Column: I can not believe this is still a radical statement: Representation matters

Diversity in the film industry needs to extend past the screen.

Abigail Ruhman is a freshman journalism and political science major at MU. She is an opinion columnist who writes about student life, politics and social issues for The Maneater.

In 2016, life was good. Not really, but comparatively, it was alright. Barack Obama was president (Barack, if you are reading this: Please, come back). Simone Biles rocked the Summer Olympics, winning all-around gold (Simone, if you are reading this: Follow me on Instagram. It would be so cool).

But most importantly, Peter Parker entered the Marvel Cinematic Universe with his first appearance in “Captain America: Civil War.” At the time, Tom Holland was 19. It was rare to see an actor who is a teenager play a teenager. It was more relatable and authentic. He was in a similar age group as his character. It was as if relating to the actor or story helped you enjoy the movie more (shocking, I know). And yet, diversity in Hollywood truly does not exist.

According to USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, of 2017’s top films, only four leads were women of color. But this issue is not only linked to race. It extends to age, gender, and sexuality. And even worse, only 2.5 percent of characters portrayed had a disability. Some minorities are almost invisible within the top films. Only one character with a disability was in the LGBTQ(IA+) community. According to Business Insider, There was not a single transgender character. When intersectional identities are included, women also tend to lose out. For them, discrimination can be about gender, race or both. According to the same study, the largest minority group in the U.S., Latinx, are also the most excluded with 72 films without hispanic females. They were followed by Asian women (66), then Black women(47). Both statistical and marginalized minorities struggle to find representation on the big screen.

For all the strides that studios have made to include more diverse characters on-screen, what is happening behind the scenes is also disheartening. According to the University of California, Los Angeles, approximately 13 percent of film directors are people of color. In addition to this, less than 10 percent of directors were women. The discrimination also extended to writers. Most female and ethnic minorities struggled to get writing credits, most not even getting them 50% of the time (on both the digital and cable platforms). Some writers are even asked to whitewash their characters (such as the authors of both “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” and “Crazy Rich Asians”). Casting directors are part of the reason that whitewashing still occurs. Scarlett Johansson has been cast for two parts that could have opened the door for minority actors- as a Japanese character in the film Ghost in the Shell, and as a transgender man in the film Rug & Tug. While Johansson herself can turn down the role, casting directors are responsible for finding accurate representations for the stories they are telling.

There is even a lack of diversity pertaining to film critics. According to the Los Angeles Times, this lack of diversity can lead to low scores on movies not just intended for older, white men. Minorities need to be critics not only to encourage representation in films but also to evaluate the accuracy of these films.

With so many diverse films entering theatres recently, it’s easy to assume that Hollywood is moving in a positive direction. The issue, though, is that the diversity in media is financially motivated. The question then becomes: Why is this such a problem? Movements such as #OscarsSoWhite have proved to be effective in adding diverse characters, but the issue is that movements do not create change as quickly as you would think. While the 2018 Oscars showed some promise in terms of diversity, a study conducted by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that Hollywood is still failing most of time when it comes to diversity.

The steps the film industry has taken toward diversity have helped many young children find beauty in who they are. In fact, Lupita Nyong'o (the 2014 Oscar winner for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role) stated in her acceptance speech for the Essence award that it was a model with a similar dark complection that helped her overcome the self-doubt that she felt. She further explained that she had received a similar letter from a fan that explained how Nyong’o had helped build her self-confidence. But multiple minority groups are still missing this representation.

Representation and diversity are vital in today’s world. Hollywood has a unique opportunity to teach people about the cultural differences in the world in interesting and innovative ways. It can even do so at a family-friendly rating. Pixar’s “Coco” introduced a way to explain Hispanic culture to not only children, but adults as well. Disney’s “Moana” offered a similar opportunity, but for the largely marginalized Polynesian community.

For people invested in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, “Black Panther” mixed many African cultures to bring the fictional nation of Wakanda to life in the 2018 film. The ability to teach is not just limited to “kids” movies. “Wonder”, a drama released in 2017, teaches the audience the struggles of growing up with a disability. Each of these offers children from these communities the chance to find validation from people that they look up to.

We still have a long way to go. Diversity does not stop after the historic “firsts” during awards shows run out. Audiences must demand more representation. It is no longer enough to just support these films in theatres. Studies show that even with an increase in revenue, executives are still opposed to producing these films. It is time for minorities to see someone they can relate to on the big screen. It was amazing to see Tom Holland, an actual teenager, play a relatable character. It is time for everyone to have someone as relatable, despite race, gender, sexuality, age, and/or disability/ability. Diversity is not just limited to the screen, it is important to every part of the filmmaking process.

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