Hollywood’s Diversity Progress Remains Sluggish, USC Study Says

Annenberg Inclusion Initiative’s annual report comes as studios have seen an exodus of DEI executives

stephanie hsu michelle yeoh ke huy quan everything everywhere all at once
From left, Stephanie Hsu, Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan in "Everything Everywhere All at Once." (A24)

The University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative released its annual report Thursday on Hollywood’s track record on including women and people of color in front of and behind the camera, and the data shows little improvement in 2022.

The study, led by Dr. Stacy L. Smith, examined the top 100 grossing films in each year from 2007 to 2022, covering 69,858 speaking roles. While the female share of leading roles rose to a record 44% in 2022, the share of overall speaking roles stood at just 34.6%, marking no improvement from 2021 and only 4.7 percentage points higher than 2007.

In addition, only 15% of the top films surveyed in 2022 had a speaking role female share of at least 45%, same as in 2007.

“It is clear that the entertainment industry has little desire or motivation to improve casting processes in a way that creates meaningful change for girls and women,” Smith said. “The lack of progress is particularly disappointing following decades of activism and advocacy.”

When it comes to ethnicity, progress has been mixed. While the percentage of white speaking roles has decreased over the 15 years covered in the survey, only Asian roles have seen a significant increase from 3.4% in 2007 to 15.9% in 2022. Last year, underrepresented groups accounted for 38.3% of all speaking roles in the top 100 films, slightly below the 41% U.S. population benchmark.

Women of color have seen a long-term improvement in lead role share, going from just one top 100 film in 2007 having a woman of color in the lead role to 19 in 2022.

But on the flip side, the study had an “invisibility” analysis to show how women of various ethnicities were absent from the top 100 films surveyed. While only seven top 100 films in 2022 had no white women in speaking roles, 32 were missing Black women in speaking roles while 44 were missing Asian women.

The “invisibility” data gets worse from there: 61 films in the top 100 of 2022 had no Latina speaking roles, 95 had no Middle Eastern/North African female roles, 99 had no Pacific Islander female roles, and not a single film in the top 100 of 2022 had an American Indian female role.

“These trends suggest that any improvement for people from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups is limited,” Smith said. “While it is encouraging to see changes for leading characters and for the Asian community, our data on invisibility suggests that there is still much more to be done to ensure that the diversity that exists in reality is portrayed on screen.”

Finally, USC Annenberg surveyed films for LGBTQ and disability representation, with 2.1% of speaking roles in 2022 going to LGBTQ characters and 1.9% going to characters with disabilities. The study pointed out that there were only five transgender speaking roles among films in the top 100 of 2022, with four of them coming from Billy Eichner’s LGBTQ comedy “Bros.”

USC Annenberg’s survey comes out roughly a month after multiple Hollywood studios, including Disney, Netflix and Warner Bros., saw their chief diversity officers depart. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences also saw its diversity executive, Jeanell English, leave the organization after joining in 2020 and less than a year after being named to a newly created EVP position for inclusion.

“I find it interesting that I had to make headlines exiting the Academy for conversations on my work to begin and that’s concerning,” English told TheWrap shortly after her exit.

The exodus drew the attention and scorn of the California Legislative Black Caucus, which saw the DEI departures as a sign that Hollywood was abandoning the inclusion efforts that it pledged to implement after the #OscarsSoWhite protests in 2015 and the larger Black Lives Matter protests following George Floyd’s murder in 2020.

“One executive removal could be a fluke, but four more? And we’re hearing more are to come. This is a troubling pattern. A pattern that suggests diversity, equity and inclusion is no longer a priority at the highest levels of the film industry, where decisions are made and institutional change happens,” State Sen. Lola Smallwood-Cuevas said.

In the study, Smith noted that the solutions suggested by her USC Annenberg team are the same ones they have repeated every year when their study is released, and says that the data largely shows that while there has been progress compared to 15 years ago, recent years have seen the increase in representation stall out.

“It’s clear that the industry is either not listening or not implementing the straightforward practices that would result in an influx of talented artists from a variety of backgrounds,” Smith said. “Until the industry takes meaningful action, not only will companies miss out on these perspectives and stories, so will audiences.”

The full 2023 USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative study can be read here.