Marsha P. Johnson, a black transgender activist and drag queen, is remembered by some eyewitnesses as the first person to throw a brick during the Stonewall riots of 1969. The trailer for director Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall shows Danny, a white cisgender gay male created for the film, throwing the fateful first brick. While there of course were men like Danny present for the Stonewall riots, the accounts of those present establish that it was the drag queen and transgender communities—both of which leaned non-white—that were on the proverbial front lines of the riots.
On its own, Stonewall is an unfortunate example of historical whitewashing. In context, it’s just the latest example of how Hollywood would rather invent a white man than put literally anyone else in front of the camera. A groundbreaking study by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism makes that much clear.
The study covers the top 100 grossing films for each year from 2007-2014 (excluding 2011) and assesses both speaking and named characters for “demographics, domestic traits, and hypersexualization.” For 2014, the study’s authors also included a tally on characters portrayed as LGBT. Overall, the results could be charitably described as a deep dive into the fetid cesspool of Hollywood’s cisgender straight white male boner.
In the 700 films surveyed, only 30.2 percent of the 30, 835 speaking roles were female. For the top 100 films of 2014, 73.1 percent of all roles were white, which represents no significant deviation from the study’s findings overall results.
The 2014 results also found just 19 speaking roles for LGB characters and none for transgender characters. Across the entire sample, only 14 movies out of 700 featured an LGB depiction. There really isn’t a bit of data to be found that suggests anything less than an institutional obsession with ensuring our most popular movies function as odes to the American white male experience. As for the people behind the camera, well, you get one guess.
Out of 779 directors, 28 were women, 45 were black, and 19 were Asian. While all those groups fare better in terms of representations as writers and producers, the numbers still overwhelmingly favor white men. Beyond the issue of on-screen representation, there simply isn’t a realistic pathway to any sort of role in major filmmaking for women and non-white groups.
This study comes on the heels of a viral moment for Dylan Marron’s Every Single Word project, which edits mainstream films down to include only the speaking parts for people of color. While nowhere near as exhaustive as the Annenberg study, the project shows that the few speaking roles available to people of color in major films amount to a mocking tokenism at best. For example, the project’s edited version of the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy clocks in at 71 seconds and almost of the films edited thus far clock in at under a minute long.
“Representation in the fictional world signifies social existence; absence means symbolic annihilation,” is one of communications professor George Gerbner’s more famous quotes and gets to the core of the cultivation theory he began to develop during the late 1960s with Larry Gross at the University of Pennsylvania. The theory is supported by a series of large-scale research projects he led and while they are focused on television, the Annenberg study shows that cultivation theory’s main point applies across artistic mediums: an emphasis on the white male experience in mass media leaves the public with a misconception of the world they live in. Anyone who falls outside the white male archetype is a victim of the “symbolic annihilation” that Gerbner spoke of.
The due toll of this annihilation can be readily seen in an American society that marginalizes women, people of color, and the LGBT community as a matter of course outside the realm of film. While Stonewall chooses to emphasize the fictional experience of a white male over the experience of actual transgender people in the historical record, the society that produced the film has a collective suicide attempt rate of 4.6 percent and a transgender suicide attempt rate of 41 percent.
Such staggering differences do not emerge from the ether, they are a byproduct of a society that not only oppresses marginalized groups but demeans their experiences and disappears their history at every turn. The role of art in this societal divide is now more apparent than ever, but the insidious nature of the ills cultivation theory diagnoses all but handcuffs society from making any progress on the issues at hand.
The paradox is both simple and impossible: How can a problem even begin to be addressed when the nature of the problem precludes its recognition? Not even facts can stand up to the cumulative effect of mass media drilling a specific and biased reality into the public consciousness. An academic study going up against the whole of Hollywood is no different than pitting a chihuahua against Cthulhu.
While the Annenberg study and other such projects remain important on their own terms, the history of academics scrutinizing representation in art is decades long and the institutional headway made on these issues can be measured with a splintered ruler. The solution is as obvious as it is beyond reach: social overhaul.
Hollywood is only as racist and homophobic and sexist and transphobic as the society consuming its product allows. By that standard, Hollywood’s proven biases are merely symptoms of a society-wide virus that targets women, people of color, and the LGBT community the same way a cancer would target the immune system. The consequences can be seen not just in film, but in every waking moment of life in American society—assuming you choose to see it as it is.