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With the advancements made for equality in the past century, TV shows and movies have drastically changed. Many screenplay writers have abolished stereotypes from their work in the past couple of decades. Instructors even strongly discourage students from using stereotypes in their writing to try and cultivate a respectful, safe learning environment. However, stereotypes are far from obsolete, and today’s media frequently uses stereotypes in satire, comedy, and reflections on society.
This distinction begs the question: Are stereotypes necessary in media at all? Or only when they serve a distinct function?
Movies and television shows all use stereotypes for different reasons, but which are acceptable and ingenious, and which can be seen as reproachable and detrimental to society?
Television shows that misuse stereotypes are in eternal abundance. Take, for example, the show 2 Broke Girls, created in 2011. This sitcom is about two women, Max and Caroline, with no funds working at the same diner, trying to start their cupcake business. Most of the show’s humor comes from Max—a rough-edged girl from a poor neighborhood in Williamsburg, NY with a sharp tongue and wit.
Of the numerous off-color jokes she makes about people in the LGBT community, women, the disabled, and people of color, one of the first occurs in the second episode. Han Lee, a character depicted as her tiny, impotent, workaholic Korean boss, provides plenty of fodder for Max’s insensitive jokes. When Caroline points out that her nametag is misspelled, Han glumly says, “As a new boss, I am sucking it.” Max then says, “You can’t tell an Asian that he made a mistake. He’ll go in the back and throw himself on a sword,” followed by a laugh track.
This remark draws on the prejudice about Asian people being devastatingly uptight and serious. And what Max was referencing is called seppuku. Seppuku is ritualistic suicide practiced with a sword by samurai to avoid capture by the enemy or to honor their slain lords. More importantly, seppuku originated in Japan, which has nothing to do with Han, who is Korean, evoking the classic stereotype of all people from Asia being the same despite the vast range of cultures that exist on the continent.
Bawdy shows like Family Guy are built on offensive humor. These comedies have used racist, sexist, anti-LGBT jokes so many times, one often loses count. While many viewers find these jokes distasteful, they are a central part of the show’s fame and success. While this show is considered satire, viewers are divided on whether this is true. Fans of these shows scream “Yes!” because stereotypical jokes in the show are used to point out the ills of society by making fun of them. Critics say “No,” and for good reason.
If a show perpetuates a harmful perception instead of challenging it, then the racist, sexist, homophobic jokes are just offensive jokes used to shock the audience into laughing.
Some lines in Family Guy do, however, represent satire. For example, when one physically disabled character, Joe Swanson, is on the operating table after his debilitating accident, the doctor makes a call to his insurance company. The doctor tells the company that Joe’s ability to walk will be restored if he undergoes a $200,000 operation. We don’t get to hear what the insurance company says but we hear the doctor respond with “We got a wheelchair.” And “$60.” He then tells Joe, “They’re going with option B.”
This is an example of an accurate stereotype being effectively used for satire. The state of of the healthcare system in America is a deeply divided subject, but many people can agree that it is flawed. Medical insurance is supposed to help people receive the care they need, but insurance companies are notorious for trying to deny claims and save on health expenses when they can, sometimes to the detriment of their clients.
Satirizing this issue by depicting a health insurance company choosing to deny a person the ability to walk again because of the cost is being used to call out the practice of caring more about profits than customers.
Regardless, Family Guy normally (intentionally) runs on the side of tasteless humor. From a main character vomiting because they were intimate with a transgender character (unknowingly) to jokes about Asian women being poor drivers and the mannerisms of Italian men and African American women, there’s no shortage of humor that is used simply for laughs while reinforcing negative stereotypes. Without these tawdry jokes, the brunt of Family Guy’s humor wouldn’t have a leg to stand on.
While there is a lot of evidence to the contrary, satirical shows and sitcoms do use stereotypes effectively. Blackish, for example, is a sitcom about a black couple raising their four kids in an upper-middle class, predominantly white neighborhood. This show addresses and pokes fun at ideas and prejudices held by the black community in a way that isn’t underhanded or tasteless. The show’s creator, Kenya Barris, makes his audience reflect about why race relations are the way they are and why many black people think the way they do.
In a way, it helps black viewers assess and reflect on what it means to be black for the characters, themselves, and black people everywhere without making them a huge, rude joke. An excellent episode is “Please Don’t Ask, Please Don’t Tell.” The main character, Dre, talks about how homosexuality isn’t discussed in the black community. Dre’s sister, Rhonda, is a lesbian in a long-term relationship. Their mother, Ruby, is more traditional and unaccepting of the LGBT community and doesn’t know that her daughter is a lesbian. Dre’s wife, Rainbow (Bo), encourages the family to work through it, ending with Ruby accepting her daughter marrying a woman.
The writers went the extra mile, implicating deep-seated homophobia in the black community in a light, harmlessly humorous manner. This is one of the higher points of satire in the series, pointing out the absurd perception that some black people have on the LGBT community with absurd comedy (Ruby not letting Dre ever eat bananas as a kid for fear of him becoming gay).
Movies use stereotypes to subvert a popularly held perception or for shock humor as well. The Fifth Element is a very popular, cult classic from the late ‘90s. Set in the future, a cab driver named Korban Dallas has his life altered when a supreme alien life form, self-named “Leeloo,” literally crash-lands into his world, taking him on a journey to save the universe. While many love this movie, it isn’t without its stereotypes; namely, Chris Tucker’s character, Rudy Rhod.
Rudy Rhod is a well-known celebrity and show host in this universe. He embodies numerous stereotypes that provide comedic relief but also perpetuate harmful biases. He’s loud, rude, and cowardly, a composite of common prejudices about both black and LGBT people. Rudy Rhod reflects how society views gay men with his flamboyant mannerisms and outfits (despite the fact that he’s shown flirting and messing around with one of the female flight attendants).
His shrill screaming and cowardice when attacked by aliens called Mangalores doesn’t do his character any favors. The screenwriters and producers for The Fifth Element created Rudy Rhod primarily for laughs. After all, his presence has no bearing on the plot or the characters’ development and is an unnecessary insert.
Despite the routine use of negative stereotypes for cheap laughs in the TV and movie business, there are screenwriters that incorporate stereotypes in a way that empower others. Disney’s Mulan effectively uses stereotypes to flip a commonly held perspective about Asian women on its axis. Set in a time where women are forbidden from going to war, Mulan, a teenage girl, dresses as a male soldier named Ping to fight the Huns in place of her wounded father.
However, before this occurs, the audience sees her go through the customs of becoming the perfect bride-to-be and doing her duty to marry and serve her husband. Mulan is, in the opening sequence, primped and polished into a beautiful potential bride and presented to the Matchmaker, a very strict, grumpy woman. But, as writer Karen Durbin, pointed out in her article “FILM; A New, If Not Improved, Use of Stereotypes,” this iconic transformation removes all individuality from Mulan and she looks like all of the other potential brides in the scene.
The song “Reflection” shows the audience how unnatural being a demure, subservient bride was to Mulan, even though that was her “place” in society. The film goes on to show that Mulan seems more natural as a soldier than as a bride, and her growth as a shy, clumsy girl into a capable warrior takes centerstage.
When Mulan’s ruse falls, and she is revealed to be a woman, the army immediately shuns her, despite the bond they created when she was a “man,” leaving her on the mountainside alone. She and her companion, a feisty dragon named Mushu, travel alone to the city of the Emperor. She tries to warn people of an impending attack from the Huns but is ignored. When she says to Mushu, “No one is listening”, Mushu responds with “Huh,” not listening to her either. He also says, “What? You’re a girl now, remember?”
This funny exchange also provides some striking insights into the way women are viewed in society, and the stereotypical role that they have been relegated to.
Mulan also says one of the most important lines in the movie to Shang, “You’d listen to Ping. Why is Mulan any different?” The entirety of the argument against traditional gender roles is made in this one line. Women shouldn’t be inferior to men. The movie’s writers put the problem between gender differences right in the audience’s faces and challenges it all. These scenes aren’t in the movie for laughs or lame tension between genders but to point out the real problems that women face daily.
When stereotypes are used for satire or reflecting on aspects of culture that should be examined, they become a powerful, effective tool. When stereotypes are used for comedy, specifically low-brow humor, it simply feeds into the cycle of prejudice, discrimination, and oppression.
Stereotypes for the sake of laughs aren’t doing the piece any favors and just perpetuate the negative connotations attached to said perceptions, making them harder to abolish from society. When utilized correctly, stereotypes build depth and dimension to a piece and when clumsily used for shallow reactions, a controversial mess is created. Stereotypes in screenwriting is akin to having a saw in the tool shed; they’re dangerous and their use can help build anything or create a jagged mess.
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