In light of the recent Black Lives Matter movement and other peaceful protests, discussions about race, racial inequality, and racial stereotypes are at the forefront of society’s current discourse. Given the popularity of movies such as Ryan Cooglers ‘Black Panther’ or John M. Chu’s ‘Crazy Rich Asians’, it is common for people to assume racial stereotypes are either non-existent or vastly improving in Hollywood films. Yet, year after year, Hollywood’s most popular movies perpetuate and reflect common stereotypes and prejudices. This paper aims to reveal how racial stereotypes are perpetuated in Hollywood and what can be done to prevent this persistent problem.
Whether it is white males portraying Othello in black face, or Asians being continually portrayed as villainous cats in Disney animations, racial stereotypes in entertainment and film have always existed. Although arguably, older portrayals of ethnic minorities may be down to a result of ignorance and a lack of education, racial stereotypes continue to exist within 21st-century films. In modern-day society, racism in Hollywood films is perhaps more covert. Still, it is extremely prevalent and has major effects on how society views minorities and how minorities view themselves.
The Hollywood film industry is dominated and controlled by white producers and directors and has primarily made and promoted white-cantered movies to court white audiences who are more valued than other racial groups. The industry’s growing emphasis on increasing profits and minimizing creativity has meant that all the significant studios in Hollywood have authority over the production, promotion, and administration of new and upcoming films. This profit first model makes it extremely difficult for racial minority filmmakers, producers, actors, and storylines to garner opportunities and popularity. As a result, white and predominantly male filmmakers continue to create stories and films that perpetuate harmful and dangerous stereotypes surrounding racial minorities in the 21st century. These platitudinous portrayals of minorities are not only representations on-screen but justifications for the ignorance, bigotry, and prejudice minorities are subject to every day. As a result, Hollywood films play a significant role in constructing the idea of race and racial order in society and negatively impacting the lives of minorities.
The success of ‘Black Panther’, further, its ability to destabilize stereotypes about Africa through its portrayal of an avant-garde country maintained by powerful females and relationships makes it easy to forget the common stereotypes Hollywood places on this beautiful, broad continent. Home to fifty-three diverse countries, Hollywood continues to illustrate Africa as one country where all its citizens look the same, ignoring its diversity, vast cultures, and groups of people.
Conversely, some movies set in Africa, like ‘Tarzan’, lack any black characters. Although sending racist messages is not the primary goal of these movies, the underlying message can be highly damaging. Highlighting the domination white people historically had over African countries devalues what the continent and African people have to offer.
African Americans are in many Hollywood films right now, with stars like Michael B. Jordan, Viola Davies, and Denzel Washington dominating our screens. Unfortunately, this was not the case historically. When black characters were first written into theatre and film, they were often performed by white men in black faces. As black faces began to fade, legitimate black faces on the screen started to rise however these advancements were not without limitations. Black actors were only hired to play stereotypical and restrictive roles, such as enslaved people and housekeepers.
Over time, these restrictive roles have developed into popular male stereotypes such as the ‘criminal’ or the ‘gangster’. As a result, there is a disproportionate number of black male actors portraying drug dealers, con artists, and villains in Hollywood films. Well-known examples include Denzel Washington’s ‘American Gangster’ and Ice Cubes ‘Boyz n the Hood’. Despite their popularity and critical acclaim, both movies perpetuate the common racial stereotype that all black men in America are violent criminals looking to create trouble without getting caught.
Ironically, movies with such acclaim could profoundly change the way society both treats and views black men. With a focus on racial injustice and the long-standing laws and legislations negatively impacting black men in the United States, Hollywood films could highlight the institutional racism affecting how black men are unfairly treated and viewed. Additionally, increasing awareness in movies and popular culture would likely infiltrate and change society’s views on practices like racial profiling and red family zoning.
Unfortunately, like their male counterparts, black women are also unable to escape stereotypical and restrictive roles. Subject to multiple racial stereotypes, black women are most commonly depicted as the ‘angry black woman’, such as Wendy Williams’s character Gail in ‘Think Like a Man’. The ‘angry black woman’ displays negative characteristics like being loud and aggressive, overly opinionated, and highly damaging. Used for comedic purposes, these two-dimensional views of black women on screen are a disservice to black women in the real world. Images that have been repeated are derogatory and directly affect how society views, values, and ultimately treat a black woman and their livelihood. It seems unfair that filmmakers continue to use the trope of the angry black woman as a comedic character without also highlighting their inequitable and unjust experiences that perhaps have created a level of natural bitterness towards white people. Storytellers pick and choose what part of history to illustrate regarding the past and narratives of black women.
Furthermore, male and female black characters are often the first to be killed/die in movies, particularly in the horror genre. This is essentially a result of Hollywood making movies for white audiences and thus reinforcing the popular notion that white people have more value than their black counterparts and must survive until the end.
The Hispanic community makes up 18.7% of the US population and, as of 2003, is officially the largest minority group in the United States. However, figures from the study ‘Inequality in 1,200 Popular Films: Examining Portrayals of Gender, Race, Ethnicity, LGTBQ and Disability from 2007 to 2018’ highlight those Hispanic actors only make up 5.3% of characters in the top one hundred most popular films of 2018.
Hispanic individuals have a broad history, rich in culture, traditions, and beliefs, yet their on-screen representation is extremely narrow, focusing largely on their sexual appeal, desires, and promiscuity. Latinas are still objectified in Hollywood, depicted as beautiful but uneducated and unqualified working-class citizens. Movies such as ‘Maid in Manhattan’, where Jenifer Lopez’s character Marissa plays a hardworking, single mother, dreaming of a way out of her current job position as a maid in a hotel in New York and into a better life for her and her son. Like in any romantic comedy, she achieves her dream of a better life, however, not from her hard work, but by marrying a wealthy white man, thus reinforcing the idea of the ‘white savior’ and that marrying a wealthy, white man is the only way Latina women can escape their social class. This portrayal is vastly inaccurate, Latinas as three-dimensional characters who defy sexual stereotypes, filmmakers are doing a disservice to Latinas and their work. The film should tell a story, and if authenticity is a benchmark for great storytelling, they have missed it by far. As young girls continue to watch movies like ‘Maid in Manhattan’, they learn that being independent and hardworking is not enough. Stories about Hispanic women should be empowering, focusing on their attributes and skills other than sex appeal.
Similarly, Latino men are often represented as the suburban housewives’ steamy ‘side piece’. Hispanic men’s roles in the film are usually limited because movies tend to only portray them as uneducated and unqualified. We see plenty of Latino groundskeepers and construction workers and rarely businessmen or doctors. When Hispanic men are depicted as wealthy and successful, it is usually a result of drug trafficking or being cartel members. This notion validates the popular trope that Latino men are lazy, divisive, and often dangerous humans and disregard any beneficial impacts Latin Americans have introduced into American culture.
Asians are yet another minority group subject to both underrepresentation and inaccurate representation within the Hollywood film industry. Of the top 100 Hollywood films in 2018, 3895 included a character of ethnicity, of which only 8.2% were Asian. Like Latinas, Asian females are overly sexualized in Hollywood films. However, unlike the role of Hispanic women, Asian sex symbols are portrayed as sly dominatrixes, using their sexuality to coerce white males into giving them what they want. This is evident in Zhang Ziyi’s portrayal of Hu Li in ‘Rush Hour 2’, where she plays a dangerous and ruthless seducer attempting to take down two detectives. Not only are Asian females subject to stereotypes, but so are their clothing. More often than not, sexualized Asian characters are dressed in a form-fitting, revealing cheongsam, a traditional Chinese garment modified to fit the lens of the Western male gaze. This portrayal of Asian women as sexual, devious objects presents an inaccurate representation of Asian women and a dangerous one. Being perceived as exotic and submissive contributes to a higher risk of sexual assault as if Asian women are somehow ‘asking for it’.
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Comparatively, Asian males are often portrayed as antisocial genii’ or karate kings. The most popular movies with Asian leads are typically action movies where skills in the martial arts save the day. Arguably, China’s most famous film star, Jackie Chan, is a tight cast for action movies only. Sociologists suggest that if Asians are not portrayed in a stereotypical role, then they are given no role at all, thus rendered invisible by Hollywood and mass audiences.
Furthermore, Hollywood films continue to cast any Asian actor for any Asian role indiscriminately. For example, a native Korean actor may play the role of a Chinese character, which as a result perpetuates the idea that Asia is a monolith with interchangeable cultures even though Asia is made up of dozens of countries, each with their own different culture and traditions. This one-dimensional portrayal of Asians leads to viewers having a very narrow understanding of Asian people and Asian culture. Dwayne Johnson, an actor of Asian heritage, is currently the richest actor in Hollywood, which on the outset, looks fantastic for API representation. However, Johnson plays 13 of API roles in the Hollywood film industry because he fits the desired mold. As a result, stereotypes are reinforced, and opportunities for other Asian actors are limited. Furthermore, it affects the way Asian Americans view themselves. For example, consistently comparing oneself to an overachieving genius or a sexual object sends the message that Asians are only worthy if these characteristics are held. Additionally, because Asian Americans are fed idealized Western standards, an idealization begins to form. Thus, the idea white people are ‘better’ is perpetuated due to these harmful and inaccurate stereotypes.
Native American Representation
Native Americans are victims of both relative invisibility and symbolic annihilation. Although not hugely represented in the United States, indigenous people’s representation on screen is far lower than their representation in society. Furthermore, when Native Americans are represented in Hollywood films, it is both inaccurate and ‘frozen in time’. The depiction of the merciless soldier, seen in movies like ‘Peter Pan’, is too frequent and inexact. Historically, Native Americans were the victims of white Europeans’ violence in their quest to take over American land but protecting their land is not how indigenous people are depicted in movies. Instead, they are seen as fierce fighters targeting innocent white cavalry. This recurring stereotype that Native American men are brutal and savage adds to the opposing notions about them, perpetuating the existing prejudice and discrimination.
Depictions of female Native Americans are almost opposite of their male counterparts. Seen as objects of beauty, fantasy and desire for white men, Indigenous women are seen as submissive, weak women. Even movies like ‘Pocahontas’, which defy the typical ideal that Native American women are vulnerable, still manage to send negative messages about the dynamic of relationships between indigenous women and non-indigenous men, which is likely to lead to dangerous relationships and dominance in reality.
These consistent caricatures of Indigenous peoples erode into the way society views them as well as how they can consider themselves; as Leavitt explains, the invisibility of Native Americans in the media undermines self-understanding as it results in homogenizing Native American identity. It has been suggested that the best way to create positive, social change for Indigenous people is for them to become producers, directors, and writers of their own stories, so that American Indians can regain control of their images and be able to combat stereotypes and the exclusion of Native Americans in the creative process.
Behind the Scenes
Much like the rest of America’s powerful institutions, the Hollywood film industry is controlled by wealthy white men. Hollywood filmmakers have been the sole creators of narratives and stories available to the public throughout filmmaking history. Studies have shown that white men remain in control even in the 21st century and continue to create a risk-averse, homogenized culture.
In a study focusing on the representation and portrayals of ethnic minority groups in the top 100 most popular movies in 2018, fifteen directors were black, four were Asian, and three were Latino. Native Americans were absent in any behind-the-scenes role. Movies that black directors created allotted 44.5% of their speaking characters to black actors. Comparatively, movies that non-black directors (predominantly white) created allocated just 11.3% of speaking characters to black actors.
Without help from minority producers, it seems unlikely that white directors will be able to produce an accurate depiction or representation of minorities and their stories, however hard they may try. Inherent bias and white privilege prevent people from garnering a proper understanding of the effects of prejudice, discrimination, and racism.
Away from the creative side of the industry, there is little to no representation of minorities at the large conglomerates, corporations, and media companies in decision-making roles. There can be no trickle-down effect if there is no voice to be heard at the top level. In addition, inherent racial bias in executives and decision-makers has created an added difficulty for minorities to break into an already tricky business. As a result, for any minority creatives, directors, writers, and producers that have managed to infiltrate the industry, there is an added pressure to include and incorporate minority actors to enhance and improve the exposure of minority talent.
Representations in the media affect how we view and understand ourselves and the people around us. For minority groups seeing caricatured, distorted, and generalized versions of themselves may lead to dangerous self-stereotyping and negative self-worth. Furthermore, on-screen stereotyping of ethnic minorities reinforces many of the western ideals and prejudices still covertly prevalent today. When portrayed as humorous, stereotypes can normalize a misinterpretation of people of color, caging them into singular roles when the reality shows them to be well-rounded people with lives and stories of their own. As a result, the evaluative discussion is vital to prevent the perpetuation of racial stereotypes in Hollywood movies.
The Hollywood film industry’s global economic interests create an extremely challenging sector for minority talent to break into. Historically white stories have been created by white directors and producers and performed by white actors have continually been the most successful. Minority stories have not had the opportunity to succeed as they have very rarely been created. With past successes being the model for maximizing profits, white executives at media companies like Disney and Universal Pictures are likely to reject different stories that include narratives of other minority groups. This, therefore, accounts for the lack of minority representation on screen due to a lack of diverse stories being told.
Change must start at the top to prevent racial stereotypes from being perpetuated further in Hollywood films. Minorities must be hired and encouraged to pursue careers in executive decision-making roles for dynamics to begin to change. The Hollywood film industry will only start to change when executives realize diversity is essential to success.
The number of minorities in off-screen roles (writers, directors, producers) must increase. This will allow different stories to be told and heard and society’s perception of minority groups to change. Furthermore, this will lead to an increase in racially diverse characters and improve the accuracy of these characters’ personalities and stories. Of course, white storytellers will continue to play a significant role in creating Hollywood movies. Still, to ensure accurate portrayals of racial minorities, they must not only hire more minority actors but ask for advice and support from storytellers that can provide information on how to present accurate representations of minority groups in Hollywood films. This should help beat the excuse of implicit bias so frequently used.
The significance of film critics must also be recognized. By using their platform to point out disparities in representation, the media industry will have to create change as their reputations rely on film critics’ opinions and judgments.
Finally, people of color must not be discouraged from using their talent to pursue their dreams. Opportunities are available, and the culture of the Hollywood film industry will only begin to change when minority groups take over positions that whites have dominated for too long.