Stereotypes, Violence and Fatal Assumptions

For some people, stereotypes become an issue of survival, not representation. Visibility can become a life and death issue when your body is seen as a symbol for what people fear, hate or dehumanize. Stereotypes and assumptions can support, encourage or excuse violence against specific people whose bodies have been marked as a threat, expendable, or both. The colour of your skin or the length of your skirt can become shorthand for an excuse to treat you as less than human, when there is. no. excuse.

[Content warning: This post will be discussing physical, emotional and sexual violence throughout, including victim blaming and murder This warning applies to many of the links throughout the post as well. These things are not fun to talk about, but they are part of a reality for too many people and this kind of conversation can help to understand why violence is distributed unequally, and what we can do to change that.]

I’ve spoken recently about (in)visibility, stereotypes and representation, but I still wanted to focus in on some of the worst outcomes of these issues. There is tangible, irreversible damage done by stereotypes, although we may call it racism or racial profiling or bigotry or any number of -phobias. In my piece on hypervisibility, I spoke about hate crimes that Muslims (or those read as as Muslim) can face as a result of stereotypes, which is an example of these extreme consequences of stereotypes, but I couldn’t stop there. In this post, I’m going to use two examples to address two consequences of stereotypes. First, stereotypes supporting violence, and second, stereotypes inciting violence.

Supporting Violence

Most of the time, when someone commits violence against you, there is a sense that you are a victim who did not deserve this. The crime is immediately labeled unfair and unjust. However, for some people and some violence and some crimes, there is less sympathy. There are unofficial ‘deserving’ victims. There are “What did you expect?” responses. The “should have known better”s. There is a sense of the inevitable about the crime against them. If you live in a certain neighbourhood, frequent certain places, you might find this attitude applies to you. If you are a woman who experiences sexual violence, victim blaming is practically par for the course.

Victim blaming is exactly what it sounds like. Victims are blamed for what happened to them, instead of blame being laid on the perpetrator. This phenomenon is disgustingly common and is part of rape culture. Rape culture is, in very short, the everyday acts, images and ideas that allow sexual violence to be normalized, excused, supported, and even sanctioned. How this ties in to stereotypes is that the implicit permission for violence against women applies doubly to ‘certain women.’

In Vancouver, Canada, women from the Downtown Eastside have been disappearing for years. It took decades of women going missing from this low income neighbourhood for the local police and RCMP to round up the serial killer haunting their streets. In 2002, Robert Pickton was finally charged with the first degree murder of 27 women, although he is suspected in about 50 cases of missing women from the Downtown Eastside. The details of the case are gruesome, heartbreaking and enraging at every turn – from the murders themselves to the handling of the case. My point in bringing it up in this post is that justice for these women (and for women in the Downtown Eastside who were not taken but could have been and continue to face violence) did not come because they are not the ‘right kind’ of victim. These were women from the poorest area in Canada, many were First Nations, most were involved in sex work, and many had substance abuse issues. Stereotypes marked them as expected victims, maybe even inevitable victims, whose deaths did not disrupt the system. The violence against them was supported and excused and allowed by the stereotypes that marked them as easy targets. Impoverished sex workers being killed fails to shock a city, a nation, a generation who has watched CSI and Law & Order and the daily news nightly. It is dangerous to be walking around with a body that people interpret as a ready-made victim, as undeserving of sympathy, as an unsurprising target. Groups have rallied – have had to rally – to demand accountability for killer, for the police, and the city who stood by as woman after woman went missing and the reports were brushed off with excuses.

How someone is seen undeniably influences the response to their disclosure of violence. For example, when a woman reports sexual harassment, assault or rape, there is often a (spoken or unspoken) question that springs to the lips of those who hear: what was she wearing? Stereotypes associated with ‘provocative’ clothing (short skirts, low cut tops, revealing outfits… although you’ll get arguments for almost anything) have too often been given as a good enough reason not to get consent, or to assume that it’s always present (and what exactly is the mini skirt supposed to be provoking, I wonder). The stereotype follows that women who dress “like that” are “asking for it” and are sexually available.

On the other side of the spectrum, there are also rape survivors who are doubted because they are seen as not “attractive enough” to be raped, which entirely misunderstands rape as sex, because it is about power and not attraction. Other people have historically been seen as “un-rape-able” based on their bodies, like sex workers, slaves, or men and boys. In so many horrible ways, the body becomes evidence to be held for or against a rape survivor. The body becomes an excuse that is manipulated for other people’s ends. These excuses, built on stereotypes, support and arguably encourage violence.

Your body is no accurate barometer for your ability to give or deny consent. What you do with your body does not eliminate your right to give or deny consent. Stereotypes about rape and about women give a dangerous, false impression of the who, what, why and how of sexual violence. Violence continues in part because stereotypes are applied to real people.

Inciting Violence

Stereotypes may not only support violence but actually create a reason for it to begin. This typically happens when a stereotype paints certain people as inherently dangerous or/and threatening. Violence is then seen as an ‘appropriate response’ to their very existence. It can become a knee-jerk reaction. Laws, policies and perspectives can then incorporate the logic of responding with violence to entire categories of people.

The stereotype of the Criminal Black Man assumes that Black men are synonymous with crime, turning these men into a threat merely by existing. Black men in America (and in the West more generally) don’t need to do a thing to make themselves intimidating to those that hold this stereotype.

Touré, from MSNBC, explains the Criminal Black Man stereotype in the clip and I encourage you to watch the entire thing, but I want to highlight a section of it. First, Touré describes the stereotype as “the assumption of black male criminality – the way that we are so often guilty until proven innocent” and cites studies that have found that “people of all races tend to think that they see guns in the hands of unarmed Black men far more often than the hands of unarmed whites.” He goes on to say,

“Black people have long known that young black men are viewed as criminals, whether or not they are, and Black men often instill fear in others without even trying to and that fear becomes our problem. It becomes confrontations that we don’t want and incidents that we don’t deserve. This is why my parents told me when I was young the same sorts of things that so many Black parents have told their sons: “Don’t run in public if at all possible, unless you’re playing sports. In stores, keep your hands visible at all times. Avoid putting them in your pockets, lest you appear to be stealing. And if you end up speaking to police, speak softly, answer questions directly and quickly, and also bury your anger and resentment at being treated like a criminal until later. Society is afraid of you and that’s your problem.”

As a young white woman, I have no idea what it’s like to be interpreted as threat or for my parents to sit me down and warn me that world thinks I am a bomb that could go off at any second. That there are teams of people waiting at the door for a wrong move. I get the benefit of the doubt – so much doubt that I am much nearer the predestined victim than the inevitable criminal – and, until recently, I had never thought about what it would be like not to have that privilege. I had not imagined being a mother who had to tell her son that the world may not welcome him. I don’t think I’ll ever understand what that feels like.

Touré says, “We are expected to be monsters until proven safe because the biases of so many lead to the criminal actions of a few, representing the inherent criminality of all. This while the criminal behaviour of white men does not overshadow all of them,” and isn’t that the difference? Here, a stereotype will be applied to an entire group and trap them in a box labelled “Danger” regardless of the truth, but white criminals and serial killers and terrorists do not become emblems of their entire racial category. Their bodies remain their own, their actions their own, and their fate their own. White men are not feared by dominant, white society and so they do not have to fear.

The media is not shy about the message that black men are to be feared – just turn on the news during prime time – and the popularity of this stereotype is not without consequences. Seen as inherent risks to public safety, it ‘makes sense’ for over 50% of NYC’s stop and frisks to happen to Black people (compared to under 15% for white people), for Black people in America to have a 6 times higher incarceration rate compared to white people, to receive 20% longer sentences than white folks who commit the same crime…If you can see beyond the stereotype and actually examine the figures, there’s no rational explanation for this kind of disparity. It doesn’t seem just or fair, especially when you look at reports stating that white people are more likely to abuse drugs but less likely to be searched, caught or charged. White bodies aren’t labelled as a threat the minute that they walk into courtrooms and that matters to the judge and jury.

Trayvon Martin was a young black man who was interpreted like young black men so often are. He was seen as a threat. He was seen as out of place and dangerous in a gated community. So dangerous that Zimmerman had to call to the cops about this seventeen year old in his neigbourhood, on his territory. So dangerous in his hoodie, walking while Black, that Zimmerman could not trust the police to come quickly enough. He could not wait. Trayvon Martin was seen as a threat, but in reality, he was the one being threatened. He was the one who should be afraid, it turns out. Being assumed dangerous at all times is dangerous.

The protests that have followed the Martin case have recognized the influence of stereotypes in his death. In the marches, many are wearing hoodies and clearly connecting the dots between violence and stereotypes. A young black man in a hoodie links up neatly to the visual attached to the criminal black man stereotype.

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Martin is not the first black man – boy – to die because he was too dangerous to be allowed, his body somehow enough damning evidence against him. Black parents are forced to again face the fact that their children are not safe and may not find justice because they are immediately the enemy. Their baby boy is seen as the criminal black man by people with enough resources and power to act on their assumptions. He is not given the benefit of innocent until proven guilty, a white privilege that could keep him safe.

Stereotypes don’t just appear in politically incorrect cartoons or bad jokes or vintage television. Stereotypes are acted out on our streets, in our courtrooms, in hospitals, in classrooms, and in our lives. Being seen through the lens of a stereotype leaves a person visible only as something they are not – maybe a target, maybe a threat, maybe a mixture of the two – and it a hazardous way to be seen. Stereotypes can and do support and incite violence. They must be challenged in any form they take. It is not harmless when we refuse to recognize one another and look past stereotypes. The cost of not being seen as you are can be very, very high.

Water, Water Everywhere But Not a Drop to Drink: When the Media Covers Fat Bodies

Media coverage does not always equate to being seen. The representation of fat people in media is an unfortunate example of poor representation resulting in more invisibility than visibility. When the media relies on stereotypes and clichés, it is not creating space for new voices. Instead, it continues to empower those who already set narrow limits on who can be seen or heard in public forums.

Stereotypes about fat people are so common that many people don’t realize they’re stereotypes at all. Too many believe that fat people actually are all unhealthy, gluttonous, lazy, sick, undisciplined, stupid (ugh)… and the negative representation by the media must take some share of blame for insuring the strength and prominence of these stereotypes. The mainstream media too often gives airtime to negative depictions of fat people and effectively supports the sizism that costs people jobs, promotions, relationships, health care service, self-esteem and more. However, for me, one of the most striking aspects of fat representation in the media is the literal portrayal of fat bodies in news coverage. How are fat people and their bodies typically shown?

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[Image: fat man seated at a picnic table eating take away and drinking Coke. His face was excluded from the photo.]

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[Image: A man sits on a bench. The camera focuses on his round stomach and his face has not been included.]image

[Image: Two people featured next to a garbage can, clearly caught in a candid photo. Their heads have been cropped out.]

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[Image: Fat person seated in an outdoor chair. Again, their face is not pictured]

Faceless people are splashed across newspapers and television screens on a regular basis as reporters emphasize the ‘obesity epidemic,’ and I have to wonder how much easier it is to uphold sizism/weight discrimination when you don’t put the name to a face. Fat activist Charlotte Cooper called this phenomenon the “Headless Fatty” and it is incredibly pervasive. Cooper writes,

“As Headless Fatties, the body becomes symbolic: we are there but we have no voice, not even a mouth in a head, no brain, no thoughts or opinions. Instead we are reduced and dehumanised as symbols of cultural fear: the body, the belly, the arse, food. There’s a symbolism, too, in the way that the people in these photographs have been beheaded. It’s as though we have been punished for existing, our right to speak has been removed by a prurient gaze, our headless images accompany articles that assume a world without people like us would be a better world altogether.”

There is something intensely dehumanizing about the number of faceless photos and videos of fat people that are constantly being distributed. The subjects of these photos are never given the benefit of an identity, having it stripped from them along with their facial features, and they are never given the opportunity to gaze back at all those who will be looking at them and scrutinizing. The media coverage is silencing and erasing, not representing or creating space.

Coverage of ‘obesity’ leans so heavily on these faceless photos and I wonder, is it that much easier to fall back on stereotypes and shallow judgments when you don’t feel like you’re describing the bodies of actual people? Does the media portrayal encourage people to dehumanize the people around them? What could be the impact of radically unapologetic and human depictions of fat people in our media?

Critically, how can the audience be expected to relate and connect to subjects of a news story without being able to see their face and recognize shared humanity? This question just reveals that stories about fat people aren’t typically asking the audience to relate to those they see on screen – justreact. Scorn or shame or fear or reject as a “part of the problem” instead of part of the community. Fat people aren’t the subject of these news stories, really; they’re the object of those stories.

Sometimes I wonder if the news team thinks that they’re doing people a favour by not identifying anyone in particular in the pictures that play over newscasts that announce the new obesity figures for America. Who wants to be the face of an epidemic? Plus, the idea that there is so much shame to fatness that you would not want to be recorded while fat is depressingly common. Of course, this fat phobic rationale is hardly a good excuse for dehumanizing fat people.

The fact is, removing heads from bodies doesn’t eliminate the fact that those cropped and cut bodies are still people, still pictures of bodies that belong to real, breathing people. Only now, those people are faceless, nameless… just a walking stereotype. Charlotte Cooper writes of“Headless Fatties” in the news,

“…these are real people who look as though they’ve been photographed without their knowledge, consent, or payment of any kind, for commercial photographs that are then marketed and sold by photographers and agencies. I wonder what it must feel like to open the paper one morning, or click onto a news site, and see a headless version of yourself there, against a headline decrying people who look like you.”

As for the audience, we are left nothing else to go on as viewers butstereotypes. We are shown footage of crowds where people’s faces are omitted and their voices are rarely heard. The camera focuses in on stomachs and bums, as if they were separate from who they are attached to. The scrutiny is so focused on weight that the photographer can’t be bothered to include any other feature of their subjects. The gaze is so intense and yet fails to see so completely. It is ridiculous how invisible this type of ‘visibility’ can make you.

Most of the footage and pictures and coverage of fat people in America isn’t doing anyone any good as a representation of fat people. It is not offering complex stories or new voices. It is just the same dominant voice speaking over footage of crowds, warning us over and over that you too could becomefaceless I mean, fat. This is the definition of invisibility through visibility. Just because your body (or bodies like yours) is in public space it doesn’t mean that you have been acknowledged, accepted or empowered. Just because you appear on the nightly news doesn’t mean your story is being told. Water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink.

References:

  1. Cooper, C. (2007) ‘Headless Fatties’ [Online]. London. Available:http://charlottecooper.net/publishing/digital/headless-fatties-01-07
  2. Fat Studies Reader
  3. Special thanks to Marilyn Wann for help with this piece. Check her out at http://fatso.com/

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.