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Diminished Wellbeing for Racial, Gender, and Sexual Minorities in the Entertainment Industry

...and what can be done about it!

The most current research on the well-being of entertainment workers has been sponsored by charity organizations such as Behind the Scenes in the United States (US) and the Film and Television Charity in the United Kingdom (UK). Scholarly and peer-reviewed research is limited. Research conducted by both charities has highlighted the high rates of mental health and substance abuse challenges and a high prevalence of bullying and intimidation. Not surprisingly, racial, ethnic, and gender/sexual minorities experience these problems at disproportionate rates when compared with their privileged counterparts, making actionable solutions critical to sustained culture change.

The 2019 Behind the Scenes Charity Survey included a sample of 3500 individuals working in the entertainment industry. The study aimed to explore well-being to understand better the types of support from which entertainment workers would benefit. The study showed that 91% of respondents struggled with anxiety, and 82% struggled with depression (BTS, 2019). Furthermore, 44% of respondents had suicidal ideation, which is three times higher than the general US population (BTS, 2019). A significant limitation of the study is that the majority of the sample included respondents who were white, cisgender, heterosexual men, highlighting the need for further research (BTS, 2019). The research, however, did aid in developing Suicide Prevention and Bystander Intervention initiatives and resources and toolkits for producers, directors, and production managers.

The Film and Television Charity conducted a more robust study of entertainment workers’ well-being in the UK in 2020. The results were compiled in a report entitled The Looking Glass. The survey had a sample size of 4,280 participants. The study’s results revealed similar trends in the US, with over 50% of the sample expressing suicidal ideation compared with 20% in the general UK population (The Looking Glass, 2020). In addition, the study found that bullying and intimidation in the industry are high, with 56% of respondents reporting these experiences (The Looking Glass, 2020).For minorities specifically, the results included information for women, racial and ethnic minorities, and LGBT-identified individuals. The results showed that two in five women reported sexual harassment at work and that women working in production and development were more likely to be sexually harassed (The Looking Glass, 2020). For ethnic minorities, the study highlighted that Black men reported high rates of bullying (69%) compared with 50% of the total population sampled. Furthermore, 87% of women from ethnic backgrounds reported bullying at work. (The Looking Glass, 2020). For LGBT minorities, the report showed that gay/bisexual men, in particular, struggle with hostile work environments, which was correlated with high rates of suicide attempts (18% for gay men and 21% for bisexual men) (The Looking Glass, 2020). Regarding bullying specifically, 62% of gay men reported bullying compared to 59% of the heterosexual men sampled. Lastly, gay men were 50% more likely to experience sexual harassment than their heterosexual counterparts. Across all minority groups, the hostile working conditions caused individuals to consider leaving the industry for good.

Several peer-reviewed academic articles highlight factors that contribute to a hostile and/or challenging work environment for minorities in the entertainment industry. When examining these factors further, it is clear why minorities have been negatively impacted the most. Herdon & Serna (2020) explain that the entertainment industry has a long and documented history of “internalized biases and explicit racism that contribute to typecasting, whitewashing, and exclusion” (p. 172). In an industry dominated by wealthy, white, heterosexual, cisgender men, racial/ethnic minorities and women have struggled to advance their careers. Sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen, a researcher, posits that the intersectionality of race and gender makes the entertainment industry particularly hostile to women of color (Herdon & Serna, 2020, p. 171). Class also contributes as a significant factor in the industry as producers with more considerable resources often get to dictate the types of stories that are made and how characters are portrayed. The telling of white stories, narratives of the “white savior,” and stereotypical representation of minorities has dominated screens and televisions for decades. It has led to the diminishment of minority experiences and voices. Furthermore, Wang Yuen states, “in Oscar’s eighty-eight-year history, actors of color received only 6.2 percent of total acting nominations and won only 7.8 percent of total acting awards” (Herdon & Serna, 2020, p. 171). Research has found that women in the industry’s peak performance occurs between the ages of 20 and 30, while “men, who tend to enjoy longer-acting careers, are most present in their 30s and 40s” (Linamaa & Rogers, 2022, p. 22).

In addition to the factors listed above, the industry has also traditionally commodified minority experiences of trauma. For example, actor Michael K. Williams struggled with substance abuse for many years with periods of sobriety. His death in 2021 from a drug overdose shocked and disturbed loyal fans and industry colleagues. Just a year prior, he was interviewed by Men’s Health regarding his role in the HBO series Lovecraft Country. His words are a haunting foreshadowing for his death and continue to encompass the reality of minorities working in the industry. He was quoted as saying:

I just figured, you know, when the director yells “cut!” or “that’s a wrap!” it goes away. I thought it all dissipates. And that was not the case. That show woke up a lot of demons.... I have family members one generation removed from me who were sharecroppers—who were alive during Jim Crow... as people of color in Hollywood... a lot of times we don’t pay attention to the fact that we sell trauma. Some of our most wanting work is rooted—most of the time—in pain and trauma (St. Clair, 2020).

As bleak as the current environment appears, there are opportunities for change in the industry, specifically with the popularity of streaming platforms and improved technology that make creating and distributing original content less dependent on traditional methods (Herdon & Serna, 2020, p. 173).

Several best practice solutions were identified in the course of the current inquiry. One potential solution that has the power to change the industry in significant ways is the use of well-being facilitators on sets. Currently, this role is supported and championed by the British Film Institute. Goldbart (2022) states that the role of the well-being facilitator “will champion and facilitate a positive working culture and provide an independent point of contact for any issues related to stress, bullying and harassment, discrimination and adult safeguarding.” Additionally, the use of therapists on set is a recent phenomenon that has the potential to provide increased support specifically for productions dealing with traumatic content. For example, Producer Ava DuVernay contracted therapists to offer support to her cast of When They See Us due to the distressing content related to racial trauma (St. Clair, 2020). Lastly, ensuring that workers have access to therapists with an understanding of the entertainment industry is a critical solution for sustained mental health and well-being. Nancy Wang Yuen offers multiple solutions, including the use of diversity incentives through various entertainment unions like the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), reorganizing the leadership of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, funding ongoing research, and empowering consumers of creative content to lobby studios directly via social media (Herdon & Serna, 2020, p. 174). Hennekam (2018) suggests that using Racial Affinity Groups could also help alleviate some of the discrimination in the industry. Racial Affinity Groups are process groups where people with shared identities can come together to discuss and collaborate on solutions. Lastly, there is a significant opportunity to increase training at all film and television production levels. The industry would benefit from further training on diversity, equity and inclusion, implicit bias, mental health, bystander intervention, and suicide and substance abuse prevention.

The 2017 “Me Too” movement revealed the extent of abuse of power, intimidation, sexual harassment, and sexual exploitation within the entertainment industry. As a result, Intimacy Coordinators are now hired on sets, ensuring the safety of the cast and crew when dealing with sexual content and preventing exploitation. The industry is yet again at a point of reconciliation. The Covid pandemic hit the entertainment industry particularly hard and it revealed persistent challenges related to hostile work environments, the impact of trauma, and a greater need for racial and gender equity. Asker, 2021, notes that recovery efforts in the industry now include an increase in diversity and inclusion conversations. Actual change must go beyond conversations, however, and must consist of actionable solutions at society’s micro, macro, and mezzo levels.

References: Akser, M. (2021). Diversity and Inclusion in Film, Television and Media Sector: Policy Alternatives for an Inclusive Film Industry and Training. CINEJ Cinema Journal, 9(1), 1–13. 10.5195/cinej.2021.414

Behind the Scenes Foundation. (2021). 2019 Survey to Assist in the Development of a Mental Health and Suicide Initiative: Summary of Key Findings.

Christian, A.J. (2018) Open TV: Innovation Beyond Hollywood and the Rise of Web Television. New York University Press.

Erigha, M. (2018). On the margins: black directors and the persistence of racial inequality in twenty-first century Hollywood. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 41(7), 1217–1234. 10.1080/01419870.2017.1281984

Film and Television Charity (2020). The Looking Glass Report: Mental health in the UK film, televeision and cinema industry.

Goldbart, M. (2022). BFI Introduces Wellbeing Facilitators for All Funded Projects. Deadline.

Hennekam, S., & Syed, J. (2018). Institutional racism in the film industry: a multilevel perspective. Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal, 37(6), 551–565. 10.1108/EDI-05–2017–0108

Herndon, S. & Serna, L. (2020). Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism. (Review). JCMS : Journal of Cinema and Media Studies, 59(2), 170–174. 10.1353/cj.2020.0012

Liinamaa, S., & Rogers, M. (2022). Women actors, insecure work, and everyday sexism in the Canadian screen industry. Feminist Media Studies, 22(1), 16–31. 10.1080/14680777.2020.175911

St. Clair, J. (2020). Lovecraft Country sent Michael K. Williams to the Darkest Places of His Career. Men’s Health.

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