We've talked before about how some negative stereotypes from the past are, somehow, still showing up in today's movies, and even in recent video games. But those are our grandfathers' prejudices, just in a modern form, like an old man cursing at an Asian nurse with a megaphone (that's why we don't visit, Grandpa). It turns out there are other, more subtle ways that Hollywood has been enforcing wrongheaded ideas right under our noses, and sometimes in our favorite films. Like ...
In Hollywood movies, Africa is a shitty place to be. One of the most iconic scenes in action movie history comes at the end of Independence Day, when we see that the invading army of aliens has finally been defeated by a concerted, collaborative effort by the entire world (but mostly the U.S., and mostly Jeff Goldblum), and we get a montage of the wreckage on different continents. America gets a military base ...
... Australia gets some of that crazy architecture ...
... and Africa gets ... naked dudes brandishing spears?
"No, don't stop, keep poking it until it's all the way down!"
Apparently, this barren land is the closest thing the aliens could find to a major population center in Africa. That's because for Hollywood, the entire continent hasn't advanced much since Jesus was still around. The opening to Casino Royale, for instance, introduces us to Africa with the image of a bunch of black guys betting on a fight between a mongoose and a snake.
We're not sure why they even had a title card telling us the location; this is all we needed to see.
The one area where Africans have caught up to the rest of the world is guns: They don't have any modern buildings yet, but they've figured out how to attach a rocket launcher to the side of a truck. This is only natural, since half the continent's population consists of corrupt soldiers.
Contrary to popular belief, Africa's chief export is not lead.
Congo, Black Hawk Down, Blood Diamond, Hotel Rwanda ... all these movies spend the whole time telling us that Africa is scenically beautiful, but terrible in every other way.
So What's the Deal?
In the same way that Hollywood needs to dumb down a novel to turn it into a hit film, they also dumb down Africa's reality, because they assume that you'd be bored by a realistic portrayal of the continent (or you simply wouldn't believe it). They do have things like poverty and corruption and giraffes in Africa, but they also have universities and industries and modern cities, like Nairobi:
Mutua Matheka, Africa is a Country
Every building is made out of rocket launchers.
Imagine if every single movie set in America was filmed in Alaska and focused on gang violence -- that's how Africans feel every time they watch a Hollywood movie about warlords fighting in the desert. Which is a problem for their tourism industry: A board member for the Association for the Promotion of Tourism to Africa even takes the time to explain that there are "middle class people in every African country commuting to work every day, complaining about taxes and watching their kids play soccer every weekend."
That's right: Instead of focusing on the rich wildlife and history, the tourism industry actually has to remind people that coming to their country isn't a fucking death warrant.
Tom Cockrem / Getty
"Come for the piles of free skulls and AK-47s, stay for the architecture!"
In the '80s, feminist comic artist Alison Bechdel introduced a test for movies consisting of three little rules: The films only "pass" if they have (1) at least two female characters who (2) talk to each other at one point about (3) something other than a man.
It seems pretty simple, but here are some movies with "strong" female characters that don't pass it: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Dark Knight Rises, The Lord of the Rings (all three), Pirates of the Caribbean (1, 2 and 4), Tomb Raider, Underworld and every movie on this list. Most of them fail at the "talk to each other" part. If the test was reversed (male characters who talk about something other than a woman), all of those movies would pass.
If these two met, it would be just awkward silences for two hours.
But most of those are genre movies, which are mainly aimed at men. What about romantic comedies, which are usually aimed at women? Nope: When Harry Met Sally, Kate & Leopold, Marley & Me, 50 First Dates, (500) Days of Summer ... even ones specifically made as vehicles for female stars, like How to Lose a Man in 10 Days with Kate Hudson or Material Girls with Hilary Duff don't pass the test.
Ninety percent of the dialogue in this movie is people trying to pronounce "McConaughey."
Obviously, the Bechdel test on its own doesn't prove that a movie is sexist (or, for that matter, bad), but it does show that, in general, women in movies tend to be defined by their relationships with men, whereas men can be defined by a variety of things (their work, their weapons, their Adam Sandlerness).
So What's the Deal?
Turns out this isn't a coincidence. Apparently, film schools specifically discourage screenwriters from writing scenes where women talk about something other than men, because they believe that this is an easy way to lose the attention of the audience fast.
"It's been literal seconds since anyone mentioned a penis. To hell with movies."
It's just one of those film industry tricks: Use a calendar to show the passage of time, show a bomb to create tension, don't write female characters that sound like real people. What's more, according to a study by the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, women made up only 29.9 percent of the speaking roles in 2007's top movies. As a reminder, 51 percent of all people are women. Again, it's about playing it safe: Movies have been making money with male leads for decades (with both male and female audiences), so why change it now?
In the same year, Warner Bros. CEO Jeff Robinov reportedly said that the studio wouldn't develop any more movies with female leads after the latest Jodie Foster and Nicole Kidman vehicles underperformed, which doesn't make sense -- when John Carter and Battleship flopped, they didn't stop making movies with men; they stopped making movies with Taylor Kitsch.
And we're not entirely sure if that counts.
Now, Warner did go on to make The Women the next year, which has an all-female cast ... but all they do is talk about men. So they do develop movies with female leads, you see, as long as the characters themselves aren't too developed.
Last time, we used The Last Samurai as an example of how movies whitewash foreign history, but we didn't mention that there's something even weirder going on in that movie: Namely, the fact that Tom Cruise's character is somehow better at being a samurai than the actual samurai.
Then again, the Japanese are even better at being bizarrely crazy than Tom Cruise, so it evens out.
Turns out the whole "white character beats Asians at their own game" thing is pretty common: In Rising Sun, the aggressive Japanese business tactics threaten American interests until Sean Connery learns to use their own strategies against them. If you haven't seen it, the entire movie can be summed up by this clip:
In Kill Bill Vol. 1, the Bride (Uma Thurman) is better at martial arts than not just Lucy Liu, but an entire army of yakuza warriors. They even have Lucy Liu's character, who has spent her entire life training and clawing her way to the top of an international crime syndicate, specifically say that the Bride is a better samurai than her.
So What's the Deal?
Hollywood has a big fascination with Asian mysticism, but an even bigger fascination with making lots of money. Since it's believed that you can't have a hit movie without a main character who's white, that means transferring all the positive values of the Asian culture to Tom Cruise, Sean Connery or Uma Thurman and relegating the Asian characters to villains or supporting roles. Unless you're Jackie Chan, Jet Li or, more recently, Ken Jeong.
Not sure if this is an improvement.
For example, in the '70s, Bruce Lee was developing a TV series called The Warrior about a kung fu master who goes around the Old West kicking ass. Ultimately, it was decided that America wasn't ready for a show with a main character who was Asian ... so they developed the series anyway, but called it Kung Fu and put David Carradine in the lead, a non-Asian playing a half-Asian martial artist. The network was fine with Bruce Lee as a masked limo driver in The Green Hornet, but putting him in a main role? No way, that's crazy talk.
This is the most offensive way we can put it.
Lee would go on to prove himself as a bankable star, but it was too late: Hollywood had stumbled upon a magic formula that allowed them to cash in on Asian culture without taking any risks, and they've been using it since.