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What Hollywood movies do to perpetuate racial stereotypes

February 21, 2019

Cinematic stereotypes reflect and shape common prejudices. Perceptions can be influenced by portrayals of Asians as nerdy, black men as dangerous and Latinas as fiery. So, how does Hollywood portray various groups?

Data visualization Hollywood movie sereotypes teaser
Image: DW

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In recent years, there has been increased attention on racism and sexism in Hollywood films, which can be reflected in who acts in front of the camera, who directs behind it and how people are represented on-screen — and often all three. To illustrate how stereotypes have developed in Hollywood, DW analyzed tropes used in more than 6,000 Oscar-eligible movies since 1928.

Hollywood history provides many examples of racist caricatures. Black and Asian people have been repeated targets. Take the 1961 Audrey Hepburn movie Breakfast at Tiffany's and the bucktoothed Mr. Yunioshi, whose stereotypical "Engrish" accent was intended to mock Japanese people. He is notorious, and there are so many more examples.

Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in "Breakfast at Tiffany's"
Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in "Breakfast at Tiffany's"Image: picture-alliance/Mary Evans Picture Library

From racist caricatures to lingering stereotypes

"Racism, in the form of job exclusion and racially stereotyped roles, has defined the Hollywood film industry since its birth in the early 1900s," the sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen writes in her book, Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism. Indeed, Asian characters in the early days of Hollywood mostly appeared in the form of racist cliches — either as mysterious, menacing villains or as laughable caricatures such as Mr. Yunioshi. In addition to everything else, that character is played by the entirely white American actor Mickey Rooney, thus making it an example of yellowface: a non-Asian person impersonating an Asian person.

This practice used to be quite common in Hollywood. Production teams were reluctant to hire minority actors of any kind, instead often opting to use white actors in their place. This practice became self-reproducing: Sociologists have found that prejudices break down when people of various ethnic groups have increased contact with each other.

But Asian communities have historically been frequently marginalized in the United States. "Even today, most images of Asians and Asian Americans on screen weren't created by Asians or Asian Americans, but by people who don't know much about them," says Kent Ono, who studies media representations of race at the University of Utah. "This creates a very strange idea of who Asians and Asian Americans are for those who don't know any Asian people. And it also creates a very confused and estranged relationship by Asians and Asian Americans to Hollywood, because they can't fully identify with this bizarre representation of themselves."

Data visualization Hollywood movie stereotypes

The information on these stereotypical cinematic devices has been compiled in the community-generated wiki TVTropes.org, from which the names of the various tropes detailed in this article are drawn. Users there can document any recurring motif they observe in a piece of media: Which TV shows claim Elvis is still alive? Which video games feature a creepy child character? Does a movie feature a white actor dressed up to look Asian?

In 2012, for example, the movie Cloud Atlas drew criticism for making many of the non-Asian actors up as Asian characters for part of the film. Many critics argued that, as there are already so few roles for Asian actors, let alone roles that are not caricatures, white actors should not be cast to play Asian characters. That came up again when Scarlett Johansson starred in the live-action film of the classic Japanese manga series Ghost in the Shell and then Tilda Swinton played an originally Asian character in Doctor Strange. And the list goes on.

Tilda Swinton as "The Ancient One" in a scene from Marvel's "Doctor Strange". The character is Asian in the comic books that are the basis for the movie.
Tilda Swinton as "The Ancient One" in a scene from Marvel's "Doctor Strange." The character is Asian in the comic books that are the basis for the movieImage: picture-alliance/AP/Marvel/Disney/J. Maidment

A trope that began to appear more frequently in the 1960s and '70s is what TVTropes calls the "Mighty Whitey, Mellow Yellow" dynamic:  a powerful white main character with a submissive Asian love interest. Before the 1950s, strict self-censorship in  US cinema forbade romantic pairings between people of different ethnicities, or "miscegenation," which meant that there were even fewer roles available to Asian actors. When self-censorship gave way to the current system for rating motion pictures, instances of the trope increased, which indicated that this stereotype of Asian women had already existed before it was depicted on the screen.

Other tropes also became more prominent in the second half of the century. In the 1970s and '80s, the popularity of Bruce Lee and martial arts movies in general led to the entrenchment of the "All Asians Know Martial Arts" trope.

But the most common way of representing Asians and Asian-Americans in US media today is as the "model minority," Ono said: "They might be scientists, doctors or in some technical field. By and large, they're good students, come from good families and don't have any economic problems." This stereotype is not specifically recorded in the TVTropes wiki, but it overlaps with the "Asian and Nerdy" trope, which has occurred more frequently in recent decades.

Minority groups underrepresented

What this analysis cannot show is the share of movies that have nonstereotypical nonwhite characters. These don't typically get documented in the TVTropes wiki. In general, it's difficult to make any large-scale assessments of whether there are fewer stereotypical depictions now than there used to be.

What researchers do track, though, is the number of nonwhite actors cast and how many directors and writers of color see their films produced. "The greater the range of different roles, the less likely people are to think that a group is just one of these representations," Ono said. Conversely, there is all the more weight on individual characters for groups who are rarely represented on-screen.

Hollywood still has a long way to go, according to the Hollywood Diversity Report from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA): The share of female and nonwhite characters on-screen has risen quite steadily over the past few years, but also quite slowly. Even though Asians, for example, make up more than half of the world's population, and just under 6 percent of the US population, only 3 percent of all roles in 2017 and 2018 were played by Asians. Black characters made up 12.5 percent of all roles, which approaches proportionate representation for the US population. But in many cases, the portrayals are quite problematic.

Black characters die first

As with Asians, black characters often weren't played by black people in the early days of Hollywood. In fact, they barely appeared at all, except as caricatures played by white actors in blackface. This practice originated in the American theater tradition of minstrelsy, in which racist stereotypes about black people were a staple.

Data visualization Hollywood movie stereotypes

Blackface occurs much less frequently now, after a long period of criticism of the practice: In Dear White People, for example, college fraternity members throw a blackface-themed party, which the film, as well as the Netflix series of the same name, use as the basis for a discussion of racism at colleges across the United States.

But, as Hollywood has featured more black characters and cast more black actors, it has also emphasized other stereotypes. To this day, black men are often portrayed as scary or angry and black women as loudmouthed and sassy. If a movie features one token black character, it's likely to be the black best friend. And, if people die in a movie, the black character is still likely to go first. Even with awareness of racial stereotypes rising, Hollywood persists with these tropes.

If Africa is featured, it's dangerous and untouched by civilization

Hollywood's stereotypical depictions of black people mostly refer to black Americans. Tropes that are about Africans are rarer, partly because few Hollywood movies have African characters. The most common trope about Africa, though, is what TVTropes users have dubbed "Darkest Africa": Movies portraying the continent as a mysterious and dangerous isolated land with only limited ties to "modern" civilization. That depiction has become less common, however.

Latino characters are defined by their sex appeal

Latinos are the largest ethnic minority in the US, making up around 18 percent of the population. A look at 2,682 movies since the year 2000 finds that tropes about Latino characters focus most often on their sex appeal. For women, this translates as the "Spicy Latina" trope: a temperamental temptress who can hold her own and always looks sexy.

Data visualization Hollywood movie stereotypes

Men get the role of the seductive "Latin Lover," often a fling for a white woman. Additionally, films tend to ignore the diversity of Latino cultures throughout the Americas: A particular brown-skinned, black-haired look is presented as defining the appearance of all Latinos. TVTropes users call this trope the "Latino is brown" stereotype.

The stereotypes perpetuated in movies are particularly hurtful to historically oppressed and marginalized groups. But there are enough tropes in Hollywood to go around. And for groups who don't feel the detrimental effects of being stereotyped in their everyday lives, seeing themselves poorly represented causes much less pain.

Germans in movies are still often Nazis

The most common stereotype about Germans in movies since 2000 is that they are all Nazis. That is closely followed by the character of the German scientist, filed under "Herr Doctor" on TVTropes. The latter was probably influenced by the real-life scientists who fled to the US during the Nazi regime, most notably Albert Einstein, who was born in Germany.

Data visualization Hollywood movie stereotypes

A curious trope has to do with Germans' supposed love for Baywatch and Knight Rider star David Hasselhoff. In 1988, Hasselhoff released his version of the song "Looking for Freedom," which was originally recorded by the German Marc Seaberg in the 1970s. Hasselhoff performed the song at the Berlin Wall just weeks after it fell at the end of 1989. The song fit the zeitgeist and was indeed popular in Germany for a time. Now, the "Germans Love David Hasselhoff" trope is used by the TVTropes community as a shorthand for any person or character who receives unexpected popularity outside of their home country.

A British accent is an indicator of evil

Surprisingly, the most dominant trope about the British is not the classic posh accent or the stereotype of uptightness, though both are on the list. No, British characters overwhelmingly seem to be a popular choice for villains. This is so pervasive that the British actors Ben Kingsley, Mark Strong and Tom Hiddleston even starred in a 2014 Super Bowl commercial poking fun at the trope.

Data visualization Hollywood movie stereotypes

A British accent even seems to signal villainous intent in animated characters: The Egyptians in The Prince of Egypt, the Dreamworks rendering of the biblical story of Moses, have British accents; an animated car with a British accent is the bad guy in the Pixar movie Cars 2; and The Lion King, Kung Fu Panda and Rise of the Guardians all feature British-sounding villains, just to name a few films.

Russians: Tough, rough and played by non-Russians

Finally, Russians in movies are still very much defined by Cold War-era images in Hollywood. The most common stereotype is the "hard-fightin', heavy-drinkin', manly, boorish" character, as the corresponding TVTropes entry describes it. These characters often bear the brunt of the suffering during the movie, getting injured or generally leading hard lives.

Data visualization Hollywood movie stereotypes
Image: dw

Curiously, movie Russians are quite often played by non-Russians. In Rocky IV, the Swedish Dolph Lundgren started his action career as Russian boxer Ivan Drago; Arnold Schwarzenegger in Red Heat and Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises are other examples. During the Cold War, there was a predictable shortage of actual Russian actors in Hollywood. But, even in newer movies, non-Russians are often cast to play Russian characters.

Diversity pays

Changing gears would be in Hollywood’s best interest: According to the report, movies and TV shows with fairly diverse casts bring in more at the box office and get higher ratings from audiences. However, Hollywood is still a long way from representing the diversity of the world — or even that of the United States. White people are still considerably overrepresented in front of the camera, as well as behind it. That fact, too, has an influence on how stereotypes are perpetuated.

Screenshot from the Netflix movie "To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before"
Lana Condor in "To All the Boys I've Loved Before"Image: Netflix

A few events in recent years have given rise to optimism that this might change. When she won the Oscar for her performance in Fences in 2017, Viola Davis became the first black woman to win the triple crown of acting over the course of career, including her two Tony Awards for stage work and the 2015 Emmy for her role in How to Get Away With Murder. In 2018, the romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians became a box office hit with an all-Asian cast. And the Vietnamese-American actor Lana Condor has the lead role in the successful teen romance To All the Boys I've Loved Before on Netflix.

As the figures from UCLA's Diversity Report indicate, proportionate and accurate representation is not yet the norm.  "We're still facing huge challenges," says Kent Ono, "and there are always going to be people that go back to the historical trove of representation. But I'm more hopeful now than even two years ago. There are great independent people doing the work to push out those representations. And sometimes, Hollywood listens."