Saturday, September 6, 2014

Manic Pixie Dream Girls and the Magical Negroes

If you ever get the impression that American society is not white-male-centric, you don't have to go very far to change your mind back. Just watch a movie.  When I look at Wikipedia's list of top grossing films of all time very few of them have a female lead and I can't find one with a non-white lead.  I guess you can't blame Hollywood if they are marketing their films to their audience ... but do white guys watch more movies than other demographics?  I don't know, really.

It is not just who the lead of the film is but the tone of the films. The story arcs of most American films revolve around white people. An all too common trope is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.  This term was created by the film critic Nathan Rabin back in 2005 after seeing Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown, but the term can apply to films much earlier. It refers to a stock female character in a film that influences the main character (a white male) and is usually his romantic interests. She is quirky, attractive and girlish. A majority of the mainstream films made in America have a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Why create something new if an old trope will suffice? Most people won't notice that they are watching the same old thing. We have Barbara Streisand in What's Up Doc?, Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot, Carrie Fisher and Natalie Portman in the Star Wars flicks, Natalie Portman in Garden State and to a lesser extent Beautiful Girls, Emily Watson in Punch Drunk Love, Kate Hudson and Meg Ryan in pretty much everything they have ever been.  They have no growth, very little depth and merely revolve around the protagonist like a satellite, not doing much but influencing the tides.

Things are changing I hear. Of the 40 movies released this summer by major studios, 17 of them had women leads. This is less than half but higher than most years. But is this really an improvement?  The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media did a study of 122 recent family films, of 5,554 speaking roles only 29.2% were female. This is the same ratio as 1946. Of these 40, there was only one female director. Perhaps that is where the studio needs to start to fix this problem. This is a problem!

A lesser used trope is the Magical Negro or as Spike Lee called it the Super Duper Magical Negro. The Magical Negro doesn't always have magical powers but when they do, they help out white people. Will Smith in The Legend of Bagger Vance appears on golf courses and helps white men with their golf game or Michael Clarke Duncan's character in The Green Mile is a magical prisoner on death row that uses his magic to help the white guards. I am not making this shit up. I don't think there is a single black person in any Stephen King book that doesn't exist to help white people. Mother Abagail in The Stand (the magical old black lady), Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers' character) in The Shining and Ellis Boyd "Red" Redding (Morgan Freeman's character) in The Shawshank Redemption are example of this.

I want to say that this trend can't continue, but since woman are a majority perhaps this is just naive. According to the Hollywood reporter, 54% of film goers this years were Caucasian while making up 60% of the population. White movie-goers decreased while Hispanic and black movie-goers increased. Will we get more Forrest Whitaker and Steve McQueen (the director) in the years to come? I hope so because I love those guys. This year's Best Movie Oscar winner 12 Years a Slave was a great film. But please note, it is not on the list of the top grossing films. Most Americans want an escape at the movie theater, not introspection. We'll save that for our Netflix queue. I watched it on the plane. No one wants a downer when you drop $8.00 at the box office.

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