In High Stakes Politics, It's Hard Out There For A Broad. For Blacks Too

Hillary lost her bid and her campaign was body slammed a bit too often by, of all people, Bill (ambivalence is a bitch, isn’t it?). Michelle is getting hit hard with rights and lefts from the right and was pilloried for saying what many Americans have said for years: It’s been a heck of a long time since their government’s leaders and policies allowed them to feel proud to be an American.

In the world of pinnacle American politics women don't seem to get a break or be able to make breaks for themselves easily. As Congresswomen, yes. Senators, a bit. Governors, yes. Mayors too. But for president or Vice-President. Nuh-uh. By contrast, nations all over the world, Muslim, Christian, and Jewish, have had women as heads of state, women in the seats of power.

There are also Black governments with Black heads of state.

Yes, there are no women's governments with women heads of state. But, who knows, stranger things may one day be spawned by the eternal battle of the sexes.

Nevertheless, in the U.S., in this self-proclaimed shining city on the hill, this bastion of freedom, opportunity, and fairness, we lack the precedent of either Black or female heads of state.

What gives?

Well, many things, of course, but here's something a little different to chew on. In an unpublished research paper I presented at a meeting of the American Psychological Association about three years ago, I reported results of a study I did which showed that, despite the visible progress that women had made in breaking out of subordinate roles into figures of power and authority in real life (e.g., Oprah, Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton) and in film and on TV (e.g., action heroes, police captains, judges, lawyers and doctors in TV procedural series), the subjects in the study, both males and females, in equal proportions!, still strongly operated with restrictive stereotypes about females, power, and authority.

Specifically, subjects were asked to cast a movie, cast the lead and supporting roles in a Hollywood movie which was in pre-production (well, that was the cover story). These roles were intentionally described in gender neutral ways and ran the spectrum of positions of power from celebrity to the undiscovered, and from the secular to the clerical domains of authority. They chose the cast by looking at packet containing a sheet with a 250 word synopsis (a police drama) of the film script, black and white multi-racial photographs (head shots) of professional actors, with 3 males and 3 females from each of the for major racial/ethnic groups. The opportunity to cast roles irrespective of race and gender were wide open, i.e., "cast the roles as you would like them to be cast."

Results were both expected and unexpected and bear directly on our blog focus. Blacks did far better than other minorities in casting than did females and were close to Whites in total roles cast (28% for Blacks, 31% for Whites).

Regarding the matter of gender, however, the ultimate casting decisions of the subjects went dramatically against predictions. They emphatically failed to make up for years of women wandering for eons in the desert of societal power and position. Both men and women were 2 to 3 times as likely to choose males over females for power and authority roles. It's worth noting moreover, and by contrast, that for the part of a movie star, again not gender or descriptively specified, females were cast in the role more than twice as often as males. This is consistent with the gender stereotype operating in not casting women as readily in positions of power and authority visualizing them, rather, in less substantive terms.

The study was done in 2004, before Senator Clinton ran for the nomination of the Democratic party in the presidential primaries. Nonetheless, at the time of the research she was a highly visible senator and widely touted as a probable party candidate for president.

Media image-making, touted both positively and negatively as a force for change, met stiff resistance in my study, which used a subject population that was both educated and demographically diverse. Although there are numerous role models on TV and in film of females playing police officers, detectives, judges, doctors, athletes, etc., both male and female subjects, when given the opportunity to equalize or overemphasize females in such occupations, turned it down.

Gender stereotypes trumped gender liberation. While Hollywood fiction is often ahead of non-Hollywood reality, such was not the case here when real, non-biz, people were tasked with casting a fictional Hollywood drama, casting it as they would like to see it cast. For the majority, stereotypes appeared to straightjacket fantasy.

Reactions by Americans to the candidacy of Hillary Clinton and to the actions and comments by Michelle Obama seem to fit in the same gender stereotypic straightjacket mentally worn by the subjects in my research, a restraint having to do with a woman's place and style.

In perusing the archives for the roles of women in film and TV, there are, in fact, few Hollywood products with females as U.S. Presidents. The ones I discovered make up a sorrowful fictional gruel of opportunities squandered: There was Geena Davis in Commander and Chief, a mercifully short-lived TV series; Fox cast a female president late in the series 24 but presidents generally don't fare well in that series; Battlestar Galactica had a female president but it doesn't really count because the Galactica crew and their president were not actual humans. They were humanoids traveling to earth for the first time. They weren't Americans.

There's more. Joan Allen played VP nominee in film, The Contender, and she suffered for her women's past at the hands of an anti-feminist Republican; a silly 1998 mobster comedy, Jane Austin's Mafia, had a mob moll who runs for and wins U.S. Presidency. It was fanciful in context and occurred at the end of the movie so we don't know what happens in the aftermath -- but it didn't look too promising! Plus, the film starred Christina Applegate as the moll - to - be - President role, the same Miss Applegate who was still being seen as the brainless sex object on Married With Children...(catch my drift here?).

It seems that in all these Hollywood plots, gender always creates noisome, encumbering problems for women seeking a higher political plane. It hardly seems worth it, for pity's sake. Maybe they should just put a guy in there and get one with it.

Or at least that's the image we get from our popular taste culture delivery systems -- at least with females at the pinnacles of power.

A few rungs lower in Hollywood's fictional power corridors, however, there are far more political opportunities for females: as congresspersons (e.g., The West Wing, Brothers and Sisters) or Supreme Court justices (e.g., Jill Clayburgh in First Monday in October).

On the matter of race, there have been many more African-American presidents depicted in movies and on TV. For example, in the aforementioned Fox hit TV series, 24, in the first few seasons the appealing but somewhat "thick" President Palmer is played by the actor, Dennis Haysbert, and several seasons later by Palmer's brother. Haysbert's role may (I do mean "may") have helped Obama in his run for the candidacy, but with President Palmer's First Lady, a most lethal Lady Macbeth Palmer, strong, Black first ladies are on the radar (Watch out Michelle, comparisons are already being drawn, I assure you!). Incidentally, the co-creator of 24, Joel Surnow, who once described himself to a British newspaper reporter as a right-wing nut job, reportedly is a favorite visitor to the White House.

There were the farcical African-American presidents in Head of State and Idiocracy, a fantastical prexy in The Fifth Element, and a gravely dramatic POTUS (President of the United States), Morgan Freeman, in Deep Impact. In The Man, the president was played by James Earl Jones, also the voice of CNN during the pre-Time-Warner, Ted Turner era of the once-lionized network. He's gone. So has respect. Chris Rock and Richard Pryor were also movie U.S. Presidents, but again, in fairly absurdist, comedic contexts.

So, for the moment, at least as of 2008, at least in terms of our de facto 2-party system, race trumps gender in American politics and in Hollywood's fictional America. But the trump is generally at a safe remove from a culture's possible dark dreams and nightmares. That is, race trumps gender but largely in implausible, unrealistic, non-threatening or absurdist contexts. Winner, winner, where's the winner?

If we look to both our real history and the history of blacks and women in powerful political roles in our most popular forms of popular culture, it's hard out there for Blacks and it's even harder for women. As a nation, we need better. We need more -- more powerful women in high or highest public office and more Blacks in respectable roles as POTUS. We need role models where Black of female political power elites become part of our culture's world as taken for granted.

But it's hard. Problem: Most producers are male and White. Problem: Most screen and TV writers are male and White. Problem: We're talking 70-80 % male and White. Most stories commerce in race and gender stereotypes because to do otherwise, goes the conventional wisdom -- and not without some historical merit -- you need to spend screen time explaining why the Black doctor is an OB/GYN in Beverly Hills and how it is or why the woman is President or Mayor or Senate Majority Leader. And time is money. Worse, non-stereotypes don't travel so well in Europe or Asia, foreign language markets where Hollywood now garners often over 60% of its gross receipts.

Truthfully, reading Hollywood road maps, it doesn't look that good right now for the political ascendance of Blacks or females. But who knows, we may be surprised. Maybe for once reality will be ahead of fiction.

About the Author

Stuart Fischoff, Ph.D.

Stuart Fischoff, Ph.D., was Senior Editor of the Journal of Media Psychology and Emeritus Professor of Media Psychology at Cal State, Los Angeles.

You are reading

The Media Zone

And He Knew All the Words

The World Has Lost a Pioneer in Media Psychology

Stubborn, defiant Attitudes in Tornado Alley

Are the media misleading victims and viewers about battling Mother Nature?

The Battle for Same-Sex Marriage: It's Almost Over

The conversation has come out of the closet and gone national.