Reprinted with permission from the American Association of University Women
Last month’s announcement of the 2016 Oscar nominees put Hollywood’s much-debated diversity problem on blast. For the second year in a row, no people of color were nominated in any major acting category. As the conversation continues, activists are rightly pointing out that Hollywood’s issues with race are much bigger—and its biases rooted much deeper—than just who gets nominated for awards. Rather, the lack of diversity among this year’s Academy Award nominees points to a systemic problem around the homogeneity of whose stories get to be told on film. As Viola Davis eloquently said last fall, “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”
The winter 2016 issue of AAUW Outlook magazine, which focuses on women in the arts, tackles this problem. As detailed in our article on gender bias in Hollywood, the top executives of major Hollywood film studios are 94 percent white and 100 percent male. We spoke with Montré Missouri, a filmmaker and associate professor at Howard University, about the powerful connection between the lack of diversity among Hollywood decision makers and the white, male-driven films that dominate the big screen, as well as the serious ramifications for women and girls.
Contrary to what Hollywood executives might think, women and other marginalized groups, including people of color, the LGBT community and people with disabilities, have stories that deserve to be told. “It cannot be stressed enough how important it is that more women and non-white filmmakers are behind the camera,” says Missouri. “It is not only financially lucrative for the industry, but it is also essential for our understanding of who we are as a culture.”
Here are five ways you can take action to thwart Hollywood’s diversity problem.
1. Use your consumer power.
Imagine what would happen if more people refused to pay for movies that lack empowering representations of women and minorities. Facing a major profit loss, studios would be forced to change their ways. Feminist film utopia, here we come!
Jokes aside, women’s consumer power is a force to be reckoned with; women account for 52 percent of moviegoers. So put your money where your mouth is: Refuse to pay for films and stop watching TV shows that denigrate Native Americans, fail to empower trans actors, erase people of color and disempower women.
2. Actively support independent and women-led films.
Just as we should think critically about what movies we don’t see, we should actively support films that represent the diverse experiences of women and marginalized groups.
Grassroots initiatives like the Parallel Film Collective are a valuable resource to look toward. Parallel showcases films that, as co-founder Missouri describes, “transcend [the] limiting racial, cultural and gender identities found in mainstream media.”
The ReelAbilities Film Festival showcases films by and about people with disabilities, and Women and Girls Lead Global provides a critical spotlight for global documentaries about issues affecting women and girls all over the world.
There’s also GLAAD’s (Gay and Lesbian Alliance against Defamation) annual report on how LGBT people are depicted in Hollywood films, a powerful tool to help inform your decisions about which DVDs to buy or Netflix shows to binge.
3. Call out bias! Join the online movement.
Hashtag activism is all the rage these days. And there’s a reason why: It works. The viral hashtag #OscarsSoWhite—created by April Reign in response to the all-white Oscars 2016 nominees—sparked a movement that not only united celebrities, politicians and movie buffs, but also elicited significant institutional reforms from the academy itself.
But OscarsSoWhite isn’t the only recent activism against Hollywood bias. In November, online activists successfully pressured Lionsgate to address whitewashing in the casting of its fantasy film Gods of Egypt. Around the same time, advocates called for a boycott of Stonewall, the problematically white-cast film depicting the LGBT movement. See bias? Call it out!
4. Tackle your own unconscious bias.
We all hold biases, shaped by wider cultural stereotypes. These biases — many of which are unconscious — affect what types of films and television shows we choose to watch, especially when it comes to race and gender. According to a 2009 study, the higher the percentage of black actors in a film, the less interested white viewers were in seeing the movie. Luckily, evidence shows that identifying and learning about the unconscious associations we harbor is the first step to correcting them, and you can contribute by participating online when the test goes live this month.
5. Learn the history of Hollywood’s diversity problem.
Hollywood’s deep-seated biases didn’t develop overnight. The NAACP has been calling out Hollywood racism for decades. The recently launched federal investigation into Hollywood sexism followed decades of outcry from women working in the industry. Even the shocking lack of diversity among this year’s Oscar nominees is nothing new: Twenty years ago, People magazine wrote a scathing indictment of the all-white 1996 Oscar nominees. Back then, the protest was largely ignored. But this time around, activists (and audiences) aren’t letting Hollywood off the hook when it comes to implementing more reforms—and neither should we.
Opening photo of Viola Davis, the first African American woman to win an Emmy for best actress in a drama via Wikimedia Commons.