Movie Stars: Gender and Acting as Avenue for Upward Mobility

The screen elite has been more democratic in its composition and recruitment that other institutional elites, such as business, politics, or science. 

Movie stardom, and screen acting in general, have functioned as legitimate channels of upward mobility for individuals of lower socio-economic strata and from ethnic minorities. 

Movie stars are members of a genuinely democratic elite because they are ultimately chosen by the large public, not by peers or professional sponsors (as in science).  Movie stars are “the people’s choice,” because by attending the movies of particular players, and not others, the lay moviegoers determine the composition of the screen elite at any historical time.

Sharply Stratified Profession

Screen acting has been one of the most sharply stratified professions, marked by a tremendous gap between the rewards of movie stars and those of the rank and file members.  As was mentioned, the conflict between its democratic-populist ideology and its elitist practices, inherent in acting, is at the center of this book and will be analyzed and illustrated.  The social base of this elite is rather open and democratic, but at any given time, only few can achieve elite positions.  There is therefore a discrepancy between acting’s egalitarian orientation, anybody can become a movie star, and its highly stratified structure, only few players actually become stars.


The screen elite as a whole is characterized by some collective attributes, but there are significant differences between its male and female members.  American film stardom has been male dominated: there have always been more male than female stars.  And men have been drawn from wider ethnic, socio-economic, and occupational backgrounds than women.  By contrast, direct occupational inheritance, that is children stepping into their parents’ occupations, has not only been more prevalent among women, but women have also enjoyed greater support from their families for pursuing acting careers. 


And while the recruitment of both men and women has been informal, the recruitment networks start to operate much earlier in the women’s careers, which is the reason why women begin their careers earlier and are less formally educated and trained than men.  But the duration of stardom and screen careers has been much shorter for women than for men.  Moreover, the differential avenues of recruitment of men and women bear cultural significance which goes beyond the study of elites. 


The fact that modeling has been a major route for female stars indicates the importance of physical attractivenss in the women’s careers.   By contrast, stage comedy and sports have been two distinct avenues for men, particularly for black players (Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy).  The most recent additions to the roster of stars have included Chuck Norris, a karate champion, and Arnold Schwartzenegger, a bodybuilding champion. 

The implications of physical beauty for women, and excellence in sports for men will be analyzed in reference to American culture as a whole.