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American Stereotypes in Film & Television: the Global Influence on Race

As a second part to her feature on The Help, Mayra David writes about the global impact of racial stereotypes in American films and television programs. Read Part 1, The Help: Perpetuating the Mammy Stereotype & Limiting Roles in Film, here.

Even with “stories that need to be told” (and for some, The Help is such a story), why is it important that people remain vigilant in critiquing what is put on movie screens, and vigilant about remaining always cognizant of what they are being asked to consume as entertainment? What is the danger in promulgating these images?

This is how stereotypes reinforce prejudice and how prejudice institutionalizes racism:

In their essay “Skull face and the Self-fulfilling Stereotype” Sociologists Lisa Wade and Gwen Sharp recount the experiences of a man known as Zombie, who, while going through a period of abject unhappiness, had his entire body tattooed to look like a rotting corpse. He sought to isolate himself from the world by disfiguring himself—only the result was more art than disfigurement and suddenly his world opened up as people approached him out of friendly curiosity, not repulsed at all by his appearance, but rather drawn to him and his life story. He became happier and engaged in society. Recently, he became acquainted with Lady Gaga, who asked him to appear in the video of her mega-hit song “Born This Way”. This spring, he modeled for Thierry Mugler’s runway show in Paris.

This, Wade and Sharp point out, “beautifully illustrates the power that others have to influence our attitudes and behavior.”

Now, what could happen if a person, or a group, was perceived with negative prejudice, reinforced by decades, centuries even, of stereotypical, derogatory images?

Wade and Sharp go on to ask: “How often was people’s treatment of others based on stereotypes, […]such that certain people would routinely experience bad treatment and low expectations? This might […] contribute to widespread social patterns of disadvantage for those already suffering from biased perceptions or cause unhappiness and self-doubt among negatively stereotyped individuals.”

Wade and Sharp draw upon results from a 1977 study on “Self Perception and Interpersonal Behavior”, which examined how a person’s treatment of another person, may impact that person’s behavior in response. The findings, Wade and Sharp point out, “indicate that we may leave interactions confident that our prejudices are valid, even though we elicited the behavior we expected to see. The more often we believe our prejudices have been validated, the more they shape our behavior and attitudes in patterned ways that reflect those stereotypes. It also shapes societies in patterned ways that enhance the lives of some…but strongly disadvantage others.”

Here, a real life demonstration of this idea—or, as educators may call it, a teachable moment:

Earlier this year the blogosphere and various other online media outlets exploded in outrage over a blog post on the Psychology Today website that purported to present evidence that black women are less attractive than women of any other race on planet earth. The writer of that particular piece, Satoshi Kanazawa, Ph.D., is an evolutionary psychologist and professor at the London School of Economics. Presumably a well-educated person. And yet, with his hopefully not inconsiderable learning, the only conclusion he was able to draw, from the Add Health study he was interpreting, as to why black women were less attractive than non-black women was this: testosterone. He says: “The only thing I can think of that might potentially explain the lower average level of physical attractiveness among black women is testosterone. Africans on average…” Et cetera. He continued briefly to wax scientific about hormones, and hormones net of intelligence and so on. It doesn’t bear repeating.*

Here is another thing he could have thought of, if he’d had half a mind to do so: He, as well the respondents in this study, have been pre-conditioned by racist archetypes and imagery passed on through films, etc. to find black women unattractive. In a response to this blog, another scientist on Psychology Today, Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D., had this rebuttal for his colleague: “Standards of beauty, like most other beliefs, are socialized and change not only from place to place but also over time. In both the United States and England, (where Kanazawa lives and works), standards of beauty are essentially ‘White’ standards, because whites comprise the majority of the population and have disproportional control over both media and fashion.” In other words, there is no evidence that black women are less attractive than women of other races, but there is evidence that a euro-centric standard of beauty has caused women who don’t fit that standard to experience pain and marginalization by having to be subjected to absurd “scientific” declarations that they are ugly.

It’s worth noting that the original title was “Why Are African American Women Less Physically Attractive than other Women”. This was later amended by the website administrators to “Why Are Black Women Rated Less Physically Attractive than Other Women, But Black Men are Rated Better Looking than Other Men?” (emphasis added). A fitting amendment considering that is actually what the study bore out, as opposed to the original title, which—it seems—only bears out the blogger’s personal racial bias. The title change goes a long way toward explaining the poor conclusions this self-described scientific fundamentalist came to, and also why he felt it acceptable to publish his esoteric musings that simply reflect centuries of degradation and denigration suffered by black women, as preserved in perpetuity on print, film and photo.

The original title is interesting in two ways. The first way is obviously in the word Are versus the word Rated—and all that this signifies. The second is perhaps a bit more abstract and lies in the author’s use of African American, later amended by the administrators to Black. Now, it is true that the Add Health Study is a federally funded, US-based study. However, Add Health uses the words Black, Asian, and so on in its graphs for the study. Also, the author Kanazawa is a London-based professor, and nowhere else in his post does he make specific references to the USA and US culture as significant to the study.

With the title amended, one couldn’t assume the study pertained only to the U.S., certainly Kanazawa doesn’t present it as such. It seems, along with the images of African Americans in our films, music, fashion, etc., the very idea of African American has also been disseminated throughout the world along the veins of the African diaspora.

On their website “Sociological Images”, Wade and Sharp showed a poster from Germany’s 2009 elections. The tag line beneath the image of white hands gripping a black man’s naked buttocks: “The only reason to vote black (political party colors).” During discussions of this poster online, with people in Germany, I noticed that some Germans were outraged at the treatment of Afro-amerikaner, and some wondered how the Afro-Amerikanischer model must have felt posing for the picture. Why not Afro-Deutscher, I wondered. Surely the German political party and their PR people did not hire an African American model to stand for the poster; surely they didn’t need to—there are many black people in Germany and Europe in general. And plane tickets are expensive.

The issue, I suspected lies in being able to accept that somebody can be American of African descent—most people have learned that through our movies, shows and music. But perhaps it is not as easily acceptable that somebody may be Black German or Afro-German. According to the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy, the term ‘Afro-German’ was not created until the 1980’s when the black feminist and lyricist Audre Lorde “worked together with the black German lyricist and pedagogue May (Opitz) Ayim and her associates…,” and they decided to define themselves, rather than be defined by others.

Black German writer and radio personality Noah Sow says in her book, “If you want to believe German media, racism exclusively exists somewhere else: in South Africa, the US, France. In Germany, there is no ‘racism’ among other reasons because all Germans are white. Quite convenient, but a lie.” How can there be public discourse about something that is not acknowledged to exist? She also founded “Der Braune Mob”, Germany’s first and only media watchdog specific to “issues of discriminatory and politically incorrect language, content or pictures, mainly in media and advertising.” Their website offers the German public helpful explanations for why it’s okay to use the term “black”, but not “colored” when referring to people of color; it also explains the term People of Color (PoC) and that it is also starting to be used by the German media as well.

With the huge volume of entertainment media and artists the United States exports worldwide, it stands to reason that for most of the world, Black America is a majority component of their media/images diet. In light of this, isn’t it reasonable to suppose that the US, especially as the leading exporter of images and rhetoric on racial politics, occupies a vanguard position in eliminating racism on a global scale?

“With great power comes great responsibility.” Everyone knows that: it was a big line in the Hollywood blockbuster movie Spider Man.

The impact American-made films and tv shows have and have always had on a global scale is incalculable. Obviously I don’t mean in box office numbers, but in the messages they have sent, both positive and negative. In his article “The Biggest Show in the World: Race and the Global Popularity of The Cosby Show”, Timothy Havens demonstrated “the ways in which televisual representations of race operate as a transnational discourse of social identity”. He says that, “apparently, skin colour signifies a certain class identity to international audiences, and The Cosby Show’s unconventional image of dark skin in upper-middle-class surroundings seems to have had broad global appeal.” “Broad global” as in across many races and cultures.

That “The Cosby Show” created largely positive messages and non-stereotypical characters is an unassailable fact. Newer African American shows, and certainly films like The Help, however, are (rightfully) seen more critically and dissected thoroughly. Stereotypes or racist story lines (or lack of story lines for non-white characters) are exposed, and at least debated. In the case of The Help, for instance, cultural critics have expounded every argument for and against it. Healthy social discourse is desirable, especially as it uncovers the fallacy that is “post-racial America”. The problem is, when such films are exported globally, the necessary and desirable discourse rarely accompanies it. As Noah Sow points out, her organization maybe the “first and only” media watchdog of their kind in Germany. And what about the rest of the world?

In recent times there has been a distinct, if soft, spotlight on the practice of using “skin whiteners” in some regions of the world, particularly around Asia. If this modern desire for whiter skin is a post-colonial attitude, then it follows that “whiteness” as standard of beauty (and life) was brought into these societies from the outside, i.e. Europe and America. “Whiteness” as a standard of all that is desirable in life continues to be exported internationally by white-centric media imagery, hence the Add Health Study statistics. The question is, are there cultural critics, media watchdogs like The Brown Mob, to give resistance to the influence of such images? Audiences around the world, that are historically and culturally removed from the American Civil Rights Movement, may see a film like The Help and extol its virtues as an anti-racism film. But, for the most part, women of color will still want to identify themselves exclusively with its white heroine—Who wouldn’t? She’s the special one. The one who gets to have the exciting future as a writer in New York. She is also the one to be emulated by young ladies, because she’s “different” from everybody around her in that she is spunky, independent and “making a difference”. Much like that other spunky, independent southern lady, Scarlett O’Hara.

The problem is that, in that film and even still today, a person of color would never be cast as Scarlett or any female lead role. Look at the fall lineup of the major network shows coming our way—everybody’s way, in fact. One big trend is “retro style” with shows in the vein of “Mad Men”. In other words, these are shows set in or around the 60’s, when America was still fully segregated. Is there space for the “other” Americans in these nostalgic, almost mythic versions of the country? Judging by the trailers for “Pan Am” and “The Playboy Club”, No.

In the US, at least, there are options for African American actresses/actors and there may be more soon. At least on the internet, there are several efforts on the way to produce such online networks as BBTV, or “Better Black TV” as an alternative to BET (Black Entertainment Television). There is also the much anticipated Bounce TV (co-founded by Martin Luther King III), launching at the end of the month, that is “the first African American broadcast television network”—an actual on-the-air channel, free to all.

Clearly, there is need and desire for more black-oriented programming. And there are advocates, activists and executives pushing for the necessary change in America. At same time that these are empowering developments, it is also discouraging that the mainstream networks seem to have missed the opportunity to make these positive changes themselves. There is a real sense of ownership to these upcoming websites and networks—they belong to Black America. Other racial demographics of America can turn to networks specific to them: Univision and Telemundo for Spanish-language content. And viewers of any other race or nationality can subscribe to “their shows” and import them via satellite or the internet.

1963 Civil rights demonstration in front of segregated theater—Tallahassee, Florida. From the Reference Collection of Florida Memory

So this is the actual trend for TV in the fall season of 2011: Segregation. And since the US is still the top exporter of film and TV programming around the world, that is what will be shown to the world. How may these shows, these images, be absorbed by audiences overseas?

To judge by the shelves of skin whiteners, they watch these shows, and they will identify with the white lead characters. And if those characters don’t look like them, then they’ll do their best to look like those characters, lest they be excluded from America and the privileges of being white.

Wade, Lisa and Sharp, Gwen. “Skull Face And The Self-fulfilling Stereotype”. The Society Pages.

McIntosh, Peggy. “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”.

Havens, Timothy. “‘The biggest show in the world’: race and the global popularity of The Cosby Show”. INDIANA UNIVERSITY.

Lyubansky, Mikhail, Ph.D. “Beauty May Be In The Eye of the Beholder, But Eyes See What Culture Socializes”. Psychology Today.

*Note: Satoshi Kanazawa, Ph.D.’s original article on Psychology Today was removed from their site due to the controversial nature of the material.


Mayra David
In addition to writing articles and book reviews, Mayra David writes short stories and novels. Well, so far, just one novel. But she does have several short stories and they are indeed short. She lives in New York City with her husband, books, and laptop.
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  • Y. S. Rice

    Wow, this was a very interesting and in-depth article, about an issue that is unfortunately still a problem to this day. It is my personal opinion that stereotypes of all sorts need to be put to rest in this modern day – a view that has only been strengthened by my travelling and meeting people from those countries that we in the US love to mock most; the UK, Germany, France, Poland, et al. All of these people were (with few exceptions) wonderful and interesting, and few lived up to the mental images that we have lined up. I myself am white, blonde, and blue-eyed, and yet I have suffered my fair share of stereotyping and xenophobia based on my nationality, and religion. So, please do keep bearing the torch on this issue.

    I do hope it isn’t too shameless for me to briefly plug my recent blog post about Anglo-American views of each other here: http://publicunintellectuals.blogspot.com/2011/09/welcome-all-top-of-news-1992011.html
    Do note that my blog takes a very satirical tone with the issue, unike the very informative article above. Also note that anything written by Jester is best ignored by all.

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