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What Hollywood films reveal about prejudice
In recent years, Hollywood has drawn increasing criticism for the racism and sexism that is ingrained in the film industry. They show themselves in who is playing in front of the camera, who is pulling the strings behind it and also in how social groups are represented on the screen. To show how stereotypes have developed in Hollywood, DW examined recurring storytelling motifs, so-called tropes, in over 6000 films that have been available for selection at the Oscars since 1928.
Hollywood history has many examples of racist caricatures. Black and Asian people have often been affected by it. Take, for example, the Audrey Hepburn film "Breakfast at Tiffany's" with the neighbor, Mr. Yunioshi, whose crooked teeth and stereotypical "English" accent represent the parody of a Japanese. It is far from the only example.
Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yuinoshi in "Breakfast at Tiffany's"
From racist caricatures to enduring clichés
"Racism, in the form of exclusion from the job market and stereotypical roles, has characterized the Hollywood film industry since its birth in the early 1900s," writes sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen in her book "Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism ". Indeed, in the early days of Hollywood, Asian characters mostly appeared, if at all, in the form of insulting clichés: either as mysterious, menacing villains or as caricatures like Mr. Yunioshi. To make matters worse, Mr. Yuinoshi is also embodied by the completely white American Mickey Rooney (cover picture), so is an example of "Yellowface": a non-Asian who is made up to look like an East Asian person.
This practice used to be quite common in Hollywood. Production teams were reluctant to hire minority actors. Instead, they used whites to embody their roles. It became a self-reinforcing process: sociologists know that prejudices are broken the more contact people from different ethnic groups have with one another. But Asian people have historically been marginalized in the United States. "Even today, most of the depictions of Asians and Asian-Americans in film are not created by themselves, but by people who don't know much about them," says Kent Ono, who studies the media representation of ethnic groups at the University of Utah. "For those who don't know Asian people, it creates a very strange idea of what Asians are like. And Asians in America, on the other hand, often cannot identify with the bizarre images of themselves."
Information on such tropes is collected from the online wiki TVTropes.org. There, users can document every recurring motif that they observe in the media: Which television series claim that Elvis is still alive? What video games include a creepy kid? And also: does a film contain Asian characters played by whites?
In 2012, for example, the film "Cloud Atlas" drew criticism because many of the non-Asian actors dressed as Asian for part of the plot. The portrayal was not intended as a caricature, but critics argued that Asian actors should have played these roles: Since there are far fewer roles for Asian actors anyway, let alone those that go beyond stereotypical representations, white actors should not play Asians. This discussion came up when Scarlett Johansson took on the lead role in the feature film for the classic Japanese series "Ghost in the Shell", or when Tilda Swinton played a character in "Doctor Strange" who was originally Asian. The list goes on.
Film scene from "Doctor Strange": Tilda Swinton as "The Eldest" - the character in the comic was originally Asian
As the graphic shows, many of the crude stereotypes about Asians have largely disappeared from cinemas in the 1960s and 1970s. One motif that stands out, however, is the "strong white, gentle Asian" dynamic: a strong white character partnered with a submissive Asian. This motif reached its climax relatively late, as strict censorship rules in the American film business forbade romance between different ethnic groups before the 1950s. As this censorship declined in power, this stereotype emerged.
Many of the earlier stereotypes gave way to other representations in the second half of the 20th century. In the 1970s and 1980s, for example, the popularity of Bruce Lee and martial arts films gave rise to the stereotype "all Asians can do martial arts". But the most common portrayal of Asians across all media today is that of the "model minority", says Kent Ono: "These characters are scientists, doctors or in some technical profession. They are good students, come from good families and generally have no economic ones Difficulties." This trend is not directly listed as a trope on the TVTropes Wiki, but it can be found, for example, in the stereotype of the "Asian nerd" that has increased in recent decades.
Ethnic minorities are mostly underrepresented in Hollywood
What this analysis cannot show is the proportion of films that contain non-stereotypical, non-white characters. These are usually not documented in the TVTropes Wiki. It is generally difficult to say whether there are less stereotypical representations today than in the past. What researchers keep in mind, however, is the versatility of representation: "The greater the range of roles, the less the impression that a group consists of just one stereotype," says Kent Ono. Conversely, the less a group appears, the more emphasis is placed on the few characters that exist.
According to the "Hollywood Diversity Report" of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), Hollywood still has a long way to go: The proportion of women and ethnic minorities in the cast and occupation of films is increasing steadily, but only very slowly. For example, although Asians make up more than half of the world's population and about six percent of the US population, only three percent of film roles were played by Asians in 2017 and 2018. Black people occupied about 12.5 percent of all roles, which is almost equal to their percentage in the US population. In many cases, however, black characters don't do very well.
Black characters still die first in Hollywood
Much like Asians, black characters were often not embodied by blacks in the early days of Hollywood. In fact, they hardly appeared at all anyway, except in the context of caricatured presentations by whites in blackface. This practice stems from an American theater tradition in which racist stereotypes about black people were an integral part.
Blackface is now considered unacceptable, even more so than its Asian counterpart. It is therefore practically no longer used in films, except as a condemnation of the practice: in "Dear White People", for example, fraternities at a university organize a blackface party. The film and the subsequent Netflix series use this scene as a basis for a discussion about racism in universities in the United States.
But as the number of black characters and actors increased in Hollywood, other stereotypes inevitably became more present. To this day, black men are often portrayed as scary or angry, black women as loud and cheeky. If a movie has a black character, then he's probably Black's best friend. And when people die in a film, it is still often the black man who comes first. All of this has hardly declined in recent years, despite increasing awareness of such stereotypes.
If Africa occurs, then it is mysterious, dangerous and untouched by civilization
Since DW mainly analyzed Hollywood films, stereotypical depictions of black people mostly refer to black Americans. Subjects that relate specifically to Africans are not common, in part because African characters are barely featured in Hollywood films. The most common stereotype about Africa, however, is what TVTropes users call the "Darkest Africa" concept: films that portray the continent as mysterious and dangerous, as an isolated country with limited connection to modern civilization. However, this type of representation is becoming increasingly rare.
Latin American characters are defined by their sex appeal
Latin Americans are the largest ethnic minority in the United States, at around 18 percent of the population. As such, they also get a good helping of stereotypical representations in Hollywood. A look at 2,682 films since 2000 shows that motifs about Latin American characters mostly deal with their supposed sex appeal. For women this is expressed in the "Spicy Latina" trope: a spirited, attractive seductress who knows how to defend herself and always looks sexy.
Men often get the role of Latino lover. The characters are often given a specific look that generalizes the look of all Latin Americans.
The stereotypes that films spread are particularly painful for groups that historically have suffered from discrimination and oppression. But there are stereotypes for practically every group, which are then reflected on the big screen. And for people who do not feel the effects of being reduced to such images on a daily basis, a misrepresentation causes significantly less pain.
Germans in films are still often Nazis
The most common stereotype about Germans in films since 2000 is still that all Germans are Nazis. Shortly after that follows the character of the German scientist. The latter probably comes from the real scientists who fled to the USA during the Nazi regime - the most prominent among them is Albert Einstein, who was born in Ulm.
A curious phenomenon is the impression that Germans love Baywatch star David Hasselhoff. In 1988 Hasselhoff released his version of the hit "Looking For Freedom". At the end of 1989 he performed with it on the Berlin Wall, just a few weeks after the Wall came down. The song hit the zeitgeist and was indeed quite popular in Germany for a while. Today the trope is used by the TVTropes community as a collective term for any person or character who is unexpectedly popular outside of their home country.
A British accent is a clear sign of malice
Surprisingly, the most dominant stereotype about British people isn't the classic fine accent, nor that of British stuffiness - although both are on the list as well. No, British characters seem like a popular choice for villains especially. The phenomenon is so widespread that British actors Ben Kingsley, Mark Strong and Tom Hiddleston even appeared in a 2014 Superbowl commercial that made fun of it.
Even a British accent seems to be enough to convey malicious intentions, even with animated characters: The Egyptians in "The Prince of Egypt", the Dreamworks version of the biblical story of Moses, sound British as well as one in the English language version animated car in the Pixar movie "Cars 2" and the villains from "The Lion King", "Kung Fu Panda" or "The Guardians of Light".
Russians: Strong, gross and played by non-Russians
Finally, Russians in Hollywood films are still clearly marked by ideas from the Cold War. The most common stereotype is that of the "hard-fighting, heavy-drinking, masculine, boorish" character, as the related TVTropes entry puts it. These characters often endure the most misery during the film, they are the most injured and generally live hard lives full of privation.
In the film, however, Russians are surprisingly often played by non-Russians. Swede Dolph Lundgren started his action career in "Rocky IV" as Russian boxer Ivan Drago, Arnold Schwarzenegger in "Heat" or Viggo Mortensen in "Eastern Promises" are just a few examples. During the Cold War, there was an understandable shortage of actual Russians in Hollywood. But even in recent films, it remains one of the most common stereotypes surrounding Russian characters.
Diversity pays, but Hollywood is slow to learn
According to the Diversity Report, films and series with diverse casts make significantly more money at the box office and are also rated better by the audience. So the production teams have every reason to step up the pace. But Hollywood's big screens are still a long way from depicting the diversity of the world population - or even that of the US population. Whites are clearly overrepresented both in front of and behind the camera. This also influences how stereotypical representations shape the film landscape.
In recent years there have always been events that give hope: In 2017, for example, Viola Davis was the first black woman to win Tony, Emmy and Oscar for her acting performances in "Fences". In 2018, the romantic comedy "Crazy Rich Asians" set records as a movie hit with an exclusively Asian cast, and Vietnamese-born Lana Condor took the lead role in the teen romance "To All the Boys I've Loved Before" on Netflix.
Lana Condor in the teen romance "To All the Boys I've Loved Before"
As the figures in the Diversity Report indicate, the film world is only slowly moving towards balanced representation. "There are still major obstacles," says Kent Ono. "And there will always be people rummaging through the historical stereotype box. But I have more hope today than I did two years ago. There are great, independent filmmakers who are working to create more representation. And sometimes Hollywood even listens to."
Click through our interactive table with all the tropes from the DW analysis.
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