The Terrifying Power of Racial Stereotypes in Popular Media – And What Hollywood Can Do To Become More Inclusive

Media and pop culture both play an immense role in shaping how people see the world. On average, teenagers consume nine hours a day of media – and adults 15.5 hours (scholars.org), and biased media portrayals of racial groups and ethnicities cannot be dismissed as mere “entertainment,” especially not if their impact on the youth is taken seriously. 

Researchers from Indiana University have found that prolonged television exposure predicts a decrease in self-esteem for girls and black boys, yet an immediate increase in the self-esteem of white boys. These differences correlate with the racial and gender practices in Hollywood, which predominantly casts white men as lionhearted, womanizing heroes, which erases or subordinates other groups as villains, tedious sidekicks, or sexual objects. 

Growing up, my father and brothers were overly fond of watching action movies – which is a genre that my mother and myself never looked forward to on family movie night. This was because of the misrepresentation of women (particularly those of color) as “damsels in distress,” waiting to be reduced by a dashing and courageous white male protagonist. White men were always portrayed as having such Herculean demeanors, while the “token” colored “sidekick” was portrayed in a rather subdued light, with hardly any important screen time and dialogue. Most of the time colored sidekicks were used for comedy relief, including stereotypes like ghetto, nerds, or unintelligent people. Inaccurate or stereotypical portrayals of characters in the media can create biases among viewers which then may translate into real life. 

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Nonetheless, racial stereotyping extends beyond cliché action movies. Children’s films and movies comprise multiple racial stereotypes, ranging from the crows in Dumbo to the siamese twin cats in Lady and The Tramp. The main crow character in Dumbo is called “Jim Crow” and was voiced by a white male (Cliff Edwards) “talkin’ jive”. The entire crow scene can be likened to the animated equivalent of a minstrel show. In Lady and the Tramp, the “Siamese Cat Song” which plays when the two Siamese cats enter into the room with Lady, is a racist caricature of what white people thought of Asian people at the time. Their names are racist (“Si” and “Am”), their design is racist (those teeth), their voices are racist (that broken English and accent), and the music is racist (that gong). The Siamese cat characters are to be scrapped from the upcoming Lady and The Tramp remake. Noticing the differences between the portrayals of Belle in Beauty and the Beast and Jasmine from Aladdin also was completely bizarre to me. Here we had Belle, a white protagonist who was an intellectual with an incredibly headstrong nature – and then Jasmine, an Arabian princess, who wore skimpy Arabic belly dancer-like clothing throughout the entire movie and was portrayed in an overtly seductive light. 

The Impact of Harmful Portrayal of Racial and Ethnic Minorities in the Media

Beyond specific elements on particular groups of viewers, racial images packaged as entertainment can skew the way all viewers understand and categorize people. Popular media can have a negative impact on whites’ perception of people of color and racial stereotypes in film and television can exacerbate existing racist fears. “Subtle patterns of nonverbal behavior that appear on popular television programs influence racial bias among viewers”, according to research from Tufts University to appear in the December 18, 2009, issue of the journal Science. “The Science study authors examined black and white characters whose status and positive attributes, such as likability and intelligence, could be roughly equated. For each of 30 characters, they edited brief clips to remove both the audio track and the featured black or white character, so it was possible to see how the “target” character was treated without actually seeing that character. Judges, who had not previously watched the shows, rated the extent to which the unseen characters were treated positively and liked by the other characters. Compared with black characters, white characters elicited significantly more favorable nonverbal responses. Nonetheless, the studies did not examine why biases in the programs occur.

Where there is a lack of contact between racial groups, people tend to rely on solely media stereotypes to formulate ideas about people outside of their own race. For instance, stereotyped depictions of Latinx people in the media can lead audiences to associate immigration with increased unemployment and crime. Furthermore, the media’s tendency to fuel racial misperceptions can contribute to public support for harsher punishments for people of color. 

As the world becomes more racially ambiguous, Hollywood must follow suit in order to keep up with a world that is becoming more accepting and racially ambiguous. From the depiction of darker-skinned black women as being tough, masculine, or simply villains to light-skinned black (and often biracial) actors and actresses given preference for larger protagonist on-screen roles. Change in Hollywood is long overdue. 

Hollywood Can Take Corrective Actions

Diversity may be a buzzword in Hollywood, but participation by people of color continues to lag behind that of our caucasian counterparts. Hollywood must adopt new strategies in order to create increased inclusivity. Studios can work to diversify Hollywood’s employment and content by establishing responsibility structures, including specific committees, staff positions, and hiring plans dedicated to increasing representation of people of color. By just doing that, research shows could help boost racial diversity in workplaces, particularly at the managerial level. Only structural change can truly lead to progress.

Hollywood must also ensure that it gives originally colored roles to people of color. Hollywood has infamously given colored roles to “sought-out” white actors and actresses. Scarlett Johansson played the role of Motoko Kusanagi in the 2017 film “Ghost in Shell.” Being a white woman playing a female Asian character, this created lots of nationwide controversy and backlash. But this is not the only time Hollywood has been accused of “whitewashing” colored characters. Angeline Jolie was also given the role of Mariane Pearl in “A Mighty Heart.” (2007)  a character of Afro-Cuban descent. Ben Affleck played Antonio J. Mendez in “Argo”, a character of Mexican-American descent. The list goes on and on. 

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But why is it important that whitewashing stops happening in movies? Because people mentally and emotionally need media representation. This has been clear for decades. If film roles continue to be whitewashed, children will keep developing unhealthy conceptions of racial equality. However, if children see more positive and empowering depictions of POC – especially in film and television – it will undoubtedly begin to have a powerful effect, as many celebrities have attested to. Whoopi Goldberg has stated many times that Nichelle Nichols’ presence on Star Trek in the 1960s – as one of the first black actresses on television – greatly influenced her self-esteem. Denzel Washington gained success in part due to his mentorship by Sidney Poitier – the first black man to win the Oscar for Best Actor. Recently, at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors, Gina Rodriguez paid tribute to Rita Moreno for providing a positive role model for Hispanic women on the big screen.

In an ever more racially diverse world, Hollywood’s ability to include different racial and ethnic groups is pivotal. Industry leaders must take responsibility for diversity problems, and white elites should not hide shortfalls behind a facade of “colorblind tolerance” (the idea that ignoring or overlooking racial and ethnic differences promotes racial harmony). Demographic changes and an ever-expanding international box office will pressure  Hollywood to diversify, but not necessarily to overhaul longlasting relevant barriers – unless more concerted efforts are made. As Viola Davis stated in her 2015 Emmy award acceptance speech, “If they exist in life, then we should see it on TV. We should see it on stage or on the screen. As many people are out there are as many stories that should be being told.” 

Today, movies which “stereotype” and “whitewash” receive immense amounts of global backlash from international users on social media platforms and forums. Thus, the question must be raised: if whitewashing and stereotyping neither helps nor hinders a movie’s financial success, why not just get rid of it altogether? The trend is offensive, racist, harmful, oftentimes historically false, and economically unremarkable. Hopefully, Hollywood will begin realizing this soon and end its history of whitewashing once and for all.


Sources: 

https://scholars.org/contribution/how-racial-stereotypes-popular-media-affect-people-and-what-hollywood-can-do-become

https://theconversation.com/the-terrifying-power-of-stereotypes-and-how-to-deal-with-them-101904

https://www.huffpost.com/entry/26-times-white-actors-played-people-of-color-and-no-one-really-gave-a-sht_n_56cf57e2e4b0bf0dab313ffc

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stereotypes_of_Hispanic_and_Latino_Americans_in_the_United_States

https://www.scmp.com/news/world/united-states-canada/article/2084137/asian-american-group-slams-scarlett-johanssons

https://www.digitalspy.com/tv/a863844/racism-movie-tv-stereotypes/

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/05/120530100105.htm

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/12/091217141310.htm

https://www.lifehacker.com.au/2019/12/ask-lh-are-the-crows-in-dumbo-racist/

https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/fall-2009/colorblindness-the-new-racism


Aanya Khan

Writer, Editor, Artist, Poet

Aanya Khan is a 16-year-old aspiring architect from Pakistan. She spends her time creating art and designs as well as educating herself on various global current affairs. She likes to look to use new and innovative platforms to spread awareness, messages, and information to our community – whether that be through art, science, maths, poetry, or literature.

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