Filling the role: Predicaments of whiteness in the Hollywood motion picture industry

Date of Completion

January 2006


Anthropology, Cultural|Women's Studies|Sociology, Ethnic and Racial Studies|Cinema




This dissertation examines the construction of whiteness in the Hollywood motion picture industry. The study involves analysis of extensive survey and interview data collected on working actresses of the Screen Actors Guild (motion picture union), prominent casting directors of both film and prime time television, as well as various union (SAG) officials during my fieldwork that began in 1999. Over much of this period, Hollywood was embroiled in a historic power struggle involving a myriad of controversies and national scandals, not to mention the most costly protracted actor strike in history, providing for both a rich and exciting ethnographic experience.^ In this study I have placed emphasis on the female body in motion pictures because of both its historical and contemporary connection to the formation of white identities. In film, an actress' body is a crucial resource because it operates as a form of capital---or what Pierre Bourdieu (1984, 1986) calls "cultural capital." The more capital a person possesses, the greater freedom they have to move through a multiplicity of social fields and pursue their own interests. Thus, we can conceive certain bodies (e.g., whiteness, beauty) as a type of currency that helps facilitate one's passage through life's various situations. Although historically the white body has long represented the standard in Hollywood, this dissertation highlights the fact that there are different kinds of white bodies---each carrying different cultural meaning and value, and that the standard itself has undergone significant change over time.^ With a focus on Hollywood's casting process, new and unexpected predicaments of whiteness and their implications are revealed, ultimately offering powerful evidence of an appreciable shift in white positioning within Hollywood's social geography. It is within this context that this research serves to map whiteness as practice, better illuminating the processes involved in its construction and normalization, as well as showing the fluidity of its boundaries and differing values.^