Bear Witness

Old films, modern lens

Harmful film tropes have changed, but they haven't gone away

Sarah Sabawi, Staff Writer

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In the past few years, film has been becoming increasingly inclusive and socially aware. “Black Panther” featured a majority-black cast, “Love Simon” had a gay main character and “Captain Marvel” was the first Marvel movie with a female lead. Films have developed a lot since movies became a key part of American culture, and many of them not have aged well in the eyes of modern movie-goers.

 

Blackface and minstrel stereotypes

A popular act in the early 1900s, blackface is when a white actor darkens their complexion using paint or shoe polish. By doing so, actors mimicked African Americans and exaggerated stereotypes. This started in the incredibly popular minstrel shows of the antebellum south.

Social science teacher Tania Eaton teaches blackface in popular culture.

“It perpetuated stereotypes and further solidified oppression that didn’t allow them to have the same rights in film,” Eaton said. “And I understand those things change over time, but I still think it has that negative connotation.”

Blackface, and its many interpretations, contributed to the perception of African-Americans as foolish and animalistic. Stereotypes included being overly happy, bruting, or stupid, and had names like “Jim Crow” and “Uncle Tom,” characters that persisted long after they were crafted. The intent was to mock African-Americans, or to exclude them entirely. Blackface was often used in order to cast white actors over black ones.

A well-known example is the 1915 silent film Birth of a Nation, in which the major black characters are played by white actors in blackface.

“Griffith’s Birth of a Nation was one of the first blockbuster films,”  Jon Furtado, SVCTE film and video teacher, said. “It really became so successful and really set the template for big-budget blockbusters. Unfortunately, the legacy of the film means that it’s also a deeply racist film.”

The film is also a part of American history, as it was the first film ever played at the White House President Woodrow Wilson famously called the film “so terribly true” and “like writing history with lightning”. Birth of a Nation’s use of blackface inspired many films that came after it. In the 1927 film “The Jazz Singer” the main character was played by a white man in blackface. The 1938 film “Everybody Sing” centers around a young white girl pretending to be black by wearing blackface during a jazz audition.

The decline of blackface didn’t happen overnight. As attitudes about minorities changed, portrayals of African-Americans in media began to change too.

“Starting in the 1950s and 1960s, African-Americans participated in film on a more regular basis, but even then, early on, they were cast in ‘help’ roles, as maids or butlers,” said Eaton. The most famous example of this is Hattie McDaniel’s character in “Gone With the Wind”.

Films with black main characters were primarily shown by the 21st century, both blackface and the aforementioned archetype had lost their popularity.          

The recent controversy surrounding Republican state representative Anthony Sabatini and his use of blackface in high school is an example of how blackface is treated today. It sparked an outrage–something that would never have happened when the act was more common.

“I majored in history and got my degree in history and I had never heard of blackface until eight or ten years ago,” Eaton said. “I would say I’m glad it’s coming to light now, and it’s important that we have those conversations, because most people didn’t even know what it was until recently.”

 

Homophobic and transphobic stereotypes

LGBTQ+ movements have picked up a lot of speed as of late. In the past decade, gay marriage was legalized nationwide, the first openly gay governor was sworn in and District of Columbia residents were granted the right to identify as nonbinary on their driver’s license. As a result there’s been a big push for LGBTQ+ representation in media. In the past few years, gay representation has made strides, with movies like “Love, Simon” and “Annihilation”. Both feature LGBTQ+ relationships and grossed over 40 million dollars.

Junior Bailey MacAulay, president of Branham’s Gender-Sexuality Alliance, is excited by the strides the film industry has made in recent years.

“In 2016, I never thought any representation would show up in film or TV, but when I entered high school I saw way more,” MacAulay said. “TV show characters are being LGBTQ+, and movie characters, just so many people. And [the writers] are making it normal.”

Despite this increase in representation, statistics suggest that the film industry still has a long way to go. According to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation Media Institute, of the 109 films released by major studios in 2017, only 14 contained LGBTQ+ characters. Nine of these films featured gay male characters, five had lesbian characters and none had a transgender or bisexual character.

Stereotypes of the past haven’t disappeared either. In fact, many movies with gay characters use their sexuality as their defining characteristic.

“A lot of the time they portray [gay characters] as over-sexualised, like ‘Oh yeah, I go with everyone,’” MacAulay said. “They make up stereotypes, like ‘you have to look this way’. It’s very damaging to see that not everyone is represented in the correct way.”

This is especially true for lesbians. The controversial 2013 foreign film “Blue is the Warmest Color” is one of the films that perpetuates this stereotype, including many explicit scenes that prioritize the sexuality of lesbian relationships over other aspects.

In many ways, the industry is headed in the right direction.

MacAulay finds it powerful that LGBTQ+ characters are being included “no questions asked”.

“It is getting better,” MacAulay said. “The other day, I was watching a TV show, and they had this pansexual character. She had a girlfriend on the show, but it’s not a plotline.”

Representation of women

Many movies have strong female leads. Recent examples include Carol Danvers from “Captain Marvel” and Lara Croft from “Tomb Raider”. Therefore, it’s a common belief that weak female representation is a thing of the past. However, sexism can take many forms, and just because these particular tropes are no longer widespread, that does not mean that sexism in film has been eradicated.

In the 80s and 90s, it was common for films to represent women in ways that would receive backlash today. The 1984 movie “Splash” contains a scene where the protagonist kidnaps a woman from a police station simply because he was attracted to her. The makeover scene in 1999’s “She’s All That” has been criticized for promoting the belief that beauty is more important than personality.

Despite it being 20 years later, sexism is a problem that movies still have today. It’s common to see female characters that are weak, or only there for sex appeal, especially in action franchises like “Transformers” and “Fast and Furious”.

President of the Intersectional Feminist Club, senior Jessica Silva, is troubled by these stereotypes.

“Usually it’s just belittling women or trying to show more body instead of brains,” Silva said. “It doesn’t give guys a good representation of women, because they will belittle us and think that’s how we really think, and in reality it’s not.”

Based on analyses performed by the Geena Davis Institute, an organization dedicated to pushing strong female representation, men receive twice as much screen time as women on average, and have twice as many lines of dialogue.

According to Silva, screen time has real-life consequences that affects girls’ mentality.

“Girls will think they’re not capable of doing certain things because it’s not represented in a movie or anywhere else,” Silva said. “People think representation doesn’t matter, but it really does.”

Representation for strong female minorities is even more scarce. A report by the Geena Davis Institute finds that 33 of 2017’s top 100 films had a female in a leading or co-leading role, and 4 of these women were from an ethnic minority group.

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Old films, modern lens