Hollywood: A Reality of the White Savior Story

Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan’s Hollywood reimagines the Golden Age of the entertainment industry, grafting onto it a more equitable landscape for marginalized people who in reality never had a hope of flourishing in a 1940s American political and cultural climate.  What is striking about this 2020, optimist’s revisionist history, is the extent to which it falls short in its own imagining of a 1940s promised land for all.  It reinvents, but only to a certain self-imposed degree.  Through its attempt to vindicate marginalized groups of the past, Hollywood inadvertently highlights issues in media that persist today—emphasized femininity, hegemonic masculinity, issues with LGBTQ representation and that of people of color all run rampant in this miniseries. Of most relevance to our critique is the series’ insistence on its progressive rewriting of history, giving agency to underrepresented and marginalized groups of the past. However, a closer look at the delivery of this message and one disappointing fact emerges—Hollywood for all its claims to progressive reinvention is ultimately a tired trope–the white savior story. 

The cast of Hollywood (PrimeTimer)

The casting choice for the female lead in Ace Studios 1948 fictitious picture, Meg,

is one of the central conflicts in Hollywood. From the moment we meet the female contract

actresses at Ace Studios, we are made aware of a rivalry between two of the program’s hopefuls—Claire Wood and Camille Washington. Claire is the picture of a 1940s American hegemonic ideal—she has delicate features, perfectly quaffed blonde hair, dazzling blue eyes and a slender physique and, notably, is white. Camille is beautiful in many comparable ways keeping with the emphasised feminine ideal of the time, but she is also black and even in this alternative historical fiction, to be black in 1940s America is to be marginalized and oppressed.

We understand that because she is black, Camille is all but disqualified from being cast in a leading role.  Yet even her greatest rival, Claire, who has a blatant advantage as a white woman in this cultural climate inexplicably feels threatened by Camille’s potential. Why? It’s as if Murphy and Brennan don’t want to acknowledge any interpersonal manifestations of the racist world they keep insisting this story belongs to. In the pampering montage (pictures pulled above and below) from episode 4, for example, Claire and Camille are waited on together by a team of white groomers and stylists in advance of their screen test. In the reality of a Jim Crow era America, even Los Angeles was highly segregated in the 1940s and Camille would likely not have been serviced by white people (Creason, 2014).   

It feels almost as though those who wrote Hollywood are enacting one of the great flaws of white feminism as presented by Audre Lorde: “ignoring the differences of race between women and the implications of those differences” (Lorde, 1980, p. 3).  By presenting Camille as an egalitarian member of the 1940s studio system, Hollywood’s authors sell short the true black experience in a racist world climate and further undermine the awesomeness of her supposed triumph when she is ultimately cast in the lead role. 

As casting decisions on Meg are entering final stages, Ace Studios hosts a very special visitor–former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.  In the scene above (episode 4) we see three studio executives, all white, gathered around the conference table with the former first lady addressing them at its helm.  The purpose of her visit? In her own words, “to encourage” them to cast “a girl of color as the lead” in their upcoming film, the linchpin of Hollywood’s story of course, Meg. This scene constitutes the most important plot development towards the eventuality of Camille being cast as the lead in Meg, but there is not a single person of color involved in this decision.  For all intents and purposes, even in this fantasy 1940s world, white hegemonic or at least hegemonic-passing people remain the power brokers and decision makers. Black progress is made possible only by the benevolence of empowered whites. Erin Ash pinpoints this “propensity to relieve white guilt by asserting a ‘powerful cultural myth’ that portrays whites-both real and fictional- as saviors, rather than oppressors of other races’” (Ash, 2017).  Why is it that even in Murphy and Brennan’s wildest “dreamland,” empowerment of marginalized groups is still only made possible by morally good white people who demand this empowerment on their behalf? 

We see further evidence of the problematic white savior in the work within this work. Meg is a script based on the true story of a woman (Peg Entwistle) who tragically took her own life by jumping from the iconic Hollywood sign in the 1930s (Adams, 2020). Raymond Ainsley, the film’s director and Archie Coleman, the screenwriter, decide to take creative liberties in adjusting her story to better suit the casting choice of Camille. In the adjusted narrative, Meg, played by Camille, is driven to suicidal thoughts by her plight as a struggling black actress who can’t overcome the casting limitations imposed by Hollywood’s racial inequity. Her (white) boyfriend Sam, played by Jack Castello, rushes to her rescue and catches up with her in the nick of time. Sam, a posterboy for hegemonic masculinity with his good looks, white skin, and anti-authoritarian mindset, convices his vulnerable black girlfriend that she does indeed have reasons to live and his love for her is one of them. The photo above shows Meg wrapped in Sam’s arms as they emotionally embrace each other after he has talked her down from the precipice. She looks adoringly up at him as the weight of what she almost did streams down her face in the form of tears. This scene is troubling not only because it overwrites the real life tragedy of a woman who took her own life, but also because the force that assuages this black woman’s thought to take her own life is not self-contained, but rather imposed on her by a white man.  As Cammarota points out, Hollywood narratives often miss or ignore how people and communities of color do successfully resist and overcome marginalization through their self-initiated agency (2011). While one could take this simply as a clunky attempt at intertwining romantic love with a social justice cause, Meg’s lack of personal influence over her own fate here is an inadvertent sign of her continued oppression.

When Ace executive Ellen Kinkaid meets Archie and realizes she’s developing a project with a black writer, she instantaneously without hesitation plants a kiss squarely on his lips. This unusual and sudden display of affection takes everyone in the scene by surprise.  Though Hollywood’s authors clearly mean for this scene to signify a progressive show of solidarity, it doesn’t quite stick the landing of its own aim.  To begin with, we can’t ignore the social norms that make a moment like this cock our eyebrows–it is simply not normal to kiss a complete stranger on the lips, particularly in a professional setting.  As Akintola points out, this kind of overly familiar and infantilizing behavior from “well-meaning white progressives,” relegates black people to a station more “like the family pet than the family friend” (2018).  There is no other meaningful takeaway from this scene, aside from the fact that Kinkaid, a “good” person in a position of power at the studio publicly approves of Archie the marginalized screenwriter.  As Cammarota points out, real change “requires challenging the very institutions and practices that proffer white privilege and power” (2011). Having the “change” come in the form of a fleeting symbolic loving gesture from Kinkaid, someone who epitomizes the institutional power of Hollywood’s Golden Age, rings slightly hollow and self-congratulatory from the creative minds of people who epitomize Hollywood’s institutional power in the 21st century. 

As we analyze Hollywood, it is depicted that it’s a fantasy of endless possibilities. There are many instances where fictionalized characters and non-fictional characters have gravitated toward this idea of a Dreamland; creating a sub genre that is commonly known as slash fiction. Slash fiction is the written work that takes original media and elaborates on it, creating and reimagining a new story; something Ryan Murphy seemed to perceptualize in this limited series. 

Rock Hudson was a famous actor known for numerous projects such as Pillow Talk and Giant, who was a very secretive man in regards to his sexuality. He was known for always walking down the red carpet with women such as Claudia Cardinale and Piper Laurie, despite this performative heterosexual front, Hudson privately lived a gay life in the shadows away from flashing paparazzi cameras. For the time, being afraid of a public outing was the norm, so lying and hiding became a problematic distinction. 

In Hollywood, a fictional character by the name of Archie Coleman, an openly gay black man, finds himself as a struggling writer trying to make it in LA.  Coleman and Hudson are introduced in the first episode where Coleman begins his new job working as an escort in ties with a car company. This picture above depicts the idea of slash fiction, creating a fictional character in relation with a non-fictional character and sets the tone for the dialect to flow. The two begin to have talks about futures and aspiring dreams, before they consummate their relationship. As the show continues, and throughout the storyline, their relationship develops into something bigger, beyond the realm of possibility in America at the time. 

Ryan Murphy created a fictional character in relation with a non-fictional character to create a sense of hope and desire in the time of the 1940s but it fell short to the idea that it was an actual option during its day and age. It’s something that could’ve, should’ve, and would’ve been possible had it not been the societal norms holding back from the romance of homosexual relationships. Slash fiction plays an important role in this miniseries by fostering the idea that these interpersonal problems existed at the time; it was almost as if Ryan Murphy was the fan that people usually read about, by creating his own story of what happened in Hollywood at the time. However, using intersectionality as a main focus with slash fiction we see the problem of the white-saviority arise and the use of white liberalism to depict something that couldn’t have happened. Rock was a white man who hid his love life away, and used hegemonic masculinity to run away from his problems in real life. In the show it is obvious that he is a gay man, and they credit him as an openly gay man who didn’t live life in fear towards the end of the film after he held hands with Archie on the red carpet. “Although not denying the existence of such inequalities, such a perspective fails to address the meshing together of these or any other inequalities within everyday life and wider social and political structures” (Cronin and King pg. 879). Under these circumstances, Rock is the (white) hero, enabling even more intersectionality marginalized to live his truth, with the help of his supportive white boyfriend. We know that the existence to this story isn’t real, and it’s masked behind this white “hetero” man stereotype, as he saves the day from solving all of life’s problems. Intersectionality is the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage. What this show failed to do is, instead of using the white man to solve the problem, they could’ve intertwined the story to captivate the hardship perspectives behind these men; we shouldn’t forget that this story is fictional to begin with. It is important to pay attention to the intersection of sexuality with other social factors and identities.  

Hollywood’s ambitious aim to cultivate an egalitarian “dreamland” of the Golden Age days gone by is ultimately hindered by the white perspective of the people who authored it. Ultimately, this is a story vindicating the white power brokers of the past, moreso than it is a legitimate reimagination of agency for the marginalized people they helped along the way.

Works Cited

Adams, S. (2020, May 5). Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood Is an Insult to the Real-Life Trailblazers It Overwrites. Slate Magazine. https://slate.com/culture/2020/05/hollywood-netflix-ryan-murphy-series-rewrites-history.html?utm_source=headtopics&utm_medium=news&utm_campaign=2020-05-06.

Ash, E. (2017). Emotional responses to savior films: Concealing privilege or appealing to our better selves? Projections, 11(2), 22-48.

doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/10:3167/proj.2017.110203

Akintola, T., & Magazine, P. by Q. (2018, August 23). The Infantilization of Black America. Quillette. https://quillette.com/2018/08/05/the-infantilization-of-black-america/

Creason, G., By, Creason, G., & -. (2014, August 21). CityDig: Prejudice and Racism in 1940s Los Angeles Los Angeles Magazine. Los Angeles Magazine. https://www.lamag.com/citythinkblog/citydig-prejudice-and-racism-in-1940s-los-angeles/

Cronin, A., & King, A. (2010). Power, Inequality and Identification: Exploring Diversity and Intersectionality amongst Older LGB Adults. Sociology, 44(5), 876-892. Retrieved July 2, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/42857479

Julio Cammarota (2011) Blindsided by the Avatar: White Saviors and Allies Out of Hollywood and in Education, Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies, 33:3, 242-259, DOI: 10.1080/10714413.2011.585287Lorde, A. (1980, April). Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s