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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Being Well in an Unhealthy Society

“It is no measure of good health to be well adjusted to a sick society”

–       Jiddu Krishnamurti, as heard in The Nutritionist by Andrea Gibson

What is health? Western media may say it’s this:

Flat bellies and burning fat?

Or maybe you feel pressure to uphold this kind of ‘health:’

But chances are, the media (and many people around you) are actually leaving your health entirely out of the picture. The idea and ideals of health are too often built around experiences and standards that make abled, white, cis, straight, male, middle class, thin bodies the norm. This leaves so many people without any representation of what health might look like for them. Worse, their bodies and experiences are often made unhealthy, ill and invisible.

Throughout history, many identities have been marked in Western society as illness, putting the achievement of ‘health’ in direct opposition to well-being. This unfortunately continues today. For example, finding appropriate healthcare for people who are transgender can be incredibly difficult, and there has been a well-established and continuing history of people of colour facing unequal healthcare challenges. Mental illness in particular has been used to oppress marginalized people and define them as unhealthy, unfit and even inhuman. Previously on The Body is Not an Apology, we also heard from Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg about how damaging it is to constantly prioritize the ‘ideal’ abled body, as if the only way to be well is to resemble the default diagram in the medical textbooks.

The notion of ‘health’ I’m critiquing here is a one-size-fits-all approach where we are told that our bodies should look and act the same as some standard model, and that the same things must be done to make a body look that way. The same dieting, same exercises, and the same pills are supposed to work (roughly) for everyone, which ignores the fact that we have different bodies, needs and desires. The Body Mass Index is a perfect example of this, as it is often used to measure ‘health’ but it only asks for two measurements (height and weight) to compare to a standard chart. Obviously, its insights are limited. [sidebar: click here if you want a great post exploring why BMI isn’t an effective measure of health.] Even something commonplace for many, like caffeine, can have drastically different effects on people, so how can we expect our bodies to conform to a single model? Sameness does not create wellness.

‘Health’ is too often about ‘solving’ your body like it is a problem, selling a product, and building insecurity, not about prioritizing your actual needs. This version of health actually demands unhealthy actions and attitudes for many people. For example, the weight loss paradigm can be incredibly harmful to those of many shapes and sizes. It is not healthy to hate our bodies. It is not healthy to deny our needs. We needn’t apologize for our differences in ability, neurology, gender, size, race or age. We definitely shouldn’t be asked to sacrifice our mental or emotional health for a strange version of physical health. That isn’t well-being.

Well-being is a term that I’ve found better approximates what I want for my body. To me, well-being is a comprehensive approach that encapsulates physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual wellness and prioritizes unique needs and desires. My well-being requires something different from your well being, although many things may be shared. Essentially, there is awareness that while well-being might be achieved one way for me, the same strategy could have the opposite effect on you. That doesn’t make you unwell or your body wrong. Wellness as a concept can handle individual difference, because it’s unique for everyone. It is most definitely not about chasing an ideal body, mind or emotional state. Wellness doesn’t look like a specific size, hormone level, mobility, body mass or normative response. At its core, well-being is about creating and facilitating radical self love.

The complexity and subjectivity of wellness mean that it generally can’t become a six item list in Cosmo this week. It’s a challenging process, as our bodies are constantly changing, so there is no quick fix in many cases. In fact, well-being often requires individual, family and community resources to be achieved. What makes it even more difficult is that we’re not always taught how to take care of ourselves in this way and we’re actually often coached to ignore what our body, mind and heart require. Where do we turn to get advice if it’s so hard to come by?

Many people, including medical professionals, are getting fed up with ‘health’ and have started to search for well-being. An example of this in the medical field for the specific topic of weight is the Health at Every Size movement, which has received growing support. The Health at Every Size (HAES) approach takes the focus off of weight and acknowledges the stress weight loss actually puts on a body, as well as the very high chance that weight loss is temporary. Instead, some of the tenets of the approach are:

  • “Accepting and respecting the natural diversity of body sizes and shapes”
  • “Eating in a flexible manner that values pleasure and honors internal cues of hunger, satiety, and appetite”
  • “Finding the joy in moving one’s body”

For those who face sizism and fat phobia from even the medical professionals supposed to care for their well-being, HAES could be a game-changer. Fat studies scholars and critical obesity researchers are doing incredible work to challenge the dominant paradigm regarding fat, obesity and health that I don’t have space to get into in this post, but some resources are below.

While the HAES approach is not going to work for everyone, it does show that there can be innovation and new ways of looking at health. We can challenge what health is supposed to look like. We can work together in a community and redefine how we care for ourselves and each other. Well-being could offer an alternative to ‘health’ that empowers people to find what works for them, instead of evaluating themselves based on an unobtainable standard. Well-being is a perspective that honors the diversity of bodies and experiences in hopes of supporting self-care, genuine wellness and unapologetic self-love.

Recommended Resources for critical obesity work and introduction to HAES:

Bacon, Linda. Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth about Your Weight. Dallas, TX: BenBella, 2008.

Rich, Emma, Lee F. Monaghan, and Lucy Aphramor. Debating Obesity: Critical Perspectives. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Rothblum, Esther D., and Sondra Solovay. The Fat Studies Reader. New York: New York UP, 2009.

Magic Trick #2: It’s a Wonderful World

The second magic trick I think the media and society often tries to pull is the idea that Everything is Great. They argue that there’s no need to fight racism, sexism, classism, ablism (discrimination based on ability), heterosexism (prejudice against those who don’t appear heterosexual), etc. The world is portrayed as discrimination-free. Everything’s wonderful! What are you all complaining about?

This strategy lowers our guard as we look at the world. It makes us less likely to ask questions about what the media is showing, or what the people around us believe. It makes class differences seem natural, as opposed to facilitated by history and institutions. This trick tries to convince us that “feminist” is an insult, and that the women’s movement is over. It wants to hide the racism present in our everyday lives.

It’s easy to fall for this trick, especially if you don’t face a lot of discrimination yourself. Of course you want a world where these things don’t exist! It would be lovely to think that we’ve achieved it, but that’s not the reality. The reality is that inequality is still part of many, many lives.

This magic trick can make it very uncomfortable to speak up when you see something wrong with the world. It puts pressure on people to go along with the story that everything’s working just fine, and it privileges people who don’t have to deal with the discrimination that they’re ignoring. It also offers a candy-sweet story that’s much easier to swallow than the truth that change still needs to come. Refusing to take what’s being fed isn’t always fun, but it’s necessary.

Part of my love of feminism is that it made the world make sense. Finally, I had people who would agree that there’s problems with the world, and they’re even trying to solve them! Kindred spirits. I met fellow believers at book signings, presentations, in classes and online. There are people who are looking at the world critically and doing more than pretending that we live without prejudice – they’re working to help create that world. Dismissing the illusion that the world is just wonderful made me able to understand the world around me.

Edit: Check out FeministFrequency, a great feminist youtube channel, for a video about how “straw feminists” are used in media to convince people that feminism is irrelevant and unnecessary in our “equal” world.

Women Represent! Online

This Thursday, January 20 was an exciting day for me and, hopefully, for the students at the Calgary Girls’ School. The staff and students there collaborated with many community and even distant figures to put on a Digital Citizenship Symposium at their middle school. I had done a presentation there a few years ago and so when they approached me to join in on a panel during the event, I was excited to go back. They had given me a warm welcome the first time and this visit was no less inspiring. I love talking to students and hearing both their questions and answers. I always learn when I go into schools or other groups. I jump at nearly every opportunity to get out into the community.

Anonymiss: Expect usI flew back to Calgary for about 18 hours, leaving Wednesday night, and the event started at 8:00 am, so it was a lot to take in so early in the morning. However, there were some great topics brought up. One I found really complex and interesting is how women and girls have a different experience online from others. How is gender performed online? How does a picture of a girl on Facebook receive different responses, and what does that look like?

The Internet offers amazing opportunities for people in many marginalized groups to begin representing themselves, putting them in the seat to determine what messages about themselves they want to see in the media landscape, and so I think the activism potential is really important to consider. However, it brings us to a lot of questions: If women can start to represent themselves in a substantial way, on Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, message boards, gaming chat rooms, etc, how are they going to choose to represent themselves? Are we seeing women branch out and show new, more complex ideas about women in these moments, or is it same-old same-old? Why? Do women have the kind of options yet that they need to do what they want to represent themselves?

For example, how are the players available for women in online games portraying women’s bodies? Sexism in the gaming industry is both obvious and infamous. Chain-mail bikinis? Are you kidding me? And of course all the sexism in real life translates online – it’s the same people on the Internet as in the real world, so how would we expect sexism to disappear once we’ve gone digital? – but now there’s the benefit of being anonymous. It doesn’t do anything positive for upholding a standard of equality. If no one can personally call you out for being sexist, a community that is at least vaguely hostile to women can easily develop, just as there are racist and homophobic communities online. It reflects larger society.

How new media and Internet technologies affect women is a huge discussion that I won’t get into further right here, but I think as digital citizens, we do have a responsibility to take a look at our online culture. It’s easy to assume that the status quo is just normal – it’s just the Internet! – but twenty years ago we didn’t have this kind of commonplace access to the virtual world. This is new and still in the process of being defined. How do we want to define it, and gender, online? It’s a big question that no one person is going to ever answer. The answer will only be seen much later, when we all look back at what we’ve done with all these new tools and gadgets.