Bad Examples From Hollywood

Hollywood talks itself up as this great self-aware role-model machine. Myriad famous people are always quipping about being aware of how much influence they wield and trying to set a good example. I’ve noticed, though, that Hollywood is good at perpetuating stereotypes when no one’s looking.

I work in the video rental industry so I see a lot of cover boxes and posters. I’m studying graphic design so I tend to notice said movie paraphernalia. I have frequently observed that on a given cover (a term which I will use to refer interchangeably to the box and the promotional poster as they are often nearly identical) the order in which the actors are credited is in no way egalitarian.

Women and men of color are quite often listed after white men, even when their characters are more important in the context of the film or their photos are more prominent in the cover art. Occasionally, the various actors’ “star power” will be a factor in the order – for example, Samuel L. Jackson’s billing is often first – but even that doesn’t always account for it. Women or black men important to the film who are pictured on the cover sometimes are not even listed at all, never mind second billing.

To give an example or three or four, for the cover of Far From Heaven, the black actor, Dennis Haybert, is listed last, although his character in the film is just as prominent, or more so, than Dennis Quaid’s. Haybert is also not even pictured on the cover, only Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid are. For Dark Blue, the story centers around Kurt Russell and Ving Rhames, but Rhames isn’t mentioned or pictured at all, only Russell.

In the film 21 Grams, all three of the leads could be considered of equal importance. If anything, Naomi Watts’ character would be the pivotal one, I suppose. On the cover they are pictured from top to bottom in this order: Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, Benicio del Toro. The credits are given in this order, however: Sean Penn, Benicio del Toro, Naomi Watts. Both ways, the white male is given first billing, then the woman and the “ethnic” man are listed second or third, even though they are all on just about equal footing in the context of the story.

The same appears to be true for 8 Mile, in which the billing is (from left to right) Eminem, Kim Bassinger, Brittany Murphy, and Mekhi Phiffer (the only black man credited). As far as I can say, all three of the latter actors had about equal roles in the film. Requiem for a Dream is another culprit, where Marlon Wayans is listed last of the four key players.

Granted there are some exceptions where the designer had listed the actors according to their depiction, left to right, etc, such as for S.W.A.T., or Runaway Jury. For the most part however, it is absolutely astounding how frequently Hollywood has perpetuated, however subtly, the ideology of white male supremacy through these movie posters and cover boxes.

Although such examples may be subtle to those unaware of the consequences, to me they stand out as an example of bell hooks’ theory of the interconnectedness of all forms of oppression. It’s either the women or the colored men or both whom are often given second billing on these promotional pieces. And just think – these are publicity tools. These are posters and covers meant to advertise, meant to be seen. How does one more effectively spread this subtle perpetuation of supremacy?

Why should Hollywood not be held responsible for the example it is setting on a daily basis? Why not, if, as I am sure those in charge would claim, the billings are random at best, come up with some standardized way of crediting actors on such covers? Names could be listed alphabetically by the actors’ last names. They could be listed according to the pictures on the cover, from left to right as some films have done.

Then of course, if we want to work in this “star power” idea that seems to be so prevalent in Hollywood, we could always list them according to how much each was paid for the film, no?

Ah, but then we’d probably run into the same problems because of that blasted wage gap.

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