled characters at all.

“After 13 years, it is not clear what might convince entertainment companies to change,” Dr. Smith said. “Despite public statements, the data reveal that there is still apathy and ambivalence to increasing representation of speaking characters overall in popular films. This is both the easiest representational gap to address and one that is essential to strengthen the pipeline to more prominent roles.”

Smith singled out Universal and Paramount as leading the way in inclusion, with the two studios each leading their competitors in six different indicators of representation, including the highest percentage of female leads, directors, writers and producers, as well as under-represented leads or co-leads.

The report recommends solutions to change including setting target inclusion goals, inclusion riders, transparent hiring and interview practices and supporting non-profits that aim to bolster new filmmakers.


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