Dear Hollywood: How’s That Bigotry Working Out for You?

Dear Hollywood:

I get it. Those of you who control the purse-strings: You say you’re only interested in the color green, but your behavior doesn’t bear that out. I know you’re really only interested in stories of straight white men doing straight white mannish things, whatever those might be. I get that the voices of women grate upon you like a rasp over nutmeg and you’re not really interested in desegregating racially either. Seriously, there’s no need for you to justify yourself or try to explain that you’re not bigoted, it’s just the audience that you’re concerned about… because frankly, it’s not what you say that matters, here. It’s what you do. And you have been doing so much that’s just… wtf.

But I have a question. How’s that whole bigotry thing working out for you? Financially, I mean.

‘Cause, y’know, from where I’m sitting, it doesn’t look like this strategy has been especially effective lately. Last year, one of your biggest flops was a beloved children’s TV show that in its original form was chock full of brown people — which you whitewashed. People are still making fun of the monstrosity that resulted. This weekend past, your “female empowerment action fantasy” got the crap beaten out of it by a wimpy kid, in part because it wasn’t empowering at all, and was actually pretty damn misogynistic. Wow, not even your usual demographic, the straight white guys you’re trying so hard to appeal to, liked that one. And I’m already seeing storm warnings on the horizon re a few new projects coming down the pipe.

What kills me is that so many of these things are adaptations of other properties that were successful in their original forms. Brown people, strong women, and all. I take it you’re buying these properties, and turning them into films, because of their preexisting success and built-in audience — so why then turn around and piss off that audience? Disrespecting them pretty much ruins all the free publicity they would’ve given you — or rather, you’ll still get it, but it will contain lots of teeth-gnashing rage. And calls for boycotts.

Look, I know old habits are hard to break. I know you’ve been doing this for decades, and it’s worked for you sometimes. But women buy 55% of movie tickets these days. And people of color are 40% — and growing — of your potential audience. Your most successful films have been those that broke these old habits, and appealed equally to all comers. You don’t actually have to change that much to fix this problem — you can still put white guys front and center if you really want to. All you have to do is insert a smart woman or two, and this guy, and that will make the movie perfect. (Okay, sorry, I’m a Watanabe fan. Some other brown people would be nice, too.) That’ll do — as a stopgap measure, anyway.

Until you’re ready to put people who look and act like your audience front and center. Which you aren’t doing. (86% of lead roles go to white males? I mean, come on.) Which you really should be doing now. See, if you really did care about green, this is a choice you would’ve made ages ago. Which is more lucrative, selling something to a small demographic set, or selling something that everyone can enjoy? Other parts of the world figured this out long ago — contrary to what the US comics industry thinks, women frickin’ love comic books when those books treat them like people and not objects of lust and manpain. Other industries are figuring this out too — so what’s wrong with you? Why are you sleeping on the job?

And when are you finally, finally going to wake the hell up?

39 Responses »

  1. And why, for heaven’s sake, were movies made *during the Reagan years* frequently more progressive than the crap H’wood is turning out today?

  2. Can’t answer any of the questions posed above, but I’ve seen maybe three movies in the past five years — I don’t disrupt the films when I walk out and I’ve got more money left for books. And not knowing who the latest subjects of the gossip magazines are, and not caring about their inanities is perfectly acceptable to me as well.

  3. Change is scary!

  4. Maybe we’re due for another studio system collapse – certainly theater receipts are down, this stupid 3D bubble is due to burst (it already has, really), and all the studios are terrified of Netflix Streaming (whatever that means in the long run).

    The last time the studios collapsed we got a whole new wave of talent in the film school brats and auteur directors like Scorsese, Coppola, Cimino, and their peers. Perhaps if it happened again we’d get a wave of women, people of color, LGBT/genderqueer people, and all sorts of combinations thereof stepping up to fill the void? Maybe the democratic nature of online distribution will bring about the whole new-media revolution that everyone thought would happen but so far hasn’t really. It’s admittedly a bit of a pipe dream, but crazier things have happened…

  5. Classical Greek mythology was full of kick-ass goddesses, even though Greek men treated women like crap. Are we seeing the same process in reverse—improvements in the status of women/PoC/LGBT prompting a backlash in the media? (Especially since the people who run that media tend to be straight white guys who are old enough to remember The Good Old Days.)

  6. Jude and Seth,

    Yes, I’ve also noticed that we seem to be going backwards. I think some part of it is due to backlash, especially the persistent (if totally illogical) belief on the part of many that white men, not women or PoC, are the truly persecuted group in Hollywood and elsewhere. Why, they’re only 83% of lead actors! What’s the world coming to? …And other such deeply problematic thought.

  7. Although I agree with your argument, completely wholeheartedly, my understanding is that The Last Airbender was a success, the 19th highest gross for the year. Damn it.

  8. Seth – Classical Greek mythology is full of kick ass goddesses because many of those stories go back to a more ancient time when Greece was matrilineal.

    I do think you’re right though about the backlash. If you look at a lot of movies from the thirties and forties, there were many strong female characters (His Girl Friday, The Lady Vanishes, Mildred Pierce, etc…). I think that when women had fewer rights it was less threatening to see a powerful woman, or an intelligent woman. Now that women have more power in society a powerful woman on screen is more threatening to people, and so women are frequently relegated to sex objects in movies. If female characters are powerful, then they often have to be powerful and sexy.

    It’s different for people of color. There are more prominent characters of color today in movies than there were (not that that’s saying much), so I’m not sure if it’s backlash. It’s probably just entrenched racism that refuses to go away. Whatever the reason, it’s really infuriating.

  9. Madame,

    You might be right; I wasn’t sure how to interpret the box office on that one. But it’s not a clear success, especially given how much was spent on its marketing and production, and the last-minute 3D conversion. It seems to have been intended to be a summer blockbuster — and for it to then come in ranked amid the quiet dramas is obvious underperformance to expectations. You don’t hire the actors from Twilight unless you’re hoping to sell as well as Twilight.

  10. It definitely wasn’t a blockbuster — I think you’re right that it was meant to be — and they haven’t greenlighted a sequel (yet!), so there’s hope.

    I savored Mamma Mia for how often it aced the Bechdel test. I remember gasping and then laughing at the big Dancing Queen number, which included old and unpretty women! And then another big number celebrated the female gaze. It was something I’d never, ever seen in the movies. But that’s not what the people want — just as the people want to see women naked, but are grossed out by full-frontal male.

    When are we — women and people of color and all of it — going to be “the people”?

  11. The Last Airbender bombed in the U.S., but it did make up money around the world, and increasingly, that’s what Hollywood is doing with the big, action, 3D pictures to shore up revenues. G.I. Joe was an utter awful disaster as a movie, and it didn’t do very well in the States, but it made a lot of money worldwide and so there will be a sequel to that one. Prince of Persia, which was whitewashed, tanked in the States, but made some money worldwide. Clash of Titans did okay in the States, made a lot of money elsewhere, so there’s a sequel.

    I think the only thing that will change things are not the white, male carried flops, but the non-white big hits. If a romantic comedy does really well, then we have a dozen more romantic comedies. If a horror movie does super well, we get an increase in widely released horror movies. Denzel Washington has a hit and Denzel Washington gets to be a lead sometimes, over Chris Pine on a train movie. But only Denzel Washington. And it seems like we can’t have a big action movie with the rare female lead flop at all, or we don’t see any more for years above the low budget Resident Evil sort of area.

  12. Ilana,

    I’m not sure if I’d agree that there are more prominent PoC now than back in, say, the Sixties and Seventies. Back then there was at least the blaxploitation movement to give black actors a shot at playing lead, and Bruce Lee was his own personal Asian film movement, giving Asian actors lead roles in the few films he could push through Hollywood (though only in kung fu flicks, alas). But those options no longer exist, and the only lead roles for PoC actors seem to go to the same handful of people over and over again. That’s a contraction, not an expansion, of available roles.

  13. KatG,

    I think the only thing that will change things are not the white, male carried flops, but the non-white big hits.

    But we’ve had dozens of those. Damn near everything Will Smith has been in, for example — and yet there are no more black leading men regularly getting parts as a result. Jennifer Lopez has had dozens of successful leading roles, and there are only one or two more Latina actresses getting feet in the door. And Asian actors can’t even get to star in their own stuff — e.g., Airbender and Akira.

    That’s why I’m saying that there’s no logic to this. It’s not about money. This is segregation, plain and simple. There’s just no other way to look at it.

  14. I was thinking more about now as compared to the thirties and forties. You’re right, though – when you compare now to the sixties and seventies it’s a different story. So I guess the lack of prominent characters of color is probably a combination of backlash and entrenched racism.

    “the only lead roles for PoC actors seem to go to the same handful of people over and over again.” – This is so true. I read an article once a few years ago (so unfortunately I don’t remember where I read it and can’t link it), where the author ranted about how a successful white male actor spawned tons of clones, because hollywood came to the conclusion that audiences liked that type of white male actor. But when audiences also liked a black actor, like Will Smith, hollywood concluded that audiences liked Will Smith.

  15. I also think it’s gotten worse in the last few years. Look at the ten finalist films for Oscar Best Picture and see how white they are. Or maybe I’ve just gotten particularly sensitized to this because of where I live.

    On a related note, I just read an article in this morning’s paper that an unexpected hit of the winter/spring season on tv is a legal show starring Kathy Bates. Instead of a fall launch, the network figured no one would be much interested in a show whose lead is an OLDER WOMAN (one who does not look like Rene Russo). Go figure: it’s a hit. I haven’t seen it, so can’t address how it manages on other axes of diversity.

  16. “And Asian actors can’t even get to star in their own stuff — e.g., Airbender and Akira.”

    And if we’re going with “worldwide market = most of the money” you’d think Hollywood would be hype to jump on that, with the massive Asian film market.

    A friend of mine out here in California, asian american actor, is seriously considering moving to Singapore because it’s the only way he can get steady work. He doesn’t even speak Chinese, yet his odds are better in another country than here, to get even non-speaking roles.

  17. I remember back when the movie version of Memoirs of a Geisha came out people were upset that they cast mostly Chinese people in a movie built on Japanese culture.

    Maybe we should have been impressed that they didn’t cast it with white people.

    —–

    Btw, this article was amazing, in both content and style (and references). I really appreciate you writing and posting.

  18. Akira cast as white? Are you serious? The movie that literally opened my eyes to a whole new world of foreign film, is getting whitewashed?? Somebody stop them! Please. Seriously, I watched Akira for the first time when I was 13 or 14 years old. It blew my mind. After that I went on a Asian film binge. I hit every video store within a 50 mile radius of my corn fed town. They can’t do this…ugh.

  19. Well said, NK!

  20. The problem is much deeper than oppression from above. I was at a Boston area meeting tonight for digital filmmakers. It was free and open to anyone. People screened short films, there were presentations about editing techniques and cameras, free pizza was provided, and a couple thousand dollars in door prizes were raffled off. About 70 people showed up.

    Not counting three women who hung out in the lobby and identified themselves as “just wives” when I asked why they weren’t the the lecture hall with everyone else, there were about 6 women in attendance (all white). There were about 4 black men, 2 east Asian men, and 2 south Asian men. All the rest of the attendees were white men.

    This was an event at the very lowest level of film. People shooting in digital video with minuscule budgets and editing mostly in Final Cut (one of the videos shown was the guy’s kid’s dance recital). And yet, there was a marked lack of diversity.

    My day job involves computers, so I’m used to being in male-dominated fields. But just because I’m used to it doesn’t mean I like or understand it.

  21. The good news: There’s a remake of Annie in development with a black leading actress.

    The bad news: The studio isn’t doing it because they think it’d be cool to have a family film with a black character who’s more than a sidekick. Nope, it’s a Will Smith vanity project for his daughter, a la the Karate Kid remake last year, that the studio is producing because they want to keep Smith happy.

    This would be like if the only the only time you see a white person as the star of a movie, it’s Tom Cruise or his kids.

  22. I don’t buy this allegation of bigotry – active bigotry, anyway. Like most other industries, white men are in the great majority of the positions of power. Promotions go to people who demonstrate the ability to generate a lot more money than average & to people they feel they can work with – other white men. 1 may call that bigotry, I call it human nature.
    It’s entirely predictable that white men are prone to green light projects about other white men. The measurement of success is money, but the fall back is that 1 has done what every one else is doing. There’ll be better roles for women & people of color when someone can demonstrate that it results in generating more money. Human nature will prevail until then.

  23. Will,

    I’m thinking your comment is an April Fool’s joke. Not a very good one, alas, but I’ll give you a generic ha ha anyway. I think anyone else who’s still following this thread should respond in kind, though that’s up to them.

  24. Thanks for this post. It’s an incredibly disturbing trend, and thinking about it, I’m wondering if it’s a trend for Hollywood in general, or SF/F tentpole films in Hollywood? Although, like you said upthread, Will Smith is one of the biggest Box Office stars ever. Hrm.

    I’m still hoping Anansi Boys somehow makes it to the big screen. I’m also still waiting for Chiwetel Ejiofor to become the next big thing, dammit.

  25. Bekah: Why do you think there was so little diversity in that digital film event?

  26. As someone who is multi-ethnic and having grown up straddling cultures and countries – I don’t know many non-white folks growing up in environments where the arts are stressed, emphasized, or even from a family support POV, encouraged.

    I have to wonder if there is a bit of socio-economic at play here, especially in the US. South East Asia has several booming film industries, as does Africa (particularly coming out of Nigeria). BBC has long cast “everyday” people in their productions. In all those locations, movie-people aren’t mainstream, they just look like and represent a little better perhaps.

    Enter Hollywood – building mainly off of white America – and even there one can draw lines. Growing up my singing, acting and writing passions were treated like hobbies by the adults in my life – as a minority woman I should focus my attentions of math and science because that’s where the money is – where my options to excel are.
    Unless you were lucky enough to attend a famed and focused school of the arts, I think for most of us brown folk, you’re pushed to college and “something serious.” (I’ll not delve into sports except to say, for some reason that’s a viable and encouraged pursuit)

    By no means excusing the choices made in movies today, but I wonder too have we (PoC and women) been complacent in their making.

  27. Naydja,

    As someone who is black and was from a family that encouraged the arts — at least on my father’s side; on my mother’s side I got the “do something serious” schtick, but you see who I listened to — I get what you’re saying. But remember that until relatively recently, the arts were one of the few places where PoC could achieve fame and fortune in the US, given that many other employment paths were closed off. So the whole “go for the math and science!” are, I think, a factor of those paths finally becoming open — so suddenly families of color are trying to get in on that. As they should.

    But despite this, there are still plenty of actors, musicians, and other folks of color following the employment path into the entertainment field, and finding their prospects closed off due to Hollywood bigotry. Frankly, it doesn’t matter how many or how few PoC are trying to break into Hollywood, as long as those who are have their prospects curtailed by stereotypical roles, limited opportunities, and so on. That’s really what this whole thing comes down to — if 86% of lead roles are essentially reserved for 30% of the population (actually less than that, since I suspect most of those white male lead roles are reserved for young, good-looking white men), there’s no equality of opportunity. There’s no fairness.

    That’s got nothing to do with complacency, if any, on the part of PoC.

  28. “That’s why I’m saying that there’s no logic to this. It’s not about money. This is segregation, plain and simple. There’s just no other way to look at it.”

    Absolutely, I didn’t mean to indicate otherwise. Hollywood is run by young to middle aged, white, male executives who are focused primarily on making movies for white teenaged boys (who are more multicultural than they seem prepared to accept.) So we get this vanilla persistence, even when it makes no sense. That’s why it doesn’t matter how many white, male lead action movies flop. And it also doesn’t matter if there’s a POC lead like Will Smith in a largely white film either. It’s when a film with a largely non-white cast does well that they start to pay a little attention. It’s limited and it doesn’t knock down the segregation walls, but it might provide some opportunities. But I doubt there will be big changes until the makeup of Hollywood studios change.

  29. KatG,

    It’s when a film with a largely non-white cast does well that they start to pay a little attention.

    Again, we’ve had dozens of those. And yeah, they pay attention — long enough to dismiss the films’ success as a one-time fluke, impossible to replicate. Or they make more films “for them” — segregated, as you say, aimed solely at whatever audience they think is willing to watch “people like that”. So in the Nineties, “Boys N’ The Hood”, which did well with audiences of all races, spawned a dozen copycat films about black “hood” life aimed solely at black audiences, containing none of the cleverness or complexity of the original. (And since then, the original film’s director, John Singleton, has barely been able to get a job.) And “The Joy Luck Club” meant that Hollywood imported a bunch of Chinese wuxia films — not even the same damn genre — and was shocked, shocked I tell you, when more people than just Asians went to go see them. And lately they’ve imported a bunch of Japanese horror films — but replaced their actors with white people, because no one could possibly want to see Japanese people except other Japanese people. And so on, and so forth. Hell, Tyler Perry alone is proof that a non-white cast can make shitloads of money. But Tyler Perry is part of the problem, not the solution.

    Again: money has nothing to do with this. It’s bigotry. And the makeup of Hollywood studios isn’t going to change — because access to decision-making roles is just as segregated — until audiences begin demanding change. Probably not even then.

  30. Sadly, I’m afraid that when the audience isn’t even willing to protest their government taking their rights away from them, they are unlikely to sufficiently protest for more non-white leads in major movies. Sigh.

  31. Well,this handsome,57-year-old black Canadian lad’s idea of “strong women” isn’t b***hy,man-hating feministas or fugly allegedly female bassketball or fotball players (YEAH YOU,WNBA;only hen-pecked dudes with daughters who play hoops and whose wives force them to attend these “games” patronize this league,though the buxom Lingerie Football
    League babes are my speed!!!),but rather Adrianne Palicki,the new
    Wonder Broad-I mean,Wonder Woman-who,judging by what she’s wearing on her right hip,can lasso this lad ANYTIME SHE WANTS!!!
    More Important,it seems Tinseltown,as usual,has no place for us life-
    size Brett dolls-i.e.,great-looking older black dudes-because they can’t tokenize and/or slip us into their usual roles given black men.
    By the way,as much as I hate the Tea Party and its ill-concealed racism,at least they’re fairly up-front about their bigotry,unlike Hollywood,which preaches their liberalism and cats movies like D.W.
    Griffith,Walt Diney and other historic racists.

  32. Life-Size,

    Well, thanks for that bit of morning misogyny. Just what I felt like waking up to: gender policing, objectification, stereotyping, and general bullshit. You’re now banned.

  33. KatG,

    I think people are protesting for non-white leads, but Hollywood is simply ignoring their efforts. And then when the films flop, they look around and hold up their hands as if to say, “Durh, no idea why people don’t like it,” despite the people with placards marching right in front of them.

    That said, yeah, there’s a lot of stuff we need to be protesting right now, at least more than we have been.

  34. Well put. I’ve got a really hard time going to movies anymore – they don’t provide a point of identification for me at all. I do appreciate seeing more women kicking ass and taking names, but I’m so tired of the limited range of actresses portraying them, and so often what seems like an empowering message at first ends up getting undercut.

  35. I don’t spend a lot of time at the movies, either; very little seems worth the tickets-plus-babysitter price to me for a long list of reasons, ethnic blandness being only one item. Maybe I should look at the theater listings more often.

  36. Much love to this entire post. You put it perfectly!

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