Plot Holes in Hollywood
In 2009, soon after the release of Disney’s Princess and the Frog, there was a national Salmonella outbreak because kids were kissing frogs.
In 2009, soon after the release of Disney’s Princess and the Frog, there was a national Salmonella outbreak because kids were kissing frogs. We have to give them a bit of credit—it wasn’t as bad as the tide pods—but still, we can’t help but marvel, “Wow—Children are so impressionable.” But the funny thing is, it’s not just children who are so easily changed by what they see on television and in the movies. According to National Geographic, the movie Jaws is almost single-handedly responsible for Americans’ fear of sharks. The National Public Radio noted that the release of The Hunger Games caused national participation in archery to almost double. Study after study indicates that what you see on a screen can shape how you view the government, your career choices, your relationships, and your sense of identity. Film and television has a profound impact on how you see the world.
Because of the effect films and television has on us, it is crucial that we remember that the concepts behind movies aren’t generated in a vacuum. They’re stories, so they depend on the perspective of the storyteller. While the actors are the ones delivering, the people who actually write and shape the story are the ones sitting in the director’s chair or around the table in the writers’ room. And we find that even as the screen gains color and variation, the people behind the scenes often remain startlingly homogenous. Our storytellers are disproportionately white and male, and there’s nothing wrong with those identities; some of my favorite films are by absolutely brilliant writers who are white men. It’s just important to note that this is storytelling, and storytelling benefits from diversity in perspective. Without diverse storytellers working on shows, we are often limited to a single perspective, and the consequence is often poor: a one-dimensional representation of minorities that hurts both the actors and the audience and prevents certain stories from circulating.
The primary example of this is how members of certain races begin filling “token” roles in the story that often play into stereotypes. For example, there’s a tendency for television shows to emasculate Asian men, like Raj from Big Bang Theory or Han from Two Broke Girls, characters whom demonstrate feminine tendencies for comedic effect. Additionally, comedic duo Key and Peele will often make light of how the role they always end up auditioning for is that of “the black best friend,” a stock character that often rounds out a group of white friends and whose character depth is often limited to looking cool and being supportive of the main character. There’s also a painfully obvious tendency for action movies to kill off colored characters first: something that The Walking Dead was particularly guilty of. I think this also extends to horror movies; personally, as a child I would be way less scared of horror movies than I should have been because my mentality was “well, it’s always the white, blonde girl who gets stabbed in the shower or the white family whose child gets possessed, so I’m good.” But now, I’m more scared than I should be because everyone knows that the colored character dies first. There is an overwhelming tendency to put the spotlight on white characters in mass media, while other races are often relegated to the background, often underdeveloped, and in the worst cases, disposable.
And I don’t think this is necessarily about the quantity of representation; it’s not about ticking off a box and going “alright, I stuck a black guy in. Yay for diversity!” It’s more about quality: giving minority characters the complex storylines they deserve. I think we can see this most clearly with women in Hollywood. Women aren’t a minority, strictly speaking; they’ve appeared in film for most of its history, so they don’t lack quantitative representation, but their portrayals often lack quality. Unless movies are made for all-female audiences, they seldom feature a female protagonist. Women are also highly sexualized in film—with a study cautioning that 40 percent of the young women to appear in Hollywood's top films over the last decade have been scantily clad or naked—how does this impact how society is encouraged to see women? How are young girls encouraged to see themselves? While all of this doesn’t hold true for indie films or a smaller budget works with niche audiences, the fact remains that the media that reaches the most people overwhelmingly features female characters who act as a little more than love interests and often serve as the protagonist’s “prize.” Just how many times have we seen a storyline where a male hero undergoes some sort of trial—anywhere from character development to saving the world—comes out victorious and is expected to “get the girl” by default? And of course, there’s the scarily low pass rate on the Bechdel Test which demonstrates how often female characters’ plotlines in movies revolve around male characters.
It’s not right that incredibly talented actors are being limited, that minority audience members can’t see themselves, and that we as a society don’t have the benefit of seeing multiple peoples’ stories. That’s why movies like Wonder Woman, Black Panther, or Crazy Rich Asians are lauded as the triumphs; they’re making waves in putting fully realized minority characters onto our screens by putting minorities in the director’s chair. There have also been several newer television shows that do a significantly better job of presenting a diverse, complex cast; Black Mirror, for example, shows us that anyone, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation, can be brutally tortured by modern technology. The Good Place, Grey’s Anatomy, Jane the Virgin, and many other series popular with our generation are similarly good at handling diversity, and accordingly, all of these shows boast diverse writers’ rooms. When minorities begin to take on roles behind the scenes, we see those stories represented on the screen. Hopefully, we can continue to move in this direction by supporting minority filmmakers and opening ourselves up to new stories because the stories we are exposed to are the lenses through which we see the world. They are our means of empathizing with people of different identities we couldn’t otherwise understand. And if that’s what connects us, we want to be sure that as many stories as possible are told.