Managing Executive Editor
Since the very beginning of cinema, audiences have accustomed themselves to seeing a distorted version of reality on the screen. Whether it be the protagonist beating all the odds and becoming a hero or the man chasing after the woman of his dreams and finally getting her, these images have the ability to create some slightly filtered vision of the world and, in some cases, the people around us.
For example, D.W. Griffith, the first film director to make a feature length film and who revolutionized cinematic technique, was the filmmaker behind “Birth of a Nation,” a film chronicling the historical events after the Civil War during the Reconstruction era that depicts a wholly racist view of African-Americans. White actors in black face acted uncivilized, bestial, rude and terrorized the Southern community they weren’t considered a part of.
The film, made in 1915, sets a precedent for the stereotypes of African-Americans later seen in films throughout the twentieth century, typically fulfilling some kind of slave-like role or seen as second-class citizens in comparison to their white counterparts. However, these stereotypes that are incorporated in films are constantly evolving in conjunction with society, according to senior Lamar Clark. “Things always change,” Clark said, “Society makes up those stereotypes and the media enhances it, then it turns into this snowballing effect.”
Senior John Derba said that as society evolves, the portrayal of race changes as well. Derba said that in most films, actors use their race as a way to define their character, which ultimately enhances the stereotypes that are present in society. “That’s what Hollywood is: it’s stereotypes.”
Clark said that how race is depicted is all dependent on which ethnicity is targeted the most in society. However, this skewed portrayal of stereotypes all started with the classics.
“Gone with the Wind” is another example of a film perpetuating these myths. Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammy in the landmark 1939 film, was a servant to the white characters. She was the first African-American to win an Academy Award. Many critics said her role allowed African-Americans to be typecast as those in servant roles. McDaniels reportedly fired back, saying, “Why should I complain about making $700 a week playing a maid? If I didn’t, I would be paid seven dollars a week being one.” The NAACP accused McDaniels of allowing herself to be oppressed by typecasting.
In films today, however, these stereotypes have pervaded our films through the same cultural osmosis that lent itself to the stereotypes in the twentieth century. In 2011’s Oscar nominated, “The Help,” some critics argued the film doesn’t tear apart these stereotypes, but reinforces them instead. According to Patricia Turner’s Aug. 28, 2011 op-ed in the New York Times, “Some have also complained that the movie reinforces stereotypes about black Southern households. The black heroines speak with a dialect that disturbs some viewers; the audience never sees an intact black household, and a black man’s abuse of his wife is all the more chilling because we never see him, only the pots he hurls and the scars he leaves.”
However, Derba said he believes that the stereotypes present in films are based on society. “It all goes back to societal trends, and we have moved passed that [stereotyping].”
But race isn’t the only social group affected by some of the stereotypical portrayals in film. Both men and women have been sidelined by the images on the silver screen. Clark said gender is the biggest stereotype that is present in films because it is hidden. Women in particular have had to overcome typecasting. For instance, in the 1950s, after World War II, women who served in the military during the war experienced a backlash against their role in the workplace.
Women were expected to remain in the kitchen, cook dinner, take care of the children, whereas the husband’s sphere of influence was viewed outside of the home in the public domain and the workplace. A popular genre at the time, film noir, showed women in a very different role.
The stereotypical femme fatale was a seductive woman who oftentimes led the main character, a male (a hardened, jaded detective-type) astray in his quest. These women characters had loose morals and an even looser chastity belt. When women played these seductive, highly sexualized roles, they often take back seats to the male characters. Even now, women are often seen as sex objects or mothers and devoted wives instead of strong, real female characters. “Women aren’t portrayed a lot in films and are not really in-depth,” Clark said, “In chick flicks, women seek the hearts of men.” In these types of romantic comedies, women strive to succeed in the eyes of men, putting the emphasis back on the male figures, Clark explained.
That is the way most current Hollywood blockbusters work–to target a male audience, films make use of violence, explosives, bad-ass heroes, and sexy women to draw them in. To target a female audience, an attractive male lead is used in a romantic comedy to draw women in. “It’s the social appeal when the majority of people go to a movie. The characters need to be white, have perfect teeth, and be a certain figure,” Derba said.
Derba explained that women in specific need to have the perfect proportions–from waist, to hips, to bust–women need to be flawless in order to attract the male figure. Usually, the woman is hopelessly lonely and neurotic, but somehow, a sweet, sensitive attractive guy falls in love with her and she lives happily ever after.
Maya Auguston, of the Puget Sound Trail, wrote, “For much of America’s history, women have fought for equal rights and respectful treatment. And while many people like to think we have achieved those goals, this type of movie just reinforces the degrading ideas that go against what so many women have fought.”
In addition, Auguston writes, “The movie industry has profound influence over how we think of and see the world. This power should be used to create social change or to revolutionize society’s collective thinking instead of perpetuating age-old, flawed ideas about gender roles.”
“To question how Hollywood does stuff is a normal thing,” Derba said, “All these people [filmmakers] care about is money, they don’t care about the stereotypes.”
In March of 2011, the Guardian reported a study finding that films continually use these types of stereotypes, even after many people think these social barriers have been broken down.
“Of 4,315 adults across the UK who were surveyed, a clear majority believe cinema too often falls back on discredited stereotypes, including sexless older women, drug dealing, oversexualised black people and gay people whose lives are dominated by their sexuality.”
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