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  • Writer's pictureShaina Fawn

The Need for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Initiatives in Entertainment Spaces

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” The fight for racial equality and social justice in the United States is evidence of just this. Tremendous gains have been made at different times throughout history, including during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and there have also been periods where progress appears to have paused or been disrupted. The year 2020 was a particularly tumultuous time in our collective consciousness. Not only was COVID making its way across the globe, causing a wave of shutdowns and uncertainty, but racial tension also came to a head when George Floyd, a Minneapolis man, was brutally murdered by police on May 25, 2020. A bystander recorded the incident on their cell phone, resulting in a significant resurgence in demonstrations, protests, and calls to defund the police. Black Lives Matter (BLM), though founded in 2013 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the murder of Trayvon Martin, became a national and global movement unlike any seen before. Amid this social landscape, a spectrum of industries, including academia, healthcare, and entertainment, are attempting to address social justice and inequality issues through the use of DEI initiatives. Such initiatives are considered a potential solution to inequality and a way to increase representation for marginalized groups.

The Entertainment Industry in Historical Context

Like many other industries in our country, the entertainment industry has developed in a manner that has reflected the zeitgeist of the time. As such, issues such as representation, exclusion, racism, and discrimination have been prominent areas of concern as the industry has grown and expanded as society contends with social injustice and inequality. Since film began to take off in the early 1900s, the entertainment industry has grappled with racism. Yuen (2018) writes extensively about racism in the entertainment sector, noting that early portrayals of characters of color were portrayed by white individuals dressed in blackface or yellowface, who represented characters as morally and intellectually inferior, often in the form of minstrel shows where people of color were used as comedic relief. Typecasting is a common practice used to this day, whereby minority actors' access to roles is limited based on their racial, ethnic, gender, or disability status (Yuen, 2018, p. 69).

The Impact of George Floyd's Murder

Interestingly, 2020 was a year of reckoning in much of the entertainment industry. As a result of Floyd’s murder and BLM protests, many television networks began to remove controversial content from their databases (Chow, 2020). Hulu, for example, pulled a controversial episode of The Golden Girls where the main characters receive mud masks suggestive of blackface. Additionally, shows involving the police were examined, reconsidered, and sometimes pulled from distribution entirely (Chow, 2020).

The topic of diversity in Hollywood has been explored for several decades. King et al. (2021) conducted research regarding diversity in film. They stated that in “1996, of the top 50 grossing films, only 20 percent of leading characters were African American or Hispanic.” That representation of Asian and Native American characters or actors was essentially non-existent (King et al., 2021, p. 335). Furthermore, the authors explore how even when films have representation of racial and ethnic minorities, the representation is not always accurate or positive and often can perpetuate negative or unfair stereotypes. The authors found that in 2021, audiences appear now to be desiring more racial representation in film. These findings are further supported by the most recent Hollywood Diversity Report published by the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) in 2022.

The Hollywood Diversity Report

The Hollywood Diversity Report is issued by UCLA every year that looks at diversity rates in film and television proportionate to representation in the general population. The report explores diversity in the following areas: racial/ethnic identity, gender identity, disability status, cast diversity, writer diversity, and director diversity. Historically, the report has consistently demonstrated that audiences are driving demand for more diverse content, and the 2022 report also demonstrated similar trends. Films with casts representing 31-40 percent diversity had the highest median box office sales in the United States and abroad. Additionally, television ratings peaked, in most audience groups, for shows with relatively diverse casts (Hollywood Diversity Report, 2022, p. 44). These trends suggest that it is economically beneficial to support diversity.

The 2022 report found had significant findings in several categories. Compared with national consensus data, Black individuals were overrepresented among theatrical film roles, Asian individuals finally reached proportionate representation, and members of all other groups continued to remain underrepresented. Concerning gender diversity, women in film roles “failed to reach parity” with their male counterparts in 2022. Actors with a known disability made up only five percent or less of all film roles, suggesting that people with disabilities remain a significantly underrepresented (Hollywood Diversity Report, 2022, p. 23). The report found areas of disproportionate representation in writing and directing, with Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) representing only 1.2 out of 10 theatrical film writers, 16.8 percent of film directors, and 12.4 percent of film writers. Women make up slightly more than half of the US population; however, they only comprise 14.6 percent of film directors and 38.6 percent of film leads, according to the report (Hollywood Diversity Report, 2022, p. 4).

An industry dominated by wealthy, white, heterosexual, cisgender male producers has been particularly hostile towards racial and ethnic minorities and women as those with the power dictate the stories being told and how minority characters are portrayed. One common way this shows up is in the telling narratives involving a "white savior," often coming to the aid and “ in rescue” of stereotypical minority characters. Another common occurrence is the commodification of stories involving racial trauma. Actor Michael K. Williams, who died of a drug overdose in 2021 after working on a particularly distressing show, had stated in an interview with Men’s Health that “as people of color in Hollywood... a lot of times we don’t pay attention to the fact that we sell trauma. Some of our most wanting work is rooted—most of the time—in pain and trauma” (St. Clair, 2020).

The Rise of DEI Initiatives

DEI initiatives are becoming increasingly popular for economic motives as consumers demand more diverse content. Simply put, executives concerned with profit cannot afford to ignore increased calls for diversity measures (Yuen, 2018). Additionally, DEI initiatives are on the rise amidst an increased call for minority representation and also as means to address bullying, intimidation, and harrassment that has been uncovered in the industry at alarming levels. A 2020 study conducted in the United Kingdom found that two in five women who work in entertainment reported sexual harrassment at work. Additionally, the same study concluded that 69% of Black men employed in the entertainment industry experience bullying at work (The Looking Glass, 2020).

DEI initiatives take many forms, including incentives, discussion forums, racial affinity groups, and lobbying. One of the most prominent examples of a large-scale DEI initiative occurred in 1999 after a Los Angeles Times article reported a lack of diversity in prime-time television shows. Civil rights organizations organized protests and boycotts and formed a coalition that pressured major networks to implement DEI measures. As a result of the efforts, four major television networks hired a vice president of diversity, a new role designed to promote an increase in the hiring of diverse writers, directors, actors, and executives (Yuen, 2020, pp. 141-142). By 2014, television network ABC had instituted a diversity showcase effort to increase auditions by actors of color. The television network CBS also boosted diversity hiring efforts during this period (Yuen, 2020, pp. 143-144). The Diversity in Casting Incentive is an incentive within the actors union SAG-AFTRA. Low-budget filmmakers can reduce costs by hiring diverse employees to work on their projects. Yuen (2018) reports that from 2002 to 2010, usage of this incentive increased by 18 percent (p. 150).

Key Takeaways

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion efforts are vast and varied, and a one size fits all approach is not the most helpful, efficient, or effective method. As our collective consciousness continues to evolve in the face of an ever-shifting society, aiding the arc of the moral universe to continue to bend toward justice is the job of all individuals that make up the larger collective. Specifically, when it comes to the entertainment industry, achieving equity is an effort that will require tenacity and consistent adjustments on the part of all persons who interact with the industry, whether an entertainment worker or as a consumer.


Chow, A. R. (2020, July 1). How the entertainment industry is reckoning with racism. Time.

Film and Television Charity (2020). The Looking Glass Report: Mental health in the UK film, televeision and cinema industry.

Gonzales, S. F. (2022). Best Practices for Supporting and Assisted Gender and Ethnic Minorities Who Work in the Entertainment Industry. [Unpublished Paper]. Integrative Social Work Department, Saybrook University.

Gonzales, S. F. (2022). Personal Cultural Reflection Assignment. [Unpublished Paper]. Integrative Social Work Department, Saybrook University.

Janiak, L. (2019, August 26). Stephen Buescher settles racial discrimination lawsuit with Act. Datebook.

King, J., Ribeiro, S. L., Callahan, C., & Robinson, T. (2021). Representing race: the race spectrum subjectivity of diversity in film. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 44(2), 334–351.

St. Clair, J. (2020). Lovecraft Country sent Michael K. Williams to the Darkest Places of His Career. Men’s Health.

University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). (2022). Hollywood Diversity Report.

Yuen, N. W. (2016). Reel inequality: Hollywood actors and racism. Rutgers University Press.

Zafar, H. (2021). 4 ways media and entertainment could be more equitable and diverse. World Economic Forum.

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