Spring 2017

Hollywood's Diversity Problem

Excerpt of 'Reel Inequality' by Professor Nancy Wang Yuen

By Nancy Wang Yuen

Growing up as an immigrant kid in Southern California, just miles from the Hollywood industry, I watched hours of television for amusement. This continues to be the norm today. In 2015, the average U.S. resident consumed “traditional and digital media for over 1.7 trillion hours, an average of approximately 15 and a half hours per person per day.” In the same year, children (8- to 12-year-olds) consumed an average of six hours of media a day, and teens consumed nine hours. This mind-boggling amount of media consumption shapes how we see the world we live in.

Even though my neighborhood was racially and ethnically diverse when I was growing up, the world looked completely white on television. I absorbed a very narrow vision of U.S. culture. All throughout my childhood, I did not see myself represented in film and television beyond the occasional cringe-worthy Asian nerd or massage parlor worker. In the film and television worlds, only white lives mattered, and the rest of us were either marginalized or demonized.

In college, where I learned that race is not biological but socially constructed, I also saw how Hollywood dramatized racial differences as natural and fixed. Far from neutral, mass media institutions such as Hollywood are major transmitters of racist ideologies. Antonio Gramsci theorized that society’s elites use the mass media to maintain “hegemony,” or the dominance one social group holds over others. Hollywood’s dominant narratives of whites as heroes and actors of color as sidekicks or villains legitimate and reproduce the racial hierarchies existent in U.S. society.

Though they are largely fictional, on-screen images can shape our views of reality. I witnessed this firsthand when I went to see Skyfall (2012), a James Bond film. Preview after preview of action films featured white male protagonists shooting and killing people, yet it was the preview for Django Unchained (2012) that elicited an extreme audience reaction. In one scene, Django (played by Jamie Foxx), a black slave-turned-bounty-hunter, says, “Kill white folks, and they pay you for it — what’s not to like?” This statement caused two middle-aged white women sitting in my row to groan loudly, as one of them griped, “That’s what’s wrong with our urban areas!”

Even though we were about to watch a violent James Bond film and had just sat through brutal violence enacted by Tom Cruise, Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, none of those previews elicited critique. The lack of black heroes in film and television, coupled with the preponderance of white heroes and black villains, demonizes black male violence and legitimizes white male violence. Furthermore, this extrapolation of a fictional Django to “our urban areas” demonstrates how audiences fail to distinguish between fiction and reality in racial stereotypes. Through countless reiterations in popular media, racial stereotypes can become real in the minds of audiences.

Adapted from Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2016. Copyright 2016 by Nancy Wang Yuen (associate professor of sociology). Reprinted by permission of Rutgers University Press.


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  • Cody July 17, 2017 at 8:58 AM

    In one scene, Django (played by Jamie Foxx), a black slave-turned-bounty-hunter, says, “Kill white folks, and they pay you for it — what’s not to like?”

    This statement caused two middle-aged white women sitting in my row to groan loudly, as one of them griped.

    I would certainly hope it would cause them to groan loudly. It is the killing of people based on the color of their skin. It is the equivalent of slavery. What is shocking to me is you made no mention of yourself groaning at the same statement. But instead groaning that they groaned over it.

    You mention all of the white male violence and you even mention the movies. But in none of those movies do the white males say anything like "getting paid to kill black folks..whats not to like".

    In your statement above you assume the white folks in the theatre would have had no problem with such a statement. You assume the worst about them simply because they were appalled at the hateful and racist statement made by Jamie Foxx. Their outcry is the same outcry you should have had at his statement. And the same outcry all of us should have if a white person made the statement about black folks. Comparing what Jamie Foxx did say in hatred and racism to what the others did not say is not a fair comparison. It falls under the assumption that all of these white actors would have gladly killed black folks just for the sheer fun and the audience you observed would have praised them for it. You are assuming the worst about people. You are making a judgement about the people in the theatre with you and you are not basing it on the content of their character but the color of their skin. Martin Luther King jr.'s very definition of what racism is.

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