In class we discussed stereotypes that are present in all forms of media, and even in our every day lives. In the entertainment world, stereotyping helps people quickly understand a character or storyline. We can all quickly recognize the archetypes of the dumb jock, the underprivileged student or athlete trying to rise above their circumstances, and even the religious zealot that lives down the street. These stereotypes aid in the viewer’s understanding and are also helpful for the show’s writers, who often must fit a build-up, plot, and resolution into a 20-minute time slot. More and more, religious stereotypes are being intertwined into television programming.
In fact, stereotypes of religions are not only included in a television show’s storyline, sometimes they play a major role in providing the entertainment value. The stereotypes of religious people in broadcast television focus on any religious people that are current targets of pop culture, including Christians, Jews, Muslims, Atheists and others.
In a recent episode of the Simpsons, the classic pop culture phenomenon, a new family who happens to be Muslim moves into town, and Bart makes friends with the family’s son. Homer becomes aware of this, and, in his classic tactful manner, asks the family over for dinner to question them to see if they are terrorists or not. Although Bart finds "evidence" throughout the episode that proves the family must be terrorists out to destroy Springfield, in the end he is forced with the reality that they are just normal Joe's trying to have a happy life.
Although the stereotype is resolved as the potential terrorists are discovered to be just another family in the neighborhood, the whole entertainment value of the episode comes from Homer’s assumption that the stereotype is true. People can find this episode humorous because they can relate to the stereotype after recent events in the news. While the story is playing off what has happened (and is still happening) in our own culture, we must question the effect this has on the mindset of society towards various religious groups. Are episodes such as this reinforcing negative religious stereotypes in our mind (such as all Muslims are terrorists) and, as a result, turning us into intolerant people?
My husband's argument concerning the previous question is this: Shows like the Simpsons are just entertainment. The information presented is not necessarily accurate, and it doesn’t have to be. It is purposely offensive and must be very extreme to provide humor, which it does very well and people like it. Just because stereotypes are presented in television content, it doesn't necessarily mean that people are going to treat people the way Homer does if a religious family moves into their neighborhood.
I tend to be on the other side of the issue. As stereotypes about religious people are reinforced by a medium such as television, they are further implanted in our brains and make us more likely to act upon the stereotype when put in a related situation. This can lead to some uncomfortable situations and opportunities to misjudge people.
What do you think? Do stereotypes in television reinforce the negative ideas we may have against various religious people, or are they simply providing entertainment and not influencing us, at least not in a significant way?