couple of decades ago, I began noticing that the leading
lady in a movie was almost always
fairer-skinned than her leading man.
It appears filmmakers and their
audiences subconsciously associate lightness of
complexion with femininity. Yet, nobody ever seems to
talk about it.
Medieval Europeans referred to
"the fair sex," but in contemporary discourse,
skin color is associated only with race, not with sex.
We don`t behave like that, however.
You may have wondered, for example, why
Nicole Kidman seems to have a film coming out every
few months. She starred with Sean Penn in
The Interpreter in April, will be in
Bewitched with Will Ferrell on June 24th, and is
slated to be in five more movies scheduled to come out
over the next year and a half. Yet, the only film she
was ever in that earned $100 million at the domestic box
Batman Forever a decade ago.
Kidman is a perfectly adequate
actress. But one reason she works so much is because of
light complexion. A producer can hire her knowing
that no matter which actor he signs to play opposite
her, she will be
fairer than him.
In 21st Century Hollywood,
surprisingly enough, skin tone seems to matter more than
height in pairing romantic leads. Kidman is 5`10.5,"
which you might think would cause casting problems, but
that doesn`t keep her from working nonstop. She is
considerably taller than many popular actors, including
Tom Cruise, with whom she made three movies.
Audiences famously want their
leading men to look "tall,
dark, and handsome" (a phrase first applied to
that epitome of male glamour,
Cary Grant) when they embrace their leading ladies.
But, apparently, "dark" is even more important
My impression is that female fans
are more insistent than male fans that their favorite
actresses be fair. Conversely, male fans don`t much like
pale actors, as
Jude Law`s problems shedding the dreaded "pretty
While black actors like
Will Smith can reach superstar status, it`s much
harder for black actresses, especially ones darker than
half-white Halle Berry, to win massive popularity.
For example, in his hit romantic comedy
Hitch, Smith was teamed with a fairly obscure
Latina actress rather than a black one.
When the Internet came along in the
1990s, I discovered that an anthropologist at Université
Laval in Quebec named Peter Frost had been researching
for years this question of why actresses were so fair,
and much else besides.
His findings are quite
He`s finally published a lucidly
written and wide-ranging book entitled
Fair Women, Dark Men: The Forgotten Roots of Color
Prejudice. It proves well worth the wait,
shedding light on a broad array of contemporary social
It turns out that this favoritism
toward lighter skinned women is not an invention of
Hollywood. You`ll note that conventional
"social constructionist" thinking can`t explain
this phenomenon. The standard academic`s logic would
predict that, because whites rule and men rule,
therefore the whitest men would be the most popular.
But pallid blonde actors of the
James Spader ilk typically play
evil preppie-yuppie villains, not heroes.
Conversely, the movie industry is responding to a
fondness for fairer females found in almost all cultures
across almost all eras.
"Although virtually all cultures express a marked
preference for fair female skin, even those with little
or no exposure to European imperialism, and even those
whose members are heavily pigmented, many are
indifferent to male pigmentation or even prefer men to
Frost reports that out of 51
different cultures in the anthropology profession`s
Human Relations Area Files, 44 cultures favored
lighter complexions on either only women (30) or on both
sexes (14). In only 3 cultures was fair skin preferred
on men only, and in just 4 cultures was darker skin
Lighter ladies were favored in many
countries with little exposure to Western beauty
standards, such as medieval Japan, Ethiopia, Aztec
Mexico, and Moorish Spain, where the dominant culture
was darker skinned than the conquered natives.
Frost discovered that the reason
women were called "the fair sex" is because women
are indeed fairer on average after puberty. He notes
that 50 out of 54 anthropometric studies from around the
world have shown that women`s untanned skin, such as
under the upper arm, reflects more light than men`s.
Women have more subcutaneous fat, which gives them a
The gender difference in color is
not large, but before Europeans came into frequent
contact with sub-Saharan Africans and others of highly
different hues, it was noticeable. Frost writes:
one`s social horizon takes in a limited range of
observable skin tones, small gradations of color take on
more importance…. A `white` person was simply a
fair-complexioned individual; a `black` person, a
dark-complexioned one. This old way of seeing things
persists today in surnames that once referred to the
normal range of skin color in Europe, [in]
surnames like White, Brown, and Black among the
Don`t believe me that we all carry
unconscious assumptions about women having paler skin?
Here`s a test provided found in Frost`s book, provided
Richard Russell of the
Sinha Laboratory for Vision Research at MIT.
Which one of these faces is a woman
and which is a man?
I bet you assumed the one on the
left is a woman and the one on the right a man.
In truth, a computer generated
these images by averaging male and female faces. The
only difference between them is in complexion. (The lips
look more attractively feminine on the left face because
of the greater contrast with the skin tone.)
Not surprisingly, men and women
often behave in ways that exaggerate the sex difference
in color. For example, although
sun-tanning was fashionable among Hollywood starlets
in the 1960s and 1970s, the current generation seldom
Could it all just be social class
prejudice? Traditionally, wealthier women who didn`t
have to work outdoors could avoid tanning more than poor
women who had to slop the hogs. That plays a definite
role in maintaining the bias, but the cultural fondness
for fairer women is even found among hunter-gatherer
tribes where all women have to be outdoors every day
As I pointed out in my recent
review of Thomas Sowell`s new book
Black Rednecks and White Liberals, women do most
of the work in the tropical agricultural cultures of
New Guinea. Accordingly, the predilection for fairer
women was traditionally least apparent there. Men
looking for wives might well see darker women as
physically stronger and thus better providers. Frost
is some ambivalence in societies where women do most of
the agricultural labor. In such a context, wives tend to
be chosen for their ability to work outdoors, especially
in the sun, and less weight is given to other criteria,
like physical beauty. This is true in most agricultural
societies of sub-Saharan Africa and in New Guinea."
Frost also points out a corollary
of this sexual selection for lightness:
higher-ranking men marry the more attractive women, the
upper classes tend to lighten in color with each passing
generation, as in
This seems particularly true in
Latin America, where the
quite white-looking despite almost
500 years of intermarriage. The trick is that the
most successful short, dark men often wed tall, blonde
women and have more European-looking offspring, thus
replenishing the caste system.
[Steve Sailer [email
him] is founder of the Human Biodiversity Institute and