The White Carpet
The 2015 Academy Awards marks some major milestones for the film industry. It is the fourth time since 1996 that all 20 acting nominees have been white. It is another year in which not a single woman was nominated for writing or directing. The 87th Academy Awards marks the 87th consecutive year in which the Oscars, along with Hollywood itself, do not represent the diversity of the country in which it takes place.
When the Academy Award nominations were announced in early January, the biggest surprises were the lack of nominations for Selma director Ava Duvernay and lead actor David Oyelowo. Selma, a critically acclaimed film, tells the story of Martin Luther King, Jr. in his famous voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery. Critics and filmgoers alike were surprised that, despite Selma’s nominations in the Golden Globes, it received only a nod for Best Picture from the Academy. It also received a nomination for “Best Original Song,” leaving it with two overall nominations whereas the other Best Picture nominations received between five and nine. This resulted in major backlash, including a #OscarsSoWhite hashtag campaign. However, considering the demographics of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, what happened is not so surprising.
The Academy is a well-known entity in Hollywood, though its structure remains a bit of a mystery. A complete list of its members has never been available to the public, but we do know that the members are predominantly male (about 75 percent) and white (about 90 percent) (s). This homogeneity occurs largely because of the way that the Academy is established and the way in which it gets its new members. In order to become part of the Academy, prospective members must either be nominated for an award or sponsored by two already-existing members, and membership lasts for life. Consequently, the group functions as a sort-of “old boys club” and is only getting older.
Though the diversity of the Academy has been an item of discussion time and time again, very little action has been taken, and it doesn’t seem to be a priority. Former president Frank Pierson once said, “I don’t see any reason why the academy should represent the entire American population. That’s what the People’s Choice Awards are for … We represent the professional filmmakers, and if that doesn’t reflect the general population, so be it.”
Meanwhile, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the current president and an African-American woman, seems to recognize the problem and claims the Academy is making progress towards diversity and representation. In response to the recent Selma backlash, she announced(s), “In the last two years, we’ve made greater strides than we ever have in the past toward becoming a more diverse and inclusive organization through admitting new members and more inclusive classes of members.” However, there’s an issue with her claim: the demographics of the incoming 2014 members match exactly the group that they’re joining, with a 72 percent male and 90 percent white makeup. But according to Isaacs, this problem does not exist. When asked by Variety if there was a problem with diversity in the Academy, she responded, “Not at all. Not at all … The good news is that the wealth of talent is there, and it’s being discussed.” This discussion, however, is going nowhere and creating no real change, and instead creating consequences for the marginalized groups it underrepresents.
Because the makeup of the Academy is archetypically white males, its choices for awards then makes sense. They choose films that appeal to them rather than films that appeal to a larger, more diverse public. But this has implications beyond Oscars night. When the voices of minorities are not represented, they are not heard. This reflects the importance and the need for a more diverse Academy. However, the Academy draws from the pre-existing pool of Hollywood, and Hollywood itself is riddled with inequality, both for racial minorities and for women.
Actresses are often disadvantaged compared to actors and given fewer opportunities in Hollywood. Leading roles traditionally go to men, with only about 15 percent of leading roles intended for women. Beyond that, only 30 percent of speaking roles go to women.
The absence of the female voice from Hollywood is perhaps best expressed through the Bechdel Test. The Bechdel Test, based on a comic strip by Alison Bechdel, requires a film to meet three qualifications to pass: first, that there are two or more named female characters; second, that these characters speak to each other at some point; and third, that the characters talk about something other than men. The rules are simple, so simple in fact that even the highly contested Fifty Shades of Grey passes whereas Oscar-nominated films like The Imitation Game and The Grand Budapest Hotel fail. About 43 percent of films fail this test, showing just how male-centric today’s Hollywood scene truly is.
Take, for instance, the recent Sony hacking. Information from the hacked emails revealed that Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams only received seven percent of the profits from the film American Hustle, their male counterparts received nine percent of the profits. The leaked email reveals that Lawrence was initially only offered five percent. This is indicative of a higher trend. A 2013 study showed that the top 10 leading actresses all together made about a third of what the top 10 leading actors make. When former chairperson of Sony Pictures Amy Pascal was asked about the pay gap between Lawrence and Adams and their male co-stars, she responded, “People want to work for less money, I pay them less money … Women shouldn’t work for less money. They should know what they’re worth. Women shouldn’t take less.” Pascal’s logic puts the blame in the hands of women who are already disadvantaged rather than acknowledging the problem inherent in the system.
As Selma shows, representation of people of color in filmmaking is failing as well. According to the Ralph Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA’s Hollywood Diversity Report, minorities are underrepresented by a ratio of about three to one in both acting and directing. A common argument in Hollywood is that casting choices are made based on a cost-benefit analysis, and white cast members generate more revenue. However, another study in the Hollywood Diversity Report showed that diverse casts are more indicative of success in the box office. Thus, the decision to keep people of color out of filmmaking is not an economic one, but instead is the result of the higher-ups in the film industry working in an environment with which they are already familiar.
According to the Hollywood Diversity Report, three talent agencies represent over 70 percent of the leading talent in films, leaving them responsible for whom we see on screen. They are “gatekeepers” for the film industry. If these agencies made diversity more of a priority, Hollywood itself would have to make room for diversity as well.
But not only is important to look at who is in front of the screen, it is important to look at who is behind it. White men dominate almost every level of the filmmaking process, from green-lighting and producing films to casting them to actually filming them. Women and minorities are underrepresented, on the screen and off. To make way for real change in the demographics of the Academy, the entire system of filmmaking has to be restructured from top to bottom, so that women and minorities are given more opportunities at every step. Only once Hollywood as a whole is more reflective of diversity will the Academy follow its example and cease to be an “old boys club.” Until then, the voices of women and people of color are lost in a system that reinforces inequality.