Racial Stereotypes in Film/TV in Media

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Racial Stereotypes in Film/TV written by Omar, Adeline, Alyssa, Jon, and Alex

The United States is now more diverse than it ever has been, but from watching Hollywood films and television programs it’s easy to overlook that development. That’s because characters of color remain underrepresented in mainstream movies and TV shows. In addition, many actors of color are asked to play stereotypical roles—from maids and immigrants to thugs and prostitutes in Hollywood. This lecture breaks down how African American, Irish, Hispanics, Italian, Jewish, and Middle Easterners continue to face stereotypes on both the big and small screen. These common misconceptions about groups of people are still being portrayed in the media. The inaccuracy of ethnic groups can affect how we perceive one another and relate to one another. Children are especially vulnerable to the media’s stereotypes because they have a very limited view of the world.

African Americans

African Americans are the most stereotyped people in the modern and historical United States. They are portrayed as lazy, unintelligent, loud, immoral, destructive, and obnoxious as well as being portrayed as criminals or thugs in the media. As with all stereotypes, these stereotypes are lazy and only used to denigrate people who are seen as “different” from the person asserting the stereotype. These stereotypes are pushed even further by the media and how African Americans are portrayed in films. They tend to be cast in only certain roles that can be considered racist or at a minimum, stereotypical. These roles include the “Magical Negro”, thugs, a maid or butler, and a brash woman. These casting patterns can have a huge impact on how African Americans are viewed, especially when they reinforce stereotypes that are demeaning.

The thug role that African Americans portray in movies may be the most common stereotyped role. This role is usually an African American male who lives in the inner city or in a worn down suburb. They dress in baggy clothing with a lot of jewelry and are shown hanging out on street corners carrying guns and doing drug deals. This role is extremely stereotypical and very racist. Very rarely do you see any white males portrayed in this role, and when it is, it’s usually lampooning the idea (i.e. “Malibu’s Most Wanted”). The role is so stereotyped that it has been included in movies as a counter-stereotype. For example, in Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, the main characters drive into an area where a group of black men are hanging out. The main characters wreck their car and the men begin to approach them and they become scared and drive away. The black men then become disgusted because the crowbar was to help replace the tire and they were only looking to help them. The fact that this stereotype is so common, that it is able to be counter stereotyped, shows how out of control its prevalence has become.

The brash and sassy woman and the maid or butler are two more roles often portrayed by African Americans. These two character types are less racist, but still demeaning nonetheless. The maid/butler role is demeaning because of the role the character plays in the family. Usually they are catering to a white family which is even more belittling. It creates the sense that African Americans are beneath the family and must work for them. The brash and sassy woman is a character that is loud and obnoxious, with often proclamations of how independent she is and very vibrant body language. This stereotype is one that is very commonly how people think of African American women. This can be seen in how little push there is when this type of role is cast. Unfortunately, this stereotype receives very little attention, further pushing its prevalence.

The “Magical Negro” is one of the most racist stereotypes in any type of film or television. It is a role that, quite literally, gives an African American special powers, making them seem like a mystifying creature to the audience who must help the white protagonist achieve their peace/goal. They also tend to be janitors or criminals, who are content with their “lowly” life. The term “Magical Negro” was coined by Spike Lee at a speech he gave. This character can be seen in films like “The Green Mile”, “Bruce Almighty”, and “The Legend of Bagger Vance”. This is demeaning because it creates a sense that the character is inhuman and makes them seem comfortable in lower wage jobs.

The Irish

The Irish are the subject of some of the most lasting and clichéd stereotypes. In their long history, they’ve been painted as weak and submissive, lazy, uneducated, helpless, and reliant on the kindness of others for their own survival, as said in chapter 4 in  “Race, Gender, and Media.” As with so many aspects of the human experience, there’s a lot more to the Irish than overgeneralized negative characteristics. In many cases the same negative characteristics attributed to Africans and African Americans (sloth, immorality, destructiveness) were often also associated with the Irish. In fact, some scientists believed the Irish were, like Africans, more closely related to apes than to other Europeans, and in some cases in the U.S., Irish immigrants were classified as Blacks, not Whites. Such stereotypes were and are further encouraged by the film industry by depicting incredulous and cliche situations within different races because they are the most interesting to watch. A white man will not watch a movie about a black family’s dying mother, and instead avert his attention to the loud black actresses acting in a scene.

Irish pub culture is known worldwide and has contributed to the stereotype that Irish people drink all of the time. Ireland is included with the rest of Western Europe amongst the world’s most frequent drinkers, Forbes Magazine conducted a study in 2008 that stated, “After a surge in binge drinking during the mid-1990s, Western Europe has sobered up substantially as greater affluence, education and the professionalization of the work force have changed drinking patterns.”  Yet directors seem to be fascinated with filming the same idea over and over again, and that is what they do when they use the stereotype of “The Bar-Popper.” As any Hollywood screenwriter/producer knows, Ireland is full of alcoholics. It stands to reason, therefore, that any male over the age of 50 to be found anywhere on the island will spend most of his time in his local drinking establishment, red-nosed face in a pint of the black stuff. This character is most likely good-natured and amiable (especially if the visiting lead buys him a drink) and probably owns a fiddle that will be put to good use in the final ceile around the pub. Examples of this is shown in movies like: Most of the cast of Waking Ned Devine, the supporting cast of Leap Year, most of the cast of The Quiet Man, Darby O’Gill in Darby O’Gill and the Little People.

The red haired character is also a dead give-away to the audience that the character is Irish, supposedly. This particular character was set in stone around the time of The Quiet Man, with Maureen O’Hara playing passionate and unreasonable opposite lovely quiet John Wayne. Admirers may describe her as “tempestuous” but in reality we’re talking plain-old bad-tempered (although, given that her tiny village is full of bar-proppers, it’s not without reason). She bosses her hapless brother / father / son around, keeps house and still finds time to make eyes at the male lead, before sniffing, adjusting her shawl and stalking off. The hair colour may vary – the better to disguise her fearsome temper from unwary men – and the wardrobe may have changed in recent years but the type is alive and well. Examples of films that depict the red-haired stereotypes are: Maggie O’Toole in Waking Ned, Mary Kate Danaher in The Quiet Man, the girls in The Commitments.

The fisherman stereotypes is also frequently bestowed upon the Irish character. This character may also farm, but either way you’ll find him looking manly and rugged in an Aran jumper. His thick accent and lack of refinement may initially repel any more sophisticated visitors from the city (the lead female), but after fate has flung them together she’ll probably realise that he’s just the rugged hero she’s been looking for. Once he demonstrates that he can play music, talk politics or look really good semi-naked, and she’ll abandon all career aspirations for a life in the back of beyond. Huh. Must be the accent. Oh, and under no circumstances will this role be played by an Irish actor. Some example of these are Declan in Leap Year, and Billy in PS I Love You.

Italian Americans

Italians, like the Irish, have faced similar treatment when they immigrated to the United States in the late 1800’s According to Race, Gender, Class, and Media Chapter 2; Whites closely resembled Italians with African Americans. They were depicted in the media with having curly hair, and very dark skin tones which caused white people to think they were black. In recent decades with film, and television; Italians have been portrayed as mobsters, men/women of power, and guidos.

When Italians immigrated to this country, they were not considered by many to be white. Italians represented the biggest wave of nineteenth-century immigrants, with more than four million coming to this country. When trying to look for work, Italians faced many difficulties. Many had little education, which meant they took many manual, and menial labor types of jobs. Early on in their presence in America, Italians were stereotyped with having big bushy moustaches, with a big smile on their faces. A few other stereotypes included simple-minded, working-class, small business owner, and large families.

In recent media, Italians have been portrayed as mobsters, gangsters, men of power and respect, guidos, guineas, and tough and violent guys. Films such as The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, Goodfellas, The Untouchables, and Mean Streets all portray Italians in this type of fashion. With the exception of Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone in The Godfather, The films I have listed portray Italians as ruthless gangsters. The Godfather and The Godfather Part II  portray mobsters with a stylized fashion. The stereotypical way gangsters dress would be in pinstripe suits with wide brimmed fedora hats and carrying Thompson machine guns. They have tight knit family in which they take immense pride of, but when they aren’t home the organized crime begins. A typical gangster in this fashion would set out hits on members of other crime families such as the Tattaglia Crime Family or the Barzini Crime Family.

As a tough guy or violent guy this stereotype is best represented in the Martin Scorsese film Goodfellas. Goodfellas portrays Italian mobsters as tough, relentless men whose lives are chronicled in three decades from the 1950’s all the way to the 1980’s. These men were fearless, murderous, and showed very little respect for anyone outside of their circle. Joe Pesci’s character Tommy Devito is the one who is most recognized as the group’s “tough guy”. His Funny How Speech is recognized as the centerpiece of the film.

Jewish Americans

Unlike the Italians and the Irish, the Jews were treated very differently when coming to America.  According to Race, Gender, Class, and Media Chapter 2; The Jewish people were treated differently when immigrating to the United States because both ethnicity and religion play a factor in Jewish culture. While all three groups were treated as inferior to White Americans, the Jewish people got it a little harder and assimilation into White society was the toughest for this group.

The Jewish people were forced out of Europe due to terrorism, genocide, and the Holocaust. The Holocaust has played a big role in creating the stereotypes associated with Jewish people, even to this day.  Nazi propaganda described Jews as deceitful, greedy, and manipulative. Some propaganda even stated that the Jewish people were part devil. Since they did not fit the mold of the ‘perfect person’  in Hitler’s mind, the Nazis used propaganda to get everyone else to agree with them. It worked and the Jews were forced out of Europe during World War Two.

While the Holocaust ended, the stereotypes created during this time continue on. The Jewish people are very resilient and I believe that should be one of the biggest associations with the Jewish culture instead of those imposed upon the Jews by Hitler. The Jewish people have withstood the test of time and have bounced back from being slaves in Egypt along with many genocides. While the Jewish people have withstood all of this hate there are seen as weak, fragile, and nerdy in many TV shows and movies.

Shows such as South Park and Family Guy have weak-looking, money hungry Jewish male characters. Due to shows such as these, this is how the Jewish American man is usually portrayed. There have also been many cases of anti-semitism in the media (for example Septa buses in Philadelphia had It almost seems as if it is acceptable to publicly stereotype Jewish people, and this is wrong. Nobody should be stereotyped or publicly shamed regardless or race or religion.

Muslim stereotypes

The way the world viewed Muslims changed magnificently after September 11, 2001. The world and the West in particular had no problems with Muslims and no particular stereotypes faced Muslims. It was actually the opposite, the world viewed Muslims as peaceful people and there were good relationships between the West and leaders of Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. Even though Saudi Arabia and the United States were good allies, everything changed after September 11, 2001. After the bombing of the twin towers by Al-Qaeda members and the death of many U.S. Citizens, the whole world started portraying Muslims as terrorists.

Due to the bombing of the twin towers, George Bush thought that he would fight terrorism by invading countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan even though the real terrorists were not affected, innocent lives of ordinary people were the ones who were affected. After the world viewing what happened on television, shock stroke the people. No one believed what happened and the media gave it the most attention possible. From that day on, the news had nothing to talk about other than the Muslims being portrayed as terrorists and this became the new stereotype. “Random security checks” in the airport started happening with all Muslims entering European countries and America. Dirty looks were thrown around Muslims all the time. Veiled women were treated differently. The media put so much pressure on the Muslims that it was hard for them to handle. Stereotypes were after them wherever they went.

The media took this case to a new level where misrepresentation of Muslims were shown. Rudeness was present as well as mistreatment. TV shows presenting Muslim men with beards as terrorists started becoming very popular. Moreover, presenting Muslim men with multiple wives also started becoming popular. TV shows such as “family guy” and “Ahmed the dead terrorist” became the center of attention.

Finally, the media has portrayed and stereotyped all Muslim men as being terrorists and all Muslim women as being controlled by their husbands all over the media. Muslim men now are paying for what some Muslim men decided to do on 9/11 which certainly doesn’t demonstrate what Islam as a religion is. Islam actually means peace and even though the West reacted a negative with another negative (invading Iraq and Afghanistan, killing Saddam Hussein etc.) made it even worse on the Muslims because it became more and more the center of the topic everyone is talking about.

One thought on “Racial Stereotypes in Film/TV in Media

  1. btm5140 says:

    Hey Adeline, thanks for the read!

    I was wondering what your opinion is regarding the technical use of stereotypes in TV/film. While I agree that there’s definitely been proof of oversimplification of people when it comes to their portrayal in cinema (after all, you’ve presented an impressive amount yourselves), I personally don’t find it inherently inappropriate to use stereotypes as a shorthand for characterization, at least initially.

    -For example, I think it’s okay to introduce a character in a stereotypical context, as long as the character is later on more rounded out as a person.

    I feel like this approach is used a lot in sit-coms other weekly shows, as the characters that start off seemingly unlikable, later become more complex and easier to swallow, while the less savory characters tend to be unlikable *because* they remain simple and don’t stray away from their stereotypes.

    -I like to be optimistic and interpret that as writers spotlighting how stereotypes are bad and comically simple, but I could also see how it could be interpreted as “you like this character because they’re different, one of ‘the good ones'”.

    I guess the short version is; do you think it’s cool to utilize stereotypes as long as the characterization doesn’t stop there?

    -and by extension; Do you think there is an actual appropriate functional use for stereotypes?

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