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The Impact of Hollywood's Diversity Quotas: Why Do People Support and Oppose Them?

by Elissa Neimy

For a while, it seemed that Hollywood was at its peak. Movies had interesting storylines, talented casts, and well-rounded budgets that properly covered all aspects of moviemaking, resulting in films that tried to give minorities their representation while still prioritising art. They produced cinematic pieces that were enjoyable for everyone. As a key player in Hollywood, Disney has brought wonders and nostalgia all over the world, initially through the first-ever animations, expanding their movie magic through the century. However, in the last decade, despite steady earnings and viewers, Hollywood and Disney have faced remarks across the media regarding their spark, creativity, and credibility. So, what exactly happened and why?

Hollywood is a name well-known and respected worldwide. From iconic classics to hit franchises, Hollywood has covered just about every genre and become a symbol of the American Dream. However, over the last couple of decades, moviemakers have faced significant backlash regarding the lack of sufficient diversity in movies, TV shows, award nominations, and award winnings as well as the stereotyping and occasional misrepresentation of minorities in the cinematic universe. These outcries sparked gradual changes across Hollywood, as women and other formerly underrepresented groups began to see a steady rise in inclusion. At some point, however, the method of trying to create movies with more diverse casts and crews became polarising.

Many are enjoying the refreshing representation changes in cinema. According to Zippia, in 2023 32.5% of Hollywood actors are female, which is a good start with their other statistic showing that 13.2% are black — corresponding with the US’s 13.5% African American population. Additionally, reports from the UCLA social sciences study show that “People of colour accounted for 21.6% of the leads in top theatrical films for 2022.” This is great news on many fronts. While some deem the representation to still be insufficient, there is also an appreciation for the progress made — though it fluctuates.

Ministerè de la culture (October 26th 2022): Movie theater

Having films led by minorities is a wonderful representation of society’s diverse landscape. Representation is important for many reasons. Firstly, many young children do not have the opportunity to see people who look like them on screen. The characters we see on our screens have a heavy impact on our perceptions. We laugh and cry with them and relate to them. We create connections and grow with many beloved movie characters and so they influence how we see both ourselves and the world around us. Seeing someone who looks like them on screen has a significant effect on the way children grow up.

They see themselves as equal and central to society and see their stories and experiences represented in film. This helps them understand themselves and create even deeper and more meaningful connections to stories and productions. Additionally, this has an impact on the rest of society. According to Black Illustrations, representation fosters understanding and tolerance. When people can create connections with characters of a different race, it makes them more likely to be receptive towards other ethnicities in real life and grow up with more understanding, respect and empathy; valuing the place of minorities and seeing them as the integral part of their surroundings that they are.

The issue of representation divides those who want it and those who are sceptical. Nevertheless, the two major subgroups within those who value it differ in the method in which they wish to see this representation.

House beautiful (March 12th 2023): The Oscar’s Stage 2023

Recently Hollywood, and more specifically Disney, has been increasing representation in their films by replacing white characters with ethnically diverse actors in the live-action remakes. In fact, this method of inclusion began long ago in a much more subtle way. For example, the 2010 remake of the Karate Kid starring Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith. Or the 2014 remake of Annie, which replaced both leads with African American actors, Quvenzhané Wallis, and Jamie Foxx.

Even more recently, the Spiderman remakes starring Tom Holland and Zendaya — for which many had something to say about the new take on MJ’s personality and debated which of the 3 remakes (including which Spiderman, MJ, or Gwen) had a more interesting cast. This is a method of inclusion that has made many very happy. It has been heartwarming to see African-American children respond so beautifully to the emotional connection of seeing a black Little Mermaid, for example. As many observe, it is wonderful for the self-esteem and development of these kids and gives black actors who have the same nostalgic connection to these wonderful characters a chance to play them. Furthermore, many argue that having an actor of a different race does not change the original captivating storyline nor does it erase the original movie.

Those who prefer that version still have it and now ethnic minorities have a version of their own. However, there is also another point of view to consider in the latter part of the subgroup that values representation in film.  

Many are now worried that these changes are not for the greater social good but rather a political, money-making move. That cinema is no longer a way to comment on politics or challenge it but rather a reflection of it, which diminishes the essence of artistry and creativity. Meaning, that instead of taking an artistic licence with movies because it feels right, because it will elevate the movie or because it will showcase a new angle of the story or message, these changes are no longer subtle and are being made to fill a quota.

There are new rules for the allocation of taxes and budgeting for Hollywood movies. Moreover, there are specific criteria for movies to be eligible to win awards.

The Oscar is one such example. On their official website, they state a list of diversity quotas movies must reach in all areas of production, preproduction, and postproduction — in order to be eligible for a nomination. “TWO out of FOUR of the following standards will be required in order for the film to be deemed eligible”. This includes “Standard A: On-Screen Representation, Themes and Narratives”, which dictates the cast and storylines.  “Standard B: Creative Leadership and Project Team Standard”, meaning a diversity quota to be filled in postproduction (editors, directors and the like). “Standard C: Industry Access and Opportunities”, meaning internships and apprenticeships. As well as “Standard D: Audience Development'', which includes “Representation in development, marketing, publicity, and distribution”. To many, all of the above scream “Diversity hire!”

As a result, in their eyes, movies have no interest in being diverse and making art that better reflects the worldwide social and ethnic background. Classics – like The Princess and the Frog, Bohemian Rhapsody, Black Panther, or the wildly successful live-action Disney remakes like The Lion King, Aladdin, and The Jungle Book — that feature diverse casts while being true to the story and the audience who have long-loved the films no longer have a place in Hollywood. The race to signal virtue and be eligible for awards has cheapened the quality of movies and the imagination behind most of the recent storylines. Like, for example, the live-action Disney remake of The Little Mermaid sparked similar opposing stances on the method of representation. For many, having an African American Ariel added no depth to the story. Despite Halle Bailey’s talent, many argue that she wasn’t all that impressive as Ariel. She didn’t bring a new dimension to the character that warranted such a drastic change in the iconic redhead’s appearance.

Talking with Tami (May 22nd 2023): Halle Bailey (Ariel), Rob Marshall (Director), and Melissa McCarthy (Ursula) at the movie premier of the little mermaid

In fact, African-American critic Wesley Morris titled his review of the film in the New York Times “The Little Mermaid’ Review: The Renovations Are Only Skin Deep”. He brought up that the film was lacking in many aspects and voiced his opinions saying, “ It reeks of obligation and noble intentions. Joy, fun, mystery, risk, flavor, kink — they’re missing. The movie is saying, “We tried!” Tried not to offend, appall, challenge, imagine.” The diverse and singular backgrounds of all her sister mermaids additionally, seemed unnecessary and confusing and made the iconic characters unrecognisable. Furthermore, though talented, Javier Bardem may not have been the right fit for King Trident as he seemed to lack the forcefulness and intimidating aura that made him so mesmerising in the original animation, an opinion many voiced and a casting choice Mr. Morris also questioned in his article.

As one may argue that with made-up characters appearance doesn’t matter, others say that it brings so many layers to a production. After all, the term “look the part” was coined for a reason. The appearance of a character tells us their social background, history and culture. It affects the background of the story and the location setting. It would have been, admittedly, incredibly awkward to have a white man play Aladdin, for example. “Why is he in ‘Agrabah’?”, “How did he end up there?”, “Why doesn’t anyone else look like him?”. Or, potentially worse, “Why does everyone look like him? Isn’t the setting somewhere in the Middle East?” Without addressing these questions, such a change would have seemed out of place, while addressing them would have impacted the theme of the movie. Furthermore, the more prominent argument is that these characters, no matter their race, have a nostalgic feel and are connected to many memories for the people who were waiting for the remake.

Moreover, a popular opinion that appeared repeatedly across media platforms was that if representation was truly important to Hollywood, they would allocate a budget, effort, and time to write new POC iconic characters which everyone would enjoy and make them the original. An additional question to ponder is “If remaking an iconic movie with diverse-race actors was so in demand, why not remake wonderful movies like The Princess and The Frog, Pocahontas, or Lilo and Stitch?”, which may make one wonder whether those be remade soon as well and then have all the modern remakes featuring non-white leads? Understandably, this raises concerns about this method of inclusion in movies.

Although it is true that people of colour should have the opportunity to play beloved characters, TikTok was up in arms, often taking a sarcastic or comedic tone, typical of Gen Z, to question whether it would be acceptable for white actors to play iconic ethnic characters.

Art: Christopher Smith, used in the article on WRAP PRO (July 17th 2023)

And truly, now that we have an image of Princess Tiana (The Princess and The Frog) in our heads, or of Esmeralda (The Hunchback of Notre Dame), how would we feel about a white actress in those roles? Most recently, Disney has faced backlash over casting Latina actress Rachel Zegler as Snow White. The backlash was so intense that she is now being replaced. Also, in the works “Peter Pan and Wendy” with black actress Yara Shahidi playing the iconic blonde Tinkerbell. 

The effect of this new agenda, specifically on Gen Z, should be noted. Mainly the destruction of their nostalgic associations with iconic and beloved characters. Also, the disinterest and disappointment in the quality of recent productions and the lack of creativity in these repetitive storylines, sequels, and remakes. However, it is tricky as the value of ethnically diverse characters and actors carries so much important weight for current and future generations of movie-watchers and has the power —when done right — to positively impact our societies.


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