by guest contributor Rachel Sullivan, originally posted at Rachel’s Tavern
I saw this great post on the All Things Considered Blog about love scenes in the top grossing movies. The author, Steven Barnes, reviewed love scenes in the 350 films that have earned more than $100 million dollars. Barnes found that 50 of these movies had loves scenes, which he operationalizes as scenes that insinuate sex, but not one of those scenes included a male actor who was not white.
If you scan the same list for American films with non-white leads (again, there are about 50), you’ll find love scenes in zero percent. That’s right, zero. No blacks. No Latinos. No Asians. Hollywood makes such films; you can find them further down on the list. But America won’t watch them.
Barnes goes on to make an argument that I don’t agree with. He says that the problem is about “male territorial behavior,”
I’m convinced that the problem is not just “Hollywood executives.” They’re no better or worse than the rest of us. They simply try to keep track of what the audience wants and rejects, as measured by box office receipts.
And I don’t believe there’s something especially twisted or limited about the white majority. I think this little statistical blip has to do with human perception itself — and most specifically, male territorial behavior.
When confronted with this statistic, some people ask why I don’t count movies such as Will Smith’s delightful Hitch. Simple: There are no love scenes. Hugs and kisses don’t make babies. I suspect that it’s the depiction of specific reproductive behavior, even at a genteel When Harry Met Sally level, that triggers the most powerful negative response, especially in male alpha-warrior types.
This is where he and I part ways. This can’t just be reduced to male on male competition, and better analysis would incorporate the structures of race, gender, and sexuality.
I think one of the primary ways that groups are marginalized is through control of their sexuality. The control can be exercised directly through sexual violence (i.e. rape), forced breeding, and coercion. It can been done indirectly through stereotyping and erasure. I think one of the primary ways that Black, Asian, Latino, and American Indian sexuality is controlled today is through what Patricia Hill Collins calls controlling images. Popular movies, TV programs, music, and almost every other major form of popular culture contribute these controlling images when they avoid showing African Americans in intimate, loving relationships. Not only are people of color not shown in loving relationships, we also rarely see intimate family relationships.
There are exceptions such as shows like Soul Food and The Cosby Show or movies like Mi Familia, but they are exceptions. I think there are several reasons that people of color are not portrayed in loving intimate relationships. One reason is that most writers in TV and film are whites, and most of us don’t have the day to day contact with people of color that allows us to provide a nuanced and realistic glimpse into the intimate relationships of people of color. Most of our contacts with people who are not white are in the workplace, at the mall, or in other public settings. Additionally, the predominantly black TV cast is becoming a relict of the past. Now people are color are portrayed in ensemble cast shows like Law & Order or ER, these shows don’t revolve around family or intimate relationships. And last, I agree with Barnes that there is this subconscious fear of black, Asian, Latino or American Indian sexuality; moreover, when the sexualities of people of color are portrayed it is more in the context or pornography than it is loving relationships.
An Asian man tenderly kissing an Asian woman, or a Black man talking about how he cares for his wife don’t fit well with stereotypes of Karate guys, criminals, and athletes. Showing loving intimate relationships (especially those of a sexual nature) could have a humanizing effect, but continued stereotyping or marginalizing has the opposite effect.