A Conversation About Hollywood and Diversity: Why It Matters

Co-authored by Donna Y Ford, Ph.D. Vanderbilt University, author of Recruiting and Retaining Culturally Different Students in Gifted Education, Mother, Grandmother, and Advocate for Racial Justice

We have come together to have a conversation about racism and the media industry. As scholars, we are concerned about systemic biases in Hollywood and how they influence people’s ideas and behaviors in the real world, in ways that people may be unaware of. As mothers, we believe it as imperative to have an open dialogue about the role of media in creating and reinforcing harmful stereotypes in order to create a more just world for the next generation. It is in this spirit that we have come together to have an honest conversation across race and about race and Hollywood.

Patricia Leavy: Hollywood has a serious diversity problem that demands our attention. What concerns me in particular is the behind-the-scenes. I am concerned about who writes, produces, directs and creates our television programming and movies, and who are in the power positions as executives and members of the Academy. What we see on our silver and flat screens is a direct result of who occupies these key roles. If we want more diverse stories, we need more diverse storytellers. Much like the sexism that is pervasive in Hollywood, so too, there is a great lack of diversity.

Here are some statistics. Minorities represented only 7.4 percent of show creators in the 2011-2012 season. Film studio heads are 94 percent White, and TV network and studio heads are 96 percent White; senior management in the film industry is 92 percent White, and senior management in the TV industry is 93 percent White. To show the intersection of race and gender consider this, only 3 percent of show creators and 2.3 percent of writers are Black women. Then consider not just who green lights projects, creates and executes them, but consider the award system that elevates some films and filmmakers. According to the LA Times, the academy’s 15 branches are almost exclusively White and male with Whites currently making up 90 percent or more of every academy branch except actors, which is 88 percent White. The LA Times further reports the academy’s executive branch is 98 percent White, as is its writers branch. The short version, Oscar voters are by and large White and male.

The media is one of the major socializing agents in society. That means that the narratives and images that circulate in the media impact the way people think. They aren’t meaningless. People internalize the images and narratives from media culture and they create, recreate or challenge our ideas, beliefs and values. They impact what we perceive as normal, right, wrong, and so forth. The narratives in media culture impact how we think, see, and act. So as a sociologist, what I find most alarming is that there is a very small range of perspectives influencing the output of one of the most powerful agents of socialization in the world. One area of concern is about race itself. As Hollywood is largely White, what kinds of ideas about race do they create and circulate in the culture? What points of view are missing?

Donna Ford: I understand that Hollywood — not just the city, but also the industry — is predominantly White. When some hear “Hollywood”, I am not even sure they are thinking of the city but rather of the industry. The same with New York — the city versus the fashion industry.

When I read and see that most of what exists in this industry is by and about Whites, I am not surprised. But my surprise comes with stipulations. Let’s consider demographics and place those in context. At this point, the United States is mainly White. Not the world, but the U.S. Almost 78 percent of the U.S. is White. Hispanics are the next largest group (17 percent), then Blacks (13 percent). So, statistically, it is logical that the media in its various forms would, demographically, be mainly White. However, the statistics you have shared point to a stark imbalance, where some three-fourths of the population (Whites) comprise over 90 percent of this industry; but where minorities who make up about one-fourth of the U.S. represent less than 10 percent in the various categories you have noted. This is problematic and an indication that social injustices are at work.

I am not a fan of social media and the entertainment industry for so many reasons. My primary reason is simple and simultaneously complex. The simple reason comes from what you have just shared — not just about the paucity of Black (and Brown) people in the TV, entertainment and social media industries, but more about how they (we) are portrayed in most cases. I cringe thinking about those messages and images. I get weary thinking about how the messages and images are misused and abused to (mis)inform and concretize people’s notions of Black and Brown individuals and groups. The complex reasons require looking at historical and contemporary injustices — which I cannot interrogate in these limited pages. Suffice it to say that too much of what is presented in Hollywood about Blacks portrays distorted and negative images that Whites often take as truth. The less they know about Blacks and those they have little contact with, they more they believe based on TV shows, media, and news. Let me give a different example. Growing up in the north, I knew little about the south. I recall vividly watching the Beverly Hillbillies and taking this a truth regarding people in the south. Today, we have the Hollywood Hillbillies. Had I not, later years, been exposed to southerners — and there are many — who defy the images and misrepresentations in these shows, I would believe these two shows were authentic and common representations. Based on the few shows about Blacks, often riddled with the most troublesome images, people today believe what they see; they fail to question and what is depicted or to get to the know the people they see in social media.

I am always mindful of ratings given to movies, TV shows, and music — but how helpful are ratings void of interaction among people from different racial and ethnic groups? It is somewhat akin to reading the nutrition labels for portion size, calories, fat, sugar, salt, and so on and believing that his information will suffice for helping people to make informed and educated decisions? It is not enough? There is a difference between being able to read health labels and being literate about health… Back to TV and social media. There is a difference between warning viewers of content and then leaving them to fend for themselves to grapple with the larger meanings and implications. Too many people seem ill-informed and ill-equipped to contend with what they viewed or listened to, and not just children and teens, but also adults. Hence, the increasing racism that rears its ugly head in countless stories… and in who is given awards and recognition in Hollywood. It is no wonder that Blacks, for one example, have created independent movie companies and TV channels because they are refusing to acquiesce to the status quo and to entertainment that casts or portrays Blacks in the most stereotypical and racist ways. And the images stick with those who have not immersed themselves in the culture of others. As you have noted, the media is one of the major socializing agents in society. The narratives and images that circulate in the media impact the way people think. And they are bloated with meaning.

I am educator who is acutely mindful of how images created by social media play out in school settings. And how this is acted and enacted is not that different in the entertainment and social media industries. Images of Blacks in subservient and docile roles sink in. Images of gangsters, thugs and criminals leave an indelible impression. Images of mammies, Jezebels, slaves, and so on create and leave an impression. And those so influenced act on what they don’t know personally but rather on what they have learned socially via the media.

Patricia Leavy: You make an important point about the real-world impact of media stereotypes and how people are influenced by what they have learned via the media. It immediately brings to mind the Sony hacking scandal. Specifically, I am thinking about Sony’s chief Amy Pascal and producer Scott Rudin’s email exchange about President Obama. To recap for folks, there was a serious of emails between these two making “jokes” about President Obama’s race. Specifically, they joked they should ask the President if he liked a series of movies, such as Django, 12 Years, The Butler, and so forth. In short, they joked that they should ask the President if he liked movies with African-American casts. The defense for these offensive emails was they were simply jokes. To be perfectly honest, I have no problem accepting that. However, because something is a joke does not diminish the serious belief system it underscores. These emails are no less significant because they were jokes. These emails point to the fact that these top level Hollywood hitters, who are White, see the President based solely on his race. Now remember, these are people who are creating the images and narratives that circulate in the entire culture. They are creating the images and stories that everyone is exposed to and socialized with. They are influencing how people see and think, including what we take for granted as “normal.” What they believe impacts what others are socialized into believing. And these people see in color-coded, stereotyped ways. This scandal just brought to light a much larger issue that is pervasive in Hollywood.

Movies are consistently advertised to people based on race. Consider the 2014 film Beyond the Lights. My husband and I, who are White, saw this movie. The movie features an African-American cast but it is a movie for anyone. This isn’t a movie about race (and I would argue such movies are also relevant to anyone). But this was a movie that with a White cast would not have been considered a movie about race in the least. When we saw Beyond the Lights we were appalled that the previews had nothing to do with the genre of the movie at all, but they all featured African-American casts. The movie had been coded as “a Black film” as opposed to being coded based on the substance and genre of the film. This is common. Why is so much color coding and pigeon-holing taking place? Let’s not forget what we learned in the Sony hacking scandal. Because something is a joke doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be taken seriously — it may point to deeply held beliefs and values, jokes often do.

Donna Ford: The Sony hacking scandal is one of few that we know about, but I suspect is more common than some wish to admit. As someone who studies, teaches about, and speaks against racial injustices, I don’t take racial jokes lightly. When the jokesters are ‘caught’, there is often the ‘I didn’t really mean it. I was only joking’ mantra. Frankly, I tend to believe that they did really mean it. They are likely upset about being caught and exposed. I grew up with the saying ‘sticks and stones may break your bones, but words cannot hurt you.’ I never subscribed to it. Words, in seriousness or in jest, can be crushing. Bones can heal. The heart may not. I am not very forgiving of racial jokes for this reason. And when influential and powerful people and companies slur racial and offensive jokes, it is especially disturbing.

We are not post-racial and powerful people and companies in the media, the vast majority of whom are White, who promote this idea and ideal of being post-racial seem to be dishonest and self-serving. They benefit from pretending to be colorblind so that when racism is evoked, it can be waved aside as a joke and harmless at that. Racial jokes are far from meaningless and far from harmless. Shame on Sony executives and other influential and impressionable people in social media for such derogatory thoughts and behaviors. They not only insulted and betrayed President Obama, they also did a disservice to all of their audiences and consumers. Racism (and sexism) is no joking matter. I did not laugh when I read their emails and I am not laughing now.

Racial tensions are high in our nation. Daily stories attest to this. Distrust for the justice system seems to be at an all time high. Distrust of social media, what is presented on the news, on TV shows and in movies, is high. Cultural sensitivity training is needed. I’d like to see more companies hire a very diverse staff and leaders, as well as staff to review and critique their products and message regarding racial offensiveness in words and images. This is just a start but it can go a long way toward decreasing racial jokes and ‘mistakes’ and the often hollow ‘I was joking’. The apology may not take away the damage for some consumers, especially those who are so impressionable (children) and uninformed.