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Destler Dodge

Accusations of failing to accurately represent audiences have been increasingly leveled at Hollywood in recent years. A ​study from the University of Southern California, released this past February, boldly underlined many of these claims.

The number of speaking roles within film and television for women, members of the LGBTQIA+ community and non-white racial/ethnic groups is indeed disproportionately small relative to their share of the population. Whether it is deliberate or fed by a lack of awareness from the same thin slice of the population being the decision makers, there is a clear lack of diversity. This lack of diversity is arbitrarily made and works to the detriment of both viewers and the companies perpetuating it.

Why it Matters

Limiting the different perspectives brought to the creative process only ensures that the stories we see will be that much more iterative. It’s a form of self-inflicted stagnation brought on by ignoring other kinds of world views, narratives and storytellers — who, like the many waiting to consume such media, are hungry to make it.

With stories meant for mass audiences, one also has to consider their potential to either deconstruct or reinforce what our culture sees as normal. Kieran Shiach of Comics Alliance recently wrote about the importance of fighting the perception that stories with queer characters or subject matter are inappropriate for younger readers.

“The more stories with LGBTQ representation we see published, the more it normalizes the idea of those relationships, and the more we erode that taboo,” said Schiach.

“The more stories with LGBTQ representation we see published, the more it normalizes the idea of those relationships, and the more we erode that taboo,” said Schiach.

Many also want the chance to see themselves in the media they enjoy, especially young, impressionable kids. Characters like Rey and Finn from “Star Wars,” the new cast of “Ghostbusters” and TV shows like “Supergirl” give kids more material to connect with on screen than they might have had before.

The large market for toys and merchandise of characters from these big-budget properties has the chance to make such an impression with kids even more enduring. Additionally, in the case of toys of female heroines and characters, an increase in their prominence could help erode the trend toward generized figurines. People such as sociologist Elizabeth Sweet Lisa Dinella of Monmouth University and Megan Fulcher of Washington and Lee University criticize this very trend for instilling damaging stereotypes about gender. 

Why the Argument Against it Makes No Sense

It is understood that the entertainment industry is a business. Yet, any sort of financial argument against diversity holds no water. One would think the prospect of having several under-served audiences would motivate them to change. A report from the University of California, Los Angeles suggests they may be leaving billions of dollars “on the table.”

It's similarly confusing to see how a franchise like "Star Wars" can be carried by female, black and hispanic leads to a massive box office and a colossal amount of merchandising revenue, but when parents look afterward for toys of Rey, they can barely find any.

Similarly, with successes across works like “The Hunger Games,” “Straight Outta Compton,” “Frozen,” “Mad-Max: Fury Road,” “Jessica Jones,” “Orange is the New Black” and others in recent years, it very much seems like the only one not interested in more diverse stories is Hollywood itself.

It just goes to show how entrenched but rarely questioned many companies’ understandings of their audiences are. Many of the worst notions seem so deeply rooted that at a certain point it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy built on the flimsiest of logic. If, in their eyes, their patrons are only of a very specific and delineated crowd (most often “Straight White Males”), entertainment companies will only market and make content aimed toward them — or at least, their often narrow interpretation of that demographic.

Yet without ever really trying to reach out to new or different audiences, they cannot truly know that others wouldn’t enjoy such material or merchandise; perhaps they would, maybe they already do. As reported by MTV News’ Victoria McNally, the opening weekend ratio of men to women for the highest grossing science fiction and fantasy films of 2015 was 60 to 40 — with greater parity among movies with female protagonists.

Such numbers reinforce how mistaken Hollywood has been to not recognize the benefit for everyone — including themselves — of being inclusive. First coined by economist and Harvard professor Theodore Levitt, there is a term in business called “marketing myopia,” where a company loses sales because it failed to determine and act on what customers’ unmet demands are. Being overly presumptive about the longevity and demand of what its currently selling and ignoring opportunities to grow ultimately comes at one’s own cost.

Promising Cases of Change

Holding misconceptions about one’s audience has troubled entertainment companies before. It is arguably what lead to a shrinking readership among Marvel Comics in the past two decades. Sean Howe’s “Marvel Comics: The Untold Story,” documents the company's failure to garner a “wider audience” outside of its aging and particularly homogenous readership.

However, in recent years, they’ve been making a concerted effort to change that by becoming more inclusive. Supporting characters like Ms. Marvel, Jane Foster, Laura Kinney (X-23) and Sam Wilson (Falcon) have been elevated to the foreground by becoming the new Captain Marvel, Thor, Wolverine and Captain America, respectively. A longtime X-Man, Iceman, came out of the closet — a rare instance in which the team often serving as an allegory for marginalized groups had actual representation.

Perhaps the most prominent players on this scene are Kamala Khan (Ms. Marvel) and Miles Morales (Spider-Man). These two have managed to capture a share of the zeitgeist that is larger than the normal comics' fandom. Marvel has also attracted and hired authors like Ta-Nehisi Coates ("Between the World and Me") and Roxanne Gay (“Bad Feminist”), diversifying those working with their properties.

Describing this new approach, Editor in Chief Axel Alonso said to Fuse, “Our goal is to tell the best, most relevant stories to the widest possible audience. And to do that, it’s important that our readers see their own reflection in our characters.”

“Our goal is to tell the best, most relevant stories to the widest possible audience. And to do that, it’s important that our readers see their own reflection in our characters," said Alonso

Not coincidentally, Marvel has seen not only a noticeable uptick in overall readers, but in female readers specifically.  Marvel’s David Gabriel, senior vice president of Print, Sales and Marketing, noted this in an interview with ICv2: “We’re probably up to at least 40 percent female [readers], which 8 years ago might have been 10 percent. And 15 years ago might have been nothing.”

Giving storytellers the license to craft compelling and more authentic types of material allows Marvel’s content to speak to a larger variety of people, making the possible audience for superheroes that much more encompassing than it was before.

Some movie studios are beginning to see this as well. Within the next few years, Black Panther, Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel will all be getting new adaptations. Even "Spider-Man: Homecoming" seems set to portray what will be a more authentically diverse cast surrounding the title character.

With Spider-Man inhabiting what is perhaps the Marvel Universe's most down-to-earth corner, choosing an actress like Zendaya to play Mary Jane Watson seems almost like an acknowledgement of how widely such stories have resonated. It also shows how a portrayal of Peter Parker, Mary Jane and other characters in the modern day should strive to be as true to real life in 2016 as possible.