Posts Tagged 'representation'

Movie bad guys, by the numbers.

Warning: This post mentions major plot points from the 2017 movie Unlocked.

Last summer, in a rambling post inspired by a scene from Robert Altman’s The Player, I wrote about my friend who’d been complaining that Muslims were stereotyped as the bad guys in Hollywood films. I demurred that

even after a decade and a half of Middle Eastern war and unrelenting media attention to Middle Eastern terrorism, in the movies Middle Easterners were stalled in the number four bad guy spot behind Russians, Nazis, and rich WASPs – maybe even five, after Latin American drug lords. But my friend seemed to doubt me.

I went on to wonder whether our argument could be settled by numerical analysis. Could one analyze a large volume of films, determine who were “the bad guys”, and prove scientifically that Hollywood had been treating certain groups unfairly?

I attempted to define the parameters of the experiment:

One would need to examine all movies (caveat: define “movie”) over a given period, identify the main bad guys (caveat: by what criteria?) and somehow sort them (caveat: actors, or characters?) by ethnicity and religion.

I now realize I was understating the difficulty. Consider only my first caveat, defining the data set. Do you limit your investigation to American-made films, and if so, in the era of international co-productions what constitutes “American”?…or for that matter, in the era of Netflix and video-on-demand, a “film”? You could make a case for restricting your analysis to big-budget movies, as they more accurately represent studio conventional thinking. Or you could ignore budgets, and focus on the highest-earning movies, as they’re likeliest to reflect audience prejudices. Or you could include as many movies as possible, including little-seen indies, as they represent the widest possible sample of filmmakers.

Your choice will skew the results. If your sample is heavy on big-budget, theatrically released movies, you’re going to find a lot more superheroes shooting Nazis with laserbeams; the more you expand it to cheapo direct-to-DVD fare, the more Mexican cartel members you’ll see getting kicked in the face by guys in blue jeans.

But suppose you cracked all the above problems and carried out an accurate and objective census of bad guys: what percentage would qualify as “unfair”? What does science tell us is a proportionate depiction of Middle Eastern villainy?

***

Netflix recently made available a pretty generic spy thriller called Unlocked, starring Noomi Rapace, Orlando Bloom, Toni Collette, John Malkovich, and Michael Douglas. It’s ostensibly about Islamic terrorism, but none of the main actors plays a Muslim. In the end we discover that the evil mastermind is one of the top-billed stars – a CIA agent secretly helping advance a jihadi plot in order, he rants, to awaken America to the threat of biological weapons.

I’d seen enough movies of this type – i.e., more than one – to predict that it would be something along these lines: the only question was, would it be Douglas, Malkovich, or Collette who turned out to be the villain? This insight didn’t rely on parsing Hollywood’s racial politics; only awareness of Roger Ebert’s Law of Economy of Characters.

I could use Unlocked as a data point against my friend’s argument that Middle Easterners are negatively stereotyped: all the main bad guys, even the leader of a jihadi cell, are white men; of the five non-white Muslim characters, one is clearly good, three are ambiguous but portrayed sympathetically, and only one (fairly minor) is an outright villain.

But if I wanted to make the opposite case, those three ambiguous Muslims could easily be roped into the “bad guy” column; and it’s true that all the Muslims in the movie, good and bad, are defined by their relationship to Islamic extremism.

In short, like many movies on this theme, Unlocked could be pigeonholed – stereotyped, if you will – equally well as anti-Muslim paranoia or anti-American paranoia.

Poking around for reviews of Unlocked I came across this one by a writer who thought it was not just a good but a “great thriller”, and who was “pleasurably surprised more than once by sudden twists in the plot”. But even this credulous viewer found something to roll his eyes at:

The only real flaw it has is in following a very hoary cliché. Cynical viewers would guess from the beginning that the heroine’s black friend is marked for death.

As soon as we see his happy home life, and watch him playing with his beloved infant daughter, we know his fate is sealed…

This “flaw” didn’t even register for me. Is “black sidekick with happy home life is doomed to die” more or less of a cliché than “CIA heroine’s mentor is secretly the bad guy”? Could we conduct a numerical analysis and find out?

I doubt it. Movie-watching isn’t a science. We see the stereotypes we’re interested in seeing.

***

Pursuing the line of thought described in my earlier post, last summer I downloaded ten years of box office returns from the website Box Office Mojo and attempted to answer what I believed was a straightforward question: In the previous decade, had there been more movies about the “Global War on Terror” (henceforth GWOT), or about World War II?

I predicted that WWII would be the clear winner. In spite of (or because of) the ubiquity of real-life Middle Eastern violence in our newsfeeds, and the central place of Islam in our current ideological squabbles, in our fictions we prefer to go on reliving the clear-cut ideological and military triumphs of our grandparents.

I started with the top 200 movies, by North American box office receipts, from each year 2007-2016.

I threw out all documentaries and animated movies.

I disregarded country of origin but excluded a few foreign-language films for which there was little information online.

Then, using Wikipedia plot summaries for the 1686 movies remaining in my sample, I attempted to identify and categorize every war movie.

Finally, having devoted many evenings to this time-consuming project…I chucked the whole thing out.

I realized that my survey was absurdly susceptible to manipulation. Depending on how I defined “war movie”, I could make the case that WWII movies greatly outnumbered GWOT movies…or the exact opposite.

Here’s a table – which should not be regarded as in any way scientific – illustrating what I mean:

war movies wwii versus gwot 2007-2016

Click for PDF.

Movies marked red take place primarily in a war zone.

Movies marked yellow include one or two battlefield scenes, or explore the causes or consequences of war, or deal with war in a comedic or fantastic way…but most people wouldn’t think of them as “war movies”.

Movies marked orange could have gone either way.

Using a strict (red) definition of “war movie”, there were more than 1.5 times as many WWII movies as GWOT movies. (16-10)

Using a loose (yellow) definition, the GWOT movies outnumbered the WWII movies by an even greater proportion. (43-25)

But those results are next to meaningless. I could have expanded the definition of “war movie” still further by hauling in the innumerable action flicks about ex-Green Berets fighting bad guys on U.S. soil. Or limited GWOT movies to only those involving declared wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I could have applied a higher or lower box office cutoff, or used some arbitrary criteria to exclude “non-Hollywood” films, or performed any number of subtle manipulations, to get whatever results I wanted.

My effort wasn’t entirely wasted. It has made me even more skeptical about dubious claims of scientific objectivity, and the journalists, bloggers, and social media stooges who unquestioningly pass those claims along.

Having said that, I can scientifically prove that there is a shortage of movies about the surprisingly busy sex lives of struggling middle-aged male writers. My study is forthcoming.

M.

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Because. That. Happens.

In Robert Altman’s Hollywood satire The Player, Richard E. Grant’s pretentious screenwriter runs into the titular studio exec and seizes the opportunity to pitch a script. It’s a crazy melodrama about a district attorney who falls in love with the woman he prosecuted for murder, only to discover on the night of her execution that she’s actually innocent:

“The D.A. breaks into the prison. Runs down death row. But he gets there too late. The gas pellets have been dropped. She’s dead.”

robbins grant stockwell the player

Tim Robbins, Richard E. Grant, and Dean Stockwell in The Player.
Screen capture by Alchetron.com

The screenwriter insists that the film be cast with unknown actors, because his story is “too damned important to be overwhelmed by personality.” He’s going for gritty European-style realism here. “There are no stars. No pat happy endings. No Schwarzeneggers, no stick-ups, no terrorists. This is a tough story. A tragedy. In which an innocent woman dies. Why? Because. That. Happens.”

I thought of that line a few nights ago while watching, of all things, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, the teen drama about a high school dork who (spoiler) angers the male portion of the audience by losing his virginity to Emma Watson. The hero is a typical brainy introvert who’s picked on by the meatheads until he falls in with a gang of proto-hipsters who do stuff like host live performances of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and publish zines about punk rock. I guess it’s mandatory that the hero have a tragic past, so they give him a best friend who committed suicide – which is alright, I guess – it explains why the cool kids feel sorry for him and take him in. But then at the end we learn (another spoiler) that as a child he was sexually molested by his aunt.

I found this twist plenty annoying. The movie captures the head rush of high school angst pretty well, even if its signifiers are teen-movie relics worn smooth by over-fondling – bullying jocks and tragic gays and a sympathetic English teacher who, I swear to god, gifts the kid his tattered copy of Catcher in the Rye. The molestation angle at least comes as a surprise. But why couldn’t the kid have just been an ordinary introverted dork? With a non-tragic past like the vast majority of dorks?

Of course, there really are dorks out there who’ve experienced both suicide and sexual abuse. Lots of them, probably. So the screenwriter could legitimately answer my complaint with: Because. That. Happens.

***

I once wrote a script for a short film which a director pal of mine agreed to help me make on an ultra-low budget. One scene had the main character visiting the grave of his recently-deceased girlfriend, so I did some location scouting at a local cemetery, looking for a grave with a shiny headstone and newly-turned sod.

I strolled among the trees, seeing mostly grassy graves and eroded headstones. Here and there I found a freshly-disturbed plot where some old person had been interred alongside a long-dead spouse – but where were those who’d died tragically young?

Finally, after a half hour of wandering, I spotted a row of unweathered stones out past the edge of the treeline, overlooking the freeway. Of course, I realized – young people don’t have plots set aside in expectation of their death. Their loved ones take whatever’s available, in the sparsely treed, unlovely outskirts of the cemetery. I picked out a grave at the end of the row which I thought would make an interestingly desolate shot for the film.

When it came time to shoot, the director disagreed. He wanted a visual that was immediately identifiable as a graveyard, and he worried that the shot I was advocating would look like a few prop headstones erected in an empty field. So we roamed among the trees and settled on a ten-year-old grave nestled among other graves in the shade of a venerable elm.

My version of the scene would have been more authentic, in the sense of being faithful to reality. The director’s version better communicated authenticity. My version would have caused the audience to wonder, “Waitasec, where are we?” The director didn’t want the audience wondering that, because he believed there were other, more relevant things for them to be thinking about at that point in the story.

If I’d insisted on my definition of authenticity, the director could easily have argued that plenty of young people must be buried under shady trees. And he’d have been right.

***

A couple months back, Steve Sailer linked to coverage of this speech by the actor Riz Ahmed, in which he claimed that young Brits from Muslim backgrounds (like him) were at risk of being seduced into Islamic radicalism because their ethnicity was insufficiently “represented” in British movies and TV shows. Muslims unable to locate sympathetic portrayals of their culture in the mainstream media, he suggested, had nowhere else to turn except to the head-lopping wildlands of the internet.

Frankly, the speech doesn’t paint a very flattering picture of Ahmed’s community. No doubt Welsh-speakers and ethnic Chinese and exiled Russian oligarchs would also like to see more shows about their unique contributions to modern-day Britain, but for some reason their alienation never seems to lead to killing sprees.

Presumably to help thwart the radicalization of Muslim youth, Ahmed had been attempting to find good roles for himself on British TV. But he complained that he kept being turned away because the show would turn out to be set in, say, 17th century Cornwall, and there was no call for minority actors.

Frustrating, no doubt. But then, if the rule is that Muslim actors must be represented on TV in numbers equal to their share of the British population, the result will be fewer shows set in the period before mass Muslim immigration – a period which happens to constitute the bulk of British history. By imposing on TV producers one narrow definition of “representation” – to authentically represent modern Britain’s racial diversity – Ahmed would limit their ability to pursue another, equally valid definition – to authentically represent the diverse eras of Britain’s past.

Ahmed might argue that the racial version of representation ought to supersede the historical version. He might argue that it’s more urgent that the British see themselves as they are than as they once were. But “representation” is the beginning of the argument, not the end.

***

Last night I watched the 1950s sci-fi flick It Came From Outer Space and was struck by how often the heroine shrieked in terror at the sight of aliens, shadowy shapes, unexpected trees, in a way I’ve heard no real-life woman shriek, and as no female character would shriek in a modern movie. My first thought was, how phony. But then, for all I know the shrieking women in old movies reflected the reality of the time. Maybe women really shrieked a lot back then.

I’ve heard it theorized that the reason women are always falling into swoons in novels from the Victorian era is that in those days women’s breathing was restricted by tight corsets – excessive excitement really did make them light-headed.

Maybe. Or maybe women fell into swoons because it was socially acceptable, because their fictional heroines were doing it all the time.

Fifties moviemakers may have modelled their heroines after real-life shrieking women, while real-life women learned from movies that society expected them to shriek in scary situations.

What behavioural quirks might our modern-day fictions be amplifying and feeding back to us?

***

A while back I suggested that the worthiness of any piece of writing, from the script of The Perks of Being a Wallflower to the Iliad to this essay, could be evaluated using just two criteria – truthfulness and originality.

Truthfulness, I said, isn’t necessarily a matter of factual accuracy, although in certain contexts – reporting, history, essays – sticking to the facts is pretty important. Truthfulness can also include the telling of lies – fictions – that convey truths about human nature, how society is ordered, how society might be ordered if aspects of human nature were to change, how humans might change if society were differently ordered, and so on.

My definition leaves a lot of leeway for artists to fudge the truth, and for critics to call them out for fudging. Artists can create fictions where people they dislike are shown saying silly or vicious or hypocritical things, which their targets will protest as malicious distortions of their true beliefs, to which the artists can justly reply but that really happens. There really are head-lopping Islamic zealots. There really are hypertouchy social justice warriors. There really are right-wing politicians who cloak their avarice under family-values rhetoric.

But the complainers have a point. Stories that are individually truthful can be cumulatively misleading – as anyone will acknowledge after looking at a media source whose ideological slant is opposite to theirs:

LIBERAL LOOKING AT BREITBART: Does every article have to be about illegal immigrants raping and murdering pretty white girls?

CONSERVATIVE LOOKING AT SALON: Does every article have to be about alt-right thugs queer-bashing transgender asylum seekers?

A different selection of stories results in a different picture of the world. And that’s sticking to true stories. When our fiction-makers overwhelmingly share a similar background – a background that is largely white and male, yes, and also largely urban, university-educated, liberal, irreligious (the demographic can be sliced any number of ways to prove one’s point) – their fictions can wind up misrepresenting other people’s beliefs without their even intending it.

But the pursuit of representation doesn’t end with, or even necessarily entail, the elimination of misrepresentation. A British TV industry devoted exclusively to the production of shows about life in 17th century Cornwall needn’t be untruthful in any way. It could explore every aspect of human experience – the tragic, the comedic, the spiritual, the horrific – with sensitivity and nuance. It could in fact be vastly more truthful than British TV as it currently exists. But it would almost certainly be less Muslim, so Riz Ahmed wouldn’t register the improvement.

***

I was chatting about movies with a friend not long ago – a white Canadian girl, if it matters – who made a sarcastic comment about Middle Eastern actors always being typecast as the bad guys in modern action movies. Being fairly certain that I’d seen a lot more movies of that type than my friend, I replied that, while she might be right, in my observation the main bad guy usually wound up being a WASPy guy in a suit. I offered the Iron Man franchise as an example. Parts I and III involved terrorist threats, but the boss villains were Jeff Bridges and Guy Pearce, respectively. In between was Mickey Rourke as a vengeful Russian.

I speculated that this was partly due to commercial concerns – there aren’t many bankable Middle Eastern actors to fill the role of Muslim Terrorist Mastermind – and partly due to cultural sensitivity – filmmakers being leery of contributing to the supposed climate of intolerance towards Muslims.

In fact, I went on, even after a decade and a half of Middle Eastern war and unrelenting media attention to Middle Eastern terrorism, in the movies Middle Easterners were stalled in the number four bad guy spot behind Russians, Nazis, and rich WASPs – maybe even five, after Latin American drug lords. But my friend seemed to doubt me.

I started to wonder – could my speculation be proven? Was it even susceptible to data analysis? One would need to examine all movies (caveat: define “movie”) over a given period, identify the main bad guys (caveat: by what criteria?) and somehow sort them (caveat: actors, or characters?) by ethnicity and religion.

According to boxofficemojo.com, there were over 700 movies released theatrically in North America in 2016. You’d want to look at more than a single year’s releases – easily thousands of movies – and analyze each storyline in sufficient detail to figure out who was the “bad guy”. This is straightforward enough in a thriller or action movie but gets tricky when you start looking at serious dramas, comedies, cartoons, and the various hybrids. Should you treat You Don’t Mess With The Zohan as a movie about Middle Eastern terrorism? (It ends, by the way, with Zohan teaming up with the main terrorist to take out a WASP in a suit.)

As an experiment, I thought I’d attempt to answer a much simpler question. Does modern-day Hollywood churn out more movies about World War II, or about America’s wars in the Muslim world?

I predicted that World War II would come out on top. Audiences and filmmakers are drawn to clear-cut conflicts where we can guiltlessly celebrate heroes dispatching bad guys, and the Nazis still lead the list of hissable villains.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been playing with the data, and the main thing I’ve learned is that objectively sorting works of art (generously defining “art” to include things like Captain America and You Don’t Mess With The Zohan) into tidy, countable categories is impossible. There are any number of ways I could have tweaked the definitions and the dataset to tip the results in favour of my hypothesis.

But I want to put my results at the top of a new post, where people might actually see them.

[Update, Feb. 27 2018: Finally posted this. Movie bad guys, by the numbers.]

In any case, do the results of my investigation really matter? Should Hollywood be more interested in the Middle East, or less? When the last surviving World War II veteran is laid to rest, will that excuse us from any further interest in the struggle against Nazism?

For the overwhelming majority of us, our day-to-day reality has nothing to do with war or terrorism – or for that matter with spying or bank-robbing or serial-killing or any of the other exciting pursuits that dominate our movies, TV shows, and books.

It’s reasonable to ask that our fictions be truthful. If they must be representative as well, one might wonder – what’s the point of having fictions at all?

M.

I published this post last year about how advocates of “representation” sometimes seem a bit fuzzy about the demographics they claim to be attempting to replicate.

My friend and I never finished the short film discussed above, but I later recycled some of the footage into this homemade music video for my band, Sea Water Bliss.