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Women, film and racial thinking : exploring the representation and reception of interracial romance

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Library
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  • Law
  • Political Science
  • Social Sciences


At the height of the civil rights movement, the symbolic struggle inherent in interracial images was plainly visible in the picket lines and protests attracted by movies like Island in the Sun (1957). More than 50 years later, such demonstrations are long gone, but the Black-White interracial couple is still a figure imbued with personal and political significance. Recognizing this enduring importance and the complicated relationship between race and sexuality in American culture, the purpose of this dissertation was to explicate the beliefs about race that are implicated in Hollywood depictions of Black-White interracial romantic relationships and to understand how young women of different backgrounds make sense of these perspectives. To that end, this research employed a mixed methods approach combining quantitative and qualitative content analysis and focus groups, all aimed at the goal of illuminating the representation and reception of supportive and critical messages about race relations and interracial relationships in popular films produced since 1954. The content analysis affirmed that the representation of interracial couples in American films has often been observably and quantifiably problematic as theorized, a finding that contradicts Hollywood's ostensibly liberal ideological bent. Despite marked social change during the period studied, certain negative tropes of interracial interaction remain prominent across long periods of time--especially the association of interracial relationships with social costs, the tendency to present the interracial romance as one that is less likely to be long lasting and fully realized, and the near ubiquitous association of interracial romance with violence. There was also a surprising emphasis on African American resistance to these relationships in particular in a wide variety of these films. Nonetheless, there were important distinctions in representation in certain periods and evidence of racially egalitarian messaging in a minority of these interracial depictions. Moreover, in the past decade filmmakers have produced more and less problematic portrayals of interracial relationships than in previous ones. At the same time, the focus groups revealed distinct differences in how young women of different racial backgrounds respond to these ideologically charged film depictions of interracial couples. Although our differences are now more subtle or even concealed, these conversations reflect the reality that deep and important social cleavages remain across racial lines even among the youngest Americans, and these differences yield markedly different patterns of attention to and interpretation of interracial film narratives. The audience study also indicated that there are real dangers to stories that exaggerate one group's culpability in a social problem and negate another's, as so often happens in interracial film depictions. The unintended consequence of telling these stories of race and romance is that they may tend to further implicate the attitudes and actions of some in our ongoing racial conflicts (especially African Americans), while ignoring those of others (in this case Whites). Within this research context, the result was that Black audiences had their fears confirmed by viewing a negative, conflict-oriented interracial film depiction, and their hopes of social inclusion encouraged in viewing a more racially liberal or egalitarian one. White participants, however, were from the start less connected to issues related to racial struggle. For them, both stories seemed to exacerbate existing racial concerns and provide justification for already problematic and polarizing preconceptions about why Whites and Blacks in America remain so far apart.

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