Is Tiana the Tipping Point? What Is Known About the Prevalence of Black Characters in Popular Film

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On December 11, Disney unveils its new animated ingénue: Tiana. This G-rated gal is unique; she's the first African-American royal in the successful Disney princess lineage. Tiana will become a household name, just like Denzel, Halle, and Will. With this impressive line up, one might assume that black characters have shattered the Caucasian ceiling and "made it" in the film industry.

Given this, I thought it might be a good time to step back and shed some empirical light on what we know about black characters in popular films. My colleague Carmen Lee (California State University, San Diego) and I conducted a secondary analysis of a large database recently gathered to examine gender portrayals for See Jane, a program started by Geena Davis. The sample included 400 G, PG, PG-13, and R-rated films that were theatrically released between January 1, 1990 and September 4, 2006 in the United States and Canada. 12,837 characters across the films had discernible cues that made evaluating ethnicity possible. What we found was shocking. Let me share a few of the major findings with you, which we presented at the National Communication Association Annual Conference in November.

#1 Black Characters Are Still Marginalized in Movies

Only 9.5% (n=1,214) of the 12,837 single speaking characters evaluated across the 400 films are identified as black. If equivalence with U.S. Census estimates (12.3%) is one benchmark of racial assimilation of black characters in film, then our data show that this has not yet been achieved. It also suggests that the recent recognition of black actor distinctions from the Academy Awards or even a black Disney Princess might create a false perception among the public that racial equality has been attained in the film industry.

The findings also revealed interesting trends by gender and MPAA rating. 71.2% of black characters are male and 28.8% are female. This gender finding should be of no surprise to activists or female actors. Several studies have found that girls and women can't seem break the 30% barrier of speaking roles in film. Ratings also vary in the presentation of race. Of the 1,214 black characters coded, 4.9% are featured in G-rated films, 8.7% are depicted in PG films, 10.2% are portrayed in PG-13 films, and 11.9% are represented in R films. Tiana's début is timely, as the sheer prevalence of black characters in G-rated films is the lowest across ratings. If people of color aren't seen in general audience fare, then kids of color may perceive that their stories are not worth telling. Clearly, this needs to change.

#2 The Frequency of Black Characters Has Not Changed

Further evidence of racial inequality in cinema comes from overtime data. To analyze, we grouped the films into three time periods by release date (1990-1995 vs. 1996-2000 vs. 2001-2006). We examined whether the frequency of black characters in films had changed appreciably over time. Our data suggests they have not: 10.1% of all characters in 1990 to 1995 are black, 9.9% of all characters in 1996 to 2000 are black, and 9.4% of all characters in 2001 to 2006 are black. So it seems that black actors are limited to about 10% of all roles in top-grossing Hollywood films.

#3 Black Female Characters Are Often Sexualized in Movies

Black females are more sexualized in films than are black males. To illustrate, females are over three times as likely as males to be shown in tight/alluring attire (21.3% vs. 6.0%). Black females in film are twice as likely as black males to be depicted with a small waist (19.2% vs. 8.2%), leaving little room for a womb or any other internal organ. Finally, black female characters are more likely than black male characters to be thin, possess an idealized figure (hourglass for females, muscularized inverted triangle for males), and be physically attractive. These numbers suggest that quite a few black females are functioning as eye candy in film. The findings also mirror the quintessential princess profile, undoubtedly the physique of young Tiana's human-like body.

In sum, the findings show patterns of marginalization and sexualization of black characters in film. Given the upcoming release of Princess and the Frog, the critical acclaim of Precious, and a slew of successful Tyler Perry properties, one might conjecture that black characters are on the rise in cinematic content. While this is hopeful, the data from the last 16 years reveals that this is not the empirical reality. If history stands to repeat itself, then Tiana might be an exception rather than the tipping point for social change. I certainly hope this isn't the case.