At the height of the #MeToo movement, as powerful sexual offenders were brought down and women began to feel empowered by what newspapers were calling a “watershed moment,” a question still lingered in an undercurrent of hopelessness: Will anything ever truly change?
The U.S. is having to face itself in the mirror once again, as nationwide protests call for racial equality and justice in the wake of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and too many other black citizens by police officers. The same frustrating question lingers, particularly because we’ve been here before.
In the case of #MeToo, the answer is yes, there has been meaningful change. It began with the TV and film space, which is a particularly good place to start, for no industry wields more power in influencing societal attitudes.
That’s not to say sexism is over. Sexual harassment and bad behavior still go on. And there’s nowhere near enough women in the upper echelons of corporate America or government or Hollywood yet. But the message that came out of #MeToo was that those who abuse their power will be exposed and held accountable, and that message has stuck in more places than not. It's allowed for more women’s voices to be elevated, slowly but surely changing society for the better.
If corporate America and Hollywood struggled in how to respond to #MeToo, race and racial bias have been even more difficult for them to navigate. And for the same reasons: a lack of diversity up top. The broad response to the recent protests continues to oscillate between encouraging and awkward. American businesses — from fast food and makeup, to retailers and streaming-video services — flooded Instagram last week with black squares in support of the protests (though those that used the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag unintentionally drowned out posts from protest organizers). They promised, vaguely, to help effect change, and in some cases are putting money behind that promise.
Some media companies are taking it a step further. On Wednesday, AT&T Inc.’s HBO Max removed the movie classic “Gone With the Wind” from its app because of the film’s racist depictions. ViacomCBS Inc.’s Paramount Network canceled “Cops,” a show that was entering its 33rd season and has been criticized for glorifying police while promoting racist stereotypes. It's a start.
But just like with #MeToo, this isn't about hiding away past bad behavior or troubling history in some dusty case under lock and key. It's about hiring and promoting more women, black people and others of color — and telling their stories or giving them a platform for expressing themselves. It's about making entertainment that matches its audience and creating empathy among people with different lived experiences. There are objective, measurable ways to make a business more diverse, and it will be that much stronger for it. HBO’s season one of “A Black Lady Sketch Show” last summer was a hit.
After #MeToo, the TV and film industry has done some things to right the wrongs of its casting-couch culture (even if that toxic culture may also still exist). It can be seen in the content we’ve all been streaming during the Covid-19 crisis. The flagship programs on new services such as Apple TV+ — 'The Morning Show' with Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon — and HBO Max’s 'Love Life' with Anna Kendrick feature women as the central characters, and in all their true-to-life complexity, instead of the shallow stereotypes that were written all too often into scripts and perpetuated sexist views in society. Walt Disney Co.’s “Captain Marvel,” starring Brie Larson, sold $1.1 billion in movie-theater tickets globally last year, and its opening weekend alone nearly recouped its entire production budget. (By the way, the same was true for “Black Panther,” which pulled in $1.3 billion at the box office.)
Last year, 40% of the top grossing films featured female protagonists, up from 31% in 2018, according to research by Dr. Martha Lauzen of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University. But 68% of all female characters with speaking roles were white, and only 20% were black.
As the pandemic’s stay-at-home orders lift and Hollywood gets back to work, there will be an immense need to replenish TV services with new content and draw movie fans back to theaters. It's a perfect time for the industry to give more women and people of color the chance to write, direct and star in those works.
Tara Lachapelle is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the business of entertainment and telecommunications, as well as broader deals. She previously wrote an M&A column for Bloomberg News.
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