Oscar nominations are less white this year—but the Academy still has a long way to go
In the past few years, diversity, equity, and inclusion has become a front-and-center issue for Hollywood. Organizations such as the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media have been leading the way in demanding more equitable representation.
But it wasn’t always that way. In fact, in 2015, only two movies by a Black, Indigenous, or person of color (BIPOC) filmmaker were nominated in major categories at the Oscars. This led to the trending hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, created to call out the Academy for its lack of diversity.
Six years later, the Academy has come a long way in becoming more inclusive in its nominations. However, there is still much room for improvement if the Academy wants to accurately reflect the diversity of its viewership.
This year’s nominations may finally reflect the choices of a more diverse Academy membership. Two women are nominated for best director for the first time ever: Chloé Zhao (Nomadland) and Emerald Fennell (Promising Young Woman). Steven Yeun is the first Asian American ever nominated for the best actor Oscar for his performance as Jacob in Minari. He is joined by the British-Pakistani actor Riz Ahmed, who made history becoming the first Muslim nominated for best actor in Sound of Metal. And Judas and the Black Messiah has the first all-Black production team to be nominated for best picture.
After #OscarsSoWhite, the Academy reframed lifetime voting rights, added new governor seats, and restructured committees. Its goal in 2016 was to double the number of women and BIPOC members by 2020. Janet Yang, chair of the membership and governance committee at the Academy, told us that the institution has met its goal for BIPOC and is close to meeting the milestone for women.
Moreover, the Academy has done an admirable job to help the BIPOC filmmakers of tomorrow. In 2017, it created Academy Gold, an entertainment industry–wide internship enhancement and mentorship program for students and young professionals from underrepresented communities.
Lastly, in 2020 the Academy announced new representation and inclusion standards for Oscars eligibility as part of its Academy Aperture 2025 initiative. The initiative isn’t perfect, but the act of codifying standards shows the Academy’s positive trajectory toward diversity, equity, and inclusion beyond tokenism, as well as its acknowledgement of its white male–centric past.
However, the organization began from a place of such whiteness (92% in 2015) and maleness (75%) that its overall composition is evolving slowly. Even if the group continues to invite members at this current, far more inclusive rate, the Academy would never be representative of the U.S. population, because its new classes have averaged 46% female and 31% people of color, while the U.S. overall is 50.5% female and 39.6% people of color.
As of 2020, Academy membership was still 84% white and 68% male, and the average age of an Academy member was 62. Thus, older white men still hold the positions of power and influence in the film industry. And while the Academy’s female numbers are much larger than in the past, they are drawn from Hollywood jobs that already have heavy female representation, such as costume designers (83%), casting directors (83%), and marketing or PR professionals (63%).
The Academy deserves credit for its diversity initiatives, but hopefully it will not become complacent and will continue to amplify the voices of marginalized communities. Stereotypical representation has real-world implications. Research shows that watching TV characters express negative nonverbal behavior toward Black characters increases viewers’ unconscious race bias. Another study found that watching TV decreased the self-esteem of Black boys and girls and white girls.
But with work, attention, and collaboration, we can make a real difference. One study found that elementary school children exposed to weekly stories featuring African and Chinese characters were more interested in interacting with children different from their own race.
It is the moral responsibility of filmmakers and scholars to tell stories that accurately reflect the everyday nuances of their audiences. But if the moral argument doesn’t sway you, then consider the business imperative.
“There is a robust market for authentic AAPI [Asian American and Pacific Islander] stories,” said Academy member Yang, who cofounded Gold House, a nonprofit supporting the careers of AAPI founders and leaders.
Data released by our organization, the Center for Scholars & Storytellers, and a newly published McKinsey report indicate that making inclusive multicultural content isn’t just financially beneficial for the AAPI filmmaking community, but all BIPOC in the industry. With this in mind, our hope is for the Academy and Hollywood at large to consider both their morality as well as the financial upside of implementing substantial changes with regard to diversity and inclusion.
Jeremy Hsing is a student at UCLA and a research assistant at the Center for Scholars & Storytellers.
Yalda T. Uhls is the founding director of the Center for Scholars & Storytellers.