Imagine a convention hall full of people, chosen at random, each invited to share his or her story. Everyone is excited and preparing to be entertained.
Everyone is preparing to share, too, because life is a banquet and we all have at least one tasty anecdote in us. Soon, though, it becomes clear that unspoken rules are at play.
For example, women gradually notice that two men always get to speak before the microphone passes to anyone of their gender. For women over 40, the ratio is more like 3 to 1.
No black people’s stories get heard until maybe six white people have spoken, and no Latino people can speak until at least a dozen white people have been heard from. Nobody Asian gets a word in edgewise until 14 white people have weighed in, and nobody of Middle Eastern descent utters a peep until 35 non-Middle-Eastern white people have told their stories.
Oh, and before the room hears from anyone gay or lesbian, 49 straight people get to put in their 2 cents’ worth.
Imagine how strange that would be, and how outrageous. And yet, ladies and gentlemen, that’s show biz.
Never mind the #OscarsSoWhite Twitter protest that followed the racial and ethnic monotony of this year’s Academy Awards nominations. An analysis of current film, broadcast, cable and streaming media released this past week by the University of Southern California revealed that the derby for film industry statuettes is just the tip of the cultural iceberg.
The report, from the Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, found that, across the board, the distribution of speaking roles and main characters seen by the American public roughly reflects the aforementioned imaginary convention.
For every female with a major role or a speaking part in a film or TV show, the report found, two men were cast and heard from. Among some 400 films and scripted series made since 2014, there were about 2.5 white characters for every nonwhite character shown onscreen.
Asians were virtually invisible in widely distributed work, and only 2 percent of speaking characters were identified as LGBT (fewer if you don’t count the Amazon Web series “Transparent”). From scripts to boardrooms, the report found, show business “still functions as a straight, white boy’s club.”
That may not sound like news, but globalization and changing demography are rapidly reframing a lot of conventional wisdom. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in less than five years, more than half the nation’s children will be members of some current racial or ethnic minority.
By 2060, the country will be majority-minority – like California, which, by the way, is also majority female. Anyone who thinks all that straight, white, male art is imitating local life in this state’s signature cultural export needs to go visit L.A.
Of course, nothing is more lethal to art than political correctness. So we won’t argue that show business should be more inclusive because the current mix is unrepresentative of the larger culture, or that straight, white men ought to exit stage left.
The problem is, there are other stories out there, too – stories in which, say, the black guy isn’t a gangbanger, or the brown woman isn’t the maid, or in which the silliest and most sinister stereotypes about minorities don’t keep being recycled. Ignoring them is like stocking a library with nothing but cowboy novels, or installing a jukebox with no songs by anyone but John Philip Sousa. Eventually, people protest.
That’s partly why this year’s Oscar-season alarms are getting attention: Billions of dollars are at stake in this rapidly diversifying market. And unlike the people trapped in that imaginary storytelling convention, real audiences won’t wait forever for their voices to be included.
They’ll just go elsewhere, not only because they’re insulted, but – even worse in show biz – because they’re bored.