5 Old-Timey Prejudices That Still Show Up in Every Movie
We think of Hollywood as a liberal and socially progressive land of hippies, what with its endless fundraisers and giving awards to movies that teach us that intolerance is wrong. Yet in certain ways, movies are still way behind the times.
We've pointed out before how certain weird movie stereotypes refuse to die, but there are larger, sadder trends that seem like they'll never go away.
For instance ...
They Still Can't Show a Black Man Dating a White Woman (Unless That's What the Whole Movie Is About)
Think for a minute about the last time you saw a black guy with a white woman in a mainstream movie. OK, now take away every single movie where they're using that relationship to preach to us about racism. So that knocks out Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Jungle Fever, Save the Last Dance, Far From Heaven and any incarnation of Othello.
In other words, try to think of movies where the relationship is just treated as a normal, everyday thing (keep in mind, in real life one in seven new American marriages are between members of different races). Mia and Marsellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction? Actually, that couple never appears on screen together. We'll give you two: Rachel Getting Married and Love Actually.
Seen mostly by critics and the people who actually made the films.
Now, think about the last time you saw a white guy get it on with a black lady (and again, where race wasn't a major theme of the movie). The list is surprisingly long: The Bodyguard, Die Another Day, The Score, Boiler Room, Mission Impossible II, Austin Powers in Goldmember, Avatar (kinda), The Princess and the Frog, Star Trek the movie, Star Trek the TV show and just about every movie Halle Berry's ever been in.
She's got that vanilla fever.
So What's the Deal?
It's not just our imagination. The "Audiences Don't Want to See Black Men Taking Our White Women" thing is so ingrained that Will Smith claims that Cameron Diaz lost the lead role opposite him in the movie Hitch because producers were worried about "the nation's problem of seeing a black man and a white woman getting intimate." So, Cuban-American Eva Mendes was cast instead. Hollywood has apparently decided that Mendes is a nice compromise to the black man/white woman problem -- she gets those roles again and again and again.
This one goes allll the way back to 1915's Birth of a Nation. Today, it's a punchline about how racist everyone used to be, but it was the first movie shown in the White House screening room to then President Woodrow Wilson. Up until the 1960s, it was widely regarded as the greatest American movie. And the second half of the movie is essentially a slasher flick in which "renegade slaves" (white guys in black face) play the role of Jason Voorhees, and pretty white girls play the role of ... well, the pretty white girls in slasher movies. It even has the standard "TURN AROUND HE'S RIGHT BEHIND YOU!" slasher movie shot as she's stalked by the monster ...
And the part where she throws herself off of a cliff to avoid being raped by a black man ...
"It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true." -- President Woodrow Wilson, allegedly.
D.W. Griffith's movie was a hit because he knew how to strike a chord of terror with white audiences. In today's era of political correctness, it seems pretty telling that Hollywood works so hard to avoid even accidentally touching that same chord.
Think we're making it up? Then how do you explain The Pelican Brief? In the book, the guy and the girl do it, because he's a suave guy saving a damsel in distress and because that's what happens in every single work of fiction ever. In the movie, starring Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts at their most doable, they hugged. They were alone for the night in a cabin, and they hugged!
"Too close! A keep those hands where we can see 'em. We have a white male audience to consider here, people."
Only the Pretty Girls Are Allowed to Live
On one hand, the "strong woman" character is all over action movies now -- audiences have no problem seeing ladies kicking dudes in the face. So that's one area where we've made progress, right? The fact that women don't need to be dainty little flowers probably died with Rosie the Riveter. So what's the problem?
Well, there's something these tough survivor girl characters all have in common. Take Aliens. There are two main female characters: Ripley and Private Vasquez. One is a hardened soldier with combat experience, a butch haircut and a Rambo-esque bandanna tied around her forehead, and the other is a more traditionally feminine civilian who has no real business being in a combat zone at all. Guess who dies? Here's a hint: It's the one TV Tropes named a section after.
We'd tap that. From a safe distance. With body armor.
Examples are endless. In The Descent, the least feminine character is the first to die, and the grieving mother is the only one to live. The Matrix kills off the androgynous Switch, but leaves (the more feminine) Trinity.
And then we have Michelle Rodriguez, who has built her entire career around this, dying gloriously in Resident Evil, Avatar and Lost, each time leaving room for a more delicate girl to survive.
"I love your smile, Michelle, but I think it would look better with a gaping chest wound."
So What's the Deal?
The best point to make about this whole thing has already been made by Ms. Rodriguez herself:
"... people can call it typecast, but I pigeonholed myself ... Saying no to the girlfriend, saying no to the girl that gets captured, no to this, no to that, and eventually I just got left with the strong chick who's always being killed, and there's nothing wrong with that."
"Man, she's good. Hasn't even read the script ... she just knows."
You read that right: She's limited her roles to interesting, strong characters. For a male actor, that means "action hero." For a woman, it means she has to die -- over and over and over again, each time making way for the petite model to take down the villain with her Waif-Fu instead. That's the phrase TV Tropes coined to describe the martial art that allows a woman to thrash trained soldiers twice her size while having no musculature on her frame at all. It's considered empowering when Joss Whedon includes ass-kicking females in everything he writes, but when he needs a badass kung fu killing machine, he casts the pretty, wispy Summer Glau.
The women who develop careers as action stars are not just pretty, but are pretty in the most feminine way possible: Angelina Jolie, Charlize Theron, Uma Thurman, Milla Jovovich, Michelle Yeoh and Halle Berry. We're guessing that 70 percent of the people reading this article can take each of those women in a fight because we're guessing at least 70 percent of you are not unnaturally thin wisps of humanity. Doesn't matter. The only women we'll consistently let star in action movies also happen to be women so beautiful they get their own cosmetics campaigns, like, all the time. Michelle Rodriguez is pretty, but she's not might-be-an-alien pretty, and so she has to die.
"Gray. Spandex. Smoothie. Covergirl."
We've convinced ourselves that there's such thing as "ass-kicking supermodels" for the same reason female slasher movie survivors tend to spend the last hour of every film running and screaming at the top of their lungs. There is so much psychology behind that concept of the lone female slasher movie survivor that there is an entire book about the phenomenon and what it means (Men, Women and Chain Saws). The author points out that when the last person standing in a horror movie is a man, you never see him screaming or crying with fear (imagine Arnold's character in Predator doing that), but with women, it's required. For the most part, we won't sympathize with her unless she spends a certain amount of time helpless and terrified.
Joss Whedon can pretend like the ass-kicking supermodels were created as a reaction to the helpless victims, but he's just substituting one weird male fantasy with another. It's as if there's nothing in between "beautiful victimized woman crying while splattered in blood" and "beautiful invincible woman kicking people while wearing skintight fetish gear."
"Nah, go ahead and finish the kick. It's kind of a thing I have."
Movies Are Still Weirdly Prudish About Some Subjects
If we say Hollywood is a bunch of prudes when it comes to female sexuality, you'll probably say, "Whaaaaaat? Everyone loves seeing boobies! I'm looking at them right now! Hell, there's a nip slip in Avatar if you know where to pause it!" But we're not talking about showing boobs or sexy ladies. We're talking about female sexuality.
For instance, the MPAA seems way more likely to give a movie an NC-17 rating for sexual content when the woman is shown enjoying herself a little too much. The movie Boys Don't Cry was originally threatened with an NC-17 rating because a female orgasm went on too long, and because a character was shown wiping their mouth after performing oral sex on a female. Meanwhile, around that same time Scary Movie got an easy R despite a woman being plastered to the ceiling by a blast of semen.
A single two-minute scene had to be cut from Body of Evidence to avoid an NC-17 rating. Nobody noticed.
But if you want your sex scene to get the green light? Try making it graphically violent.
Last House on the Left got away with graphic rape and an R, while The Cooler was given an NC-17 for showing Maria Bello's and William H. Macy's pubic hair slapping together for less than a second. American Psycho got an NC-17 -- not for the scene where Christian Bale drops a chainsaw on a women, but for the scene where he has sex with two women at once.
When it comes to abortion, we actually seem to be going backward. In the 1980s, the teen comedy Fast Times at Ridgemont High had a very frank discussion about abortion between two of the main characters. Today? Abortions have pretty much stopped happening in movies. Even when unintended pregnancy is central to the plot and abortion has to come up, the producers get around the issue by simply never saying the word. Remember Knocked Up, when Jonah Hill's character says, "I won't say the A-word, but it rhymes with 'shamshmortion.'" In a movie where the plot revolved around an unintended pregnancy, the abortion talk was too disturbing to include, and that's straight from Judd Apatow. For context, anally raping an infant was a perfectly fine joke to make a beat after the avoided conversation. Abortion, dear lord, no.
So What's the Deal?
The MPAA is under the impression that for moviegoers, the subject of female sexuality, even if it's just depicting women being too into sex, is scary and weird. And for the coveted male demographic, they might be right.
Think about the "femme fatale" (literally "dangerous woman") stock characters like psychopath Sharon Stone showing us her crotch as a form of aggression in Basic Instinct. Or the seductive yet dangerous girls who show up in Bond movies. Or Catwoman, or any of a thousand others. Those characters work because the filmmakers know that sexually aggressive women make a lot of men feel funny inside.
"I wonder if she's wearing un- HELLOOO!"
And then there's the female slasher movie victims again, and that weird rule that says the pretty girl who survives to the end of the movie must not be shown having sex. It's like Hollywood decided that we were all psychotically jealous ex-boyfriends, or strict dads, and everyone just went with it.
If It's a Blockbuster, the Star Better Be White (or Will Smith)
Quick: name a horror movie where one of the good guys is black. Well, hell, that's easy. One of the ship's crew in Alien was black, and some of the soldiers in Aliens. Danny Glover was the cop in Saw, Carl Weathers was one of the squad in Predator. Lawrence Fishburne in Predators. Hell, there are lots of them.
Now count how many of them survived to the end.
Pointing out that black characters die in movies isn't even clever anymore -- it's the kind of obvious, trite joke that bad movies make about other bad movies. But, inexplicably, it keeps happening. In the original Terminator, every black character shown on screen dies. In Transformers, the "black" robot who speaks in inner city slang dies.
In a scene stolen directly from Boyz N the Hood.
There are some exceptions. You can bet that he won't die if he's played by a superstar like Will Smith or Eddie Murphy, who, not coincidentally, are among the very few black top-grossing actors at the box office. Otherwise, the black guy is there to get killed.
"Go get 'em, buddy. Here, you can borrow my knife."
So What's the Deal?
Even in the 21st century, with a black president and posters of black athletes adorning bedroom walls all across the world, white audiences still prefer to watch white characters.
It would be easy to argue that the box office numbers are skewed because, say, Fellowship of the Ring was simply a better movie than Big Momma's House. But you can get the same results from focus groups with everything else being equal. In this 2011 study, white undergraduates were given the synopses of 12 made-up romantic comedies. Along with the summaries, they got cast pictures and fake IMDB pages, which were manipulated so that each movie had six versions of the cast; an all-white cast, an all-black cast and four different versions in between.
Same plot, same characters, same everything -- just different cast members. And unfortunately, the whiter the cast, the higher the likelihood of the students wanting to see the movie.
So how does this play out in real movies? Black characters end up in supporting roles, instead of being well-developed characters. They're just there so we can "judge the other (white) characters by how they treat them." In other words, we certainly don't root for racist characters, and we'll boo racist stereotypes. But our open-mindedness usually stops at the point of actually paying to see a black leading man. Other than Will Smith.
Look at that list of the top-grossing actors again. Other than Murphy and Smith, the only names in the top 50 are Chris Rock, Billy Dee Williams (because of Star Wars) and Morgan Freeman. How many of them were the stars of their big movies? For Morgan Freeman, in his top 10 most successful films he was the lead in only one (Driving Miss Daisy -- a movie about race relations). Was Chris Rock the lead in any of his top 20 biggest movies?
Let's play a little game we like to call "Guess Who Got the Lead Role."
What sets Will Smith apart is that he's one of very few actors who can get roles that weren't specifically written to be African-American. If the role is an action hero who could be any race at all, Hollywood usually interprets that as "a white guy, or Will Smith." And that's only after Smith became a superstar -- in 1996 he was a long shot for getting cast in Independence Day. In fact, director Roland Emmerich had to fight to get Smith at all. The studio wanted to cast a white guy.
And as that essayist has pointed out, none of our favorite black actors are spring chickens. They're getting old, and they haven't been replaced. And even when black actors are successful, like more-successful-than-any-other-entertainer-in-the-world-successful, white audiences are pretty oblivious. How many white people could recognize Tyler Perry in a crowd? Exactly.
He'll be the one carrying a gym bag full of awards.
When we see Martin Lawrence or Chris Rock or Ice Cube in a leading role, we automatically assume that, like a Tyler Perry movie, it's for a "niche" or "urban" market.*
* "Urban" means "black."
We Still Don't Care About History That Doesn't Involve White People
We're not exactly blowing your mind when we say that 300 had some slight historical inaccuracies when it came to the race of its heroes, or that Jesus was not exactly the European-looking Superman we're used to seeing in movies, paintings and bumper stickers.
What's weirder is when the movie pretends to be about the triumph of a minority character, but instead spends all its time talking about the white people who save him. Like in The Blind Side, which was supposed to be about Michael Oher, a poor black kid who ended up being adopted by a wealthy white family and going to college on a football scholarship. The movie is, of course, all about the white family. Michael Oher is just a thing that needs to be taken care of, not an actual character.
Ew! Those fingers have touched Sylvester Stallone!
In real life, there's a fair amount of controversy regarding Oher's path to college, but the movie edits all that out because white people are perfect. They even add a scene where Sandra Bullock faces down a gang leader on his own front porch, in front of his peers. Which not only never happened, but is also pretty insane considering that she's addressing what is supposed to be a member of the Gangster Disciples.
But whitening up minority stories isn't limited to The Blind Side. Remember the white Canadians who built Rubin Carter's case to get him freed in The Hurricane? According to Carter's lawyer Lewis Steel, all they really did was provide emotional support. And the fact that Carter ended up marrying one of those white characters isn't even mentioned.
"OK, this shot isn't working. Let's try switching Denzel's spot with the white guy in the back."
So What's the Deal?
Money. Once again, it's money. To get white people in the theater seats, the story has to revolve around white people.
And the phenomenon isn't even limited to stereotypes -- Stuck, a movie about an African-American woman who is convicted of murder, had to cast a white woman in the lead role to get financed because, as one casting director pointed out, "It's about getting the movie done. Everyone is looking to make their money back." And as we already covered, black actresses don't bring in money. Giving white actresses cornrows, on the other hand, apparently will.
This screengrab pretty much sums up race relations in 21st century America.
Or take The Help, a story about how the American civil rights movement affected the home lives of privileged white college graduates who have a book deal. That wouldn't really be a problem (you don't always have to tell the biggest story) if it weren't for the fact that it's one of the very few big-budget movies made about the civil rights movement. Ever. And just like Mississippi Burning, Ghosts of Mississippi and Driving Miss Daisy, the story is told from a white perspective.
And the examples just keep coming. Let's say you want to cash in on that "samurai" thing all the kids are talking about ...
... or Native Americans in the 18th century ...
...or the Massacre of Nanking.
Even if you don't care about racism or moving forward as a culture -- even if you just care about seeing good movies -- this sucks, because there are really cool true stories that would make really awesome movies. Like this one about Haitian Revolutionary Leader Toussant Louverture. Danny Glover's been trying to get it made for years, but he can't get funding because producers keep saying, "Where are the white heroes?"
Again, we can blame the studios all we want. But they've learned from hard experience that for the most part, if they don't play to our prejudices, we simply won't go see their movie.
J. F. Sargent blogs, Tweets and is the managing editor of the political website PCulpa.com, which you can write for.
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