Hollywood doesn’t reflect demographic reality but audience preferences

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Pradip Rodrigues
At the 88th Oscar’s Academy Awards, actor Chris Rock launched one zinger after the other at the people behind the Oscar’s about White over-representation and the lack of  diversity and inclusion. The fact that no black actor or film was nominated this year, not even Straight Outta Compton was seen as the last proverbial straw. Is the Hollywood film industry too dominated by Whites? No doubt about that, statistics bear this perception out. The 2015 Hollywood Diversity Report found that “ethnic” actors (all actors of color) received only 17% of all lead roles in film,  while White actors occupied over 75% of all roles on digital and cable TV series.
Evidence from this report shows clearly that America’s increasingly diverse audiences prefer diverse content created with the input of diverse talent.
There is a strong case being made about conscious and institutionalized racism that permeates Hollywood, that is responsible for the ‘scandalous’ lack of diversity. While Whites shrink in numbers in the US and increasingly in Europe, the proportion of South Asians, Asians and blacks continues to enjoy exponential growth leaving Hollywood open to charges that it reflects a 50’s era-like homogeneity that may evoke nostalgia in some but mostly indignation or feigned outrage. Research shows that diversity sells- that might hold true in the US. Audiences are by and large more receptive of a diverse cast in a movie, but do audiences in new and emerging markets like India and China share in the outrage about the all-White casts in Hollywood movies?

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Many brown people aren’t bothered by lack of diversity in Hollywood

Over the weekend I posed this question to several South Asians and while most paid lip service to the need to have more diversity in Hollywood, they weren’t complaining about the White domination. Some actually preferred movies with White actors in the lead rather than an all-black cast. In fact research suggests that White audiences and maybe even South Asians and Chinese would conclude that a film with an all-black cast was aimed at a black audience and give it a pass.
It is easy to blame Hollywood for not casting films where blacks and other minorities play leading roles, but is that fair? How about looking at this another way, perhaps consciously or unconsciously Asian and South Asian audiences prefer White actors in lead roles given the preference for fair skin.

Light-skinned actors dominated Bollywood

By 2020 The MPAA’s Theatrical Market Statistics 2012 show China’s cinema audience is worth $2.7bn (£1.7bn), up from $2bn in 2011, taking it past Japan, whose total increased only slightly from $2.3bn to $2.4bn. Chinese people like Indians have a deeply ingrained obsession with white skin. In China, skin color is directly connected to class, darker-skinned Chinese are assumed to be rural farm workers. It means you work in the fields, exposed to the sun, hence dark! China is now consumed in a materialism frenzy where status, power and wealth is all wrapped up in fair-skinned . Hollywood is run by marketing geniuses who won’t for a minute hesitate to cast all Chinese actors in the next Hollywood blockbuster if it translated into millions of dollars and millions of Chinese flocking to theaters. They wouldn’t mind casting half of Bollywood- Salman Khan and Shah Rukh Khan and Ashwarya Rai in all their films if that meant greater penetration into the Indian market where Hollywood’s market share is still just 10 % and has the potential to grow.
Perhaps Hollywood’s movie moguls are aware of India’s obsession and preference for fair skin. It is no coincidence most of Bollywood’s top actors through the years have always been lighter-skinned. The dark-skinned ones have played character roles or have been cast as gangsters. It is not that dark-skinned actors don’t make it in Bollywood, it’s just that they don’t get very far. Movies are not really supposed to reflect the demographic reality as much as the social reality and preferences of those watching films.

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Asians and South Asians prefer fair skin

In Indian society, a dark complexioned person could expect to face discrimination and humiliation, especially the women and this state of affairs has existed since the Vedic Era.
According to a 2012 survey by matrimonial website jeevansathi.com, the bias doesn’t just exist, but goes across genders – 71% women prefer fair men when it comes to marriage, the survey claims.
“Fair & Lovely” cream and other creams that promise lighter skin have huge sales in India and even Sri Lanka. Bollywood producers and filmmakers are acutely aware of these biases and few would dare featuring actors with darker pigmentation, especially if it was a romantic film.
I wonder if audiences outside America would have an appetite for films where Whites played bit roles and most main roles went to Hispanic, Black and Asian actors.
In societies where fair skin is associated with high status and privilege, audiences have few qualms about films featuring actors blessed with complexions they find appealing. In India, Bollywood films definitely don’t reflect the dominant and darker shade of most Indians, has there ever been an uproar? Audiences go to movies to be entertained by actors who are eye candy, needless to say fair skinned ones are preferred. And more sophisticated movie-goers are more concerned with the acting abilities of actors regardless of color. Hollywood will change when the market says so and increasingly that market is outside the US where political correctness hasn’t quite caught up and people have no problem saying they would much rather avoid films featuring dark-skinned actors. Would Hollywood producers risk investing millions of dollars in movies based on their conscience and simply to appear inclusive? You know the answer to that one.

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