One of the ways that white male privilege is commonly illustrated in sociology courses is by pointing out the many places that this is considered to be the default category. Women (who actually make up the majority of the US population) and people of color, then, are considered different than the norm. The “surprising” success of two recent movies aimed at members of these different audiences also highlights this fact. Both Bridesmaids, a comedy about friendship, and Jumping the Broom, a comedy about family, have gotten attention for being successful. While friendship and family have been the subject of countless comedies, these particular movies are distinctive because they focus on female friendship and African American family in a humorous way. Even their titles indicate this distinctiveness, since bridesmaids are typically women and jumping the broom is an African American wedding tradition.
So they are distinctive, but why is their success surprising? After all, Jumping the Broom stars Angela Bassett, who must be a major movie star since I have heard of her, and Bridesmaids stars Kristen Wiig, who is sometimes the only reason to watch Saturday Night Live. An Entertainment Weekly article about Bridesmaids sums it up nicely:
What the “exceeded expectations” line is really about is the movie industry, and the media, paying homage to the collective “wisdom” that occurs whenever Hollywood, doing that thing it does, remembers all over again, every couple of years, and with great stunned surprise, that there’s this weirdly esoteric, fringe-group demographic — I believe the term for it is “women” — who actually enjoy seeing their lives portrayed on screen every bit as much as men do.
Having established that women and African Americans may actually like to see humorous, though relatively accurate, takes on their lives, the more important question is why would white males not want to see these movies? At what point does a movie go from having African American characters to being an African American movie? When does a movie go from depicting women to being a women’s movie? Women and African Americans go to movies featuring nothing but white males, but are white males so accustomed to being the center of attention that they can’t handle movies featuring people from other groups? A recent paper indicates that there are likely two forces at work: White males are so accustomed to being the center of attention that they do not want to watch movies that they do not perceive as being marketed to them and movie studios do not think that white males will be willing to watch movies that they do not perceive as being marketed to them. As stated in the press release:
In his study, Weaver set out to test if the perception was accurate and found that, all things being equal, minority cast members lead white audiences to be less interested in seeing certain films.
“I don’t think it’s because whites are uncomfortable and are consciously avoiding these kinds of films. The participants in these studies weren’t thinking explicitly about the race of the actors when they made their decisions. It’s more about a perception that if there are minority cast members in it, then whites don’t see themselves as part of the intended audience,” he said.
“And I think that’s in large part because of the way that films are marketed these days,” he added. “You have this whitewashing of the mainstream films, and the only time that you see minority casts are for films that are marketed very specifically toward minority audiences.
“Hollywood’s sort of given up on the idea that you can have crossover success with a minority cast,” he said. “You get this discrimination in the casting of roles, where they’re going to cast whites if at all possible to maximize the audience.”
Unfortunately, the success of Bridesmaids and Jumping the Broom is unlikely to reverse the trend. Studios could possibly reduce the influence of these factors, however, by being willing to produce movies that include more than one (or zero) female and non-white characters. If the cast of a typical movie better reflected the demographic characteristics of our country we may be able to stop seeing movies as targeted at “us” or “them.”