Oscar winner Joaquin Phoenix recently said that American and British film industries give white actors “preferential treatment.”
“Phoenix is correct,” agrees Bethany Lacina, an associate professor of political science at the University of Rochester, in an analysis for the Washington Post’s “Monkey Cage” site. “Major film studios encourage their audience to develop an affinity for white actors and then cast more white actors because of audience affinity.”
To understand that cycle, Lacina looked at how Americans consume celebrity news. Internet searches, she says, reveal how people become invested in particular celebrities and why white actors “have an easier road to fame.”
For each Oscar nominee, Lacina examined the Internet traffic for their name in combination with 30 neutral-to-positive words about personal relationships (e.g., “married” but not “divorced”). She then used that information to estimate what share of the total Internet searches about an actor were also searches for sympathetic information about his or her personal life.
The political scientist bases her data-driven analysis on what psychologists have called “para-social relationships”-a sense of closeness with someone you do not know personally but see in various media. That closeness is driven by the amount of time spent “with” that celebrity and on the viewer’s perception that they and the celebrity have things in common. According to research, people try to avoid relationships with celebrities whose tastes or values are at odds with their own.
“In whiter media markets, there is also less curiosity about the personal lives of nonwhite actors,” Lacina found. “In whiter media markets, people seek out personal information about actors of color less, reducing the likelihood that they’ll make emotional investments in them.”
Lacina is a scholar of international relations, comparative politics, conflict, and Indian politics, with a specialty in civil and ethnic conflict. Her Monkey Cage piece relies on data-driven analysis of Internet searches.