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Monday, June 13, 2016

On Diversity in Casting in Movies and other Media

One of the key assumptions of identity politics-driven calls for "diversity" in media representation is that people want to see people like themselves onscreen.

Yet this is not always the case:

Ed: The extract has been expanded since this blog post was first published

"Horton and Wohl remark that in watching films we are encouraged to ‘identify’ with the protagonist but that ‘resistance is manifested when some members of an audience are asked to take the opposite-sex role — the woman's perspective is rejected more commonly by men than vice versa’ (Horton & Wohl 1956: 221). The psychologist Grant Noble observes that ‘researchers have long been puzzled because girls tend to “identify” with both male and female performers Boys, on the other hand, tend to identify only with male heroes‘ (Noble 1975: 53).

Building on Freudian theory, Laura Mulvey asserts that ‘for women (from childhood onwards) trans-sex identification is a habit that very easily becomes second Nature‘ (even if it ‘does not sit easily’) (Mulvey 1988: 72). Indeed, Anneke Smelik suggests that ‘it has become a general assumption of feminist film theory that female spectators are more fluid in their capacity to identify with the other gender‘ (Smelik 1999: 355). Neither film theory nor psychoanalytic theory is noted for an attention to empirical evidence, so we offer here some brief references to relevant findings.

In studies of ‘modelling’ in interpersonal relations, boys have been found to favour same-sex models more strongly than girls do (Bandura et al. 1961; Bandura, Ross & Ross 1963; Slaby & Frey 1975; Perry & Perry 1975; Bussey & Bandura 1964; Frey & Ruble 1992; Luecke-Alecksa et al. 1995). In one study, as early as 2 years of age, girls showed no differential emulation of female- and male-stereotyped activities whereas boys showed a stronger tendency to emulate male-stereotyped activities (Bauer 1993). Grusec and Brinker (1972) find that after 5- and 7-year-old children had watched a male and a female model simultaneously presented, the boys remembered significantly more of the actions of the male than of the female model, while the girls showed a less clear tendency to remember more of the actions of the female than of the male model.

Such findings have been echoed in studies of parasocial relations, where Reeves and Miller found that ‘girls are more likely to identify with male characters than boys are to identify with females‘ (Reeves & Miller 1978: 83). Miller and Reeves (1976) find that 3rd-6th graders (approximately 8- to 11-years-old) overwhelmingly wanted to be like same-sex characters on television. However, while boys just named male characters, only about 70 per cent of those named by girls were female. Reeves and Miller found that ‘while both sexes identified more with seme-sex TV characters... females are almost equally as likely to identify with all characters on television as they are with same-sex models’ (Reeves & Miller 1978: 83). Hoffner (1996) found that amongst 155 children aged 7-12 nearly all of the boys (91 per cent) chose favourite television characters of the same sex while just over half (52.6 per cent} of the girls did...

Anticipated box-office returns obviously play a key role In deciding what kinds of movies are made. Many commentators refer to a widespread assumption amongst filmmakers and television producers that while genres traditionally favoured by (and primarily featuring) men (such as the western, detective story, science fiction, action-adventure) will also attract some women viewers, genres primarily associated with women (such as romance, domestic melodrama, family saga) tend to alienate the male audience (Seiter 1995: 166. 168). Fischoff et al. (1997) have provided evidence supporting this assumption. Men were more inflexible than women in their inclusion of films deemed as aimed at the other sex. Women were generally less dismissive of action-adventure films than men were of the romance genre. However, men in older age-groups were less gender-stereotypical in their film preferences and did include romantic films amongst their favourites. This is of course an additional disincentive against producers taking much account of female viewers. Consequently, it is hardly surprising that ‘relative to films with the male point of view few women's films are produced' (Fischofi et al. 1997)."

--- Who is the Fairest of Them All? Gendered Readings of Big Brother UK / Daniel Chandler and Merris Griffiths in Big Brother International: Formats, Critics and Publics

Gender and reading | Paul Sopčák and Marisa Bortolussi - "In the present research, we examined the effect of protagonist gender on reader evaluations of excerpts from novels. Extant analyses of the role of gender in reading suggest that there should be a gender-match effect in which, for example, women prefer stories with female protagonists. To test this prediction, we created different versions of the excerpts in which a male protagonist was changed to a female protagonist and vice versa. Readers rated the texts on four evaluation items spanning both personal and intersubjective reactions to both the discourse and the story world. Two samples of readers were used: one in Canada and one in Germany. The results indicated that both men and women rated texts higher on the story-world items when they had a male protagonist, inconsistent with the gender-match prediction.There was no difference in this pattern between Canadian and German readers, suggesting that it is common across these cultures. We provide an alternative account based on the fundamental attribution error."

In other words, men and women both prefer to read about men.

On the other hand, where race is concerned, this does not seem to hold.

"Several studies have found that viewers enjoy seeing people of their own race in the media, particularly on television. They like these characters more, they trust them more, and they identify with them more. Black high school students have indicated a stronger liking than White students for shows featuring Black characters (Dates, 1980). White high school students have rated White newscasters higher than Black newscasters in terms of competency and the likelihood that those newscasters might someday be neighbors or relatives (Kaner, 1982). Grade school children tend to select their favorite characters on the basis of race. During a season when 85 percent of the characters on television were White, 96 percent of the White children selected a White character as their favorite, whereas only 75 percent of the Black children and 80 percent of the Hispanic children chose a White character (Eastman & Liss, 1980). When programs featuring minority characters are available, minority audiences tend to prefer these shows to others that feature White characters (Liss, 1981; Eastman & Liss, 1980; Greenberg et al., 1983)."

--- Fundamentals of Media Effects: Second Edition / Jennings Bryant, Susan Thompson, Bruce W. Finklea

Yet, there're other reasons explaining the prevalence of white faces in casting.

The Role of Actors' Race in White Audiences' Selective Exposure to Movies - "Movie producers are often reluctant to cast more than a few minority actors in otherwise race-neutral movies for fear that the White audience will largely avoid such films. Two experiments were conducted to test the idea that the racial makeup of a cast could influence White audiences' selective exposure to movies. Results revealed that actors' race does influence selective exposure in certain contexts. For nonromantic movies, participants' racial attitudes moderated the relationship between race and selective exposure. For romantic movies, regardless of racial attitudes, White participants showed significantly less interest in seeing movies with mostly Black casts than in seeing movies with mostly White casts. These findings are discussed in light of both social identity theory and social cognitive theory."

This can probably be generalisable to all "minorities". So if there're more whites than non-whites in your audience, diverse casting might not make sense financially.

And if one posits whiteness as the default, then even if minorities prefer seeing themselves onscreen, their reaction to seeing a white person would be less negative than that of a white person seeing a minority (not to mention there is also the effect of seeing other minorities). So the most neutral option would still to be to cast white people.

Objecting to this, people like to point to research showing that Movies With Diverse Casts Make More Money.

Yet, the 2016 Hollywood Diversity Report: Busine$$ as Usual? clearly suffers from omitted variable bias - movies which would be popular for other reasons are more likely to have diverse casting, due to pressure/desire to do so (e.g. having famous directors who want to showcase their diversity credentials, being bigger targets for activists to picket etc).

Once one teases out the relevant factors, it is clear that star actors increase box office takings.. And since most star actors are white, it is no wonder more white actors are cast:

The Power of Stars: Do Star Actors Drive the Success of Movies?

"Is the involvement of stars critical to the success of motion pictures? Film studios, which regularly pay multimillion-dollar fees to stars, seem to be driven by that belief. This article sheds light on the returns on this investment using an event study that considers the impact of more than 1200 casting announcements on trading behavior in a simulated and real stock market setting. The author finds evidence that the involvement of stars affects movies' expected theatrical revenues and provides insight into the magnitude of this effect. For example, the estimates suggest that, on average, stars are worth approximately $3 million in theatrical revenues. In a cross-sectional analysis grounded in the literature on group dynamics, the author also examines the determinants of the magnitude of stars' impact on expected revenues. Among other things, the author shows that the stronger a cast already is, the greater is the impact of a newly recruited star with a track record of box office successes or with a strong artistic reputation. Finally, in an extension to the study, the author does not find that the involvement of stars in movies increases the valuation of film companies that release the movies, thus providing insufficient grounds to conclude that stars add more value than they capture. The author discusses implications for managers in the motion picture industry."

Furthermore, there's the influence of overseas markets.

Although Bill Maher is dismissed as "whitesplaining" when he says that Asian audiences don't like black people, this is confirmed by the Sony email leaks (How Racism Is Affecting Denzel Washington's Career, According To Sony Emails), Finn being cut from the Force Awakens' poster (and other incidents reported in the latter article) and many Hollywood insiders and analysts.

One might also consider the inconsistency in slamming China for the "racist" detergent ad - while denying that Chinese audiences don't like seeing bllack people onscreen.


women identify men, male female characters, tend to identify only with male characters
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