I want to spend as little time on this topic as possible. I came across the subject of whether or not People’s “Sexiest Man Alive” award to Channing Tatum means that the contest is racist. Joanna Schroeder asks the question in the headline, and a good rule of thumb for question-headlines is that the answer is always “No”. Just another example of the “r-word” being used irresponsibly.
Slate got this latest round of racial outrage started:
And what is going on in 2012? Our Sexiest Man is white. Straight. Ginormous. Frequently goateed. Wearing a white tank top in his cover photo. Yes, he can dance. But as a nation, we must ask: What is left of Channing Tatum’s sex appeal after the final strains of Ginuwine’s “Pony” recede? Buzzfeed has described Tatum as “a thumb” and “a gyrating human potato.” His sexy is bland. Traditional. Republican in a Democratic year.
At GMP, Schroeder writes:
People explains that their Sexiest Man layout does include men of color, but what we all know is that it’s the cover that really matters. That’s the headline. That’s the guy whose value is upped by the title of “Sexiest Man Alive”. The rest of the guys seem to be present for tokenism and not much more. Did they ever stand a chance at the title? Probably not, just as a man of color probably doesn’t stand a chance at being cast as The Bachelor.
Producers and publishers can blame Hollywood, and Hollywood can blame the American public—after all, they only produce what people will buy, right? And according to them, Black men don’t sell.
But hold on a minute. What was the top-grossing romantic comedy of 2012? One of the top-grossing movies of the year? Hmm… Lemme think… Oh yeah, Think Like a Man! The film shocked traditional movie experts by staying in the top slot for weeks on end, starring a cast that was almost entirely comprised of Black actors and actresses.
First off, “Magic Mike” grossed $20 million more than “Think Like a Man”. There was also more general awareness about MM and about the lead actor, Tatum, than the other movie. If you asked a random sample of people who didn’t see either movie, many more would know that Tatum was in Magic Mike. Few would be able to name any actors from “Think Like a Man”. The appeal of that movie was limited mostly to black audiences who have maybe one movie every several years with an all-star black cast. It’s something of an event, and one that is a relief from the yearly Tyler Perry flick. Second, Tatum has been on the short list for a while for this award. Him and Ryan Gosling. It’s sort of like the Heisman trophy or an MVP award which is given to the guy who performs consistently well over the course of several years. Third, I girlfriend-sourced this question. Her simple but correct point was that there are no big-time black male actors whose superstardom rises up to this award. Idris Elba is little known. Taye Diggs is popular, but he doesn’t have widespread appeal. No other black actors have put in enough time or have had enough success to be considered for the award. This has nothing to do with the award itself and more to do with the overall popularity of black actors.
All of this reminds me of my critique of Nate Silver’s critics during the election polling discussions. First, why would you put so much stock in these conclusions? People is nothing but a magazine the content of which depends upon the opinions, tastes, and preferences of its readers. It is objectively worthless. Second, if you don’t like the process or think that it is flawed, come up with your own.
People Magazine selects
for this award through feedback from its readers, and a some type of selection committee also gauges which actors are trending. Tatum, for whatever it’s worth, is the highest-profile male star of the year, and he was in a movie that was overtly sexual. It doesn’t matter if Slate writers thought the movie was bland – the women who read People screeched and clawed at their seats during the movie.
All of this ignores the most obvious point: people tend to be most attracted to people of their own race
. To call any of the other reasons cited here racist is to call this preference racist. But a degree of it is either biologically determined or strongly culturally ingrained at a very young age (and mostly unavoidable since our parents and in-group tend to be of the same race). The country is majority white still, and that means that Hollywood studios make films with white actors and actresses. Thus, the actors who get top billing are also more likely to be the most likely candidates for stupid awards such as this. It goes the same with the TV show “The Bachelor” which exists on a network on which it’s viewership skews something like 13% black and 70% white.
In comments at GMP, Schroeder asks me why, if this is about demographics, has there only been one non-white winner over the past 25 years? Wouldn’t we expect there to be 13% black winners? That would translate to maybe 3 black Sexiest Men Alive. This is a naive way to think about the demographic issue and the preferences of the readership (which distills up to editors). Each year marks a new contest and each year the vote is reset. If you added up the collective tallies and rankings for each eligible actor, the sheer demographic dominance of whites will outweigh the votes of minorities. Each year the most plausible black male candidate faces a huge demographic deficit that only Denzel Washington has overcome. And when it comes to sexual attraction, identity politics is the rule.