Culture Shift: Asian Representation in Movies Rose 12.5 Percent in 16 Years, Study Finds

Culture Shift: Asian Representation in Movies Rose 12.5 Percent in 16 Years, Study Finds

For the first time since the beginning of the pandemic, USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative has released its signature comprehensive report on the diversity of movies in front of and behind the camera.

Analyzing the 100 highest-grossing movies at the box office each year since 2007, AI2’s sample size has now reached 1,600 titles and 69,858 speaking characters. Over 16 years, the researchers found little change in the percentage of characters from non-white groups of every race and ethnicity except one: Asians represented 15.9 percent of characters in 2022’s top movies – up from 3.4 percent in 2007 (over a decade before Crazy Rich Asians ushered in an unprecedented era of visibility). But overall, nonwhite characters remained slightly underrepresented onscreen, with a 38.3 percent share compared to 41.1 percent of the U.S. population in real life. In 2007, 13 of the top 100 movies featured a lead or co-lead of color. Last year the tally was 31, slightly down from the 16-year high of 37 films the year prior.

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But 2022 did see peaks for lead or co-lead roles for girls and women of color (19 of 200 movies, up from one in 2007) as well as female leads/co-leads overall (44 percent of such characters). Still, girls and women comprised just 34.6 percent of speaking roles across last year’s top 100 films. (This proportion is consistent with the findings in the report from San Diego State’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film earlier this year, which found men out-talking women 3 to 1 on the big screen.) Only 15 of 2022’s movies were gender-balanced in terms of speaking roles.

AI2 also conducted an “invisibility analysis” to show how many types of people were entirely absent from the movies. Not a single one of 2022’s top 100 films included an American Indian or Alaska Native female character, and just under a handful had a girl or woman of Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander or MENA descent. Seventy movies portrayed no multiracial or multiethnic girls and women, 61 had no Latinas, 44 no Asian women and 32 no Black women. By comparison, white female characters were absent from just seven movies.

“These trends suggest that any improvement for people from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups is limited,” AI2 founder Stacy L. Smith said in a statement. “While it is encouraging to see changes for leading characters and for the Asian community, our data on invisibility suggests that there is still much more to be done to ensure that the diversity that exists in reality is portrayed on screen.”

Transgender characters in the movies hit a high of five since AI2 began tracking representation of sexuality in 2014; however, four of those characters were all from Bros. The percentage of LGBTQ+ speaking characters overall in 2022 (2.1 percent) has not changed significantly in the past nine years, and out of the 87 total LGBTQ+ characters last year, more than half were male-identified and white.

There has also been no meaningful change in disability representation since AI2 began tracking disability status onscreen in 2015. Of the 1.9 percent of speaking characters depicted with a disability, most were male-identified (69.1 percent) and white (76 percent).

“When we look beyond gender and race/ethnicity, it is clear that Hollywood’s problems with inclusion are even more pronounced for the LGBTQ+ and disability communities,” Smith said. “The lack of progress in these areas suggests that executives and content creators are relying on practices that continue to marginalize and exclude talented voices from all backgrounds.”

Behind the scenes, Hollywood has failed to make lasting gains in the hiring of female directors, vacillating anywhere from a 2.7 percent (2007) to 13.5 percent (2020) share from year to year. The 1,600 movies in the 16-year sample were directed by 88 women and 833 men. While Black, Asian and Latino male directors represented 5.2 percent, 4.3 percent and 3.7 percent of the directing corps since 2007, their female counterparts comprised less than one percent each, with just five Latinas helming one of the 1,600 movies: Janicza Bravo, Melina Matsoukas, Roxann Dawson, Patricia Riggen and Charise Castro Smith (who had a co-directing credit on Encanto). Last year, just 19.5 percent of 2022’s directors (22 of 113) were people of color, and 12 of them were Asian men. “Behind the camera progress has largely stalled save one group,” the researchers write. “Asian directors are at an all time high in 2021 and 2022, which can account for the significant on screen increases pertaining to Asian speaking characters.”

The report also analyzed the gender and race/ethnicity of screenwriters, producers, composers and casting directors, in which women remain a minority in all categories but the latter.

As with all its reports, AI2 concludes with suggested solutions, which this year includes advising executives and filmmakers to reexamine their casting, hiring, greenlighting and marketing processes. “Given the lack of progress across many data points in this investigation, it is unclear if the same leaders have read or listened to these suggestions,” the authors write. “We suspect they do not read this far into the report.”