Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Stereotyping in TV: Is it Helping or Hurting?

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?


  1. I definitley see both sides: people aren't necessarily going to go out and start treating Muslim's bad because of a single television comedy show. However, this tv show is just one contributor to the wider spread stereotype of Muslim's as torrorist, left alone, "the bad guy." Though I think that one episode won't cause a drastic effect, I think that every time we see this kind of stereotyping it starts to become implanted in our minds that this is the way it is--Muslim's are violent and cause harm.

    I think stereotyping is great for producers because if we all "know" that Muslim's are the bad guys, then they can spend less time explaining that in their production and more time on getting on with the story. I think this is unfortunate for Muslim's who are grouped into this bad guy stereotype because it associates normal people as the enemy, which in most cases, is not true.

    My sister sent me a few political emails against Muslims and it would have seemed a normal, rightful thing for her to do had I not just had a Muslim speaker just come to a class I was in and tell us about herself and her religion. She was a great person. In the end a few people choose bad and give a bad name to others and it's an unfortunate thing for them, and for the rest of us who are decieved on the true nature of most of these people we think are the "bad guy."

  2. By the way, that last post was written by Stephanie Walton...Thanks!

  3. I do think that some stereotypes in television reinforce the negative ideas we may have against religions. However, it's a little more complicated than negative or entertainment.

    Over this Christmas I was talking to my aunt about how I learned that Islam and Mormonism share many commonalities and she said things I would never expect from her: "all Muslims are terrorists that should be watched and feared-- they are creeping into our society and will take over America."

    I understand there are terrorist who are Muslim, but the stereotype set by 911 is incredibly unfair to those good people who would never have done something so vile, but unfortunately they are the ones who suffer the stigma.

    Which leads me back to the Simpsons episode. If anything, it is the American stereotype of being overly judgmental towards Muslims that is being examined. After all, the humor is not found in the Muslim reaction, but in Homer's overreaction to them. I think in its own comedic way it is doing a good thing by showing people how crazy they look/act when they stereotype someone right away without getting to know them.

    But I think that it is all about how religious stereotypes are portrayed and who is watching it. Two people can watch the same show and leave with two different ideas. I would watch the Simpsons as more entertainment/positive stereotype while my aunt would see how the lengths Homer had to go to to protect his family against the evil Muslims (and she'd be convinced that the Muslim family were spies out to destroy Springfield). It's all relative I guess.

    Stephanie M.

  4. Booya, I love Homer Simpson.
    So, in answer to your question- I think that the stereotypes definitely effect us, whether we realize it or not. Especially through television. As I watch TV, I never think to myself "I am being influenced and learning things right now." But in hind-sight, things that I have gathered from TV have comprised at least a chunk of who I am. This includes stereotypes I have seen. For example- I don't know much about Eastern religions- but when I think of them, I do think of the Mr. Miagi and Dahli Lama images that have come across different tv programs.

  5. I think that many of us would like to think that stereotypes like the one you described do not have a negative impact on our thoughts or ideas about other religions but I think they do to an extent. I think a lot of what determines the impact, has to do with how well educated the individual is about other religions.
    I will be the first to admit that I know very little about other religions, especially those outside Christianity. So by viewing television shows that stereotype religions, that may be the only information I have, and I could see myself making assumptions about those religions based on what I have seen.
    I don’t think that this is right, but I do think that it happens. That is why it would be the individual’s responsibility to further study and come to know of what the religion really teaches, beyond that of what they see on TV.
    I think the key is to try and be aware of the fact that these stereotypes are being made, so each person can contemplate and decide if the stereotype is in accordance with what you have found and what you think to be true.

  6. My roommate is Muslim.I am not.He prays 5 times a day. I don't. I meditate . He doesn't.I prey to an idol . He preys to an invisible Allah.I don't eat beef. He does, and i read the Geeta whereas he reads the Koran.

    You would imagine then, that we probably want to blow each other up to the heavens where he would get lucky with 72 virgins and i would achieve eternal bliss or "Moksha". But you would be surprised, because even though we have significant differences in our religious beliefs and lifestyles, we tend to get along just fine.

    I cant tell you the number of times we have had interesting debates on religion, both his and mine and it is very hard for me to recall even one incident where we haven't found some common ground.

    This is a very different image to the one portrayed by the American media where Muslims are often butting heads with the Christians or the Jews. Muslims are usually shown as the gun hauling, America hating, Jew killing lunatics who think they are doing gods work by killing innocent civilians.

    To an extent, i understand this fear that Americans, in general, have of a bearded man with a turban on his head. It is easy to fear something you don't fully understand or comprehend.

    More importantly, it is easy to make snap judgments about the theology/ practices of that which you don't appreciate, based on what is readily available(T.V Shows, Certain news networks, images in movies)rather than taking the time to know the religion in its relative totality.

    I think extreme religious stereotypes affect us because they feed of the ignorance of those who generalize and are unwilling to invest the time and effort needed to fully grasp the complexity of the religion and/or the political/economic background of its practitioners.

    Therefore, if I was to watch the Simpson's, or 24 or any other major T.V show, and i didn't know much about Islam, i would be pretty convinced that the middle eastern guy sitting next to me on my Trans Atlantic flight had TNT strapped to his underwear.

  7. Stereotypes in television do sometimes reinforce negative ideas we have against other religions. You can see this in the show 24, where many of the "terrorist" are of a Middle East descent. But I think many people in society may already have these types of stereotypes and then these are unconsciously reinforced through the media. Especially when we see them over and over again on TV.

    But, it is interesting to note that in this episode of the Simpsons, it seems that Homer was proven wrong. His stereotype was incorrect, and I think that happens a lot in sitcoms. A new character is introduced who may have a certain type of stereotype because he is of a certain religion and then the other characters in the show go about trying to figure out if he is in fact this way and find out they were wrong. This may in fact push people to believe that perhaps stereotypes we have are incorrect.

    I, like many of those who have already commented, do not get offended most of the time by this type of stereotyping unless it is extreme or done with poor taste. And I think many of us would be more offended if they stereotyped a religion that we are close to. But then again, I feel myself sometimes laughing at the stereotyped "Christian" in some sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory.

    Sitcoms are meant to be funny and entertain. I think most of us, on the other hand, would be very offended if the news came out and started stereotyping people. (Some may remember the Newsweek that came out about LDS.)

    So while sitcoms do stereotype, in general, I think it may reinforce a little more stereotyping, but because of the medium, many people do not take it seriously. I know I don't trust much that it is on sitcoms and don't take much else they say about everyday life seriously.

  8. I think religious stereotypes in the media are used mostly to be funny and as stated in the blog post as a way to tell a story more quickly in a 20 minute time segment. I grew up with friends of many different faiths and I tended to rely more on my experiences with them then I did on what the media tells me.

    The same goes with being Mormon. There are lots of stereotypes about it in the media but I tend not to take offense because as people get to know people who really are Mormon then they change their stereotype. So overall, I don't think having stereotypes in the media is a bad thing because it makes others aware that the religion exists and raises questions. And I believe that ultimately we fall back on our own personal experiences rather than what the media says.

    Andrea Wiser

  9. I also can see the two sides of the debate. On one side, people have to understand that shows like The Simpsons are simply entertainment, and they are not the only ones pushing the topic of religious stereotyping. Stereotypes are just a method that we are able to distinguish different things in our minds, and they create shortcuts so we can get back to that information if it is presented to us again.

    I think that what could fuel this negative religious stereotypes is simply controversy. People remember things that are a little disheartening, things that we don't agree with / make us uncomfortable / express a strong emotion. Unfortunately, when there is a group of people who are struck by the same emotion caused by (in this case) religion due to the religious affiliations of people who do things we don't like (ie: terrorists, or for other people, LDS missionaries that they don't want coming to their door).

    I don't think negative religious stereotyping is ever going to leave, and I think that as Americans we have become so comfortable in our world that we don't necessarily take to heart the content that is displayed on a blatantly fictional show like The Simpsons. I think if the show or series was something that posed as a documentary, but was actually fictional, people might be influenced more. I would have to agree with Andrea though - people tend to use their own personal experiences with certain religious affiliations rather than turn to the media for clarification. However, if there is a group leader / someone who is influential in your life, that could cause the stereotypes to escalate without personal experience.

    Chelynne Renouard

  10. I think how much these cartoons and television shows have an effect depends upon the viewer.
    For children, younger teenagers and even some young adults, these television shows are dipicting to what these impressionable audiences may see as the 'norm'. I believe that these age groups follow trends they see on television, mainly because that is not only what's 'cool', but what is socially acceptable and normal.
    For older teens, and adults, I believe we are more aware of the media, its influence, and the accuracy of which is portrayed based on reality. At this point we no longer look to the television on how to act, or even to understand how others act.

    Sarah Jean Wett

  11. The Simpson's was always a family staple growing up. I have always been on the middle ground on the question posed. I believe the intent of the creators of the show use the Simpson's as a commentary vehicle on American culture. Of course it is extremely exaggerated for a shock and entertaining value but it is a venue used to send a subtle message to Americans as to how shallow and lazy we are, perceived by Matt Groening. Homer represents the American middle class father and his treatment of minorities and religions makes one have to take a step back and say "that's funny, but is there a crumb of truth to it?" I believe the creators look at this and use it perhaps as a mock exposure of how we really are while subtly encouraging change within the viewer.