Movie Stars: Social Class and Occupational Origins

Part Three of a Series of Four Articles

Occupations and professions also differ in their social class base, that is, the degree to which they are open to members of various socio-economic strata.

The socio-economic origins of elites are particularly important because they demonstrate the extent to which elites in different institutional areas (economy, politics, education) have been selectively recruited.

Methods and Data: How to Study Movie Stars

The screen elite under examination consists of the 129 players who have been the top box-office attractions in the American cinema over half a century, from 1932 to 1984. The names of these stars were taken from “the Motion Picture Herald Poll,” known in the film industry as “the Poll,” because it has been the oldest (beginning in 1932), the most comprehensive, and the most accurate survey. Every year theater owners and film distributors are asked to select the 10 players who have attracted the largest number of moviegoers to the theaters. The poll is based on the box-office receipts that these stars have made for their companies through their pictures, not on their personal incomes. Film stardom is thus empirically measured by the commercial appeal of these players, not by the artistic quality of their films or by the quality of their individual performances.

The identification of movie stars is based on both reputation and statistical methods, two prevalent techniques in the sociological study of elites. Pareto (1935, volume 3, p. 1423) defines elite statistically, composed of those who have “the highest indices in their branch of activity.” The statistical method also relies on the domestic rentals of films released in the United States in a calendar year. The reputation method draws on the competent response of hundreds of film exhibitors and theater owners across the nation. The category of 129 film stars constitutes the entire population, not a sample, of America’s screen elite from 1932 to 1984.

Social Class of American Movie Stars

Social class has played a selective role in the recruitment of movie stars. None of the stars has been drawn from the upper-upper class and only one tenth from the upper-middle classes. Most performers have come from the middle (46 percent) or lower-middle (24 percent) classes. However, the percentage of stars from lower-lower classes has also been considerable: one fifth.

Hollywood’s screen elite differs in its class base from business, political, and scientific elites, all of which have drawn their members from mostly middle and upper-middle classes (Zuckerman 1977, pp. 63-4). Furthermore, unlike other elites, there has been neither upward nor downward shift in the class origins of movie stars. Their origins have not changed much over the years, always including players of lower and lower-middle strata.

As a group, movie stars have come from lower socio-economic strata, but women have come from higher social echelons than men: three fifths of the women, but two fifths of the men, have come from middle class families. And conversely, one fourth of the men, compared with one tenth of the women, have been products of lower-lower classes.

Screen Acting as a “Female” Profession

This selective recruitment is congruent with studies showing that women in various professions have been drawn from higher socio-economic statuses than men. But the differential class recruitment of men and women is also related to the prevalent stereotype of acting as a “feminine” profession, one that is more suitable for women. The choice of the performing arts, particularly acting and dancing, is considered to be “deviant” and “frivolous” by the men’s families and peer groups (Federico 1974; Levy 1984).

Occupational rank is highly correlated with other indicators of the socio-economic status and is considered to be its best single measure (Siegel and Hodge 1969). Film stars have been drawn from all occupational backgrounds, ranging from professional (38 percent) to skilled and unskilled workers (23 percent). But once again, women have come from higher occupational ranks than men: 44 percent of the women, compared with 35 percent of the men, have come from professional families. The greatest difference is in the proportion of stars whose fathers were laborers: 30 percent of the men, but 10 percent of the women. Indeed, the occupational origins of film stars have been much more varied than those of other elites.

In modern industrial societies, occupational statuses tend to be achieved rather than ascribed. However, research has shown that direct occupational inheritance, that is, children stepping into their parents’ occupations, prevails in some occupations in greater proportions than one would expect on the basis of chance alone. Direct occupational inheritance means that children with parents in the same profession are overrepresented compared with the proportion of labor force in these professions. Most studies, however, compared the intergenerational mobility of fathers and sons. This study stands out because it examines the occupational inheritance of male and female stars and both groups are compared with their fathers and mothers.

Direct Occupational Influence

Direct occupational inheritance has been quite prevalent among movie stars: 11 percent of the stars had fathers, 12 percent had mothers, and 6 percent had both fathers and mothers in acting. Furthermore, if professions related to acting are included (directors, producers, writers), the extent of direct occupational inheritance is even greater: 19 percent of the stars had fathers, 20 percent had mothers, and 10 percent had both fathers and mothers in show business and the entertainment industries. Significantly, in every category, the number of female stars is higher.

The genders also differ in terms of the specific parent, father or mother, who played an instrumental role in the occupational process. Almost twice as many women (29 percent) than men (16 percent) had mothers in related professions (film, theater, television). Unlike other professions (medicine, law, clergy), in which it has been the son who usually chooses his father’s occupation, in acting, the mother has been more instrumental in providing an occupational role model.

This is further substantiated by the number of film stars whose mother was not only an actress herself, but often functioned as “stage mother,” aggressively pushing her children into acting at a younger age, by providing the necessary psychological and pragmatic support. Many stars have claimed that if it had not been for their mothers, who often were themselves frustrated or unaccomplished actresses, they would never have become players. But “stage mothers” have been much more prevalent among the women (42 percent) than the men (17 percent).

Take Bette Davis, for example, a product of broken home, was brought up by her ambitious mother. “My whole life was shaped by mother,” recalled Davis in her memoirs entitled Mother Goddam (1974).

As the child of vaudeville performers, Judy Garland made her stage debut at three, appearing with her two sisters in the “Gumm Sisters Kiddie Act.” She once described her energetic stage mother as ‘the real-life Wicked Witch of the West.” (Frank 1975).

While most women have chosen acting as a career under the assistance and support of their mothers, most men have done so despite the active resistance of their parents (Levy 1984). Familial pressures and parental objections were reported by many male, but no female, stars. Male stars have shared the problems and anxieties of other male artists, particularly dancers (Federico 1974; Strauss 1970). The differential role of parents in the occupational careers of their children or, more specifically, support in the women’s case and lack of support in the men’s, stem from the fact that acting, like dancing, has been traditionally stereotyped as a normatively “feminine” profession.


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