The Subliminal Enforcement of Bias in Hollywood and Life

I’m one of those people who sees the underpinnings of situations. I’ve been told many times that what I’m seeing isn’t there. I’m white so where race is concerned this response isn’t an attack but actual blindness. While it’s possible, and often accurate, to deny the intention behind the act, rather than making it better, dismissing the impact because it wasn’t deliberate is in many ways worse. Those unconscious acts or speeches train all of us, regardless of race, gender, position in society, etc. as to what is acceptable, what is expected, and how to see our world.

The concept of peer pressure in high school is now an accepted thing, but few recognize that peer pressure acts on us all the time, whatever our age. Advertising lives in the halls of peer pressure by telling us to ignore our instincts and define beauty, success, or whatever as it appears in the ads plastered on every wall, speaking to us through the television, and whispering in our ears on the radio. The Josie and the Pussycats movie took this to the extreme to make people see, and yet few saw past the movie to the reality of subliminal messages in everything we see or hear.

No, I don’t mean someone is scrolling invisible messages across our TV screens telling us to do horrible things. I mean the images that are chosen and displayed to us a hundred times a day until they become the embodiment of the concept. Slender models helped turn body image issues into a national (in the US and possibly international) crisis. The pigeon-holing of talented actresses as the sidekick or lead only when it’s not a romantic role because they aren’t tall with “classic” features is another way we are programmed to see beauty only in a specific body type.

There are numerous examples that we encounter every day, and yet most of the population doesn’t recognize what’s going on and will silence those who point it out. Just look at the response to a female Doctor Who or the different reactions to Wonder Woman for a recent example of how we’ve been trained to identify certain characteristics as “right” so changing those characteristics feels like an assault. People react defensively without ever understanding what they’re defending. That’s subliminal programming.

Obviously this is nothing new, so what makes me write about it now?

I am a long-term fan of a program called Face Off. It’s a reality contest for the makeup and effects industry where people early in their careers complete various character challenges to win a prize that will give them a hand up in the industry. I enjoy the creativity, learning neat techniques, and seeing the cool transformations. The reason I keep watching this show when I’ve dropped out of pretty much every reality show I’ve tried is because of how the contestants support each other rather than cutting each other down.

I was listening to a writing technique presentation recently that pointed to reality TV as a perfect example of introducing conflict because the editors cut the feed to emphasize people’s nasty behavior. Face Off doesn’t do that. There’s conflict all right, but it’s between the people and their creativity, the limits of the challenges, and trying to meet the unexpressed expectations of the judges at the same time as creating something innovative and amazing. Trust me, that’s enough conflict to keep anyone on the edge of their seats.

It’s the unexpressed expectations, though, where Face Off comes up in this particular conversation. The judges are successful in the special effects field, with occasional guest judges who are actors or have other movie-related careers. These are the people who take a writer’s concept and turn it into a visual expression, the very people who, beyond casting, are in control of how we envision certain archetypes.

The definitions of beauty in Hollywood, through repetition and consistency, teach people what is beautiful. In doing so, Hollywood trains us not to recognize the broad spectrum beauty encompasses but rather to judge people on how close or far from that standard they fall. This is a bias that hits non-white women the hardest because of the prevalence of white leading actresses. This bias, both deliberate and unintentional, directly affects girls and women from an early age. For all practical purposes, it tells us who is valued and who is not. Think about the impact such a simple message, repeated hundreds of times a day, has on the subconscious. There’s a reason affirmations are a thing, and this is a reverse affirmation unless you happen to model after the celebrated forms.

Again, Face Off is a show I enjoy and continue to watch. I might not always agree with the judges, but usually I can see where they’re coming from.

Every once in a while, though, they say something that makes me take a step back and shake my head. When that happens, usually I’m picking up on an unconscious enforcement of biased values, the exact same things people will tell me don’t exist, and I’m sure, based on other comments, the judges would say I’m misunderstanding because they’re clearly not biased. The trouble is people who are watching the show accept the judges as authorities in the field of what goes on the screen in Hollywood. Even more, the judges are the arbitrators of beauty in a culture as obsessed with stars as American culture. When they are oblivious to the subliminal messages they are sending, they are incapable of changing that view, even if they’d be horrified to recognize it.

This has been an issue on and off over the years, but what threw me out of my appreciation and into the pervasive nature of unconscious bias even in otherwise discerning people was in Season 11 Episode 12: Tiki Twist. This challenge has bothered me since I saw it and will not go away. It is a Hawaiian gods challenge where the competitors transformed Hawaiian dancers into representations of various Hawaiian gods.

The statements that trigger me fall along the lines of “she’s not queenly enough” and “she’s not goddess-like.” These are general statements that point to a single standard (one Queen Elizabeth certainly doesn’t match if she ever did) and one that “everyone” should know in their bones.

Specifically, this tends to come up with goddesses and queens because they are held above the people standards and so allowed less variation. It’s not universal as I can remember some clearly East Indian and Asian goddesses from previous years, but perhaps the elements making them non-white were consistent with the European standards.

In this case, these are Hawaiian goddesses and the models were actual Hawaiian dancers. This is crucial because the judges specifically called out the face shape of Emily’s Pele, one of the traditional Polynesian bone-structures, as not elegant enough to portray a goddess.

Emily had issues with her work this week, and the judges similarly had technique problems. That doesn’t bother me even though, through the television, the representation of lava rocks gave me a clear volcano image. I did agree she should have used more red tones though.

All of that became irrelevant when the judges came in for closer looks and later at the judges table.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I don’t expect to agree with other people’s assessments every time, but I do think those who are cultural arbitrators should be held to a higher standard since their opinions will affect so many more people through the movies. However, the specific comments spoke more to cultural definitions than personal preference anyway, especially since these comments have been raised previously for goddess or queen figures.

The comments included things like how the choice of an inverted mohawk (lava channel) made her head flatter and rounder. Specifically, “could have made her taller and more goddess-like.” Or when one of the judges said how the elegance was missing because everything was compressed, or how the elongated and elegant shapes were missing.

These comments have nothing to do with technique, nor do they recognize how the makeup accentuated the actual shapes in the dancer’s face. They impose a generic “goddess” standard without consideration of the culture this goddess is part of, and noticeably, the same head forms in the male god who won the challenge were not called out as squarish or squat. You can see pictures of all the makeups for this challenge here:

This is why bias is so pervasive and insidious. I’m likely to have people respond to this that I’m reading too much into their statements. The judges themselves may find my perception offensive because of what it implies. These are all reactions I’ve had to such things in the past, both dismissal and offense as if I’m leveling an accusation rather than pointing out a cultural danger.

Awareness is not a matter of birth, it’s a matter of an active choice to look not just at the surface but at the impact and the prevalence. If an image appears once, its effect is minimal. If you’d have difficulty picking a leading actress out of a line-up from a distance because they all have a similar look, that’s training. It takes little empathy to imagine how it would feel to see yourself defined as unattractive at every turn, and yet people struggle with this. What I’ve described here is the tip of a very large iceberg, but it’s part of why there are so many voices asking for characters who look like them, asking for role models our children can aspire to become rather than ones they have to always look up to from somewhere lower on the spectrum.

There is no easy answer, but the more people train themselves to be aware of the subliminal messages being taught, the greater chance we will start to see awareness growing, and perhaps a conscious recognition of such bias. In the Face Off example, this could have been shown simply by the editor choosing to focus on different aspects of Emily’s makeup that were problematic rather than repeating numerous times how the rounded, square face was not elegant enough to be a goddess.

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2 Responses to The Subliminal Enforcement of Bias in Hollywood and Life

  1. tangodream says:

    Well stated! I have many times had trouble telling certain actors (male/female) apart from each other over the years. Especially as they were launching their Hollywood careers. Ashley Judd and Charlize Theron for example. There are some who are up and coming now who strongly resemble others who have been around for many years… a Tom Cruise look-alike, a couple of generic blonde female actors. To be honest, it gets tiring watching the same generic look across the spectrum of movies from romance to science fiction. This is a well-thought out piece on how bias impacts our viewing and, especially, those who have to view their own absence from the big and little screens of the world.

    • Margaret McGaffey Fisk says:

      Glad you enjoyed it. While I didn’t want to condemn Face Off on this, so many people say it isn’t happening. This was so blatant, and yet completely escaped the judges, editors, and probably most of the viewers, so it provides a perfect demonstration of “just because you don’t notice, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening”.

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