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.
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.