The medium has a message, and it’s inequality


From Walter Benjamin to Marshall McLuhan, cultural critics have focused their attention on the impact of media as machines for the reproduction of cultural products.

It was Benjamin, that brilliant exemplar of Weimar Germany’s greatest thinkers, and a founder of the Frankfurt School, who in 1936 in his most famous essay made a seminal observation about the motion picture:

The characteristics of the film lie not only in the manner in which man presents himself to mechanical equipment but also in the manner in which, by means of this apparatus, man can represent his environment.

Or, as McLuhan titled the first chapter of his most famous book, The Medium is the Message.

And that begin the case, what is the message of today’s film, the medium that introduced mass audiences to the moving image, a medium shaped by corporations in search of profits in an ever-more-complicated mediascape.

Two new studies from the University of California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative reveal sobering new insights about the state of today’s American films, and their message is anything but inclusive, as reflected in two charts, the first from “Inequality in 1,100 Popular Films: Examining Portrayals of Gender, Race/Ethnicity LGBT & Disability from 2007 to 2017,” and the second from “Critic’s Choice? Gender and Race/Ethnicity of Film Reviews Across 100 Top Films of 2017” [click on the images to enlarge]:

Examining the sad state of diversity on the silver screen

First up, the key findings from the report on diversity among those who make movies:

Annually, the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative conducts the most comprehensive and intersectional
investigation into inequality in popular films. We catalogue every independent speaking or named character shown on screen for gender, race/ethnicity, LGBT, and disability as well as a series of contextual variables across an 11-year sample spanning 2007 to 2017. We also assess inclusion behind the camera, examining gender of directors, writers, producers, and composers and the race of directors. In total, 48,757 characters and 1,100 movies have been evaluated for this report.

Key Findings

Gender. A total of 4,454 speaking characters appeared across the 100 top films of 2017, with 68.2% male and 31.8% female. This translates into an on screen gender ratio of 2.15 males to every one female. The percentage of females on screen in 2017 was only 1.9 percentage points higher than the percentage in 2007.

Only 19 stories were gender balanced across the 100 top movies of 2017. A gender-balanced cast refers to a story that fills 45% to 54.9% of the speaking roles with girls/women. The percentage of gender-balanced movies was higher in 2017 than in 2016 and 2007.

Thirty-three films in 2017 depicted a female lead/co lead. The percentage of female leads in 2017 was nearly identical to 2016 [34%] and 2015 [32%] but represents a notable increase from 2007 [20%].

Only 4 movies were driven by a woman of color. All four of these women were from mixed racial/ethnic backgrounds. This number deviates little from 2016 [3] or 2015 [3]. Thirty movies featured a male 45 years of age or older at the time of theatrical release whereas only 5 films depicted a female in the same age bracket. Only one movie was led by a woman of color 45 years of age or older across the 100 top films of 2017.

Female characters [28.4%] were far more likely than male characters [7.5%] to be shown in tight or alluring apparel, and with some nudity [M=9.6%, F=25.4%]. Females 13-20 years old were just as likely as females 21-39 years old to appear in sexy attire or with some nudity.

A total of 1,584 individuals worked above the line as directors, writers, and producers. 81.7% were male and 18.2% were female. Of 109 directors, only 7.3% were female. Only 10.1% of writers were female and 18.2% of producers.

Only 4.3% of all directors across 1,100 movies were women, with 2008 the 11-year high mark during the sample time frame. Assessing the total number of unique female directors, a full 43 women have helmed one or more top-grossing films in 11 years.

Out of 111 composers across the 100 top movies of 2017, only 1 female worked. No more than two female composers have ever been employed per year during the 11 years studied. Only 1.3% of all composers across 1,100 movies were women.

A full 43% of all speaking characters on screen were girls/women in female-directed content [8 movies]. In comparison, only 30.9% of all on screen roles were filled with girls/women under male direction.

Race/Ethnicity. Of characters with an ascertainable race/ethnicity, 70.7% were white, 12.1% Black, 4.8% Asian, 6.2% Hispanic/Latino, 1.7% Middle Eastern, <1% American Indian/Alaskan Native, <1% Native Hawaiian, and 3.9% Mixed Race or Other. Overall, 29.3% of all speaking characters were from an underrepresented racial/ethnic group. In comparison to the U.S. population [38.7% underrepresented] and underrepresented movie ticket buyers [45%], film still lags behind.

Forty-three films were missing Black female characters, 64 did not include any Latinas, and 65 did not include one Asian female speaking character. In contrast, only 7 films were missing white females.

Underrepresented characters in movies from 2017 were least likely to be shown in action/adventure films [28.1%] compared to animated [34%] and comedy [35.6%] films.

Of the 109 directors in 2017, 5.5% were Black or African American. Only one of the Black or African American directors working last year was female. Of the 1,100 movies studied, only 5.2% have been helmed by a Black/African American director. Only 4 Black or AfricanAmerican women have worked in the top 100 movies in the years examined, representing less than 1% of all directors.

The percentage of Black characters in 2017 films increased by 41.8 percentage points when a Black director was behind the camera then when the film did not have a Black director. Of the speaking characters in movies from 2017 with a Black director, 18.5% were Black females, compared to just 2.5% of the speaking characters in movies without a Black director.

In 2017, 4 Asian directors helmed one of the 100 most popular movies—all of these individuals were male. This translates to 3.7% of the 109 directors working in 2017. A mere 3.1% of all directors were Asian or Asian American across 1,100 films and 11 years. Asian female directors are nearly invisible in the sample—of the three slots held by Asian women, two represent the work of Jennifer Yuh Nelson on the Kung Fu Panda films.

LGBT. A total of 4,403 characters were evaluated for apparent sexuality. Of those, 0.7% [n=31] were Lesbian, Gay, or Bisexual. Over half of the LGB characters were Gay [51.6%], while 29% were Lesbian and 19.4% were Bisexual. In addition, there was not one transgender character who appeared across the 100 top movies of 2017.

There has been no change over time in the depiction of LGBT characters on screen since 2014. Out of 400 popular films from 2014 to 2017, only one transgender character has appeared.

A total of 81 films did not include one LGBT speaking character. Examining films missing LGBT females reveals that 94 movies were devoid of these characters.

Over half [58.1%] of LGB characters were male and 41.9% were female. LGB characters were
predominantly white [67.7%], while 32.3% were underrepresented. Only 8 characters of the 4,403 examined were LGB teens.

Imbalance in the journalism of film

And yet another portrait of the sad state of American journalism unfolds in the key findings from the second report:

Key Findings

All Critics.

Across the 100 top movies of 2017 and 19,559 reviews, male critics authored 77.8% of reviews and female critics authored 22.2%. This translates into a gender ratio of 3.5 male reviewers to every 1 female.

White critics authored 82% of reviews whereas critics from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups authored 18%. This point statistic is substantially below [-20.7 percentage points] U.S. Census, where individuals from underrepresented groups clock in at 38.7% of the population.

Looking at reviews through an intersectional lens, White male critics wrote substantially more reviews [63.9%] than their White female [18.1%] or underrepresented male [13.8%] peers. Underrepresented female critics only wrote 4.1% of the sample. The ratio of White women’s reviews to those of their underrepresented female counterparts was 4.4 to 1.

Given that reviewers often evaluate multiple films in the sample, we were also interested in the total number of unique or individual film critics. Just over two-thirds of individual critics were males [68.3%] and 31.7% were females. Of those ascertained for race/ethnicity, a full 76.3% of all critics were White and 23.7% were from underrepresented racial/ethnic backgrounds [UR]. The majority of all critics were White males [53.2%] followed by White females [23%], UR males [14.8%], and then UR females [8.9%].

The average number of reviews written across the 100 top films varied by critic gender and underrepresented status. On average, White male critics wrote more reviews for this year [14.3] than did underrepresented male critics [11.1] and White female critics [9.4]. Underrepresented female critics – on average – only wrote 5.6 reviews.

Not one of the 100 top movies of 2017 had a gender-balanced critics pool reviewing the movie. This is true of both male and female driven story lines. Of those movies with female leads, 69.4% had a critics corps with less than 30% women. Everything, Everything had the highest percentage of female critics [39.8%]. Only two female-driven films featured women of color reviewing in double-digit percentages: 11.8% of critics reviewing Girls Trip were women of color and 10.3% of those reviewing My Little Pony.

Focusing on movies with underrepresented leads [n=24], not one film featured diverse critics at proportional representation to the U.S. Census. The movie that came the closest was How to Be a Latin Lover, with 34.6% underrepresented critics and 15.4% women of color. Most films [n
=15] had underrepresented critics accounting for less than a fifth of all reviewers. The percentage of women of color reviewing all 24 films with underrepresented leads or co leads was in the single digits, save two movies.

Top Critics.

As designated by Rotten Tomatoes, Top critics penned a total of 3,359 reviews across the sample of 100 movies, with 76% written by males and 24% written by females. The gender ratio of male to female Top critics was 3.2 to 1. White critics’ reviews [88.8%] also outnumbered those by critics from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups [11.2%], where the ratio was 7.9 to 1.

Two-thirds of reviews by Top critics were written by White males [67.3%], with less than one
-quarter [21.5%] composed by White women, 8.7% by underrepresented males, and a mere 2.5% by underrepresented females. White male critics were writing top film reviews at a rate of nearly 27 times their underrepresented female counterparts.

Females comprised less than a third of all top reviewers [32.8%]. Males accounted for over two
-thirds of Top critics [67.2%]. Of these 290 Top critics, 84.1% were White and 15.9% were from an underrepresented racial/ethnic group. Crossing gender and race/ethnicity revealed that 59.7% of Top critics were White males, 24.5% were White females, 8.3% were underrepresented females, and 7.6% were underrepresented males.

Top White male critics wrote—on average—13.1 reviews, which is similar to the average for underrepresented male critics [13.2]. White women authored fewer average reviews [10.2], and underrepresented female critics wrote on average just 3.5 reviews across the 100 most popular movies in 2017.

Of female-driven films, only four [11.1%] reached proportional or over representation of top female reviewers. Put differently, women were half or more of the Top critics for four female-driven movies. Four additional films feature 40% or more female reviewers who were Top critics. Nineteen movies with girls and/or women at the center were not reviewed by any Top critic who was an underrepresented female [52.8%]! Looking to stories with underrepresented lead actors, not one movie featured a critic’s pool with proportional representation to U.S. Census. The highest proportion of UR critics were found on three films,
Tyler Perry’s Boo 2: A Madea Halloween, How to be a Latin Lover, and Smurfs: The Lost Village. Nine of the 24 films [37.5%] with underrepresented leads did not have one woman of color reviewing the storyline.

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