The False Promise of Representation: Stereotypes in the Media

Stereotypes are bad. Duh, right? We’ve heard it before but I’ll say it again: there are no good stereotypes. Putting someone in a box isn’t kind, no matter the box. As empowering as it may be for some to find a label that fits, being labeled without consultation can inspire everything from a grimace and a cringe to intense anxiety or anger. Even the ‘good stereotypes’ leave many people feeling boxed in by the weight of expectations and the constant need to re-establish who they really are.  So, that’s the basics.

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[Image: The text reads “Deconstruct. Discuss. Educate. Look Beyond Stereotypes.” Two rows of figures appear in black and white. Figures depict simplified versions of stereotypes, including a school girl, hippy, farmer, cheerleader, rapper and many that are less strictly identifiable, but are still recognizable.]

Stereotypes in our media do something else as well, though. They provide a false sense of visibility. These stereotypes substitute real people for cardboard cut-outs made of assumptions (and, too often, some -ism or another). Instead of offering a new story and a new voice, stereotypical characters become just another way to express the worldview already represented, only now dressed up in new clothes.  Basically, if you run into stereotypes on television, news or the novel you’re reading, you’re not learning about the experiences of someone – you’re learning about the assumptions of someone outside that group.

For example, there is a lot of talk in the American media about the supposed “welfare queen,” which is a phrase first popularized by President Reagan in the 1970s and is typically applied to Black women on social assistance. The myth that Black women, particularly mothers, are living large by abusing state programs and taxpayer money has been incredibly persistent even though it is incredibly wrong. You can guarantee that this stereotype does not reflect the perspective, experiences or reality of the women who are attempting to make ends meet on social assistance in America. As this example shows, a stereotype is much more likely to be coming from the dominant societal force and from people who have created the stereotype based on their own misunderstandings rather than someone’s reality. A stereotype is just more of “how does the dominant group think?” rather than giving someone else a turn to be featured. Worse, too often people will dress up a cardboard character in their assumptions and then dare to think that this counts as fair representation!

When a token or stereotypical character is dropped into a story, they aren’t providing a compelling, complex representation. They’re just meant to show up, align with our shallow expectations based on a few characteristics, and go home without real development or insight. Worse, that’s supposed to be enough for an audience to feel satisfied and to feel represented. “Ah, my story has been told now that paratrooper/waitress/nurse #1 is a person of colour/woman/queer/disabled…” Nope. When you look around and find that the only character “like you” in a movie is the person with no lines, who dies first, gets “saved,” or who turns out to be the villain, you don’t feel morerepresented or included. Your story still isn’t being told. It’s just being dubbed over with clichés and boring tropes. It’s false visibility. A backhanded invisibility.

Stereotypes are a way to make people feel more invisible even as you appear to be offering representation. This is not helping. One gay character who spouts clichés is not supporting “the cause.” A movie where a person magically becomes able-bodied by the end is part of the problem, not part of the solution. It’s not telling new stories, opening up space to new voices, and it certainly isn’t going to make people feel seen or heard.

In fact, maybe stereotypes in the media you watch make you feel less invisible and more like you’ve been written over, like an old VHS tape. It’s a visibility that masks rather than reveals. That’s not progress. Too many people believe stereotypes for this to be considered a harmless misunderstanding, and there is nothing harmless about the way that stereotypes can creep (or sweep) into policies and programs. Stereotypes change how people are treated on a daily basis and when someone is mistaken for a stereotype, assumptions can get so out of control that people are put at a real physical risk. For example, being constantly targeted for stop-and-frisks as a young man of colour is not only unjust, but is part of the same problem that might lead police officers to shoot an unarmed Black man. This stereotype of criminality is also part of the story for Trayvon Martin, who was killed by Zimmerman because he was seen as a threat, which was an interpretation that cannot be separated from stereotypes of young Black men. Stereotypes can actually support and motivate violence, and we’ll be expanding on these issues in later posts this week.

When we demand representation in the media, we need to demand portrayals that give more insight into different lives, experiences, and identities rather than further stereotypes. This requires characters that aren’t tokenized and do actually play an important part of the narrative by offering a compelling, complex characterization with their own arc and unique traits. Only then will more people start recognizing their friends, family, community, and themselves in the media around them. The more variety and quality we see on screen, the less a single caricature will be mistaken as representative of a group. We need and deserve more than stick figures on our pages and screens.

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