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Of Hollywood and ‘the American People’: How Status Quo is Maintained

June 10, 2010

I’m back in the U.S.  And I’ve got a lot to say about that, but it’s not really going to happen now.  In the meantime, I’ve been thinking about the following:

My brother is a screenwriter in LA.  Has a couple movies to his credit, and he just got what could be his “big break” as he sits down to write – what should be – a “major summer blockbuster” type movie.  This is the kind of movie that will likely get a whole lot of hype, splash his name all over the place, and – hopefully – turn into a bunch of work (and cash).  And – being on the “inside” as I am – I just got a copy of his first draft.

So I’m reading his script, trying to just let myself jump in, imagine it as a film; looking for highlights and lowlights to give him some feedback for his next re-write prior to turning it in to the producers and all that kind of thing . . . and, well . . . something struck me – right off the bat – that felt a little odd . . .

As far as details go – I’m not really going to give you more than that – because this is my brother, it’s his original work, and I’m not trying to throw him under the bus or get him in trouble with his producers or future employers – so no other identifying information will go out there.  But let’s just say the “odd” ness involved race.  Specifically, Asian people.  Which just so happens to be our race.

It was nothing major – certainly not offensive, really – but it was a form of following the same Hollywood-esque patterns of who gets to “count” – and who doesn’t.  You can probably guess whether or not the Asian people “counted” or not.

Now, did this happen because my brother is “one of them?”  Does he hate Asian people or want to break them down?  Hell no.  Of course not.  In fact, he has very intentionally re-incorporated some Asian culture into this particular script – something which I doubt a white writer (or other non-Asian writer, for that matter) would have done.   One of his favorite original story ideas that he really pushed back in the day involved prominent Asian characters (main characters, heroes, even).

Except, well . . .  that story about Asian people?  Rejected.  The people of color that he’s introduced into his stories?  Usually white-washed in later drafts due to the producers’ demands.  Or maybe that three-dimensional character he wrote up?  Knocked flat before shooting – again, by the producers.

Because Hollywood works like this:

There are a bunch of producers.  They’re the ones with the money and the pull and clout to get full movies made and put into the national theaters.  As a result, they think they know something about how movies are made.  Which, they do.

Unfortunately, these producers also tend to think they know something about “the American people” and “what they want to see” or “what they can understand.”  Which they absolutely do not.  They think that – because they have made one blockbuster, popular movie – that it indicates what “people want to see.”  Of course, when the only options are all pretty much the same, you don’t need my science background and/or a knowledge of variables to realize that doesn’t really mean anything.

But – as a result of this false notion of “what Americans want,” these producers continue to pump out the racist, sexist, classist, bigoted Hollywood “blockbusters” that we all know and love today.  Because that’s “what Americans want.”

And, of course, the screenwriters and low-level directors, actors, etc. can’t do much about it.  Because money’s involved, and it’s the producers who have the money.  I wish I could get more specific, but I can’t believe all the stories I’ve heard about the ridiculous cuts and edits producers have made to my brother’s – and other writers’ – scripts due to this faulty belief about “what Americans understand.” (*1)

So what is the end-result of so many, repeated instances of ridiculously idiotic producers changing every intelligent, thoughtful aspect of my brother’s (and other writers’) scripts?  He starts anticipating their ignorance and just keeping it out of the original.  The reasons are obvious – it hurts too much to constantly have his creative work trashed by people that have no appreciation for creative thought, or challenging convention, or flipping stereotypes; so my brother saves himself some of the pain.  (*2)  He lets go a little bit.  The even sadder part is – when my brother tries to sell original scripts that are too “different” . . . he simply doesn’t sell them.  And he can’t really support a family on thought-provoking stories on paper alone.

Now, does he compromise his own morals to write the films he does?  No.  Never.  But he does end up having to “dumb-up” his scripts for the sake of the imaginary, “low-brow” American public.  And he does end up with white protagonists instead of the folks of color that he’d rather have.  (*3)

On a larger level – what does this mean?  Am I just trying to say that we shouldn’t blame screenwriters for the crappy state of Hollywood movies?  That it’s just the producers’ fault that the Hollywood media machine is a major reason stereotypes remain in place?  A little bit.

But it’s bigger than that.  Because we – people, in general – tend to gauge the prominent attitudes of our nation through our media.  When folks are trying to figure out what the majority of “Americans” believe, or like to see, we turn to popular media as indicators.   Makes sense, right?

Except it actually doesn’t.  Because the decks are stacked against us, as popular consumers of media.  Our options – in terms of large-scale media – are extremely limited, and the variety is negligible.  (*4)  Therefore, what “we” end up choosing is more a reflection of what’s being put out, as opposed to our actual tastes and beliefs.

For example:  say I go to the grocery store.  I want some fruit.  At the store, there are some apples, bananas, strawberries, and oranges.  I really want passion fruit.  But there is no passion fruit.  Somebody higher up decided that passion fruit wasn’t a big seller, so they don’t waste their time, space, or money.

So I end up buying an orange.  Then somebody else looks at that and says, “people like that guy really like oranges.”  They can say it’s a “hard” statistic because it’s flat data . . .  but I wanted a passion fruit.  And, maybe – if people got more exposure to passion fruits, were able to try them out because they were all over the place, passion fruit would become a big seller.  In fact, if they marketed it right, passion fruit would become a big seller.  But they’ve elected to market oranges, instead.  And so guys like me buy oranges.

Our pop media culture is the same: a ridiculous minority (a fraction of a fraction of a percent) of people are in charge of deciding what “we want to see,” and they provide for that. The problem is that the majority of these guys are ignorant fools and are completely out of touch with real people.  But, because they have the power of money and marketing – they can create the results they need to “prove” themselves right.  Again and again.

So are the “American people” really as ignorant and prone to prejudice as we all tend to think, based on what we see on a large scale?  Or is it just that the tiny minority at the top creates this ignorance and prejudice as part of this sick cycle of miscommunication?

And I’m not saying that Hollywood producers are evil.  I’m sure many of them have decent intentions and really believe that they’re right on this one.  Many of them are probably thinking – “I wish I could make an intelligent, thought-provoking movie that challenges the status quo – just once – but ‘the American people’ would never go see it . . . ”  I bet that happens all the time.

But when money and power and the public are involved?  The right thing and what people really want is seldom achieved.   It’s all this strange, twisted feedback loop that reinforces all these beliefs that aren’t true and aren’t what most of us even really want – while convincing us that “everybody else” really wants it. (*5)

So what can we do about it?  It starts with just acknowledging that what is out there isn’t what we actually want.  It continues, though, with challenging the belief that it is what a majority of other people really do want.  With understanding that we’re not the only, special, open-minded ones looking for more – that there are a lot more people like that out in the world, and they don’t necessarily look or talk or dress or vote like we do.  But they are out there.  And so are we.  And if we can come together and find a way to deliver that message?  Feedback loop interrupted.

Of course, I do not yet have a (full) concept of how we bring it all together to fight off the weight of exposure, money, and influence that those faulty producers have, but I’m working on it.

Any ideas?

(*1) Outside of the usual, “obvious” stereotype-based cuts we’d all expect, here are a couple quick-hitters to demonstrate just how ridiculous these guys (because they’re 90% male) are:

1) Action movieOriginal concept: Good guy battling it out with somewhat-stronger badguy.  Badguy is winning.  Good guy realizes that he’s not going to survive this fight and that – if badguy gets out of this alive, goodguy’s buddies are in big trouble.  So he finds a way to sacrifice himself to take out the badguy.  Producer edit:  “The film-going public wouldn’t understand why the goodguy would do that, they don’t want to see it.”  So, in the actual film, the goodguy just kills the badguy and gets his way, no notions of sacrifice for greater good intact.

2) Psychological thrillerOriginal concept: Can’t say much without tipping off what the movie was, but the whole movie revolves around mistakes made by primary protagonist and how that hurts those around him.  Final lesson which brings it all home and ties the whole plot together involves him losing a loved one because of the main character’s neglect.  This loss causes him to finally change.  Producer edit: “That’s too sad.  People don’t want to see that.”  In spite of all the mistakes and the inevitable lesson coming at the end, main character saves loved one with little to no difficulty, all smiles and “everything’s better” at the end.  Which just so happens to defeat the purpose of the entire rest of the movie (and make no contextual sense, either).

(*2) And I  realize that he “doesn’t have to” do the job he’s doing – but that’s not really the point.  Although this is in the context of my individual brother, the same thing happens to every other screenwriter, whoever they are.  Somebody‘s going to write these things, and this is going to happen – every time – to whichever “somebody” that is.

(*3)  Of course, he seldom actually describes his characters as “white,” but we all know what’s coming when he writes in no specific racial or cultural description for somebody in his scripts.

(*4)  And yes – I understand the presence of “alternative media,” but let’s be realistic in terms of the reach and scope of said alternatives.  When money, marketing, and exposure is pumped into certain media, we’re just not going to be able to resist it or compete, on a large scale.

(*5) It’s how our government works, as well – but that’s for another day.

(*6) I was going to throw up a photo of John Cho to try to draw more readers, but I – luckily – decided against that particular form of exploitation . . .

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6 comments

  1. I agree that we need to speak up in large numbers. I think Obama said community organizing is the way to fight discrimination. That seems like your gist too.

    The Last Airbender is a very successful cartoon about an asian fantasy land with only non-white characters. It’s popularity across racial lines proves that people are ready for non-white heroes and stories. The creators who happen to be two white guys hired east asian consultants to make sure everything was appropriate and culturally sensitive. They were very respectful, and even modeled some of the characters after non-white employee’s kids. I read a quote (not verbatim) from one of the east asian guys that worked for them, saying he felt more proud of his heritage simply by working on a positive project like that.

    Yet, when the movie people got ahold of the film rights, they cast white people as the heroes for the film version. When I see stills of these white actors amongst all the non-whites, it looks so ridiculous. I’m more offended that they’re trying to pass these anglo looking whites off as east asian and inuit people, than I am had they just changed their races entirely.

    Do you think the disappointment towards the casting choices for the upcoming Airbender film was done correctly? Racebending seems to be doing the most organizing with it.


  2. Smart, insightful article. Thanks for your sharp analysis of a tough topic.


  3. [...] American People’: How Status Quo is Maintained by Guest Contributor CVT, originally published at Choptensils My brother is a screenwriter in LA.  Has a couple movies to his credit, and he just got what [...]


  4. @KPP – I definitely agree with the backlash towards “the Last Airbender.” It’s beyond ridiculous (and sad, considering M. Night Shamylan’s background) how they white-washed that one. Beyond irresponsible. In fact, that’s one of those cases where it’s hard not to think that the casting choices were born of very conscious, purposeful racism, as opposed to the ignorant kind I usually tackle.


  5. [...] Choptensils has a great article about how Hollywood intentionally rewrites stories about anything non-white to better appeal to a white audience by tearing down the cultural and racial of “the other” and replacing it with more white-friendly narratives and characters.  It even extends to other arenas like gender, sexual orientation, and class.  The problem, according to the article, is that there’s a stark divide between what producers think audiences want to see and what audiences actually want to see.  [Link] For example:  say I go to the grocery store.  I want some fruit.  At the store, there are some apples, bananas, strawberries, and oranges.  I really want passion fruit.  But there is no passion fruit.  Somebody higher up decided that passion fruit wasn’t a big seller, so they don’t waste their time, space, or money. So what is the end-result of so many, repeated instances of ridiculously idiotic producers changing every intelligent, thoughtful aspect of my brother’s (and other writers’) scripts?  He starts anticipating their ignorance and just keeping it out of the original.  The reasons are obvious – it hurts too much to constantly have his creative work trashed by people that have no appreciation for creative thought, or challenging convention, or flipping stereotypes; so my brother saves himself some of the pain.  (*2)  He lets go a little bit.  The even sadder part is – when my brother tries to sell original scripts that are too “different” . . . he simply doesn’t sell them.  And he can’t really support a family on thought-provoking stories on paper alone. [...]


  6. [...] by Guest Contributor CVT, originally published at Choptensils [...]



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