Sans Stereotypes

In Commentary, FILM, THEATRE & TV, HOME by Hannah Oliver

In a recent class, my Politics lecturer showed us a PowerPoint slide with only two things on it. The first thing was the question: ‘What is Gender?’

The second was this table:


And it got me thinking outside of politics and about culture: how are men and women presented in the conventional culture we consume? When considering characters from mainstream film, theatre and television, I’d say that this table is pretty accurate. From Mad Max and Mamma Mia to The Breakfast Club and Back to the Future, this list describes many fictional characters almost perfectly according to their gender. When considering these characters from a detached perspective, it becomes clear that they are limited to preconceived perceptions of gender.

And trends in character traits on-screen apply to more than just gender identity. Take gay men, for example. Mainstream television programmes in which gay men aren’t depicted as stereotypically flamboyant, squeaky, Cher-loving ‘queens’ are still few and far between. Similarly, your archetypal TV lesbian is often portrayed as somewhat masculine. After all, the only lesbians that exist are strong, aggressive, and competitive – right?  And this televised stereotyping reaches beyond gender. To name but a few, racial minorities and people with disabilities are too often boxed into naïve (and generally incorrect) pigeonholes. Black men, for example, are often depicted as gun-toting, drug-dealing thugs, and people with disabilities are often portrayed as little other than victims.

But why does stereotyping matter? Simply put, stereotyping matters because it presents one-dimensional depictions of various types of people. If we don’t have much real-life contact with certain groups of people, we rely heavily on what we gain from ‘culture’; and if we’re being supplied with severely limiting information of inter-group diversity, then we might misunderstand them – and it is through this misunderstanding that ignorance, prejudice and discrimination are, themselves, cultured.

the-breakfast-club-DI-06Stereotypes a plenty in this fave cult classic of mine.

Where I’m from in Kent, the LGBT+ community isn’t very visible. So when I was spending one afternoon in the beer garden of the local pub chatting to a few villagers, I wasn’t surprised when one of them said, ‘I don’t think gay people should be allowed to have kids – I don’t trust those queers to step away from the mirror long enough to check their baby is still breathing.’ I asked him if he thought the same applied to lesbians. ‘Absolutely. It ain’t right, a kid being raised by a woman who’s trying to act like a man.’ Interestingly, this villager had seen me numerous times looking after a few of the local toddlers, once remarking that I’ll make an excellent mother someday.

I’m bisexual.

At the time, I brushed off the comment – but in hindsight I’ve come to realise that his slurs were most likely as a result of what he’s seen on the telly. If on-screen depictions of the LGBT+ community were more diverse and less generic, would he still uphold these views on us ‘queers’?

Jack MCFarland will & grace (2)For all their attributes Will & Grace and a whole lot of 90s sitcoms had their flaws.

And if this is the effect that media has on a white, male villager (who seems fairly comfortable in his own skin), I dread to think of the impact it could have on those in minority groups – especially those still growing up and developing their own identities. If a masculine, gay boy growing up always sees gay men depicted as effeminate, is he not likely to wonder whether he has a place in more traditionally masculine fields, such as sport and the army? If a black teenage girl always sees herself being depicted as the supporting role in a white woman’s story, is she not likely to question her self-worth, and why stories of people of colour are too often left untold? If a cisgendered, heteronormative man does not see a cisgendered, heteronormative man on television cry, emote, be romantic – is he not at risk of suppressing his emotions and potentially developing a masculinity complex?

And this isn’t just skepticism – these are questions based on truths rooted in the Western world. When athletes come out it still makes front page news; skin-lightening is still a popular process amongst women of colour; and suicide is the biggest cause of death among men under the age of 50. Our media needs to better reflect the diversity which exists within different groups in society – not only to help people realise they don’t need to be limited by stereotypes of gender, race, sexuality (etc and etc), but to help educate others in the diversity which exists within these groups of people.

This is not to overlook the fact that stereotypes are indeed beginning to be broken down on screen, and representation of both minority and majority groups are becoming more and more varied and developed.

Both Hermione and Emma owning the topic on-screen.

Diverse portrayals of women, for example are on the rise. In my lifetime alone, I’ve been lucky enough to have been influenced by an array of strong, multi-dimensional female characters. Looking back over my life, I can see a trail of self-assured women, from The Fault In Our Stars’ Hazel Lancaster to Scooby Doo’s Velma. The one that stands out for me though is Hermione Granger. Quietly confident, gently pushing against muggleborn discrimination, and famed for being smart rather than pretty, the lovely Miss Granger provided one heck of a role model for little Sophie. And I’m certainly not the only one to be affected by these sorts of characters – you only need to look at the cult followings of films such as Harry Potter and The Hunger Games to see how popular strong female heroines can be. It is characters such as these – alongside real people, such as J.K. Rowling and my mother – who have encouraged me to embrace my gender (and develop what that personally means to me) and to ignore those who try to hold me back because of it.

And feminist-friendly media isn’t alone – there are all sorts of programmes and films breaking down boundaries for the LGBT+ community, non-white ethnic communities, and more. Glee covers pretty much all of the above. Black people, Asian people, people with disabilities – the list goes on.  Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How To Get Away with Murder creator Shonda Rhimes has managed to both challenge and change perceptions of race and sexuality – simply by casting ethnic minorities and LGBT+ characters in roles traditionally assigned to white, heteronormative actors. Channel 4 is slowly trying to gnaw away at typecasts, with Skins and Hollyoaks. And even looking at, say, The Big Bang Theory and its approach to masculinity, it is clear that mainstream media is slowly trying to move away from the archaic on screen stereotypes that have been upheld for so long. Films like The Crying Game tackle numerous prejudices head on, and with a massive twist towards the end of the film, force the audience to confront their own.

jayedavidsonJaye Davidson being wonderful in The Crying Game (1992).

Nevertheless, for every series and film which challenges stereotypes, there are two which support them;there’s certainly still some way to go before on-screen stereotypes are a thing of the past and diverse representation is the norm. And there’s certainly still some way to go before we, as people, look past our gendered/ethnic/sexual differences and see each other for who we are – sans stereotypes.

Sophie O’Connor

Sophie is an aspiring journalist with a vivid imagination and far too much spare time. When she’s not pretending to study History and Politics, she can usually be found indulging her hobbies of drumming, face and body painting, and eating sprinkle sandwiches. Sophie is also a professional fangirl, so spends a significant amount of her time following McFly on tour and crying outside the Harry Potter Studios.

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(Image sourced from: here, here and here)