At the Oscar ceremony on Sunday night, best actress winner Frances McDormand told the audience to remember two words: inclusion rider.
This is not your typical contract rider, the contract demands that celebrities have become known for, sometimes infamously so.
This one is a world away from backstage indulgences.
McDormand was referring to a new clause that A-list actors are now including in their contracts to ensure diversity.
Developed by Stacy Smith, a professor at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, the clause refers to legal language that requires a film company ensure employment equity by making sure at least 50 per cent of the cast and crew needed for the project are women or people of colour.
In a 2014 interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Smith was asked what could be done to make things better in Hollywood. Her answer was to implement an equity rider. Her response:
“What if A-list actors amended every contract with an equity rider. The clause would state that tertiary speaking characters should match the gender distribution of the setting for the film, as long as it’s sensible for the plot. If notable actors working across 25 top films in 2013 had made this change to their contracts, the proportion of balanced films (about half-female) would have jumped from 16 per cent to 41 per cent. Imagine the possibilities if a few actors exercised their power contractually on behalf of women and girls. It wouldn’t necessarily mean more lead roles for females, but it would create a diverse onscreen demography reflecting a population comprised of 50 per cent women and girls.”
What if indeed? According to the results of a 2014 study of 120 films made between 2010 and 2013, less than one third of named characters were women, 23 per cent of the films had a female protagonist or co-protagonist, and only seven per cent of directors were women.
This is not something that has gone unnoticed. We know from the Bechdel test that women have been underrepresented in film’s speaking roles. First created in 1985 by cartoonist Alison Bechdel, the test says a film is worth seeing if the movie has at least two female characters, the two women talk to each other, and the subject is something other than a man.
While the test has limitations, its merit lies in challenging the norms on what makes a film watchable, what makes a story speak to a diverse audience, and why roles have been so limiting in scope and reach.
And the research continues to show that little has changed in the last 10 years. Two other studies produced similar findings. One study looking at top-grossing films between 2007 and 2014 found 30 per cent of speaking characters were female. A second study from 2016 showed men had two of the top three speaking roles in a film 82 per cent of the time while women had the top speaking roles only 22 per cent of the time.
We also know that it’s not just women who have been marginalized in film. People of colour, people with disabilities, people from the LGBTQ communities, members of Asian and indigenous communities have had limited, if not stereotyped representation in film, both as actors and creators (including writers, directors, producers, and cinematographers).
We have also seen how white actors have claimed roles meant for people of other ethnicities. Known as whitewashing, using white actors to take on major roles meant for people of colour, Asians or Indigenous people has been going on for a long time. Brooklyn-based writer Kevin Wong notes that while Asians have been well represented in supporting roles (children, villagers etc), major roles have gone to actors like Yul Brynner, David Carradine, and even Katharine Hepburn in the 20th century and Scarlett Johansson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Johnny Depp and Tom Cruise in more recent films.
Representation matters. We only have to look at the astounding success of films like Wonder Woman and Black Panther to see how films that feature strong female roles or that represent black culture positively translate to box office success.
Inclusion riders are another step forward to making change possible.
Martha Muzychka is a writer and consultant living in St. John’s. Her column returns March 22.