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Should Screenwriters Actively Add Diversity and Representation into Their Screenplays?

November 6, 2018

Fade in on Jack, a thirty-something white male, staring at his laptop. Staring back at him is the last sentence he just finished typing: "As our heroes rush off to face the space aliens attacking the city, an OFFICER runs into the street pushing the crowd back to a safe distance." A nameless character Jack would not have thought about twice before, but he remembered his friend Melissa, a girl-next-door type in her mid-twenties, complaining she always works background as a nurse or a barista, never as a cop. Jack wonders if he should describe this officer as a female? If this script ever got picked up, an actress like Melissa could play that role. Jack shakes his head as a dismissive thought enters his brain. "That is casting’s job" he mumbles to himself. Jack pushes up his glasses and poises himself to write the next line of action. His fingers hover over his keyboard as stares at the word "Officer." "Maybe I should..." says Jack as he starts to realize the power he has in his fingertips, that he can have a say in casting his story. The decision Jack faces is a decision all screenwriters are facing: should writers actively step up and add diverse representation into their scripts or leave it to Hollywood itself to step up? As the architects of the stories told on the big and small screens, screenwriters have a duty to use their power to create stories that represent the true diversity of our world. By committing to using this power, screenwriters can type away Hollywood's diversity problem which will lead to more substantial box office returns, more opportunities for minority actors and help different communities comes together.

 

Hollywood has a diversity problem on screens of all sizes. In the last few years, Hollywood has seemingly shifted towards diversity with critical and Box Office successes of such films as Hidden Figures, Moonlight, Wonder Woman, Call Me By Your Name, Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians. Seemingly is the critical word in that sentence, the numbers do not show as much of a shift as those successes indicate. According to the UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report 2018, only 1.4 of out ten lead actors in the top theatrically released films between 2011-2016 were people of colour (14). During that same time, the percentage of minorities living in the United States is an average of 38.7% (Hunt et al. 2). On the small screen, things are slightly better for people of colour depending on where the programming is distributed. Between the 2011-2012 Broadcast seasons and the 2015-2016 season, scripted shows with leads that were people of colour rose from a mere 5.1% to 18.7% (Hunt et al. 15). Cable scripted series in that same timeframe rose from 14.7% to 20.2% (Hunt et al. 16). Digital scripted shows for Netflix, Hulu, and similar services are behind the pack with a raise from 9.1% season scripted shows with leads that were people of colour in the 2013-2014 season, to 12.9% in 2015-2016 (Hunt et al. 16). 

 

Female-led films and television programs have similarly dismal numbers. 25.6% of 2011's top theatrical films featured female leads; this number increased by 5.6% by 2016 (Hunt et al. 2). Broadcast television saw a sharp decrease in female lead series, dropping from 51.5% in the 2011-2012 season, a number that closely reflects the percentage of women in the US, to 35.7% in the 2015-2016 season (Hunt et al. 15-16). Cable scripted series rose from 37.2% to 44.8% in that same time span, and Digital Scripted shows had similar numbers with 35.3% female lead shows in 2013-2014 rising to 43.1% in the 2015-2016 season (Hunt et al. 16-17). Dr. Smith highlights in her report ‘Inequality in 700 Popular Films: Examining Portrayals of Gender, Race, & LGBT Status from 2007 to 2014' there were only three female leads who are also from minority racial or ethnic groups in the top 100 films from 2014 (3).

 

The UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report 2018 does not even include data on LGBTQA+ characters and the report on Inequality in 700 Popular Films: Examining Portrayals of Gender, Race, & LGBT Status from 2007 to 2014 includes only four paragraphs of information on the subject towards the end of the report and single chart. This staggering statistic was bolded in the report "Across the 4,610 speaking or named characters on screen, only 19 were coded as LGB across the 100 top films of 2014." (Smith et al. 20). What this onslaught of numbers shows is that although there have been recent successes of minority, female, and LGBT+ led films is a step in the right direction, there is still so much more ground to cover before film and television are genuinely representative.

 

With so few roles available, minority and women actors are faced with compromising themselves or their culture to get ahead. Apu from The Simpsons is one of the few non-yellow, which is that universe's white, characters on the animated series. Hank Azaria, an American of Jewish, Spanish, and Greek descent, voices the Indian character with a very stereotypical Indian accent. When the show spun off the Tracy Ulman Show in 1990, no one batted an eye, but fast forward to present day, and Apu is a problematic character who is the subject of the documentary The Problem with Apu by Indian-American comedian Hari Kondabolu. Apu, voiced by a white man, has a "brown voice" (Davé 143). What is a brown voice? A brown voice is an accent brown, black and Asian characters in film and television often are saddled with a foreign nature but boxed into the familiar via a stereotype. Davé's article on Racial Accents, Hollywood Casting and Asian American Studies frame this "brown voice" minority actors face when it comes to casting by highlighting the inspired by real life "Indians on TV" episode of Aziz Ansari's Master of None series (55). The episode is all about the dilemma minority actors face when presented with job opportunities that come with them having to put on the "brown voice." Aziz's character Dev auditions for the role of "Nameless Cab Driver". He auditions in his normal voice, but the casting director asks Dev to the do an Indian accent. Dev states he is uncomfortable doing so, but the casting director argues, heavily, for him to do the accident. Dev continues to refuse, and the role ultimately goes to his friend who was comfortable with doing the accent during his audition. This dramatized comedic situation showcases what many minority actors face when auditioning for the limited roles available to them: Play the stereotype or lose out on the few roles offered to someone who looks like you.

 

Actresses of all ethnicities and colours often face the choice of compromising themselves, not with stereotypical accents but instead by exposing their bodies. Dr. Smith's study revealed 27.9% of female characters in the top 100 theatrical films in 2014 wore sexy attire (10). Very often it is not just the type of clothing actresses must wear but rather the lack thereof. One-fourth of all female characters in the top 100 theatrical films of 2014 had some level of on-screen nudity compared to only 9% of male characters (Smith et al. 10). That number is staggering, one in four. Actresses are one hundred and fifty percent more likely to have to be nude on screen than their male counterparts. With sheer lack of roles for women in film and television, this means refusing nudity can dramatically affect an actress’s' career. The lack of opportunities for minority and female actors are farther compounded by the compromises they must face in playing these roles.

 

Film and television have been powerful forces of social change since their inceptions. Ellen’broke ground by having a lesbian as its main character when both the actress and the character came out of the closet. All in The Family introduced the world to Beverly Lasalle, a drag queen that humanized a gender fluid character in the 1970's. The Mindy Project’portrays an American woman of Indian decent without her ethnicity being the subject of the show. These television shows brought minority and unrepresented characters into the homes of millions of Americans and helped show these characters as merely just people. Film and Television have the power to move the social scale towards tolerance and equality.

 

In Lee et al.'s study ‘Who is The Help? Use of Film to Explore Diversity' the positive impact representation has on society was tangibly measured. The study involved a screening of the film The Help and a post-film panel which consisted of a middle-aged white male who was an administrator of a university, two young African American women who were housekeepers employed by that same university and a middle-aged white woman as the moderator. The panel was designed to create a safe environment for the participants to "candidly use each other's statements and observations to identify potential solutions to the resistance of acceptance of diversity in today's culture." (Lee et al. 96) Before and after the panel, participants were given a survey asking questions about their comfort levels with people of different races, genders, income levels; as well as the importance of race, gender, sexual orientation, and class. They were also asked about their perceived learning benefits from the screening and panel. The participant's scores on the importance of race, gender, sexual orientation all went up in the mean. The importance of race went from a mean rating of 3.96 to 4.25 (Lee et al. 97). When comparing mean scores by race on the subject of whether the screening and panel helped participants "Better understand the sociocultural issues of others who had different life experiences from me." (Lee et al. 97) white participants rated it at a mean of 4.41 while people of colour rated it at a mean of 3.85 (97).

 

The study did not just collect numbers, but also emotional experiences. Many of the participants had strong emotional reactions to The Help and the panel. Anger, embarrassment, empathy, sense of empowerment, and thankfulness for society improvement were some of the many emotions expressed. The study itself gave the panel members and study participants a safe place to discuss hard issues such as racial inequality, sexism, and class in a public forum where such discussions are often uncomfortable. They reflected on how things have changed, as the middle-aged white male panelist discussed: "The feeling that I have about the movie is I am deeply embarrassed because that was, well . . . that actually really did reflect the attitudes and treatment of black people at that time from what I could see . . ." (Lee at al. 99), and how things have not. An African American woman in the audience shared her experience working as a housekeeper recently: "And I experienced some of the things that happened in the movie . . . I cried from personal experience. I've been spit at. I've had a door slammed in my face." (Lee at al. 99). The viewing of The Help connected with this audience on a deep level as the film made them measurably more likely to be comfortable with someone of another race, gender, sexual orientation or class. The film helped facilitate the discussion of tough subjects such as racism and sexism. A piece of entertainment helped change an audience's perception by giving them a new perspective through representation.

 

The numbers on Hollywood's failure to properly represent our society have been spilled out. Anecdotes and statistics of the compromises that must be made by female and minority actors trying to land the few roles available to them have been told. The ability of film and television to win hearts and minds has been put on display. In Hollywood, rating numbers and box office returns are benchmarks of an idea or trend being attention worthy within the Hollywood machine. Producing films and television programming is expensive, and success must be counted by profit margins. When a screenwriter considers whether they should even bother diversifying their scripts, they should think about this bottom line because the argument “this isn’t my job” does not hold water when profitability is considered. On the domestic box office front, films that have had a cast that consisted of 21-30% minority characters grossed the largest mean box office averaging 62.5 million dollars (Hunt et al. 60). Films in this range also were released in the most theaters nationwide and had highest mean opening weekends. Just below that are films with a majority-minority cast in 2016 with a mean domestic box office of 42.1 million dollars (Hunt et al. 60). This box office magic for majority-minority cast films was made despite being screened in nearly 1000 fewer theaters on average (Hunt et al. 60).  Looking at just those numbers shows that diverse representation appeals to domestic audiences. Internationally diversity in casting also improves box office draw. In 2016 there were 64 films released internationally that had only ten percent of the cast consisting of minorities characters; these 64 films made a median of $38.4 million globally (Hunt et al. 61).  That same year 51 films were released internationally with casts that ranged from 21 to 50 percent minority characters; those films earned a median global box office of 393.3 million dollars (Hunt et al. 61). That is more than a tenfold increase in median global box office return. Films released internationally with over 50 percent minority casting, of which there was 17 total, earned a median of $55 million globally (Hunt et al. 61). Domestically and globally diversity sells. A smart screenwriter would add diversity to his or her script as it is the job of a screenwriter to write successful movies.

 

Jack still sits in front of laptop staring at the last sentence he wrote: "As our heroes rush off to face the space aliens attacking the city an OFFICER runs into the street pushing the crowd back to a safe distance." He has not decided what to do, does he leave this small role genderless or does he create a female character for someone like his friend Melissa? "It is not my job. It is casting's job." Jack mutters to himself, but then he looks down at his phone at the UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report 2018 Jack had procrastinated the last two hours away looking at. Right on the chart: 13.8% of the screenwriters who wrote the top theatrical films in 2016 were women (Hunt et al. 39). Female screenwriters are statistically more likely to write female characters in their script, but not many female screenwriters are even hired to write the majority of studio films. The word "Officer" was now Jack's sole focus. He thought about the fact he was about to give this officer a line of dialogue. Jack smirked, "I'm writing a superhero movie… And only 21.8% of action speaking roles went to female characters in 2014." (Smith et al. 3). Jack leaned back into his chair. "How is it not my job? I'm the writer of this story. I know there is a problem." Jack laughs to himself in this moment of realization. He leans forward and types "FEMALE" next to "OFFICER." Fade out on Jack, our thirty-something white male screenwriter as his part in this story is over. He has used his power for good. Jack is typing away Hollywood's diversity problem.

 

Works Cited

 

Davé, Shilpa. "Racial Accents, Hollywood Casting, and Asian American Studies." Cinema Journal, vol. 56, no. 3, Spring 2017, pp. 142-147,EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsglr&AN=edsgcl.491136668&site=eds-live&scope=site.
 

Hunt, Darnell, et al. Hollywood Diversity Report. Vol. 2018, UCLA College Social Sciences Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, 2018.
 

Lee, Eun-Kyoung Othelia, and Mary A. Priester. "Who Is The Help? Use of Film to Explore Diversity." Journal of Women and Social Work, vol. 29, no. 1, 2014, pp. 92-104, EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edswss&AN=000329318500009&site=eds-live&scope=site.
 

Smith, Stacy L., et al. Inequality in 700 Popular Films: Examining Portrayals of Gender, Race, & LGBT Status from 2007 to 2014. Vol. 1, USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, 2014.

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