Persistent Underrepresentation of Minorities in Hollywood

Behind and within every film and television show that premieres, the cast, crew and creators have worked hard to put their piece of entertainment out in the world. They can then rise to acclaim, and if they do, they will continue to create more of what they know, and most of all, what made them succeed. However, the majority of the people behind all these decisions of who’s cast and who’s creating are falling behind in the very pressing issue of diversity.

Yes, there have been strides towards more people of color and women taking up the jobs on and off-screen, but according to the numbers, there is still a long road to travel. The problem of having the smart and nerdy Asian sidekick or the feisty Latina best friend, which already depends on highly stereotypical methods of portraying ethnic characters, goes further than just misrepresentation. The Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA released their fourth edition of the “Hollywood Diversity Report” in February 2017, covering film from 2015 and the 2014-15 television season. One word stuck out to me: underrepresented.

The report covered multiple categories, starting with data moving onto the Hollywood landscape, different diversity initiatives, box office performances and more. All their findings point to one of the university’s main goals with this research: proving that diversity in such productions does indeed sell. When people of one minority see a specific movie or show that displays a character or storyline they can identify with, they are more inclined to take time and watch. And with audiences becoming more and more diverse, the entertainment industry should be looking to appeal to those audience members and their backgrounds. The diversity report states that “median 18-49 viewer ratings (as well as median household ratings among whites, blacks, Latinos, and Asian Americans) peaked during the 2014-15 season for broadcasted scripted shows featuring casts that were greater than 40 percent minority.” And while the minorities of the United States made up 40 percent of the population in 2015, Latinos, Asian Americans, and blacks remained underrepresented in a majority of the industry employment arenas UCLA looked into. Women have also remained unfairly represented in these same positions.

The report does note that there have been gains towards more representation and diversity in these areas, for both minorities and women, but the leaps have not been too high. Looking exclusively at lead roles in films between 2011 and 2015, 2012 had the greatest number of women at 30.8 percent. However, “because women constitute slightly more than half of the U.S. population, they were underrepresented by a factor of a little less than 2 to 1,” the report states. Minorities peaked in lead roles with 16.7 percent in 2013, but because they were 38.4 percent of the population (2015), they remain severely underrepresented as well. If you didn’t believe the #OscarsSoWhite trend, hopefully these numbers prove that it wasn’t just a social media conversation.

Now, one of the areas in which minorities have gained ground is in Broadcast Scripted Television. “Minority actors claimed 11.4 percent of lead roles in broadcast scripted programming in the 2014-15 season,” which was up from the previous 8.1 percent. These shows include “Fresh Off the Boat,” “Blackish,” and one of my favorites, “Jane the Virgin.” The wonderful Gina Rodriguez stars as Jane Villanueva, a 20-something year old Latina woman who grew up with her mother and grandmother from Mexico, dealing with her somewhat normal life, finally meeting her biological father and getting artificially inseminated. Although I may not have accidentally become a mother recently, I am a 21-year-old Latina college student who also grew up with my (Salvadorian) mom and grandma, never knowing my biological father. And thanks to this show, I have found a character who I can constantly identify with when it comes to her character and family. Through this experience, I see how important diversity in Hollywood is.
So how do we get more diverse characters onto the screen? We create more opportunities and stories that allow them to enter this golden age of television. We look into more experiences and histories that are worth telling, like Pixar’s “Coco” or “Hidden Figures.” Much of this means making room at the top, so decisions and opportunities can be made to allow those unrepresented to rise. And supporting the shows and networks that are creating diverse content so that those in charge know what we want.

“Quality storytelling plus rich, diverse performances equals box office and ratings success,” concludes the report. Nothing is lost when we correctly and willingly portray the cultural and beautiful diversity that defines the nation today.

Emily Santiago-Molina is a fourth-year literary journalism major. She can be reached at emsantia@uci.edu.