Conflicts and Bias in Film
Comments by Mark R. Leeper
Copyright 1999, 2002 Mark R. Leeper

While I consider myself a liberal I have been bothered by my impression over the last decade that popular films have been overly pushing the liberal political agenda. Films have taken the easy road of bowing to political pressure and take a stance that is, quite frankly, anti-white-male. What struck me as interesting was the film PLEASANTVILLE. In this film the white male power structure is the target for their standing in the way of society's sexual awakening. We have a town of people who are discovering their true natures, including their sexuality. In the metaphor of the film they are going from monochrome to color. But standing in the way is the white male power structure who, from the safety of a bowling alley, are controlling the town and using their power structure to retard the town's sexual self-discovery.  Now what struck me as odd is that in so many other films the complaint is that the white males are too lascivious. It is just the opposite. They are the ones on the voyage of sexual self-discovery and everyone else stands against them. And in both sets of conflict, it is the white males who are portrayed in the wrong. White males are damned if they do and damned if they don't.

This article actually comes out of an observation I made when I saw the trailer for the then upcoming film CRIMSON TIDE. It was clear from the description that it would be about a conflict between two navy men aboard an atomic submarine. One was to be played by Denzel Washington and one by Gene Hackman. I turned to Evelyn and said I bet I knew which one was the villain. How did I know? When was the last time you saw Denzel Washington play a negative role? The closest he has come was in MALCOLM X in which he was a petty criminal who reformed.

We have come to assume that when there is a conflict crossing gender lines, the male will be portrayed as being in the wrong. When conflicts cross race lines, it will be the right who is in the wrong. [Postscript: Two more lines of such bias are that usually the unattractive are wrong in conflicts with the attractive and the older are wrong in conflicts with the younger.] At least that is my gut feeling.

The first question we might ask is whether this is really important. Who does it hurt if white males are being used more as villains. Does it really hurt white males if in the imaginary world of cinema they are made to be villains? I think the answer is yes. Life tends to follow art. As has been proven many times this century cinema is a very effective propaganda medium. The propaganda films of both sides in World War II are still studied today for their persuasive power. It also hurts female and minority actors. Frequently the most interesting roles in films are villains. To restrict minorities from playing major villains is not good for the actors.

However, we frequently hear the complaint that women and minorities are not portrayed favorably in films. We should look at popular films and see how women and minorities are portrayed. Let us get some hard data and compare. Let's take the 15 top grossing films and list the conflicts that cross gender or race barriers. There may be other conflicts in the film, but we will ignore them. White male against white male we will ignore. Asian female against Asian female we will ignore. I will express them as an ordered pair, (bad guy(s); good guy(s)). For example TITANIC has Billy Zane and David Warner as the bad guys and Kate Winslet as a good guy. We ignore conflicts that do not cross race or gender barriers. Remember we are counting only the conflicts between people of different genders or races.) Let us see how many cases we have a white person correct against someone of another race. How often is a man correct in the right in a conflict with a woman? (My memory could be faulty on some plot points.)

1. TITANIC: (2 men bad; 1 woman good)

2. STAR WARS: (2 men bad; 1 woman good) (the bad men are mostly Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin, they conflict with Princess Leia.)

3. ET: (multiple men bad, one girl good.)

4. JURASSIC PARK: (1 man bad; 1 young woman good)  questionable


6. LION KING: none

7. RETURN OF THE JEDI: (multiple men bad; 1 woman good)


9. THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK: (multiple white men bad; 1 woman good, 1 black man mostly good)

10. HOME ALONE: none

11. JAWS: none

12. BATMAN: none

13. MEN IN BLACK: none

14. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK: (multiple men bad; one woman good)

15. TWISTER: (multiple men bad; one woman good)

I am not sure that 15 films, even the highest grossing films, are statistically significant, but it does argue for what I am saying that in most popular films when a male and female are in conflict, the female has been scripted to be right. We have one case here where there is almost an exception. In FORREST GUMP there is a woman who is self-destructive and a man who tries to save her. However her victim is only herself, unlike the other cases above. Also in TITANIC there is a possible counter-example to the principle in that the mother objects to Jack. This data is insufficient but the majority of films where there are conflicts between races; the Caucasian is scripted to be wrong. Among what I think of as art house films that I saw at Toronto the same holds pretty much true though there were more counter-examples, for example DANCING AT LUGHNASA, where there is conflict the script generally has you siding with the men.

But it is better if people just look for themselves at films they have seen, think about whom the script favors and whom it doesn't. The conclusion I have drawn for myself is that this "Leeper Principle" applies a good 90% of the time. The reader's mileage may vary.

     Mark R. Leeper
     Copyright 1999, 2002 Mark R. Leeper
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