Elizabeth Banks, Steven Spielberg, and “The Color Purple”

The issue of female representation in Hollywood films is a popular issue. From the controversy surrounding how people reacted to last summer’s female-led Ghostbusters film, to recent discussions about Wonder Women, the desire for more women in leading roles continues to be a passionately debated topic. Therefore, when Elizabeth Banks made comments at an awards ceremony regarding the roles of women in films by Steven Spielberg, it is no surprise that this opened up large debates throughout social media. What makes this particular argument interesting is how the debates about gender quickly expanded to race, based upon the films that were discussed. There is nothing wrong with having more female-led films, and the apologist arguments supporting the current disproportionate system are flimsy. Likewise, there is nothing wrong with increasing racial diversity in Hollywood films, and arguments against it come purely from racial hatred. Why do these arguments persist then? Why is there such controversy and apprehension when issues of gender and race in Hollywood films is brought up? One thing that this new debate may reveal is that the ongoing issue remains an issue simply because of the futility of fighting over social media, the mixed statements and quick judgments made through online interaction, and the way that none of these arguments achieve a resolution through these kinds of fights.

While accepting an award from the non-profit group Women in Film, Elizabeth Banks stated, “I went to ‘Indiana Jones’ and ‘Jaws’ and every movie Steven Spielberg ever made, and by the way, he’s never made a movie with a female lead. Sorry, Steven. I don’t mean to call your ass out but it’s true.” A person in the audience quickly pointed out that Spielberg directed The Color Purple in 1985 starring Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey.  This sparked controversy on Twitter as people called out Banks for not only forgetting this one film (of the 50+ films he’s directed), but forgetting about the one that just happened to have a black woman as the female lead.

I’m not going to defend Elizabeth Banks’ statement. She was incorrect. If she truly meant to speak out against Spielberg’s use of women in his films, she should have researched his filmography first instead of just going off the handful she could remember. And chances are that people are correct, she forgot about The Color Purple because she is white; she hasn’t been exposed to it. I’ve read and seen The Color Purple, but that is because I was exposed to it in college, during courses about race and the history of literature– being white I most likely wouldn’t have it encountered it otherwise. I can understand why Banks was ignorant about the movie, but ignorance is not an excuse for making such an incorrect statement.

Whoopi Goldberg in The Color Purple

The problem that arises here, with regards to the diversity of gender and race in Hollywood is that Banks’ incorrect statements drew away from the point she wanted to make. She wanted to speak about the lack of female leading roles but, by making an inaccurate statement, she lost all credibility. The fact that Spielberg actually has made films with female lead characters does not mean there is a shocking lack of such films in Hollywood today. However, because she was wrong about Spielberg’s filmography, it’s easy for others to say she is wrong about everything else. The outrage over her statements draws away from the larger issue.

While this does bring light to the fact how frequently people will forget about significant films about marginalized groups, it does nothing to actually solve the issue. Some people today may have been introduced to The Color Purple and, hopefully, the film or its book can help change their point-of-view. That is a small victory, but does it change anything today? Remembering a 30-year-old movie doesn’t change the lack of diversity in Hollywood today. Arguing about a woman that forgot about Spielberg movies doesn’t change the fact that there is a lack of female-led films in Hollywood. It may feel good, for a moment, to call out someone for being incorrect about something, but that doesn’t change why they were incorrect. Shaming people for their ignorance only makes others afraid to discuss the topic. Fighting over twitter may introduce people to new issues, but it doesn’t solve them. Real change in society requires a lot more than hashtags and retweets.

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