Cultural Production and Digital Media’s Potential for Change
Cultural Production and Digital Media’s Potential for Change
Abstract Since its inception, the Hollywood industry has played an instrumental role in the mass dissemination of popular culture, both within the United States and globally. Yet, White men have almost exclusively created the narratives and myths that comprise Hollywood cultural production, while narratives by women and racial/ethnic minorities are fewer and less prominent. This article gives an overview of current research on racial and gender inequality in representation in the production of Hollywood film and television in the United States, with a focus on the contemporary era. Research on Hollywood cultural production points to a problematic trend of disadvantages in opportunities and outcomes facing women and racial/ethnic minorities, leading to the prevalence of stereotypes and a lack of diversity on-screen. However, transformations in technology that alter the production and dissemination of media present the possibility of decreasing inequality for women and racial/ethnic minorities.
For nearly a century, Hollywood studios have played an instrumental role in the mass dissemination of popular culture, both within the United States and globally—for better or worse. On the one hand, American cinema has left an indelible footprint of narratives, images, and myths about American and global culture. On the other, the orchestrators of this historical and wide-reaching trail of American popular cultural artifacts have been almost exclusively White men, while the narratives from women and racial/ethnic minorities have occupied far less space in the cultural canon. For decades, scholars, workers in creative industries, as well as civil rights organizations have pressured decision-makers in Hollywood film and television industries to open their doors to embrace greater diversity in participation of racial/ethnic minorities and women in the cultural production process. A growing number of studies—like those from The Writers Guild of America; The Directors Guild of America; and studies on screenwriters, actors, and directors written by scholars like Bielby and Bielby (1996) and Guerrero (1993)—revealed dismal statistics on the dearth of diversity behind-the-scenes in Hollywood. Unfortunately, recent research confirms that not much has changed 20 years after those
landmark studies. Women and racial/ethnic minorities remain underrepresented in Hollywood, far below their proportion of the US population. How does this lack of proportional representation contribute to how societal culture is created? More specifically, how does the dearth of women and racial/ethnic minorities in behind-the-scenes positions in Hollywood translate into stereotypical and limited creative visions on screen? And finally, what might changes in technology, including the changing nature of the television medium and the proliferation of digital media, mean for future diversity of Hollywood cultural production? This article gives an overview of current research on racial and gender inequality in Cultural Production and Digital Media’s Potential for Change
representation in the production of Hollywood film and television in the United States, with a focus on the contemporary era. Unsurprisingly, research on Hollywood cultural production
© 2015 John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
points to a problematic trend of disadvantages in opportunities and outcomes facing women and racial/ethnic minorities, leading to the prevalence of stereotypes and a lack of diversity on-screen. However, changes in technology and in the production and dissemination of media present the possibility of decreasing inequality for women and racial/ethnic minorities. Sociologists and media scholars can learn a great deal about what the future holds for underrep- resented groups in Hollywood by investigating what changes the production of mainstream culture will have to undergo in order to maintain dominance in the face of rising competition from new online methods of production, distribution, and exhibition.
Three types of representation in cultural production
Production of culture scholars analyze the manufacturing, organization, and distribution of cultural products, as well as the organizations, occupations, and characteristics of the industries that produce cultural goods for mass audience consumption (Du Gay et al. 1997; Grindstaff 2008; Negus 1997; Peterson and Anand 2004). The making of the images and narratives that form the backbone of societal culture is crystallized through the values, attitudes, and opinions of people working in culture industries (Grindstaff 2008). Because cultural products are inextricably linked to meanings derived from the people working in culture industries, at stake in the production of popular culture is the ability for various social groups to develop and disseminate their own meaning systems. Therefore, understanding the demographic character- istics, employment conditions, and experiences of diverse groups of cultural laborers will give us greater insight into the system in which societal culture is produced and why stereotypical and limited creative visions might emerge from it (Caldwell 2008; Hesmondhalgh and Baker 2011). Of great concern to marginalized groups is the precise quantity that constitutes adequate
representation in media. Numerical representation describes a social group’s presence or absence on-screen or behind-the-scenes, usually referring to the proportion of a particular occupation that the group occupies. Several studies described Hollywood as a predominantly White and male sphere, with women and racial/ethnic minorities being highly underrepresented with proportions well below their share of the US population (Bielby and Bielby 2002; Erigha 2014; Lauzen 2008; Lauzen 2009a; Lauzen 2009b; Lauzen 2012; Smith and Choueiti 2011a; Smith and Choueiti 2011b; Smith et al. 2014). In addition to numerical representation, quality of representation also matters. Quality of repre- Cultural Production and Digital Media’s Potential for Change
sentation includes the kinds of roles that groups occupy on-screen and behind-the-scenes. In front of the camera, actors favor multi-dimensional, multi-faceted roles over stereotypical, one-dimensional parts (Shohat and Stam 1997). Behind-the-camera directors and producers prefer to work in a range of genres rather than be typecasted, or relegated to niches, ultimately making long-term viability vulnerable due to genre popularity cycles (Bielby and Bielby 2002; Yuen 2010). Cultural producers also have varying leverage in terms of their behind-the-scenes conditions of employment. For instance, although directors and producers desire production circumstances that allow for maximum creativity, industry decision-makers may only circum- scribe them to limited scales of production or provide them with sparingly few resources for the execution of a project. Nonetheless, the quality of representation that characterizes the par- ticipation of women and racial/ethnic minorities in Hollywood largely dictates the parameters for what kinds of culture they can and cannot produce. Another measure of representation, centrality of representation, assesses how central groups are to
an industry’s core institutions. Research on centrality of representation investigates whether racial/ethnic minorities and women are located in institutions that are in the core or periphery of cultural production. Prior research has demonstrated that women and racial/ethnic minorities employed in Hollywood face difficulty accessing the core of the industry and more often find
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© 2015 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Sociology Compass 9/1 (2015): 78–89, 10.1111/soc4.12237
work with marginal companies, such as in the Bielby and Bielby (1999) study, which showed that women and racial/ethnic minorities were less likely than White men to belong to core talent agencies. However, the benefits of belonging to core talent agencies—better reputation, resources, authentication, legitimacy, employment, and income—make career success and advancement substantially more likely with membership in core talent agencies compared to membership in non-core talent agencies. In film, major studios offer cultural producers advantages that smaller studios cannot afford.
With regard to the exhibition of films in theaters, major studios have branch offices in critical regional markets, allowing them to maintain extensive and continuous contact with theater chains across the country, whereas independent distributors are less strategically networked with exhibitors and generally have greater difficulty marketing, publicizing, and gaining large theatrical releases for their films (Marcks 2008; Scott 2004). Consequently, directors working primarily with independent studios experience disadvantages in theatrical releases for their films compared to directors primarily working with major studios (Erigha 2014). Given the benefits of belonging to core organizations, having limited access to core organizations demonstrates yet another level of inequality that presents disadvantages in career opportunities for women and racial/ethnic minorities in the cultural labor market. Integrating key points about representation through these three interrelated concepts—
numerical representation, quality of representation, and centrality of representation—allows us to understand the totality of marginalization facing women and racial/ethnic minorities in Hollywood, whereas focusing solely on one while ignoring others provides an incomplete por- trait of the layers of inequality facing marginalized groups in culture industries. Therefore, the most thorough studies on cultural representation should take their simultaneous effects into account. These three types of representation come to bear on prominent positions in the production of popular film and television. Above-the-line positions, such as writers, directors, producers, and creators, each play instrumental, yet different, roles in the production of mainstream culture. “Writers are crucial to film and television because without a script there is no product” (Bielby 2013: 140). Producers oversee all aspects of making of films and television programs. The director is the key role facilitating the making of the video product, as well as guiding actors, camera placement, technical crew, and other elements of production. On television shows, the creator is the key figure who successfully sells the television show’s concept and has an integral voice in production choices (Hunt et al. 2014, p. 12). In different ways, each position influences on-screen outcomes, shaping who is cast, what traits and behaviors characters exhibit, and how central characters are in narratives. Racial/ethnic minorities’ and women’s representation in film and television is at the heart of their quest to gain a platform in popular culture. Cultural Production and Digital Media’s Potential for Change
Racial/ethnic minorities in Hollywood
Comprehensive data on employment in Hollywood production illustrate that racial/ethnic mi- norities are vastly underrepresented in acting, writing, directing, and creating for Hollywood film and television. Few television directors are from racial/ethnic minority backgrounds. The Hunt et al. (2014) Hollywood Diversity Report, which analyzes 1061 television shows airing during the 2011–12 season on 6 broadcast and 62 cable networks, showed that minorities directed only 2 percent of broadcast comedies and dramas and 7 percent of cable comedies and dramas. Meanwhile, on most television shows—73 percent of broadcast comedies
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© 2015 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Sociology Compass 9/1 (2015): 78–89, 10.1111/soc4.12237
and dramas and 71 percent of cable comedies and dramas—minorities directed 10 percent or less of episodes (Hunt et al. 2014, p. 15). Film directors were similarly underrepresented in Hollywood. For instance, in 2008, only 6
of the 100 top-grossing films were directed by Black directors—translating into roughly 5 percent Black directors (Smith and Choueiti 2011a). In 2013, 6.5 percent of top-grossing Hollywood films had Black directors (Smith et al. 2014). The trend of few Black directors extended over the first decade of the 21st century with Black filmmakers directing only 7 percent of all theatrically released Hollywood films between 2000 and 2011 (Erigha 2014). It is true that critically acclaimed films also matter; in fact, they can carry as much, if not more
cultural influence, than top-grossing films. However, racial minority film directors have been largely ignored at major Academy Awards ceremonies. Thus far, the only Black-directed feature to win a directing or producing award was Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave (2013), which won a Best Picture Academy Award. To date, no Black director has won a Best Director Acad- emy Award for a feature film. Asian-born American film director Ang Lee, however, broke a long-time barrier for racial/ethnic minorities in Hollywood when he won Best Director for Life of Pi (2012). While sociologists have focused on racial minority directors’ advancement among top-grossing films and in the largest Hollywood studios, more work on which minority- directed films receive critical acclaim will ultimately question what we think we know about which films, directors, and actors gain visibility in critics’ circles and why they achieve this recognition. In acting for film and television, a Screen Actor’s Guild report showed that while White
actors dominated positions, occupying 75 percent of all roles, African Americans occupied 14 percent, Latinos 5 percent, and Asian Americans less than 3 percent of roles (Screen Actors Guild 2000). Examining the race/ethnicity of speaking characters for the top-grossing films of 2013, these numbers remained largely unchanged. Only Asian Americans increased their presence with 4.4 percent of speaking roles from less than 3 percent. Latinos, however, were most underrepresented, comprising over 16 percent of the 2010 population in the United States but slightly less than 5 percent of speaking characters (Smith et al. 2014). More than half of theatrical films had casts that were 10 percent or less minority (Hunt et al. 2014). The racial/ethnic disparity in acting becomes even more substantial when examining Cultural Production and Digital Media’s Potential for Change