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Recognizing Stereotypical Images of African Americans in Television and Movies

Essay by review  •  November 7, 2010  •  Research Paper  •  4,500 Words (18 Pages)  •  2,189 Views

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Contents of Curriculum Unit 96.03.05:

* Narrative

* Lesson Plan

* Lesson Plan

* Lesson Plan

* Notes

* Films

* Television Shows

* Children's Reading List

* Teachers Bibliography

To Guide Entry

The practice of racial stereotyping through the use of media has been used throughout contemporary history by various factions in American society to attain various goals. The practice is used most by the dominant culture in this society as a way of suppressing its minority population. The Republican parties use of the Willie Horton image in the 1988 Presidential campaign, is a small example of how majority groups have used racial stereotyping in the media as a justifiable means to an end. The book Unthinking Eurocentrism by Stam and Shohat supports this notion when they write "the functionality of stereotyping used in film demonstrates that they (stereotypes) are not an error in perception but rather a form of social control intended as Alice Walker calls "prisons of image."(1)

The modern usage of the word stereotype was first introduced in 1922 by American journalist Walter Lippman in his book Public Opinion. The major thesis of this book is that in a modern democracy political leaders and ordinary citizens are required to make decisions about a variety of complicated matters that they do not understand. "People believe that their conceptions of German soldiers, Belgian priests, or American Klu Klux Klansman for example are accurate representations of the real members of those classes . . . the conception in most cases is actually a stereotype acquired by the individual from some other source other than his direct experience."(2)

Historically the "other source" people developed racial stereotypes were from literature and then radio. In 1933 Sterling Brown the great black poet and critic, divided the full range of black characters in American literature into seven categories; the contented slave; the wretched freemen: the comic Negro; the tragic mulatto; the local color Negro; and the exotic primitive. Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. speaks of Dr. Brown's work in the article TV's Black World Turns but Stays Unreal. "It was only one small step to associate our public negative image in the American mind with the public negative social roles that we were assigned to and to which we were largely confined."(3)

In contemporary American society the most affective way in which stereotypes are perpetuated is through the mediums of film and television. Images from these mediums constantly bombard American children with negative and unrealistic portrayals of African-American life or deny the existence of African-Americans in a "true" American society at all. The use of racial stereotyping is destructive to American society on two fronts. First it connotes to the majority population of America that the negative actions of a few minorities sum up the collective values of the whole minority community. For example, in urban America to be a mugger is synonymous with being African American or Hispanic. As a result of media images, the immediate image we accept as norm is that of whites being mugged by blacks and Hispanics. While of course, black and Hispanic men have mugged whites, to have this be a dominant image goes against many national and local crime statistics. Discussing racial imaging in the book Questioning the Media, Ash Corea explains "stereotypes seek to portray African-Americans as a "problem" in an otherwise harmonious country."(4)

Stam and Shohat explain "the mark of the plural" in Unthinking Eurocentrisim. They explain how "the mark of the plural" projects colonized people as all the same, any negative behavior by any member of the oppressed community is instantly generalized as typical, as pointing to a perpetual backsliding toward some negative essence. Representations thus become allegorical."(5) They further explain how stereotyping "of other communities participate in a continuum of prejudicial social policy and actual violence against disempowered people placing the very body of the accused in jeopardy."(6) The nationwide manhunt for the fictitious black killer of Susan Smith's children supports their assertion.

The second effect of stereotyping is that the group being stereotyped begins to internalize the negative images and actually mimic some of the behavior and attitudes portrayed in the negative imagery. One of the most famous examples of internalization of stereotypes is the experiment first used in the case of Brown vs. the Board of Education. In this experiment black children were shown almost identical dolls, the only difference being skin color (one black, one white). When the children were asked which dolls were pretty, nice, smart, clean, etc. child after child pointed to the white doll. However, when asked which doll was ugly, dumb, dirty or evil the black doll was almost always selected.

I have been a 5th grade school teacher in the New Haven public school system for three years. As a result of close interaction with and observation of my students I have become painfully aware of how negative stereotypical images from television, movies and to a lesser extent literature affect young black children. All to often, children imitate negative stereotypical behaviors exhibited in these mediums.

For example, many children now imitate the dress, dialect and violence associated with the "gangsta" lifestyle portrayed in the currently popular, "in the hood" movie genre. In these films, violence is used as a means of solving problems, sometimes without repercussions and is often glorified. Mothers are on welfare, fathers are unemployed, drunkards, or absent altogether. If taken individually, some elements may be present "in the hood" but are no means the norm.

An educator would be foolish to suggest that viewing images is the major cause of negative behaviors present in some of today's school aged children. Unemployment, poor housing, and lack of education are some of the ills which heavily shape negative behavior patterns. However, it would be absurd to assert that these portrayals have no effect at all. Many studies have documented the time children spend in front of the television (I assume that a significant amount of time

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