Following the success of the film M*A*S*H (1970), the war parody depicting life during the Korean War for a group of drafted doctors, was adapted for TV. When the show ended in 1983 after it’s eleven-year run, it was the most watched season finale of all time. M*A*S*H not only satirized the military and the American government, but various American personalities. Best example: Major Frank Burns. A wealthy, patriotic gun lover, the conservative doctor constantly bragged about having his own practice “back in the States,” quoted from the Bible, and quipped about his strict wife while having an affair with another major.
In the second season episode titled “The Chosen People,” the following exchange takes place in the operating room:
HAWKEYE: Frank, by a strange coincidence, the inhabitants of Korea communicate in Korean. It wouldn’t hurt us to speak their language.
FRANK: I speak American. And I can go any place in the world.
TRAPPER: We can have you packed in 20 minutes.
HAWKEYE: We’re living in Korea, Frank.
FRANK: Not me, fella! I’m part of the American military establishment. I eat in an American mess, I shop in an American Px. All I want to do is save these people and go home.
DR PAC: And we thank you from the bottom of our bomb craters.
Twenty three years after the last M*A*S*H aired, from the minds behind Saturday Night Live blossomed 30 Rock. Quirkier than M*A*S*H was ever allowed to be, 30 Rock not only pokes fun at the American conservative, but the American liberal as well. Like Frank Burns, the portrayal of characters on 30 Rock skirt the line between reality and fiction. Yes, some wealthy conservatives said President Obama could actually be from Kenya, but none have an invisible AMEX card or “whip pennies at the drum circle” in Central Park.
But what do these political portrayals accomplish?
The depiction of the extremes for comedic reasons makes the stereotypes all the more apparent to the viewer. In one of the most brilliant episodes of 30 Rock, “Brooklyn Without Limits,” we see Liz Lemon obsessing over how socially conscious her new jeans company is, only to discover it’s owned by Halliburton, while Jack tries to aid a conservative Tea-Party-esque politician, he realizes that someone who wants to put casino’s on the moon should not actually be elected to Congress.
Plus, we learn that Che Guevara’s great grandfather was Domingo Halliburton and liberals should really find someone else to wear ironically on t-shirts.
I will admit, up until last night I was under the impression that ABC’s sitcom Modern Family was the depiction of exactly that – a modern family. The show about three families, all related, one the traditional two parent/three children structure, another the marriage of an older man and a younger woman, and lastly the partnership between two men raising an adopted daughter. (Watch the preview here.)
The relationship between Sofia Vergara’s sexy, passionate Latina character and Ed O’Neill’s stoic American male provides a lot of laughs, while satirizing the stereotypes of each personality. The gay couple raises their daughter with love, perhaps overzealously so at times, and the representation of the “drama queen” gay man à la Will and Grace style is equally amusing. Check out the Lion King introduction ceremony below:
All this is fine, well and good, ABC has created another parody of family life in America while seemingly pressuring it’s viewers to accept non-traditional family structures. Some may feel Modern Family is pushing too hard to this end, posting videos on Youtube titled Modern Family: ABC’s homosexual propaganda show.
However, in a presentation for another class at The New School, a student pointed out that despite showing alternative lifestyle families in primetime, ABC has presented us with little more than a renovated version of Full House. The students explained that of the three families, only the traditional middle aged couple are shown in any sexual situations (the kids walk in on them). The other two couples are rarely seen even kissing. Also, it is the case that in all three families one parent stays home to raise the children while the other is the breadwinner.
I had come to the realization that Modern Family is only modern on the surface.
But I then asked myself, in America where the surface is often all we see, where the “widely held” perceptions are the means by which we understand reality, is this show modern enough?
I think the answer is yes. The stereotypes remain the source for much of the comedy, thus allowing us to be more aware of them, while the familial structures sneak by garnering more acceptance over time. There is a lot the creators of Modern Family could do to become a better representation of America’s more modern families, and hopefully in time they can do that, but until then perhaps another awkward Dad will have to do.
My Mom always said “never talk politics or religion in mixed company.” Clearly TV show creators have never heard this saying.
In Season 5 of Bones, the forensic laboratory that provides the background for Fox’s procedural drama, goes about solving crimes with the aid of rotating interns, one of whom is a devout Muslim. In previous episodes the audience sees Arastoo Vaziri taking time from solving murders to pray; as a regular viewer of this show, I often felt that this depiction could be interpreted as the character putting his faith before catching the bad guy. At a time when Americans are already wary of Islam, the portrayal of a Muslim stopping a criminal investigation so he can worship might not be the best way to encourage familiarity with the religion. In a fit of anger Vaziri accidently drops his accent and it is revealed that he is not actually Middle Eastern but American-born. The blog Muslim Media Review explains it best saying, “he reveals that affecting a foreign accent allows him to avoid questions from his mostly nonreligious colleagues about his religion. In other words, scientists would accept that a “fresh off the boat” Third Worlder would cling to archaic religious beliefs but they would be less tolerant of a religious scientist who grew up in the United States. The episode ends with a rather honest conversation about Arastoo’s religious beliefs and practices.”
What could have formally been percieved as a negative portrayal of Muslims became more of a question about the characteristics of the absolutist scientist/atheist.
If you have Netflix, you can view the episode here.
Bones was able to turn around their poor representation of Muslims but this is often not the case when TV shows are dealing with religion. When it comes to religion, chances are, you will always be offending someone (perhaps sometimes on purpose). In HBO’s southern vampiric drama True Blood, set in an alternate version of America where vampire’s have “come out of the coffin,” the Fellowship of the Sun mega-church leads the national conversation in anti-vampire politics.
If you are from the south, chances are, you have probably seen an ad somewhat like the picture to the left; mega-churches are a steadily growing enterprise throughout the US. And we all heard Pat Robertson blame Hurricane Katrina on all the sin in New Orleans — it was God’s wrath and what not. True Blood‘s creator’s certainly knew who they using as their frame of reference when they wrote the Fellowship of the Sun into the plot, but are the portrayals accurate? As a liberal who has met my fair share of born-again Christians, I would say yes… to a point. But this is perhaps when stereotypes go astray — by being too accurate.
Personally, I am a huge fan of True Blood and think the Fellowship of the Sun story arc was a fantastic addition to the second season. Besides, its HBO, they push buttons. Why else would you pay for it?
High schoolers singing show tunes and renditions of Fleetwood Mac, a white guy rapping “Bust a Move,” teenage dramas about love lost and lead solos… Who would watch this premise? Pretty much everyone it seems. Glee’s post Super Bowl episode drew 26.8 million viewers and its weekly average hovers around 9 to 10 million viewers.
So what’s so special about this group of high schoolers living in Lima, Ohio? To use Sue Sylvestor’s — world-reknown cheerleading coach of Cheerios squad — roll call, “Santana. Wheels. Gay kid. Asian. Other Asian. Aretha. Shaft.”
Has Ohio always had this many minorities in one school? In the small group of 12 or so students participating in show choir two are Jewish, two are Asian, two are black (in the first season), two are gay (in the second season, only one openly so), one Latina and one is paralyzed from the waist down.
The brilliance of the of Glee is in its use of stereotypes, where it layers not only adult perceptions — both Asian’s are on the academic decathlon team — with traditional high school labels like nerd, jock, goth, and diva. Can you have a goth Asian girl? A Jewish jock who sings Neil Diamond songs? The gay kid wins the football game for the team?
The expected stereotypes are all still there, of course. While Mercedes (curvy black diva) is hanging out with Kurt (gay) and Blaine (somewhat less obviously gay) she hallucinates literal femininity coming from the two men:
Created by Ryan Murphy, the same guy who also brought us Nip/Tuck, Glee undoubtedly pushes boundaries; now in its second season, we’ve seen two boys making out, teen pregnancy, and witnessed the repercussions of underage drinking all while bopping along to Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” and Justin Bieber’s “Baby.”
One would guess Glee’s audience would be primarily tweens who’ve never heard many of the original songs remixed on Fox’s dramedy, but as New York Magazine’s culture blog Vulture pointed out in March, the average age of a Glee viewer comes in around 38.
The result we find in this mesh of hormones, adult problems and endearing performances (see: John Lennon’s “Imagine” duet with students from nearby school for the deaf ) is audiences welcoming these characters into their homes, and like any good television show, Glee challenges our “widely held” perceptions without us even realizing it and reiterates to the younger audiences that high school labels only exist in high school. Murphy skillfully balances the serious to ridiculousness, parody to reality, in such a way that the impact of both become magnified, and we realize it’s ok to be a loser.
When Will and Grace debuted in 1998 it was the first primetime sitcom to give us the gay man-straight woman combo as the leading characters, and was largely the instigator of the pop cultural wave that brought homosexuality into the average American household. This clip, from the 6th season episode titled “A-Story, Bee-Story,” is the perfect example of the ability of parody and satire to evoke stereotypes while making fun of the audience for believing them in the first place.
In this clip, Jack (Sean Hayes) is expressing his anger at Karen (Megan Mullally), who tried to help him cheat in the gay spelling bee, first by offering to write the words on her breasts, then by shouting out the letters during the contest. In the secondary story line, Grace (Debra Messing) has decided to leave the country for a while with her husband Leo (Harry Connick Jr.), leaving Will (Eric McCormack) without her an indefinite time period. The whole clip is pretty fantastic, but you’ll want to hit it 7:35 through about 8:30.
stereotype |ˈsterēəˌtīp; ˈsti(ə)r-|
1 a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.
a person or thing that conforms to such an image.
2 a relief printing plate cast in a mold made from composed type or an original plate.
— Dictionary application on my MacBook
Television writers and producers use stereotypes when creating characters for their programs – shocking news, I know. Despite being “widely held,” the use of stereotypes are largely denied because, well, “judge not, lest ye be judged” and all. But as functioning human beings in a multicultural society the bottom line persists; we all subscribe to various stereotypes, it’s how we take in and evaluate the world around us. Television is no different. When we sit down in front of our LCD flatscreen’s, laptops or iPads we expect a fictionalized version of reality to appear before us, but our understanding of that reality functions in the same way as it does while we’re sitting in the corner of Starbucks, we still see people in the same basic lights. For a television program to appeal to an audience it must, on some level, fit into our perception of reality.
Stereotypes are necessary on television; the differences between good TV and bad TV, positive stereotypes and negatives, harmless and hazardous, is a tricky line to walk (and perhaps even harder to find).
I feel that ultimately it is the show’s ability to successfully portray a character that audiences understand while simultaneously taking steps past the stereotype in some way, that separates the good from the bad.
In the following series of posts I will attempt to define some of these differences, to point out the positives and the negatives and justify my argument that we need stereotypes in entertainment.