New Study: How Hollywood Stereotypes the Rich

Gordon Gekko’s most famous lines in Wall Street are, “The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that greed, for a lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works.” Gekko embodies the stereotype of a greedy, rich stockbroker. He is an expert in his field, has no scruples about driving other people to ruin, and uses illegal methods to amass ever-greater wealth. Based on the framing of his character, rich people can never have enough.

Because most people do not personally know any superrich individuals, their perceptions of this group are influenced primarily by media representations of the wealthy. A study investigating stereotypes of the rich analyzed 560 Hollywood movies and subjected 43 of these to a systematic content analysis. The plot of each film was summarised and a codebook was used to analyze the portrayal of rich characters in each movie. The codebook was the basis for an in-depth analysis and was used to record the qualities and traits with which these characters were depicted: likable, obnoxious, competent, incompetent, warm-hearted, cold-hearted, self-centered, greedy, arrogant, imaginative, reckless, superficial, daring, visionary, moral, immoral, manipulative, and so on.

The codebook was used to record the traits and qualities attributed to rich characters when they first appeared onscreen and at the end of each movie. In addition, the analysis determined whether the rich character had a counterpart, that is, a contrasting character who served as a foil. Such a counterpart was not necessarily a rich character’s direct opponent or antagonist; in some cases, the counterpart was simply a person with whom the broad movie audience could more easily identify.

Such counterparts must have had an indirect or direct relationship to the rich protagonist. The codebook was also used to record the characteristics of these counterpart characters.

Certain frames recur frequently whenever rich people are depicted in movies. Where a frame appears, it does not have to be central to the plot or theme of the film. At the same time, it is also not an insignificant episode within the film; rather, it is an open or underlying frame of interpretation concerning the characterization of rich people. Here are a few examples of the types of frames used to depict rich characters in major movies:

Frame: Rich People Will Stop at Nothing in Pursuit of Their Economic Goals

  • Once Upon a Time in the West: A railway tycoon hires bandits who murder innocent people, even children, when they stand in the way of his economic goals.
  • The Towering Inferno: Building contractors skimp on fire protection out of greed, which leads to a catastrophic fire in which many people die.
  • Kingsman: The Secret Service: An internet billionaire wants to use technology to manipulate everyone in the world to kill one another—and thus prevent global overpopulation and become their ruler himself.

Frame: The Rich Have Only Profit on Their Minds—They Just Want to Satisfy Their Own Greed

  • Wall Street: A rich stockbroker wants to take over an airline, dismantle it, and sell it in parts. This tactic will drive hundreds of workers’ families to ruin.
  • The Wolf of Wall Street: An investment banker and his company buy penny stocks and then spread false news and rumors in order to increase the shares’ prices and thus make a fortune.

Frame: Rich People Can See the Error of Their Ways and Regain Their Humanity

  • Pretty Woman: A corporate raider who wanted to take over and dismantle a family business, using unfair methods, is transformed into a better person by a prostitute and her human nature.
  • Schindler’s List: A rich man is transformed from a cool, calculating businessman and exploiter who profits from the National Socialist system and war into a compassionate man who saves many lives.

From perception research it is clear that, in most situations, positive or negative perceptions of people are determined primarily by what are known as M traits (moral traits), which suggest whether the intentions of an individual or group are good or bad. The second dimension of perception is competence, which concerns the extent to which the individual or group is able to implement those intentions. Competence traits are also called C traits.

The movie analysis stared by determining the proportions of characters with negative or positive M traits in each of the 43 films. The characters who were depicted as callous, selfish, greedy, or ruthless and who exhibited immoral or unethical behavior were deemed to have negative M traits. Positive M traits were associated with characters presented as warm-hearted or honest and who demonstrated morally and ethically positive behavior. After determining whether the rich characters in the movies had positive or negative M traits, the same classification was made for simple, non-rich characters in the movies, who often served as counterparts to the rich characters.

Finally, the analysis of the aforementioned characters focused on whether they were portrayed as competent or incompetent. This analysis involved establishing whether the characters were ambitious, capable, intelligent, or purposeful or were incompetent, less capable, or less intelligent.

At the start of the analyzed films, 31 out of 43 rich characters were presented in a negative light, although they were also portrayed as being competent. On the one hand, the rich were shown as arrogant, unsympathetic, callous, immoral and selfish while, on the other hand, they were also portrayed as being competent, imaginative, daring and visionary. These representations correspond with the “Stereotype Content Model”, which claims that the rich are predominantly perceived as cold but competent. Only nine rich characters were portrayed in a positive light at the start of the movies.

By the end of the analyzed movies, portrayals of rich people had shifted slightly: Nine of the rich protagonists had seen the error of their ways during the course of the movie. Thus, the number of rich people with positive characters was higher by the time the closing credits rolled than it was as the curtains opened—although it was still significantly lower than the number of rich people portrayed in a negative light, and also significantly lower than the number of non-rich counterparts portrayed positively. At the start of the movies, 24 of the 40 counterparts have positive characters (at the end of the movies, this has risen to 30), and they are also portrayed as being competent. Only six nonrich characters are portrayed in a negative light at the beginning; at the end it’s only one.

This analysis of the “framing of the rich” in Hollywood films reveals that rich characters are predominantly portrayed in a negative light—as profit-hungry individuals who are only interested in money and who are prepared to act without moral scruples and to climb over dead bodies to get what they want. The examination of the personality traits of rich people in films has confirmed that the rich—unlike their non-rich counterparts—are predominantly portrayed as intelligent and competent, but at the same time as morally reprehensible. This corresponds to findings from the field of prejudice research, which have confirmed that our assessments of other social groups (out groups) are based on two dimensions, “warmth” and “competence.”

Rich people are perceived as competent (decisive, single-minded, intelligent) but cold (callous, amoral, ruthless). Thus, the fact that the rich are classed as highly competent (e.g. intelligent) by no means leads to a balanced or more positive assessment. After all, a movie villain is not credited with being a better person simply because he is intelligent. If anything, this makes him even more dangerous.

Dr Rainer Zitelmann

Dr Rainer Zitelmann

Dr. Rainer Zitelmann is a historian and sociologist. He is also a world-renowned author, successful businessman and real estate investor. His most recent book, The Power of Capitalism, was released in 2019.

This article was originally published on FEE.org. Read the original article.

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