Netflix may be doing better than its industry peers in terms of diversity and inclusion across film and TV – but it still has a lot of work to do, particularly for the Asian, Latino and LGBTQ communities.
The University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative studied the company’s diversity efforts in a new report commissioned by the streamer, “Inclusion in Netflix Original U.S. Scripted Films & Series,” which was released Friday. It examines the streaming service’s diversity progress across 126 movies and 180 scripted series, and found that while the company made major strides in terms of gender equality, it still lacks representation in other demographics.
LGBTQ characters, for example, were only in the main cast of 4.3% of movies and 6.1% of series.
Bela Bajaria, vice president of global series at Netflix, said during a panel discussion about the report’s findings that she was surprised about the LGBTQ numbers. “I almost fell off my chair,” she said.
Though it may seem like Netflix is filled with LGBTQ content, novelty, prominence and repeated exposure could give way to false perception. “Often what we think couldn’t be further from the truth,” Stacy L. Smith, founder and director of USC’s initiative, said on the panel. That’s part of why an audit is important.
However, in both film and television, girls and women saw representation tick up between 2018 and 2019.
“I rarely have anything positive to say,” Smith said. “This report was a bit of a reprieve from my typical rollout of information.”
Films with female leads or co-leads rose from 46.4% to 50.9%, and TV series from 50.6% to 57.7%. Top-grossing films studied only showed 39% had female leads or co-leads in 2018 and 43% in 2019.
A look behind the company:Netflix releases first-ever inclusion report: ‘How can we use that privilege to offset inequities for others?’
White girls and women were disproportionately featured. For example: American Indian/Alaskan Native females were missing from 96.8% of films and 96.7% of series. White females were only missing from 4.8% of films and 4.4% of series.
As for behind the scenes: Women of color directors made up 6.2% of Netflix films in 2018 and 2019 compared to just 2.2% of top films. For TV series, that figure was 5.9% for Netflix and 7.1% for the industry.
“When a woman director is attached to a film, there are more leads and co-leads that are girls and women, more female-identified main cast members and more girls and women as a speaking characters on screen,” Smith said in a short video before the panel discussion. The same patterns were found on television as well, and also apply to people of color behind-the-camera.
About one-third of Netflix’s movies and TV shows included underrepresented groups as part of its main cast; in 2019 alone, its main cast in both film and TV got close to proportional population in the U.S. Nearly one-fifth of main casts in both film and TV included Black people.
The numbers were markedly lower for Asians and Latinos.
Elsewhere in the industry:Women ‘still underrepresented’ on screen, Nielsen diversity on TV study shows
Smith lamented the lack of Latino executives as a reason for dearth of content featuring the community: “They simply don’t exist.”
The talent pipeline, however, is filled with Latino content creators. “It’s not from them not wanting to participate, they are there and willing, it’s been that their access and opportunity’s been shut out,” Smith said.
While 2020 figures haven’t come in yet, Netflix has been producing inclusive content like “Bridgerton,” which it claimed has reached tens of millions of households in its first four weeks.
“That’s massive impact that people saw themselves and saw even an era of history told it a different way,” Bajaria said.
Though, about that:‘Bridgerton’ isn’t as progressive on race as it seems, and there’s a clear reason why
“I remember very specifically being 5 or 6 (years old) when Black people first started to appear on commercials and literally we would call each other up on the phone,” George C. Wolfe, director of Netflix’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” said on the panel. “In retrospect, it was ridiculous.”
Alan Yang, who co-created Netflix’s “Master of None” with Aziz Ansari, reflected during the panel on how much has changed in a few years. “As recently as five, six years ago when (‘Master of None’) came out we literally had an episode called ‘Indians on TV’ where it was like, ‘can you have a show with two Indian people in it?’ Two Indian people! It was really, really a dynamic debate in that writers room. (Ansari) literally said to me, ‘I don’t know if I would make a show with two Indian people on it’ and now that seems ridiculous.”
With representation comes more authentic storytelling, too. “(Yang and Ansari) can write ‘Master of None,’ and then you can get that specificity that cultural experience that ultimately becomes very universal,” Bajaria added.
Wolfe said that just because someone doesn’t look like you onscreen doesn’t mean the story can’t be about you. “You can find yourself in all kinds of stories,” he said.
To pave the way for the future, Netflix co-CEO and chief content officer Ted Sarandos announced the launch of the Netflix Fund for Creative Equity. It will donate $100 million the next five years to outside organizations that have seen success in helping underrepresented communities in the TV and film industries in addition to “Netflix programs that will help us to identify, train and provide job placement for up-and-coming talent globally,” he said in a blog post.
The company will release this inclusion report every two years through 2026, according to Sarandos.