How The “White Male Savior” Complex Extends Far Beyond The Hollywood Screen Into Society

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Constance Wu recently wrote a thought-invoking post addressing the issue of the ‘white savior complex’ in movies. Her thoughts were tweeted in response to Matt Damon’s casting in upcoming Chinese/American produced movie, The Great Wall. She called out the myth often perpetuated in movies that “only a white man can save the world”. While Constance received a lot of positive response, there were also a fair few who felt the need to point out that it is ‘only a movie’ and ‘not real’.

However, as with many things in pop culture, it can be argued that the white, male savior myth played out so often on the big screen has had a real world impact on our society, and our places in it. The #OscarsSoWhite trending hashtag pointing out the blatant inequality represented at the film industry’s biggest awards show was also another indicator that audiences are starting to take notice of exactly which ethnicity is represented most onscreen as well as behind the scenes.

A recent study by researchers at Expert Market looked into the gender and ethnicity of two groups of leaders known for their lack of diversity – Hollywood directors and corporate CEOs. They found that of the 117 directors of the top 100 grossing movies 113 (97%) were male and 104 (89%) were white. The only non-white, female director was Korean-born Jennifer Yuh Nelson, most known for her work on ‘Kung Fu Panda 2’.

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The results did not get much better when looking at the 101 CEOs responsible for the top 100 companies in the Fortune 500. A staggering 93% were male and an equally shocking 92% were white – these are the people in charge of the most important companies in our economy. There are currently only 7 women heading up the biggest companies in America, the most successful being Mary Barra of General Motors.

Multiple studies have investigated the lack of diversity in the movie and corporate fields and results show that the issue of representation is very slowly getting better. Female-fronted films such as ‘Ghostbusters’ and ‘Bad Moms’ have been big news this year and let’s not forget the fact that one of the biggest franchise reboots of recent years, ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens‘, was led by Daisy Ridley and John Boyega.

The question is, how deep does this progression go? While we are clearly seeing more female actors and people of color in roles on screen, we are still not seeing them in the director’s chair, calling the shots. For example, one of the most successful female-led franchises of the past decade, ‘The Hunger Games’ was directed exclusively by men – despite the story being written by, and coming from the mindset of, a woman. Similarly, after the surprise success of the relatively small, female-directed film ‘Twilight’, which focused again on a young woman, the 4 sequels were given a huge budget upgrade – and 4 male directors.

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The same could be said in the business world where it is becoming more common to see those other than white males promoted to manager levels but still rare to see them break through the glass ceiling to achieve top C-suite positions, especially that of CEO.

The Center for American Progress reported that in 2015 women held 42 percent of all S&P 500 labor force jobs, yet only 19% of board seats and 4.6% of CEO positions.

This brings us back to the white male savior complex and how we are subliminally taught from Hollywood movies that women and people of color can play a role – but they can’t be in charge or save the day. That honor is saved almost exclusively for the white male.

We take our inspiration from the big screen at a young age. Allowing women and people of color – especially women of color – to see themselves being their own heroes and saving the day, without the leadership of a white male (even one off screen as in Charlie’s Angels), could give them the confidence needed to break through glass ceilings in their professional lives.

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Of the 101 CEOs we observed, only 9 were not white, which accounts for less than 10%. When we compared this to the movie industry, we found that the results were not much better as there are currently only 13 non-white directors of the top 100 grossing films. These 100 movies have no black directors at all, just as no black directors have ever won best director at the Oscars and only 3 have ever been nominated.

The look on the young girl’s face in the image above from the ‘Ghostbusters’ premiere with actress Kristen Wiig really does say it all. Seeing such bad-ass women, and heroes such as Marvel’s Black Panther, saving the world on-screen could have a positive real-world effect on the next generation. They will see people who look just like them taking charge, achieving the same feats and earning the same accolades as white male characters and know that they can do the same in their own lives.

You can see the Expert Watch infographic below:

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