“Inclusion or Invisibility”, an USC report on diversity in Hollywood finds that Hollywood is “whitewashed.” (Nick Nenad/Lariat)
Your heart is racing, you’re nervous and you walk into a room full of people. It’s a room full of emotionless faces and blank walls. You introduce yourself and you’re told to start whenever you’re ready. You recite your lines, you may or may not receive feedback and then you leave.
This all happens in less than five minutes.
In those five minutes you are judged on a number of factors. All factors central to the cast in a role. However, along with the talent, your “look” is central in the decision process. Often times this is tied to race, ethnicity and gender.
At least this was the experience of former actress, Britney Vargas, 22, a student at Irvine Valley College.
Vargas is a first-generation American whose parents come from Colombia. In high school she found her passion for theater and decided to pursue acting at The American Academy of Dramatic Arts. After graduation, she landed an agent and began auditioning.
Vargas recalls that she knew when she chose this career path that the industry would be tough. However, what she didn’t realize, her ethnicity would have a heavy impact on her getting the role she was after.
“I realized that getting into this industry would be very hard and I knew my ethnicity would be a factor,” Vargas said. “But I didn’t think it would have such a heavy impact on being casted.”
Often times Vargas would walk into an audition and they would tell her that she didn’t look right.
“I didn’t fit the stereotype of what they were looking for—you either have look very Hispanic or very white,” Vargas said. “There really was no grey area.”
After almost a year of disappointment, Vargas decided to take a hiatus from Hollywood and pursue a degree in psychology. She plans to possibly pursue acting in the future, but decided it was in her best interest to take another path.
Stories like Vargas’ are not unheard of—considering that in a recent report done by USC on diversity in Hollywood, only 5.8 percent of speaking characters on screen Latina, compared to the 71.1 percent that were white.
With numbers like that, it is no wonder why Vargas might have chosen to leave the industry.
In terms of race, USC’s report, titled “Inclusion or Invisibility” finds that Hollywood is very still very whitewashed. And considering that the report was done over the course of the last 10 years, displays that Hollywood has not taken the steps to change this statistic.
Despite these facts, there are still thousands of actors and actresses who still live this reality every day, still working to get their opportunity to be seen on screen.
USC’s study analyzed race, gender, hypersexualization and sexual orientation. Aside from race—women are already at a disadvantage. The study said that out of all the speaking roles in film, only 28.7 percent were women.
Saddleback College’s April Cubbage, sociology and women’s and gender studies instructor, said the USC report did not include the type of speaking roles these women played, which makes an interesting point considering that women are often cast in stereotypical, hypersexualized roles.
“It would be interesting to see of the 23.7 percent, what those actual speaking roles were—it would give us more insight on how we view women,” Cubbage said.
However, Cubbage praised the study for doing the report in proportion to the population, making these statistics even more impactful.
“They did this report in proportion to the population—they compared the number to the US census. That is really powerful because it is showing true invisibility on the screen,” Cubbage said.
This issue is not just limited to the people in front of the screen, but behind the screen as well.
Only 3.4 percent of all directors in film are female.
Julie Brady-Jenner, who teaches Women in Cinema at Saddleback, said these numbers have only decreased.
“You have to remember that these numbers have been declining for a long, long time and the power players are not terribly interested in changing it,” Brady-Jenner said. “The people who green light films and decide what will be brought to the screen, are young Caucasian men.”
She also said that diversity is tied to perception, something women have to overcome. Perceptions make decisions.
“Dr. Martha Lauzen, the go-to researcher from SDSU for this topic, has confirmed that many men who ‘run the business’ don’t want to give women large sums of money to direct a film,” Brady-Jenner said. “They simply don’t trust them—their perception is that women can’t handle funds.”
Chris Rock confronted the #oscarsowhite and oscar boycott issue Sunday night as he hosted the 88th Academy Awards. (David Shankbone/ Creative Commons)
Actor William Francis McGuire who teaches in the college’s theater program, references friends in the industry who have fallen victim to perception.
“I have friends that are people of color in the industry, they are called to do the criminal roles, to do the gangster roles, and they always have to have an accent,” McGuire said. “These Yale trained actors can speak beautiful verse, and if they can’t do ghetto, they don’t get work—because that’s the perception.”
Ultimately, McGuire said once the negative perception changes, so will the attitude in Hollywood.
“There is a lot more commonality than there is difference. It’s really the perception of difference is much greater than the actuality of difference,” McGuire said. “If we can begin to see that, then I think we can begin to see things start to change.”
And change often starts with a conversation—a conversation that was recently started by the hashtag #oscarsowhite, when for a second straight year, no persons of color were nominated for an Oscar in acting categories.
The hashtag sparked controversy with actors like Jada Pinkett-Smith making the pledge that she was going to boycott the Oscars. The actress also posted a video on Facebook talking about the issue.
“The Academy has the right to acknowledge whomever they choose, to invite whomever they choose,” Pinkett-Smith said in the video. “And now I think that it’s our responsibility to make the change.”
Chris Rock host of the 2016 Academy Awards was even pressured to boycott the Oscars, but stuck to his commitment. The comedian took no liberties this past Sunday in addressing the issue head on.
“Why are we protesting this Oscars? It’s the 88th Academy Awards, which means this no-black nominees thing happened at least 71 other times,” Rock said on the show.
Despite the recent controversy, this is an issue that has been going on for years. Sociology Instructor Allison Camelot said this issue is not unique to Hollywood, and society still has a long way to go to make lasting changes.
“I will say that this has been an issue discussed in academics for many decade and is only now gaining some attention from the media,” Camelot said. “Minorities are underrepresented in all leading areas and positions of power in our society. This further indicates that we still have a long way to go to achieve equality in our society.”
Julie Brady-Jenner also says that another problem is that often times when it becomes a conversation in the media, minorities and women are often lumped together.
You don’t hear one without the other and it’s shameful because both are separate entities and both are under represented,” Brady-Jenner said. “It’s an insult to both parties. A conversation is always good if it leads to some type of action and follows a productive path, but honestly, this has been going on for decades and Hollywood is not only well aware of the double standard, it fosters it.”
However, some conversation is better than no conversation.
“The film industry still functions as a straight, white boy’s club,” the study said.
The controversy has sparked responses from organizations like the SAG/AFTRA union, whose “core value of [SAG-AFTRA that our strength] is in our diversity. The union president stated in a press release that would take those in power to create change.
“There does seem to be momentum now towards inclusiveness,” added SAG-AFTRA Executive Vice President Gabrielle Carteris. “But we won’t really see change happen until those in authority take responsibility and choose to make decisions based on authenticity. These decisions directly impact which stories and people are present and, more importantly, which are missing.”
To keep the conversation going, to work to change perception and strive to overcome this lack of representation in Hollywood is the goal of this movement.
Photo used by CC BY 2.0