A Major Hollywood Diversity Report Shows Little Change—Except for One Promising Stat

Over the past 16 years, Hollywood has engaged in discussions about the need for improved representation in films. Movements such as #OscarsSoWhite and #MeToo have played a significant role in shaping these conversations both on the red carpet and on social media. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has taken steps to diversify its voting body in order to nominate a broader range of movies and performances, resulting in more diverse nominees and winners in recent years. However, a recent study conducted by the University of Southern California's Annenberg Inclusion Initiative suggests that despite the talk of progress, there has been little actual change onscreen.

The study, led by Professor Stacy L. Smith, examined 1,600 top-grossing films from 2007 to 2022, making it the most comprehensive study of its kind. It analyzed a staggering 69,858 speaking roles across these movies to determine if Hollywood has achieved significant shifts in representation in terms of gender, race and ethnicity, LGBTQ+ identity, and disabilities. The findings indicate that many of the numbers remained stagnant or even regressed, highlighting the industry's struggle to enact meaningful change without the involvement of experts and systemic interventions to address inequality and discrimination.

However, there was one notable exception identified in the study. Over the last 16 years, the percentage of Asian characters with speaking roles onscreen significantly increased from 3.4% to 15.9%. In contrast, Black characters saw minimal change, with representation rising only from 13.0% to 13.4%. The proportion of Latino characters experienced slight growth from 3.3% to 5.2%. Bing Chen, the CEO, and Co-Founder of Gold House, an organization supporting Asian Pacific creators and companies, expressed a mix of happiness and guilt about the data, emphasizing the need to support all multicultural communities. Nonetheless, the data does provide some encouragement, illustrating that change is achievable across various demographics.  

Chen identifies three major milestones for Asian characters onscreen in the last several years. In 2018, Crazy Rich Asians, the first film by a major Hollywood studio to feature a majority Asian cast in 25 years since The Joy Luck Club premiered in 1993, became a genuine blockbuster. The next year, The Farewell and Parasite—movies partially or completely featuring non-English dialogueperformed well at the box office against their budgets and won awards. Parasite won four Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best International Feature Film. "The year former President Trump was spitting all sorts of really anti-Asian xenophobic commentary, talking about 'Kung flu' and all that nonsense," says Chen. "So when Parasite won, that was a really big affirming moment of, we're actually creatively excellent, even if we don't speak your language."

And last year, Everything Everywhere All at Once became a surprise box office smash and the most-awarded film of all time.

And that's just in film. On TV, shows like Fresh Off the BoatSquid Game, and Kim's Convenience have had a major cultural impact. And cultural exports from Asian countries have gone mainstream in the U.S. "There's no question that the rise of K-Pop as an institution has, directly and indirectly, contributed to the acculturation of the masses to K-content, writ-large," says Chen. Smith agrees that while the U.S. dominated the global pop culture space for decades, much of that power has shifted to Asian countries that are exporting music, television, film, and even social media content to the U.S. at high rates, and K-Pop paved the way for mass cultural events like the Korean show Squid Game.

Here's why experts think we've seen a shift onscreen—and why there's still work to do.

Gary Oldman wears a Time's Up pin to the Golden Globes on January 7, 2018  (Gabriel Olsen—FilmMagic)
Gary Oldman wears a Time's Up pin to the Golden Globes on January 7, 2018 
Gabriel Olsen—FilmMagic

Movies remain very white, very straight, very cis, and very male.

The few highlights in the data come with major caveats. As Barbie's massive box office numbers demonstrate, female-led pictures can succeed when studios actually make them. Executives are finally starting to learn that lesson: 44% of leading or co-leading roles went to women and girls in 2022, a 16-year peak and more than double the number in 2007. But, on the whole, casts are still dominated by men. The percentage of female characters with speaking roles ticked up just 4.7 percentage points from 29.9% in 2007 to 34.6% last year.

And while women of color made major strides in representation onscreen—19% of movies in 2022 featured a woman of color in a leading role, up from an abysmal 1% in 2007—there has been little progress throughout the late 2010s and 2020s. The percentage of women of color in leading roles has remained flat for years. And 70 of the top 100 films of 2022 featured no women of color in any role.

"We now have 16 years of evidence that shows that activism failed particularly with girls and women since it's almost a flatline from 2007 to 2022," says Smith. The advocacy arm of Time's Up, the celebrity-filled organization that sprung up in the wake of #MeToo and promised to fight for gender equity in film, imploded last year. Whispers that after all the talk of change in 2017 the pendulum is swinging back to a more regressive approach to business have spread through Hollywood.

Other data points proved even more bleak. Only 2.1% of speaking characters in the top films of 2022 identified as LGBTQ+, a percentage which has not changed meaningfully since 2014 when the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative began measuring. There were 5 transgender characters in the top 100 films of 2022, a 9-year high point, but 4 of these 5 characters appeared in a single film: Bros.

And the number of speaking characters with a disability in a major film was just 1.9% in 2022, a drop from 2.4% in 2015 when Annenberg started recording stats.

In light of these data, the success of Asian characters onscreen stands out even more. Chen argues that those successes have come only after years of advocacy.

Lana Condor in <i>To All the Boys I've Loved Before</i> (Masha_Weisberg&mdash;Awesomeness Films)
Lana Condor in To All the Boys I've Loved Before
Masha_Weisberg—Awesomeness Films

Chen attributes the rise of Asian representation in the film to several factors. One is simply the proliferation of content largely thanks to streamers' constant quest for new programming to court more subscribers: More storytelling has translated to more diverse storytelling. The rallying cry around #StopAsianHate tied to acts of violence against Asian Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic helped motivate activists to push for greater representation of Asian stories onscreen in hopes that movies could evoke empathy and relatability. But Chen says the efforts to tell Asian stories stretch beyond that one movement. "I would say within the community, the way we think about it is of course we still care about #StopAsianHate and ensuring that the safety and belonging of our community, but our community cares even more about creative excellence, as opposed to just sort of representation."

And then there's the surge in adaptations of bestselling books written by Asian authors, like Min Jin Lee's Pachinko, Jenny Han's To All the Boys I've Loved Before series, and the forthcoming Interior Chinatown show, based on the book by Charles Yu. "You see a rise in both the number of Asian authors writing books and making the bestseller list but also, equally important, the quick adaptation of those works by Asian producers," Chen says. "This has been a very concentrated effort in the community over the last three to four years."

In terms of original content, Chen points to writer-directors with newfound creative control over their projects. Beef's Lee Sung Jin, Turning Red's Domee Shi, Minari's Lee Isaac Chung, Joy Ride's Adele Lim, and Never Have I Ever's Mindy Kaling have gotten to tell stories "that reflect their real lived experience," he says. There have, of course, long been Asian creators in Hollywood, but finally these particular movies and shows in all their specificity and detail have been greenlit. In a previous op-ed for TIME, Chen and his co-founder Jeremy Tran argued that diversity in studio leadership can trickle down to the content itself, pointing to the power of studio bigwigs like Bela Bajaria and Marian Lee Dicus at Netflix, Albert Cheng at Amazon Prime Video, and Asad Ayaz and Nancy Lee at Disney.

Smith casts some skepticism on the notion that Hollywood has altered what stories it brings to the big screen—even in the face of massive box office takes. Yes, the ticket sales for Crazy Rich Asians afforded director Jon M. Chu the opportunity to direct other films with notably diverse casts, like In the Heights and the forthcoming Wicked adaptation. And the success of that same film boosted the career of Michelle Yeoh, who went on to win an Oscar for another film with a predominantly Asian cast, Everything Everywhere All at Once. But to Smith, those exceptions can obfuscate the work that still needs to be done.

"If you can think of a few instances, what that does is cause you to overestimate a particular event," she says. "So if you call up someone like Jon Chu or the Daniels [directors of Everything Everywhere All At Once], you're going to think, 'Oh things are actually getting better.' I would challenge the studios to look at the data." The data, she says, suggests that shifts in Asian representation in film can largely be attributed to increased audience appetite for foreign films, not efforts by American studios to diversify Hollywood. "It's a function of the box office changing," she argues, "not the decisions of legacy studios."

Dancers perform 'Naatu Naatu' from "RRR" onstage at the 95th Annual Academy Awards. (Rich Polk—Variety/Getty Images)
Dancers perform 'Naatu Naatu' from "RRR" onstage at the 95th Annual Academy Awards.
Rich Polk—Variety/Getty Images

What we watch has fundamentally shifted in the last few years. Back in 2020, when he won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film for Parasite, Korean director Bong Joon Ho said in his acceptance speech, “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films." He could not have known then how quickly Americans would heed his advice. Parasite went on to win Best Picture at the Oscars and proved to be a box office phenomenon in the U.S.

Around the time of Parasite's history-making Oscars win, streaming services, particularly Netflix, were taking a more international approach to producing and acquiring content. Audiences seemed decreasingly deterred by those pesky subtitles. Crossover hits like the Korean show Squid Game and the Indian film RRR have become some of the streamer's biggest hits. (Squid Game set a record for the most watched show on Netflix ever and ranked No. 1 in more than 90 countries across the world.

"Netflix is spending literally billions of dollars in K-content and Indian content," says Chen. "Korea and India, in particular, are becoming the dominant successful exporters of pop content." The studio has invested in massive production infrastructure in Korea and is increasingly focused on doing the same thing in India in addition to acquiring original content in those countries.

Netflix is certainly the most globally minded of the American studios. "Bela Bajaria is way out in front as the Chief Content Officer at Netflix," says Smith. "As a woman who comes from an underrepresented background, she's hitting it out of the park in terms of curating global talent. The entire industry is following her league." The Annenberg Inclusion Initiative has previously found that Netflix performs better than traditional Hollywood studios on representation metrics, both in the U.S. and globally.

Beyond streaming, content from Asian countries has become increasingly dominant on TikTok and YouTube, platforms where Gen Z especially consumes most of its content. Younger viewers who hail from multicultural homes and are increasingly connected to people across the globe through social media don't have the same bias toward a single language that past generations do.

In the film, Katherine Pieper, program director at the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, says the pandemic helped accelerate the shift toward international content as viewers sought out new content while stuck on their couches at home rather than relying on whatever Hollywood was putting in movie theaters for entertainment. "With the change in the box office from 2020 to 2022, we saw a couple of types of broad categories of films in the top 100 that had been relatively minimal in previous years," she says, "namely anime films, Bollywood films, and international films set primarily in South Asia or in Japan with primarily Asian characters."

Pieper and Smith attribute the influx in Asian representation largely to those foreign films suddenly overtaking their American counterparts at the domestic box office rather than any major change in how the traditional studios make decisions. "Each year there's between five and eight films that meet those descriptions that we hadn't seen before 2021, in addition to a couple of films from the U.S. that might have played the role, like Raya and the Last DragonShang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, and The Eternals."

But of course, those few North American releases can have an impact as well. The Canadian show Kim's Convenience found a significant American audience on Netflix and launched the career of Simu Liu, who became the first Asian man to lead a major American superhero film in Marvel's Shang-Chi. That movie, in turn, afforded him opportunities in other mainstream movies, like Barbie. The impetus shouldn't be only on creators of color to write for and cast non-white actors.

"If an Asian writer-producer is producing a piece, there are probably going to be some Asian characters. But if a non-Asian one is, what is their propensity to write an Asian character and why?" asks Chen. "My best inference is that writers' rooms have become more diverse in general—though there's still a long way to go obviously."

That progress, of course, ties directly to issues being raised by the actors and writers on strike in Hollywood. The WGA has revealed that while the proportion of underrepresented writers has grown in the last several years, they largely occupy lower-level positions and are the first to be put in financial straits when studios decide to forgo writers' rooms or make major cuts. "Creators of color are the first people to be penalized in these strikes for all sorts of systemic reasons," says Chen. Both Smith and Chen are eagerly watching the strikes to see how changes to writers' rooms might impact long-term trends. The ultimate goal, they say, is to empower writers and actors of color to continue to tell their own stories—and pressure studios to back their visions.

It was one of the most talked about and most significant wins in women’s sports: After 120 minutes of gameplay, defensive player Brandi Chastain stepped up to the pitch, kicking in the final penalty shot with her non-dominant left foot. The second the ball hit the net, Chastain whipped her jersey off, revealing a black sports bra as she fell to her knees, unknowingly creating one of the most iconic images of all time. The United States Women’s National Soccer Team had beaten China to take home the trophy in the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup. 

It was a moment of joy, power, and progress. Women can and should show up for themselves and celebrate in a way that dares people to try and look away. 

Twenty-four years later, women’s soccer is in another World Cup cycle and much has changed. Viewership has increasedPay has increased. The competition is fiercer than ever and more teams are being added to female leagues worldwide (including one in the U.S.’s National Women’s Soccer League owned by Chastain and other former players). 

Watching this year’s World Cup (which saw the United States lose to Sweden in a penalty shoot-out on August 6, ending America’s chances for a three-peat), it’s evident just how far the game has come, and also where it can go. Yes, it’s disappointing for fans to see a team they love lose, but that’s what sports are all about — winning, losing, learning to move on. 

But in order to look forward, it’s important to look back and see how far we’ve come from “The Match that Changed Everything.” Ahead, what happened that fateful day in ‘99 straight from the players who were on the pitch.

An Oral History of the 1999 U.S.A. vs. China Women’s World Cup Final


Before the Match 

Brandi Chastain, defender: Even before we got to the locker room, just the excitement around the hotel and anticipation of getting on the bus and heading over to the game was always a fun time. When we get to the Rose Bowl, we quickly find out that the game before us is tied and will be going to penalty kicks, and we can get there early just to be there and make sure we're not pushing the time. So now, we're going to be there an extended amount of time, and we won't be getting onto the field.

Michelle Akers, forward: I remember literally thinking, Oh, this would never, ever happen to the men. Never mind. We have a job to do. There was a constant putting aside of things and just warming up on the concrete, trying not to slip and trying to warm up to get ready for one of the biggest games in my life.

What I remember in the couple of days leading up to that match was we went and had a burger at a pub. It was a famous pub there, I can't remember the name of it. We had burgers and beers. We were walking back and there was a horse patrol cop outside the stadium, outside the grounds on the street there, at a light across from our hotel. And so I'm into horses, so I talked to him about the horses. He knew who we were. It was all exciting. All those little things to me are so important in being grounded to approach what will take every ounce of what you have inside you and beyond to accomplish and to compete and to be your best. 

I remember looking at myself in the mirror on the way out because I had a big black eye from the Brazil game. I got cleated in the face. And going, OK, when I come back, next time I'm in this hotel room, I will know if we won or lost. It was a weird and poignant moment, just to think about that.

Chastain: We turned the tunnel and the locker room into a dance party warm-up zone. And this Rose Bowl, this beautiful historical traditional stadium, where all these monumental events have happened in our country's sporting history, is now going to be hosting the final of the Women's World Cup. 

Akers: I don't remember the music. 

Chastain: It was, like, “Livin' La Vida Loca.” And, of course, Kristine Lilly would have some melancholy slow song, and everybody would be like, “Boo!” And '90s jams. It was the '90s. But honestly, if you can get pumped up to Melissa Etheridge, I guess that’s part of what made her amazing. 


Akers: That match. Man, that match. I remember just being intensely focused on going from almost job to job on the field, and mode to mode; marking and not letting her turn, winning the airball. It was literally from executing one thing to executing the next, which means also anticipating the next thing and organizing all the things. It's such an amazing experience to be in that mode, and I felt like the crowd was so into it. It was like we were almost floating down this powerful river because they carried us.

Chastain: Starting the game, my position as the defender was not thinking about scoring, so I wasn't really in that headspace. I was more in the “how will I stop China” [headspace] and the number of Chinese players that will run at you at any given time from any given direction. They were so good. My job was to keep it out of the net, so that was as much of a physical task as it was a mental task.

I'm just talking to myself the whole time about where to be. And the game is a long game. That's before you even think about overtime. Just the regular game is a long game and so it's hard to stay in that really super hyper-focused mode. And so having worked with a sports psychologist about how we go in and out of that focus — a game like this, one minor mistake and that could be the game. I remember that being just really so apparent to me, the amount of self-talk, the amount of talking to my teammates. Just keeping connected, that was really something that I spent a lot of energy on. 

Akers: I remember, because of my job description, getting forward, getting in the box, shooting, and winning any serves in, et cetera, that it was exhausting. And I remember working so hard to get up there every time, and then [the Chinese team] did a quick transition and a long ball and I was like, Oh, my God, and I was all the way in their box, and I was like, I'm not going to make it. I'm trying, but I'm just going so slow, but I'm going as fast as I can. And then I just heard Carla [Overbeck] go, "Hey guys, we need you." And then all of a sudden, I had turbo speed. It was like another three years kicked in and I got back. That literally took everything.

Chastain: I think getting closer to the end of the game, the intensity starts to ramp up. The opportunities become a little less. The threats become a little more provoking, and so everything just gets on pins and needles, because you want to be a part of the solution and not a part of the problem.

When I see it now and when I've watched it again, that's how I see the game. I can semi-recollect that feeling in my body, that tension that you get when you get into those tight moments. But, also, again, we went through the practice of taking those deep breaths and really being able to calm ourselves and to stay in the moment and to still have the connection with our teammates. It was a battle. It was a mental battle the entire time.

Akers: At the very end, there was the corner, and you're focused on what you need to do, but at the same time it is, Well fuck, if they score we're fucked. They cannot score. So, it's like the 90th minute and there's a corner. They're great on set pieces, and so all I kept thinking was, Oh, I've got to win the head ball. And it's so loud, you can't hear anyone on your team, screaming or yelling or giving instruction. They served it in, I went for the head ball, and then [the goalie] Bri came over the top of me, punched the ball and me, and then she knocked me out. That was the end for me. I do remember being on the sideline. They blew the whistle and I was on the sideline.

Chastain: We always had this mindset that we would win every game. We prepared in that way. We supported each other in that way, and we grew to believe that every game was ours. But when you get into a game with China, you better bring it, or you're going to get smacked down. So, it was exhausting. It was probably one of the most exhausting games I've ever played.

An Oral History of the 1999 U.S.A. vs. China Women’s World Cup Final


The Penalty Shootout

Akers: They took me off the field into the locker room. I was in a training room, a trauma room under the stadium. They had me in with double IVs and on ice. And I remember our docs yelling, "Akers. Get with it, Akers. Get with it, Akers. Come on up. There's a helicopter waiting outside for you. If you don't get with it, I'm going to have to put you on the helicopter.”

Chastain: When we went to the middle, I realized that somehow in all the communication and all the stretching and all the drinking and all the things, I did not hear the order of the kickers. As we're walking out, I'm thinking, I don't know when I'm going. And then I think, Well, I'm not saying anything, because I don't want to screw it up. I didn't want to mess with anybody else's preparation for going out to that thing. That was a little bit of a tension-builder for me. 

Then we had one, two, three go, and then Bri made the save. Then we made our kick. They made their kick. And it was my turn to go, and we all knew that if it went in, it would be good.

The only thing that I was thinking at that point was, Don't look at the goalkeeper. As it turned out, that was really a detriment for Gao Hong. In the HBO documentary Dare to Dream: The Story of the U.S. Women's Soccer Team, she said she tried to look in my eyes, but couldn’t.

Akers: I was like, "I'm not going to the hospital. I am fine." I bucked up. I don't know, I plugged in the synapses and I sat up to get the IVs out, but it was the penalty kicks going on. They had a super-small TV up in the corner of this room. And so they got the IVs out and we were sitting, everyone. I remember looking at the backs of the men in that room, the doctors and the people in there. There were probably six or seven people there working on me, and we were all just glued on, transfixed. And then Brandi scored and they almost jumped through the ceiling, because it was this low room, low ceilings. I remember thinking, God help me, they're going to bust through the ceiling.

Chastain: There have been times when I'm at an event or something and somebody now plays [a video of] it, and I get little heart palpitations like it's not going in this time. I was totally out of my mind [when I made the shot]. Out of my mind. 

Now, people have asked me if I planned to take my shirt off, and I always say no. Honestly, this is a moment that I had created in many different iterations of sports at the local playground, in the street playing with friends and teammates. I saw my brother and his friends always [act like] they were the greatest things when they'd make a basket, and just thinking, Girls don't do things like that. They don't celebrate themselves too often. I didn't have a role model in a celebration moment, and so, for me, that just speaks to the authenticity and the genuine organic nature of the moment and that you'll never know what your emotions will do when presented in a way that you've dreamt about for your whole life. It was joy. It was being ecstatic. It was relief. It was gratitude, happiness. It was every single emotion you can possibly think of. It was a long road to that moment, not just the three weeks in the tournament, but really a lifetime to seeing that through.

Akers: I got up, which didn't quite work out, getting up, the way I imagined it because I was dizzy and all the things. But then they gave me this yellow shirt and they were carrying me and walking. And then these bodyguards, these big giant men suddenly appeared and stood in our way. It was like the Pittsburgh Steelers arrived and there's no way you could pass. Apparently, it was because [President] Clinton had arrived and all these bodyguards were in the way, saying, "You can't go out there,” but I was like, "I am going out." 

I came onto the field just as the team was getting all their medals, so I missed that. Then, they took me out into the middle, the center circle, with our doctors. I just remember standing there, watching the team do a lap. It was so surreal. It was like I was watching all these screens. I was on the first-ever U.S. Women's National Team in 1985; I played on that team. I was the only player [in ‘99] still playing from that team. So, that [1985] team, those players, that memory and legacy was alive in me, and so I brought that in every game. I was transposing all those memories while I was watching my team celebrate this after I had nothing left. But it was almost worth it, standing there in that moment, because of that.

Amanda Cromwell turns to me and says, "Mich, listen. Listen. The crowd's chanting your name." The whole stadium was chanting: "Akers, Akers." I was blown away. When I got back to my hotel room, it was kind of a full-circle thing ... we did it. Then I ordered a burger and fries from room service. I was late seeing the team, who were absolutely guzzling Champagne and all those things.

Chastain: I did not see the ripple effect of the pebble that was being thrown into the pond, and what it has meant in so many different ways has been fascinating to hear about. We have to fast-forward 24 years and see what is happening, and the expansion of the [National Women’s Soccer League] and our Bay FC team coming in as one of the next two expansion teams. And the growth of women's soccer globally has just been ... It's been a slow burn, and now, all of a sudden, it's exploding.

Akers: We still have so far to go. We also have a responsibility to pull up everyone, all the women from the past whose shoulders we're standing on. It's because of them. There are so many. That's part of the push, part of the legacy here. I'm spending time now on getting this 1985, that first U.S. Women's National Team story told, because that's where it all started … Women are just freaking amazing.

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