Hollywood films portray biracial couples negatively if shown at all
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Despite growing numbers of mixed couples in America, movie relationships between men and women of different races are most likely to be short-lived, oversexed and downright dangerous, a new University of Florida study finds.
“A man and a woman of different races in the movies have a greater statistical probability of dying than of getting married or dating seriously,” said Nadia Ramoutar, who did the research for her doctoral dissertation in mass communications at UF and is now a communications professor at Flagler College in St. Augustine.
White women have not appeared in an interracial relationship in a top-selling film since “Pulp Fiction” in 1994, she said. American Indian women have not been portrayed this way since “Dances with Wolves” in 1995, and the last time an American Indian man was part of such a union was in “The Trial of Billy Jack” in 1974.
The findings are important, Ramoutar said, because popular films do more than entertain: They are a powerful means of transmitting culture from one generation to the next.
“The results of this study sadly show that racial and ethnic segregation in romantic relationships is heavily practiced in Hollywood blockbuster films and has become more common rather than less common in the past four decades,” Ramoutar said.
The study analyzed interracial relationships in blockbuster Hollywood films between 1967 and 2005, beginning with the landmark social commentary “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” Ramoutar selected the 15 top-grossing box office hits of each year for her sample. Of these, she found 36 films with interracial couples.
Forty-two percent of the women in such partnerships were victims of violence. “Lying on the table like a piece of sushi” is how police described Cheryl, the drug-addicted, sexually deviant female character in “Rising Sun” responsible for three men’s deaths who dies herself.
The scripts use certain interracial combinations more than others and avoid some entirely, the study found. No Arabic or eastern Indian appears in any film, for example.
The most common racial coupling was a white male with an Asian female, who was often portrayed as a “model minority,” in that she was smarter, more compliant and less sexually aggressive than women of other races, Ramoutar said.
But while Asians were the most common women of color, representing nearly one-quarter of interracial romances, Asian men were practically invisible, Ramoutar said. The only major Asian male in such a relationship in nearly four decades was Jackie Chan’s character in the 2001 movie “Rush Hour 2,” she said.
And a Hispanic woman playing a CIA double agent who briefly falls in love with Chan’s character marks the first time a Hispanic female appears in an interracial relationship at all during those years, said Ramoutar.
Hispanic men also were marginalized, cast in only three movies, Ramoutar said. The women they were paired with, including Michele Pfeiffer’s character Elvira in “Scarface,” were drug addicts with no purpose in life but getting high, she said.
“Despite the large number of women actively employed in the American workplace, the most commonly portrayed occupation of all the women in these films is that they have no identifiable occupation,” Ramoutar said. The second most popular occupation was working as a spy, followed by a tie between prostitute and entertainer, she said.
While white women in interracial relationships came across as either morally corrupt or socially inept or as victims of physical or sexual abuse, women of color who become involved with white men were often presented as erotic, exotic and possessing exceptional talents, she said.
“(Chinese-American) Alex in ‘Charlie’s Angels’ is a sky-diving, computer-hacking, black belt martial artist who can defeat a room full of men – her only misgiving is that she is a bad cook,” she said. “And Charlotte Lewis’ character in ‘The Golden Child’ can leap over tall walls or from high buildings, usually just wearing Eddie Murphy’s shirt and her underwear.”
The majority of black women on the big screen were pale skinned like Halle Berry, with dark-skinned actresses rarely cast except as villainesses or femme fatales, she said.
Terry Francis, a film studies professor at Yale University, praised Ramoutar’s choice of a topic. “It might be the quintessential American narrative,” she said.