4 January 2024

Surprise, surprise: Hollywood doesn’t really care about representation

According to a study, everything major studios said about creating a more diverse film industry was just ‘performative’.

The latest report by USC Annenberg’s Inclusion Initiative found that the film industry’s pledges to promote were “performative acts” rather than “real steps towards fostering change.” Are we really that surprised? While in the past the answer to that question would be a resounding no, the recent success of films like Barbie means it makes for rather sad news indeed.

Greta Gerwig’s Barbie is the highest grossing film ever from a female filmmaker at the domestic box office. Though the feminist takes it delivered in July of last year weren’t exactly groundbreaking, it propelled the woman at its helm into superstardom, something relatively unheard of in the notoriously male-dominated Hollywood. Elizabeth Banks’ Cocaine Bear and Celine Song’s Past Lives were also successes. Even Nia DaCosta’s critically panned The Marvels should be recognised as a landmark moment in terms of a woman of colour taking the reins on an instalment in such a huge franchise. 

But alas, it was all smoke and mirrors, apparently. According to the USC report, out of the 100 highest-grossing films in 2023, only 14 of the 116 directors involved were women. Though a 9% increase from 2022, it’s hardly the figure you’d expect from the year that women flocked to the cinema in their pink-hued droves. When it comes to women of colour behind the camera, it’s an even more depressing tale: just four directed one of the films surveyed, a number that remains consistent with those in 2022. Take a further step back and you’ll realise that this has always been the case. Over 17 years, just 19 women of colour directed a top 100 movie. In terms of other on-set roles, women comprised only 26% of producers, 24% of executive producers, 21% of editors, 17% of writers, 14% of composers and 7% of cinematographers.

And what makes Hollywood, as the USC report puts it, “performative” is the way it lauds the very few women who did manage to get their foot in the door. Dr Martha Lauzen, the report’s author, even went as far as to describe Barbie as “the ultimate illusion”: “Greta Gerwig’s well-deserved triumph belies the inequality that pervades the mainstream film industry”. 

So, what can move the industry on from a place of performance to one of genuine representation? The answer lies in more affirmative initiatives. In December of last year, actor Cate Blanchett collaborated with USC to launch Proof of Concept, an initiative designed to accelerate the filmmaking careers of women as well as trans and non-binary people. While that might sound like just another load of empty promises, Proof of Concept will give eight filmmakers $50,000 – as well as mentorship from leading figures in the industry – to make a short film

There’s also an even simpler answer. When it comes to women in the film industry, it’s also something of a snowball effect. Lauzen noted that “generally speaking, when a woman directs a film, she brings a substantially different network of creatives with her than a male director would”. For example, 26% of films directed by women had a female composer, as opposed to 11% of movies directed by men. In other words, women like working with other women. Get one involved and you can expect to see a whole load of others. It’s that easy. 

  • Writer Amber Rawlings
  • Banner Image Credit Barbie / Heyday Films

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