If you haven’t had the pleasure of fulfilling a stranger’s Exotic Friend Fantasy, allow me to fill you in on what you’ve been missing, courtesy of my own experience:
“Your last name is SO LONG. What are you? Greek? Ohhh, Russian! Do you wanna go take vodka shots?”
“Wait, are you a SPY?”
“Are you a gymnast? Ice skater? Ballerina? Ballroom dancer?”
“I bet your dad’s in the mafia. Is your dad in the mafia?”
“So wait, you’re Russian and Jewish? Can you be both?”
“I bet your dad’s a lawyer. Is he a banker?”
Okay, yes, these scenarios have been dramatized for entertainment value, but they’re not entirely fictional. And I definitely don’t blame the mostly innocent interrogators for their probing inquiries. I mean, no, my dad’s not a banking, vodka-swilling mafia boss with a law degree, but he could be, I guess. Or at least, he would be if every Hollywood stereotype about Russians and Jews were true (also, I’d be a cold-blooded mail-order bride named Natasha, spying for the KGB and rocking a totally unethical mink coat. Oooh, I think this year’s Halloween is gonna be interesting!).
But I’ve got it pretty easy. Those stereotypes are sucky, but they’re nothing compared to some of the icky ideas people have about other racial, ethnic, and religious groups, all thanks to the overabundance of formulaic media representations.
Look, I’m contractually obligated (by the imaginary contract of unrequited teen heartthrob worship) to love every film Leonardo DiCaprio makes, but Blood Diamond clearly had its issues. As did all the other films lampooned in that piece (they’re talking to you, shirtless Matthew McConaughey). We all know Hollywood has some seriously skewed ideas about race, religion, and culture, but aren’t we all enlightened enough to see beyond them by now?
Not exactly. Stereotypes stick and apparently sell tons of movie tickets.
But prejudice doesn’t even have to be this in-your-face to persevere. According to my trusty social psych textbook (I knew that thing would come in handy someday), “Modern racism” is a more subtle, politically correct-seeming way to stereotype. So a person engaged in this sort of racism might never dream of uttering an ethnic slur, but consistently crosses the street when someone of a different race approaches.
Add to this the growing epidemic of “Hipster Racism” described so eloquently by Lindy West for Jezebel. As West says, “It’s, you know, introducing your black friend as ‘my black friend’—as a joke!!!—to show everybody how totally not preoccupied you are with your black friend’s blackness.” It’s also still racist, no matter how ironic it’s meant to be.
Add to that Susan J. Douglas’ brilliant concept of Enlightened Sexism which revolves around false media representations of female power that essentially trick society into believing gender equality has been achieved and we can all devolve into sexist stereotypes again. According to Douglas, “We see [female] chiefs of police, surgeons and lawyers everywhere [on TV],” but we also see women tear each other’s weaves out in catfights over The Bachelor and vie for plastic surgery and body makeovers on shows like The Swan. The confusing dichotomy sends one message to women that they can do or be anything they want, and another telling them to “conform to this hyper-feminine ideal of hotness and beauty.”
I think we could all use a vodka shot right about now.
But it’s not all doom and gloom, and it doesn’t have to be. The brilliant Dodai Stewart, also of Jezebel fame, has some great insight into how the entertainment industry doesn’t have to be over-the-top or subtly prejudice—it can be neither!
Stewart was recently on Julie Klausner’s epic podcast, How Was Your Week? (which is so ridiculously hysterical, it’s effectively transformed me into that crazy solo driver stuck in traffic, cackling loudly to herself in the lane next to you). In Stewart’s opinion, the best way to deal with race is, well, not to spend so much time dealing with it. “The way that I like it is what happens on The Office or 30 Rock where it’s not even really part of the conversation,” she says, also noting Parks and Recreation as a great example of including a diverse cast of actors without explicitly calling out their diversity. “To me, that looks more like what my life looks like.”
Take heed, Hollywood honchos! These are wise words, and we should apply that logic to race, ethnicity, religion, gender, etc. Quit it with the stereotypes—straightforward, subtle, or otherwise.
Now, who’s ready for vodka shots?