2023 Oscars Inclusion List Reveals Academy’s Dreadful Level of Representation

LAMag spoke to both the physicists and advocates trying to cast some light on the Oscars’ ongoing diversity problem

For Dr. Stacy L. Smith, the founder of the leading think tank in the world studying diversity and inclusion in the entertainment industry, representation in Hollywood can be summarized in five simple syllables.

“It’s still abysmal,” says Smith, who launched the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. That said, it’s also somewhat quantifiable. And often times, quantifying a problem can be a crucial step in beginning to address the matter and fighting for accountability.

In pursuit of these goals, this year, Smith and the Inclusion Initiative collaborated with the Adobe Foundation to develop a 2023 Oscars Inclusion List, examining the gender, race, and ethnicity of Academy Award nominees and winners, contextualizing these statistics in the wake of crucial movements such as #MeToo or 2015’s #OscarsSoWhite, the social media tidal wave helmed by April Reign. Examining statistics dating back to the first Academy Awards in 1929, the Inclusion List provides insight into just how much and how slowly the needle of change is moving.

The results? Very slow and very spare. Depressingly so.

Some of the most alarming takeaways? Of all Academy Award winners, women of color account for 2 percent. Since 1929, the ratio of white to underrepresented nominees is 17 to 1. And since 1929, the ratio of men to women nominees was 5 to 1. Though the overall percentage of underrepresented nominees has more than doubled in the eight years following the #OscarsSoWhite movement, it’s certainly not enough, according to Smith. “The goal is to raise the bar,” Smith says. “Which is already so low.”’

The nominations and wins for people of color in the eight years since #OscarsSoWhite was launched (2016-2023).

The Inclusion List, Smith says, is particularly important in the pursuit of three main goals: “Making data accessible takes away the excuse that Hollywood loves to use that ‘we just can’t find anyone’… It also helps tell the Academy how far they still have to go.” Even in a banner year for Asian representation, this is often siloed and devoid of intersectionality, a problem Smith is all too familiar with. Though this year’s research showed that 85-90% of the films passed the Academy’s inclusion standards, Smith is adamant that such a wide sweep means the standards aren’t really standards at all: “They’re the lowest common denominator.” In what reality would this be enough to impact truly significant change?

As a result, the third goal of the study is part of a larger effort to “start naming names,” Smith says. “The Inclusion List is a precursor to a larger, more explosive study that will be released next month,” Smith says. This more in-depth examination will look into top executives’ hiring decisions, who is doing well in pursuit of more inclusive practices, and who is falling drastically short, or moving glacially slowly.

These are the first steps in reexamining the structural DNA of a film industry Smith has consistently predicted will be irrelevant by the time 2040 comes around. That is if the status quo doesn’t change.

“What I’m saying is that by 2040 underrepresented groups will be the majority,” Smith says. “Look at these companies at the top. If the gatekeepers don’t reflect societal norms, there is a complete disconnect in what gets distributed… The film executives should look a lot different. It is important to jet set executives that actually reflect the world so that they are the ones overseeing those film decisions.”

Given the importance of pushing the industry to offer more of a reflection of the consumer and emerging artists clawing for some foothold in cinema, it’s not surprising that the Inclusion List also includes a voter poll. The impetus behind this decision, Smith says, was the desire to track disparities between what viewers value and what the Academy is actually rewarding. In other words, just how out of touch is Hollywood with viewers’? According to Smith, very.

Filmgoers and audience members just don’t see themselves reflected in the Oscars—or perhaps even mainstream Hollywood—much anymore; the consequences of this could either catalyze great change or great collapse. It’s also an issue that transcends the boundaries of advocacy and film history. This Oscar season, even the physicists are getting involved.

Leaning into the impulse to afford viewers some more power in determining just what Oscar contenders are worth their time, Polish startup Omni Calculator has made gender inclusion parameters a central feature in their physicist-coined 2023 Oscar Marathon Calculator. The startup builds hundreds of custom calculators addressing ubiquitous and niche real-life dilemmas—from how many times you need to use a plastic grocery bag to have the same carbon footprint as other types of bags, to how your personal baseball batting average might compare to your favorite player, to where you might fall in the UK’s Covid vaccination queue. Now, it is providing users with a means to test how many Oscar contenders pass the Bechdel Test. Coined in 1985 by Alison Bechdel as “a little lesbian joke in an alternative feminist newspaper” as it appeared in her comic, Dykes to Watch Out For, according to Bechdel, the test measures women’s representation in a film based on three criteria: Does a film have at least two named women in it, do they talk to each other, and do they talk to each other about something other than a man?

Comic and issue by Alison Bechdel, circa 1985.

Though many of the calculator’s search parameters are innocuous and even a bit playful, helping viewers figure out how to arrange a viewing schedule of Oscar-nominated films according to their personal taste and their available time, the decision to include a Bechdel parameter was a very deliberate one. Lead technical supervisor on the calculator’s development, physicist and scientist Davide Borchia, says, “The Bechdel Test was the perfect parameter because it’s a yes or no test. A film fulfills the criteria or it doesn’t.” On a more holistic level, however, Borchia and his team discussed how exactly they could make the calculator more appealing to viewers. More meaningful. “We were reading about how, in the directing category this year, there are no women. We thought, ‘this is something we should talk about… As scientists, when we see something we can measure, we have to include it.'”

In addition to its interactive features, the calculator offers a breakdown of just where some of the year’s biggest films fall in relation to the Bechdel criteria. Avatar: The Way of Water, (4 nominations), did not pass the test. Neither did Elvis (8 nominations). In fact, the calculator says, Elvis only passed one Bechdel criterion. Many women in the film are named but none of them talk to each other. At all.

Borchia—who is the mind behind other creative Omni calculators such as the Star Wars Marathon calculator, helping viewers figure out exactly how long it will take to watch the most important Star Wars films and TV series—found himself laboring through a tight schedule to put each film through the statistical ringer. He had February 22 to February 28 to start and finish the project, leaving him to analyze each film’s Bechdel compliance while he ate his dinner most nights. In the end, the results were somewhat fascinating.

“Scientifically speaking it’s so interesting that we can define something so specific for a movie. It’s so easy to understand,” he says.

The implication is there: If it’s easy to understand, shouldn’t it be easier to acknowledge and address the issue on a broader systemic level? Even in the most playful test structures, the consumer-level demand for more rigorous inclusivity is clear.

This is part of why it’s so important to Dr. Smith that users fill out the Inclusion List’s 2023 Oscars Poll.

“The poll is a way of measuring just how much the Academy deviates from the rest of humanity and the consumer,” she says. This might help the Academy realize that even inclusion standards they’ve embraced as of late are, according to Smith, “Too little, too late.”

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