#OscarsSoWhite: How social media is helping shift diversity at the Academy Awards

People & Culture

Last weekend, actors and celebs gathered in LA for the 95th Oscars ceremony, which streamed to millions around the globe. In this post, We Are Social’s Research and Insight Director, Aneka Hindocha, explores the progress the academy has made in diversifying winners and what it means for the entertainment industry.

Let’s throw back to 2015, before Covid and the infamous ‘Will Smith Slap’, when the Academy Awards nominated 20 white actors for all Oscar acting nominations.

This sparked huge controversy and led the activist April Reign to start the #OscarsSoWhite movement. It called on the Academy to stop awarding and nominating only white folk, and instead celebrate the achievements of diverse artists everywhere.

Eight years later, and the pressure is paying off. We are finally seeing a little more diversity. According to a recent study by the University of California, between 2008 and 2015 only 8% of Oscar nominees were from an underrepresented racial or ethnic group. Yet between 2015 and 2023, this rose to 17%. This came after the Academy was urged to significantly expand its voting body, inviting hundreds of new members.

That’s not to say that the 2023 Academy Awards were without controversy in the build up to the event. Andrea Riseborough’s nomination as Best Actress caused backlash as it was thought by some that she had taken the place of a more deserving Black actor. The #OscarSoWhite hashtag resurfaced, and the Academy issued a statement that it would be “conducting a review of the campaign procedures”.

However, overall, the social media-driven movements #OscarSoWhite, Time’s Up and #MeToo have pushed major issues to the forefront over the past few years – there has been more debate than ever, with representation of LGBTQ+ and disabled actors being highlighted too.

Michelle Yeoh makes Oscar history

Michelle Yeoh became the first Asian Best Actress Winner, as well as the second woman of colour to ever receive this award. The last time a woman of colour won best actress at the Academy Awards was in 2002, when Halle Berry took home the prize for her role in “Monster’s Ball” and became the first Black woman to ever take home the honour.

It’s hard to believe that an Asian performer had never taken home the best actress statuette until Sunday, when Yeoh won the Academy Award for her lead performance as a beleaguered laundromat owner in “Everything Everywhere All at Once”.

A few days before the event, Yeoh deleted an Instagram post about lack of representation at the Oscars as she thought it may have broken the Academy’s rules. In her winning speech, she said her Oscar was a “beacon of hope” for little girls who look like her.

Michelle Yeoh’s winning streak has made her a role model for people of colour, Asians and women, especially those of a “certain age” — an aspect to which she also alluded to in her Oscars speech: “Ladies, don’t let anybody tell you you’re ever past your prime.”

Her co-star Ke Huy Quan also became the first Vietnamese-born performer to win an Oscar. Their combined victories mark the first time more than one performer of Asian descent has won an Oscar in a single year.

The entertainment industry is changing

When it comes to understanding and moving in tandem with consumer trends, one would think Hollywood had its finger on the pulse.

Even though awards shows have made some strides in recognising minority stories, historically, Asian actors in Asian-led films haven’t been recognized for individual acting Oscars. Author of “Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism”, Nancy Wang Yue has said “even if the movies themselves receive awards, movies such as “Slumdog Millionaire,” 2000’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and 2019’s “Parasite,” all of which were nominated for Oscars in multiple categories, including best picture, but saw zero nominations for any of the actors involved.”

The issue of representation isn’t just limited to awards shows. The entire entertainment industry – including critics, guilds and studios, needs to change too. Every level needs to become more diverse.

Looking at the TV and music industry, we are seeing fragments in change.

South Korean “Squid Game” was crowned as the most popular television show on Netflix in 2022, based on the number of hours viewed within its first 28 days of being on the platform. Puerto Rican musician Bad Bunny was the most streamed artist on Spotify while Khaby Lame is the most followed influencer on TikTok right now.

All this speaks to entertainment (as well as broader culture) shifting from a monolithic – English speaking – point of view to one where we’re seeing polarity of perspectives and lived experiences. Viewers and fans are engaging in non-English speaking culture, which will have a profound effect on the stories that will be told in the future as well as where those stories show up in social media.
Speaking as a woman of colour and a huge lover of data, there is clearly a long way to go – but it’s great to see that some progress is being made.

Let’s hope that these barriers continue to be broken down until we reach a place of equality between all genders and races. For lasting impact, the industry needs to go beyond superficial changes and work to rebalance structural issues and ingrained biases across entertainment.

Oscars 2023: The numbers

Since the Oscars aired on Sunday evening, the event has generated a total of 4.2M total mentions across the globe. The awards also attracted 18.7M viewers, an increase of 12% compared to 2022.

From the acceptance speeches to moments that have made history, here are some of the most talked around moments of the Oscars 2023:

Word Cloud [Source: Brandwatch]