Thursday, March 18, 2010



Stereotypes fascinate me because everyone taught me to revile them. It is a dirty word. You are not supposed to stereotype anymore. But what is stereotyping, actually? It means making generalizations about particular people or things, then exaggerating those generalizations in a pejorative way.

Stereotypes are pernicious when applied to "disfavored" groups. They are even worse when a person in "superior social position" directs the stereotype against a person in an "inferior social position." In other words, it is "politically incorrect" for a wealthy white man in America (i.e., a person with a historically "superior social position") to stereotype against a poor black man (i.e, a person with a historically "inferior social position"). Yet when people in traditionally inferior social positions stereotype those in superior social positions, it is somehow more forgivable. After all, who gets up in arms when black comedians say all white people are awkward? No one: Because everyone knows that white people have historically enjoyed a "superior social position" over blacks in America. In this sense, stereotypes are objectionable only in context: They are "bad" only when directed downward from a superior social position against an inferior one.

Still, it is hard to talk about stereotypes without inviting anger. Even outside the racial context, stereotypes raise emotions because they depend on uncomfortable--and sometimes remotely true--assumptions about others. No one likes to be mocked for their intrinsic characteristics, even if their intrinsic characteristics are less than praiseworthy.

It is even difficult to analyze the stereotyper. Ten years ago, I angered the American government when I applied for a Federal scholarship to study the systematic way in which American media stereotypes Germans. I did not get the grant. Apparently, the Federal government did not want to fund a paper that would tell it how shortsighted, ignorant and simplistic most Americans are when thinking about Germany. At the time, I was disappointed I did not get my grant. But it taught me a valuable lesson: Neither the proponents nor the victims of stereotypes like talking about them.

Whether or not the Federal government chooses to recognize it, stereotypes are everywhere in this country. They surround us. We even buy into them without even knowing it. To start, it is hard to watch American movies without encountering some condescending racial, sexual or national caricature. Even in a sci-fi action movie like Transformers : Revenge of the Fallen, the "hip" robots have black voices and banter in ebonics. Most gay characters are pathetically effeminate, with the lisps, hair and flamboyance to match. And people from other countries? Forget it: Germans are merciless, icy, calculating, humorless villains (Schindler's List; Hellboy II). Italians are lusty, hairy, slicked-back tough Guidos who use big hand gestures and talk about their families all the time (Saturday Night Fever). Russians are crafty, suspicious tyrants with thick accents (Rambo III; Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull). The French are perfumed, well-dressed, snotty, red-lipped, arrogantly petulant metrosexuals with perfect hair who usually wind up buying baguettes or espresso at some point in the movie (The Matrix : Reloaded, Ronin)(Jean Reno is the default American choice for a Frenchman). The British are absurdly prim, polite, insistent on protocol, silly or villainous (The Patriot). Arabs are maniacal terrorists who wear turbans, shout "Allah, Ackbar!" and blow things up (True Lies). Asians are generally kung-fu-fighting, sword-wielding comic relief with funny accents (any Jackie Chan movie).

Of course, not all American movies support racial, sexual and national stereotypes. There are exceptions in every category. But the fact that so many mainstream films thrive on stereotypes means something. It means that America has an appetite for them. They like laughing at smooth-talking black robots and silly gay men. They expect Italians to be gangsters and Germans to be killers. After all, stereotypes are easy to grasp. They distance "us" from "them." They allow "us" to feel secure in our identities by condescending toward the way "they" speak, act and move. Stereotypes unite through ignorance.

Hollywood films are not the only medium that supports rank stereotypes in the United States. Even so-called "neutral" news networks reinforce racial and national generalizations. Whenever news agencies report on street crime, they usually point out that the suspect is a "black male," or they just show his face onscreen: Just another scary-looking black guy with unkempt facial hair. Whenever news agencies report about China or Russia, they usually make ominous comments about sinister motivations and repressive governments. And when they report about destitute Third World countries, typically they focus on some ridiculous sideshow, like peasants cooking dirt shavings or worshipping a river bank.

In short, Americans get their stereotypes from multiple sources. Stereotypes help them order their world. They help them remember who "they" are. Yet no matter how much Americans love their stereotypes, and no matter how often they buy into them, they also hear a countervailing message: "Stereotyping is bad." Students learn that it is wrong to make sweeping generalizations about ethnic, national, sexual and religious groups. Even corporations instruct their employees that it is "wrong" to generalize about "others." It might not be wrong to exclude "them" from the workforce or relegate "them" to the mail room. You just can't make callous remarks about their low station.

We have lived in the era of "political correctness" for several decades now. Some people have gotten in trouble for breaking the official rules about stereotypes, like Don Imus and some other indiscreet white men. But despite the "official" stance against stereotyping, it survives. It lives on in men's hearts. People can dutifully watch what they say in public without privately abandoning stereotypical thinking. It is very easy to be "politically correct" in observance, yet politically incorrect in spirit. Even the worst bigot can navigate the sparse minefield of forbidden phrases that demarcates "politically correct speech." You just need some minimal public discretion.

But what happens when traditional stereotypers try too hard to show their political correctness? In advertising, for instance, I have noticed an increase in so-called "reverse stereotyping," namely, painfully obvious attempts to portray traditionally stereotyped roles in the opposite light.

Take these examples: A major garment company runs an ad showing a married black man in a very nice home choosing a white starched shirt from a hickory-paneled closet. In the next ad, a home security company shows an affluent black family in a very nice home being terrorized by a white burglar, then calling police. In another ad, a life insurance company hawks its wares by showing an extremely well-dressed black man behind a desk in an office building. He is an "insurance executive;" and a desperate-looking white man calls him to ask about life insurance options. In yet another ad, a trade school notes that "times are tough," then it shows an unemployed white man struggling to find a job. It suggests that he get an education in order to stop receiving public assistance.

What is significant about these ads? In my view, they are even more condescending to "disfavored political groups" in America than flat-out stereotypes. After all, pernicious stereotyping generally operates in a "downward" manner, from people in a "traditionally superior social position" against people in a "traditionally inferior social position." In all the social contexts relevant to these ads, black Americans generally occupy the inferior position: They do not have nice homes; they do not wear button-down shirts; they are not even married; they are the burglars, not the ones who call police; they do not buy life insurance, let alone run the insurance company; they are unemployed and need educations to get off welfare. A flat-out stereotype would have shown white people buying button-down shirts, calling the police on black burglars and running an insurance company. But here the ads simply reverse the stereotypes, placing black people in the traditionally superior positions, while white people fancifully occupy the traditionally inferior positions. This "racial reversal" so obviously contradicts predominant social realities that it invites scorn.

It is easy to see why the corporations did this. They did not want to "appear stereotypical" by portraying blacks in "traditionally inferior social positions." They wanted to comply with "political correctness." But in attempting to avoid stereotypes, the corporations came off as even more patronizing than they would have had they simply stuck with the generalizations everyone expects to see. Americans expect to see black burglars; that's what they see on the news all the time. Americans expect to see white insurance executives; after all, insurance executives are basically all white anyway. And Americans expect to hear about unemployed black people on welfare; laziness is a classic racial stereotype that has long fueled resentment between racial groups in America.

In sum, anyone can see that these ads do not correspond to social reality in the United States. That fact confirms that Americans like their stereotypes. It makes them uneasy--and even disbelieving--to see black people portrayed outside their traditionally inferior social positions. No one will ever believe that black people will run insurance companies. Nor will anyone believe that white Americans will commit street crime in the same proportions as black Americans. Americans are too comfortable with their stereotypes. A few advertisers will not change anyone's assumptions by reversing stereotypical roles that have existed in Americans' minds for generations.

No, Americans still have a voracious appetite for stereotypes. Just go to the movies or turn on the news. And ironically, attempting to be "political correct" only worsens stereotypical thinking. That's because telling Americans that "stereotyping is bad" is like telling a star baseball player that baseball is bad: Stereotyping is what we do--and we really like it. Telling us to stop doing what we like will result in confused, disingenuous absurdity, just as we see in these ads.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you! I've been saying this for years watching these "reversed stereotype" commercials! Also, don't forget the token redhead to represent not only the white folks but also the minority "red head" group.....GAG. So predictable it's sickening.