Saturday, September 29, 2007

Colorism in Hollywood

Colorism is as pervasive in Hollywood today as it ever has been. In fact, it seems to have gotten even worse. Notice I said "colorism" and not racism. While the term colorism is not strictly synonymous with racism per se, race does obviously play a large part in colorism.

When using the term colorism, I am specifically referring to the "ideal" skin color as well as hair color of men and women as depicted in Hollywood.

In the past, this was not always the case, but in the last 10-15 years, Hollywood seems hell bent on portraying leading men as darker than leading women. A perfect example is the portrayal of black couples in hollywood. In the past , a typical "black" couple would consist of a man and woman, both whom appear to be black. Now, when a "black" couple is shown, the man still looks black, but the woman almost always looks mixed. The woman is usually considerably lighter; so much so that at first glance it appears to be an inter-racial couple, and not a black couple. This marked gap in portrayal of black men and women's skin color, and often hair color is not an exception to the rule, it is the rule. The rule does not only apply to couples, but to nearly any major role. Black male characters are played by black actors while black female characters are played by actresses that are more often than not mixed. It seems that Hollywood is trying to send the message that dark African features are acceptable or even desired in men, but not in women. Another way of looking at it is that Hollywood is perpetuating a stereotype that dark features are masculine, whereas light features are feminine.

This not-so-subtle approach of colorism is not limited to black portrayals in the media. Though not quite as obvious as the portrayal of black men and women, white men and women are also subject to the same colorism. In the case of white portrayals, hair color is much more noticable than skin color.

At a casual glance, one might not notice a particular trend in the portrayal of white couples in Hollywood. But upon closer inspection, one can see that a vast majority of couples as depicted by Hollywood as consisting of a somewhat dark-complected dark or black-haired male with a light complected blond or red haired woman. Once again, this is not true 100% of the time but is the rule rather than the exception. And once again, this does apply to not just portrayals of couples, but most major roles. When pale, blond men are portrayed in the media, it is most often in the role of a serial killer, homosexual, arrogant and/or cowardly and is usually in a position opposite the leading male.

On top of this the way in which hollywood handles celebrities who are in inter-racial relationships solidifies the stereotype. Couples such as Tiger Woods and Elin Nordegren or Seal and Heidi Klum are often featured and treated like royalty on celebrity shows and tabloids while couples such as Rosario Dawson and Gerard Butler or Halle Berry and Gabriel Aubry are practically ignored. I've heard mention in the media several times that Halle Berry was pregnant but none of the stories even showed the father or mentioned who he is.

While the stereotypes created by Hollywood depictions may seem harmless to whose who "fit the image", the damage done to those who do not (very dark complected women, and very light complected men) can be socially devastating. Not only are self-esteem levels lower for dark-complected women, and light-complected men, black women are more likely than any other group of women to remain single, and white men are more likely than any other group of men or women to commit suicide.

So what can be done to put an end to these harmful stereotypes, and why hasn't Hollywood done something about it? It seems hypocritical that in a country that "embraces" diversity and shuns stereotypes that our media should shun diversity while embracing sterotypes.