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The 89th annual Academy Awards—aka the Oscars—are around the corner. This Sunday millions will gather across the country to awe at the glitz and glamour of the biggest award ceremony of the world’s oldest movie industry. And of course among the talk of dresses and celebrities, the biggest story the last couple of years has been about the state of diversity in Hollywood. This week it seems every major entertainment outlet has been touting the improvements in diversity after two years of zero non-white nominees for major categories. Deadline even ran a title that read “Not So White After All: Oscar Nominations End Diversity Drought with New Honorees.” These are indeed all good news, but I just can’t help but think that the word “diversity” is being misused here.
To be clear, I am extremely happy that we are seeing an uptick in non-white nominees in acting categories. Out of the twenty performers nominated in those (best actress and actor, and best supporting actress and actor) seven are non-white. That is seven more than we had in 2015 and 2016. The last time this many non-white actors were nominated was in 2007, so it still remains to be seen whether the coming years will break this old record, but for now it’s a nice improvement over the most recent years. What I’m about to say next does not in any way invalidate this progress: It seems that whenever Hollywood speaks of diversity, they mean “race” and maybe on occasion “gender.” But there are so many other aspects of the human condition that constitute diversity—disability, age, sexual orientation, gender identity etc.—and it’s about time we actually include them when we use the word “diversity.”
Approximately one in five people in the US have a disability, yet people with disabilities are one of the most marginalized and least represented minorities in movies and television with less than 2% visibility in television and barely 2.4% visibility in the last 800 movies made in Hollywood. What’s even more troubling is that the actors playing the characters with disabilities often don’t have disabilities themselves. For example, since 1988, about half of the best actor Oscars went to men who played characters with disabilities, yet not one of them had the disability they played. It’s a phenomenon that is often called “cripping up” and it is very slowly gathering condemnation, but overall—as evidenced by the awards thrown at it—doesn’t seem to hold much contempt in general social attitudes. I think that in and of itself is a problem, and one that can change if only we saw more performers with disabilities cast in TV and movies.
Having more diversity on our big and small screens is not just a matter of authenticity, realism, and sheer fairness, but it’s also a matter of good business. More and more research shows that audiences actually like diverse casts and are drawn to productions that include them. When it comes to ratings and box office success, movies with diverse casts do better on both. And that makes sense simply in terms of mathematics. If the world is an incredibly diverse place, having characters which represent all aspects of that diversity is going to appeal to the greatest audience numbers.
So the situation we have witnessed with the backlash over the all-white nominees at the Oscars the last two years may provide us with a roadmap for greater diversity in Hollywood. For one, the uptick of non-white nominees gives credibility to the fact that protests and public awareness work. The hashtag #OscarsSoWhite was trending in the social media sphere while the news media and celebrities were weighing in on the matter, occasionally boycotting the Oscars. And it gave us a significantly bigger proportion of non-white Oscars nominees to root for on Sunday.
Now as we continue to make sure that non-white actors get the recognition they deserve year after year, we also need to make sure that the word “diversity” doesn’t just become a short-hand for “non-white” or even just “black” (there are no Hispanic or Asian nominees). As we celebrate this small progress, let’s also look to the future and make sure that we aim for greater and intersectional diversity representation.