Even as it released its annual roundtable issue, a staple of the endless virtual red carpet leading towards awards season, The Hollywood Reporter was sort of apologizing for it, with a long explanation entitled “Why Every Actress on The Hollywood Reporter Roundtable Cover Is White.”
Blame Hollywood, not us — we were appalled too, was the general message. “As we prepared for this cover, we discovered precisely ZERO actresses of color in the Oscar conversation — at least in the weeks in early September when the roundtables are put together, weeks before the actual ceremony takes place and months before the nominations are announced January 14,” wrote Features Executive Editor Stephen Galloway. He continued expressing his disappointment, describing the backwards progress he has witnessed in the industry covered extensively by his magazine:
Two years ago, I was thrilled that three of the six women on our roundtable were black: Oprah Winfrey, Lupita Nyong’o and Octavia Spencer. I thought, perhaps naively, that this represented a sea-change in the film business, and hoped it was catching up with the tectonic shifts that industries all across America have had to make to reflect this country’s diversity. But I was wrong.
Let’s begin by acknowledging that it’s a marker of some sort of progress that the folks at THR publicly recognized that something’s wrong here — and that, as people like Spike Lee have noted recently, there’s a serious racial disparity issue in Hollywood. Ultimately, that problem begins with the film industry and, yes, THR is directly calling out the people it reports on. That demonstrates that brass at the magazine don’t actively have their hands in their ears about one of this year’s major cultural conversations, and are even well intentioned.
To go further, in fact, and with an understanding of how journalism and organizations in general work, I’d confidently wager that there are plenty of people at THR who saw the very same all-white Oscar field and thought, or even said out loud in meetings, that the cover should go in a different direction. Maybe such a cover shouldn’t simply include Oscar contenders but other kinds of movers and shakers. Or maybe such a cover should highlight overlooked performances as well as those that are already causing the fabled “Oscar buzz.” Because said buzz isn’t a totally separate and isolated phenomenon — it’s actively shaped by the media. Regardless of any dissenting voices, the unfortunate status quo prevailed in Hollywood, and then it prevailed on the THR cover, and in its pages — with the exception only of the magazine’s halfhearted mea culpa.
The reaction on the Internet was swift and condemnatory, despite that long explanation.”The Hollywood Reporter not only rendered black actors invisible; it perpetuated the lie that white actors exemplify greatness,” wrote The Guardian‘s Kimberly Foster. “It’s definitely a sign that things have gotten weird when a major publication is aware of its own lack of imagination, indulges it anyway because it’s the easiest thing to do, and then tries to quell the criticism before anyone has had a chance to see the result,” Aisha Harris wrote at Slate.
The problem is that the very same suspect “rules” and “customs” that allegedly make it too complicated for studios to hire people of color affect the magazine industry, too: pressure from advertisers or funders, “tradition,” “the way things are done,” the idea that it’s “too difficult” to find diverse faces outside of easily accessible pipelines (or, in the case of THR, recipients of “buzz” with aggressive PR teams). Ask anyone in any industry with a homogenous workforce, and they will have heard phrases exactly like these, just before requests to consider diversity are given the kibosh.
The media, even trade media, doesn’t have to simply be a reflection of what it covers. It can actively push things forward, too — as many critics noted online yesterday.
Aziz Ansari’s recent press tour has focused rather insightfully on the issue of representation in Hollywood. In the New York Times , he described his own struggles casting an Asian-American actor for his sitcom, Master of None, noting that it would probably have been incredibly easy to find a white guy for the role. But rather than throwing up his hands and saying, “Well, we tried,” this experience made him consider whether everyone in the industry was “trying hard enough.”
The answer for the entertainment industry and the media (all of us) is exactly what Ansari says it is: try harder. Well-meaning excuses, no matter how eloquently or lengthily penned, are no longer acceptable if no action accompanies them. If anything, this THR mess has made that new reality abundantly clear.