Who’s a star?

In the Hollywood star system, actors and actresses were products, and films were the vehicle for them to sell themselves. This has important and complicated ethical implications for labor, and we must question the dangers of reducing a person to a product.

Stars became a product onto which our deepest cultural fears and desires were inscribed. Margarita Carmen Cansino became Rita Hayworth, and her films such as Gilda spoke to American anxieties about South America and cultural outsiders. Anglocizing her name and whitening her features allowed audiences to feel safe desiring her–she was no longer perceived as the “other.”

This was critical because American films had to sell “America”– a concept rooted in individualism and hegemonic whiteness. In “Hollywood: The Dream Factory,” Hortense Powdermaker notes, “The State Department has added critical notes: (1) No picture should show in an unflattering light the members or institutions of a foreign country with which we have cordial relations. (2) Pictures designed for export abroad should “sell” the American way of life.” (36)

Rita Hayworth in Gilda.

          Rita Hayworth in Gilda.

In this sense, stars also became foreign ambassadors, easily recognizable symbols of American values. Rita Hayworth literally embodies American racial anxieties–it is only safe to be attracted to women who can pass when held against white beauty standards.

The white women who became stars in the Hollywood system embodied a safe expression of femininity, and their characters were generally not very developed. Off screen, they played similar roles. Powdermaker recalls an instance in which a woman notes that her studio is unhappy with her choice of a husband, and thus chooses to keep her marriage private because the studio “owns” her.

The costs of being a product are immense. As a child star, Judy Garland was fed uppers and downers so she would constantly be able to work whenever need be. The studio literally transformed her body into a machine they could turn on and off at their will. This left her dependent on drugs, which ultimately led to her death.


Judy Garland as Dorothy.

The legacy of the star system is readily apparent in today’s films–just note who you do not see. In many ways, the formula that the star system employed still exists. Movies are still overwhelmingly white, male driven, and have a not very developed woman character as a love interest.

The legacy is also visible in either the absence or exploitation of people of color in films. Most films are blaringly white. Those with people of color in the cast often utilize old stereotypes, such as the mammy, or the overly-sexually aggressive black man. The Help is remarkable in its similarities to Imitation of Life: self-effacing black women who are totally fulfilled by serving a patronizing white woman.

Imitation of Life, 1934.

                 Imitation of Life, 1934.

The Help, 2011.

The Help, 2011.

Documentaries and independent films present spaces in which these norms can be subverted. However, Powdermaker also notes the influence society has over films that are made. She writes, “More indirect is the control excercised by heterogenous organized groups such as churches, temperance leagues, parent-teachers’ associations, professional and occupational groups, national and racial groups and political parties.” (36) While many of the groups she mentions are conservative, progressive groups have also had success in holding cultural producers responsible for misrepresentations of marginalized people. Films may be selling us a product, but we don’t always need to buy it.

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