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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

An academic study has found that since 2012, when the Chinese government began allowing more foreign films into the country, Hollywood movies have cast more light-skinned actors in starring roles.

Key takeaway: The researchers concluded U.S. film studios were casting to fulfill the aesthetic preferences of Chinese movie-goers, in a culture that places a premium on light skin — a phenomenon known as colorism.

Why it matters: It's not just Chinese government censors that are influencing Hollywood. Chinese cultural preferences are too.

Details: The study, published in October 2017, examined more than 3,000 films from between 2009 and 2015 and found that films made after 2012 demonstrated an 8% increase in the number of "very light-skinned" actors in starring roles.

  • The 8% shift meant that "for 1 of every 3 films in this category, the film went from having 2 out of 3 as very light-skinned actors, to having 3 out of 3 very light-skinned actors."
  • The study's co-authors called this phenomenon a "light-skin shift."

The light-skin shift only occurred in film genres that the Chinese government typically permits into the Chinese market, such as action movies and big summer blockbusters. U.S. studios increasingly create these films from start to finish with the Chinese market in mind.

  • Film categories that aren't typically created with the Chinese market in mind, such as horror and comedy, did not show this "light-skin shift."
  • It also didn't occur among voice actors for animated films, which are popular in China and thus are otherwise often shaped by the Chinese market.

It was a Star Wars movie poster that originally inspired him to study the effects of China's colorism on Hollywood, study co-author Manuel Hermosilla told Axios.

  • In 2015, the Chinese promotional poster for "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" minimized a main character, played by a black actor, leading to accusations of racism.
Image credit: Twitter account of Ray Kwong.

While it's tempting to place the light-skin shift within the context of racism in Hollywood, Hermosilla warned against that.

  • "Colorism does not equate to racism," he and his co-authors wrote. "There may be significant variation in skin tones within races, and colorism may manifest within individuals of the same race."

The bottom line: Cultural influence doesn't just flow in one direction.

Go deeper

Oct 20, 2020 - World

Right-wing media falsely ties Black Lives Matter movement to Beijing

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Right-wing outlets and commentators have recently spread a false claim linking the Chinese Communist Party to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Why it matters: Such claims raise concerns that a real issue — that of Chinese government interference in U.S. politics — could be wrongly invoked along partisan lines to attack Americans engaging in legitimate activities.

Dems race to address, preempt stimulus fraud claims

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Biden officials are working to root out the systematic fraud in unemployment and Paycheck Protection Program claims that plagued the Trump administration’s efforts to boost the economy with coronavirus relief money, Gene Sperling told House committee chairmen privately this week.

Why it matters: President Biden just signed another $1.9 trillion of aid into law, with Sperling tapped to oversee its implementation. And the administration is asking Congress to approve another $2.2 trillion for the first phase of an infrastructure package.

1 hour ago - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Biden close to picking Nick Burns as China ambassador

Nicholas Burns. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Nicholas Burns, a career diplomat, is in the final stages of vetting to serve as President Biden’s ambassador to China, people familiar with the matter tell Axios.

Why it matters: Across the administration, there's a consensus the U.S. relationship with China will be the most critical — and consequential — of Biden's presidency. From trade to Taiwan, the stakes are high. Burns could be among the first batch of diplomatic nominees announced in the coming weeks.

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