Where Diversity numbers fall as low as 1 Percent: The Film Industry and #OscarsSoWhite

Recently, the Internet crowd has displayed awareness for D&I by discussing ethnic diversity in Hollywood movies under the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. This was prompted by the fact that nearly all Academy Award nominees in the best actor and supporting actor categories were white. A closer look at diversity and stereotypes in movies reveals how D&I relates to the success of cultural products.

The traditional – and more political – approach to Diversity in the film industry revolves around the representation of societal groups in movies or award nominations. Prevalent dimensions include gender, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, religion or disability. This paradigm provided the starting point for the #OscarsSoWhite discussion. In this year’s Academy Awards, all (!) finalists in the Best Actor (m/f) and Supporting Actor (m/f) categories were white. In the Best Director category Alejandro Inarritu („Birdman“) was the only non-white nominee.


Analyses from Lee&Low Books show that the problem of underrepresentation of non-white actors in the Academy Awards is not new phenomenon. Evaluating Oscar winners from 1927-2012, they found that 93% of Best Actor winners and 99% of Best Actress winners (Halle Berry being the only person of colour in this category in those 85 years) were white. A similar picture can be drawn for women in categories that are – unlike the actor/actress category – not gendered. The Best Director winners e.g. were all male with only one exception, which makes 99% awards for men.


The reasons for this situation (and history) may be multidimensional but one aspect that probably plays an important role is the composition of the Academy itself. According to the abovementioned analysis, Academy voters are 94% white and 77% male. At least form an ethnicity and gender perspective, this committee must be considered as a monocultural system, including associated mechanisms such as autopoiesis, i.e. the self-reproduction of the system. By the way: There is also a dramatic underrepresentation of other groups, e.g. LGBT or people with a disability, which is not limited to awards but extends to movie casts and featured topics as well.


Another relevant diversity issue in the film industry is stereotyping. Many films and TV series use stereotypes when showing members of certain groups. This ranges from blunt examples (e.g. a pink-tutu-gay-man) to more subtle aspects (e.g. non-Christian realities are only shown when there is an issue related to it). Analysing those subtle stereotypesfrom a D&I perspective may be very instructive, as it allows us to get insights about deeply rooted norms, values and interpretations of human interactions. A nice and useful tool to question our perception of gender roles in movies is the so-called “Bechdel test”. It is as simple as impressive; watching a film, all you have to do is to check if

  1. it has at least two [named] women in it
  2. who talk to each other
  3. about something besides a man.


While these criteria seem easy to meet and you might wonder how outdated a movie must be to fail the test, we must admit that still today many films do not comply with these criteria. As a means of complexity reduction and strong communication, stereotypes remain omnipresent and have strong impact in areas influential areas like the film industry. If you want to learn more about the test, you may go to http://bechdeltest.com and check if your favourite movie passes or have a look at the interesting analyses available on this web-blog.


Speaking about movies also means speaking about money. Let’s hence look at the business case for D&I in cultural products. As people are more and more diversified it seems plausible that films targeting an alleged mainstream audience of (stereotypical) young white heterosexual Christian males are becoming less successful. Another perspective to the connection between D&I and movies is to look at the (demographic) diversity of production teams and its influence on a movie’s success. Beyond the known positive effects of D&I e.g. on team work, sales and creativity, a study incorporated in the latest IBCR  examines the success of 180 movies and shows that films produced by a diverse team are more successful both in domestic and in international markets. This points to a vast, untapped potential in the cultural products industry and a lot of extra money that could be made with D&I.