In the world created by Hollywood, very few middle-aged and older Latina women are lead protagonists. The few who are, are shapely, slim-legged, ageless Puerto Ricans with glorious tresses.
Hollywood has had a lead or co-lead character who was played by a 45 or older Latina in just five of 1,600 top-grossing films in 16 years. In three of those five films, Jennifer Lopez played the role, a new study by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found. The group is based at the University of Southern California.
Lopez had the lead as an older woman who has a tryst with her 19-year-old neighbor in “The Boy Next Door,” as a big-box store worker who lands a high-powered job in “Second Act,” and in the romantic comedy “Marry Me.”
“JLo is amazing and she continues to be successful, but there are storylines and people that represent the nuance and diversity of this community; most simply aren’t getting the opportunity,” said Stacy Smith, founder of the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, a think tank on inequality in the entertainment industry.
“If we are trying to think about the multidimensional complex nature of this community, there’s a complete disconnect if JLo has to represent every Latina 45 and above. The people that greenlight or allocate the resources on this community don’t understand anything about the community,” Smith said.
Across the board, just 14 Hispanic or Latino actors over the age of 45 played lead roles in the 1,600 films made from 2007 to 2022. And in lead roles for all ages, just 4.4% were played by a Hispanic actor.
Only one protagonist was played by an Afro Latina, Nathalie Emmanuel in “The Invitation,” in the 100 top-grossing films of 2022, and eight Afro Latinos were cast in leading or co-leading roles in the 1,600 films made from 2007-2022.
Only three U.S.-born Latinos held the lead or co-lead in films made in 2022. In the 16 years studied, the majority of U.S-born Latino actors who were in leads or co-leads were only hired once in that span of years.
The study found no instances of a male U.S.-born Latino who was cast as a lead or co-lead in more than one film.
Female actors overall have seen some recent, slight progress in their presence in Hollywood films. They were 37% of all speaking characters in the 100 top-grossing films of 2022, up from 34% in 2021, according to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University.
However, Latinas saw their presence drop from 9.5% in 2021 to 7% in 2022, that study showed.
Fewer budgets for movies with Latino leads
Smith’s review of the costs and spending on films and their scores from Metacritic, which aggregates film reviews and scores them using a mathematical formula, showed that even though films with a Latino lead had higher Metacritic scores, less was spent to make them and market them, and they were in fewer theaters.
She said the scores mean the films with Latino leads are better but are getting less money. Though movies with Latino leads have made just as much money at the box office as those with non-Latino leading actors, the study found the actors and people working on the films with Latino leads were paid less, Smith said.
“It’s the whole issue of having to work twice as hard to get half as far,” Smith said. “This community is not valued by the people that are making the decisions in the executive branch.”
Ana-Christina Ramón is the director of the Entertainment and Media Research Initiative at University of California, Los Angeles, which produces the annual Hollywood Diversity Report.
The initiative released its 10th annual report this year examining the relationship between diversity and finances in the top 200 English-language theatrical films released globally and top 100 English-language streaming films.
Its study showed Latinos had 2.3% of leads in theatrical films examined, compared to 78.4% for white actors. Latinos fared better in streaming with 6% of leads, compared to 66.7% held by white actors.
Ramón said the initiative has gotten similar findings on budgets and resources, with films made by women and people of color receiving less money than those made by white men. The strongest predictor of the type of budget for a film is the director.
“Particularly for people of color, you will find there will be a lead that is a man of color and if he has a white director, then he’s fine,” Ramón said.
“It was very difficult to get your movie made when you’re the director and you’re the person of color, or when you are a white woman,” she said. Female directors and women of color directors tended to have more diverse casts, and even when a director of color had a white lead, they often still got fewer resources.
Rep. Joaquín Castro, D-Texas, has been intensely scrutinizing racial diversity and representation in the media industry. He ordered a two-part Government Accountability Office study that made several recommendations after its similar findings, including improved data sharing between the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates media, regarding discrimination.
Lack of diversity in the media workforce “has led to those lopsided and uneven portrayals that then create a stigma for an entire community,” Castro said in 2022.