By Saeeda Joseph-Charles
Associate Editor, Vol. 21
Managing Editor, Vol. 22

Jada and Will Smith boycotted the Oscars this year in what they said was an attempt to bring attention to the lack of diversity[1] in Hollywood. Other stars, like David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o, and George Clooney, also took a stance, turning to social media or the press to express similar concerns about diversity in the industry. Although some critics argue that Jada Smith’s boycott had more to do with her husband getting snubbed for his role in Concussion than a fight for diversity and inclusion, it doesn’t change the fact that for the second year in a row, no actors of color were nominated for an Academy Award in the four acting categories.

Interestingly enough, the Oscars is not the only award show garnering attention for its lack of diversity this year. Critics believe that Kendrick Lamar was snubbed at the Grammys again, losing song of the year to Ed Sheeran’s “nearly two-years old single ‘Thinking Out Loud,’ and album of the year to Taylor Swift’s monolithic 1989.” In fact, a rap song has “never won song or record of the year,” that is, unless rappers “couch their raps in a ton of pop or R&B.” For instance, Lauren Hill was the “first hip-hop artist to win album of the year” for her 1999 “The Miseducation of Lauren Hill” which was heavy on R&B. Similarly, OutKast’s “Speakerboxx/The Love Below,” which won album of the year in 2004, was “not strictly hip-hop” but had more of a “blended rock and even jazz” feel to it.

The Oscars and the Grammys sparked heated debates about diversity in Hollywood, but the issues arising from the lack of diversity in the media goes much deeper than a failure to recognize actors and artists of color and other identities. A recent study shows that “only 41% of black women see themselves depicted as beautiful in popular media.” In fact, most TV shows and movies depict black women in very stereotypical roles: the “angry black woman,” the “uneducated comic relief,” the “baby mama.” Moreover, the representation of minorities, particularly African-American males, in the news and television shows has “skewed racial perceptions of crime” and “bolstered harsh and biased criminal justice polices;” just ask Richard Nixon’s policy advisor, he knows all about biased criminal justice policies. From the Grammys to our favorite television shows, media has time and again proven to be so white. Why?

After the passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, there has been a reduction in media ownership by minorities and women, while opportunities either on screen or behind the scenes have remained largely unchanged for minorities and women. The Act removed many “ownership restrictions that… [have] left minority and female broadcasters struggling to maintain an already low share of the industry.” Moreover, “judicial rollbacks in affirmative action programs have affected the FCC’s ability to set equal employment opportunity…policies for broadcast licensees.” Without minorities and women behind the scenes and in positions of power, it should come as no surprise that diversity in media continues to be quite lacking.

That is why last month, the FCC issued a Notice of Inquiry (NOI), “seeking comment on the current state of independent and diverse programming.” The comments were due 30 days after the NOI’s publication in the Federal Registry, and Reply comments were due 20 days after the publication. Through the comments, the FCC hopes to get an idea of “the current state of the marketplace for independent programming” and to find solutions to barriers to diverse programming. This inquiry comes several months after the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) “launched an official investigation into the lack of female directors on Hollywood films.” The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) also got involved, asking the EEOC to “investigate the ‘systemic failure’ of film studios to hire female directors.”

Clearly, the lack of diversity in the media, both on- and off-screen, has not gone unnoticed. Hopefully, with pressure from powerful figures in Hollywood, and prompting from the ACLU and other interested organizations, the FCC (or another federal agency) will take steps to move media coverage in the right direction.

[1] Although much of the attention has been around race and gender diversity in Hollywood, other identities are also missing in large part from the industry: LGBTQ, individuals with mental, developmental, or physical disabilities, etc.