6 Insane Stereotypes That Movies Can't Seem to Get Over
We've talked before about how some negative stereotypes from the past are, somehow, still showing up in today's movies, and even in recent video games. But those are our grandfathers' prejudices, just in a modern form, like an old man cursing at an Asian nurse with a megaphone (that's why we don't visit, Grandpa). It turns out there are other, more subtle ways that Hollywood has been enforcing wrongheaded ideas right under our noses, and sometimes in our favorite films. Like ...
Everyone in Africa Is Uncivilized or a Warlord
In Hollywood movies, Africa is a shitty place to be. One of the most iconic scenes in action movie history comes at the end of Independence Day, when we see that the invading army of aliens has finally been defeated by a concerted, collaborative effort by the entire world (but mostly the U.S., and mostly Jeff Goldblum), and we get a montage of the wreckage on different continents. America gets a military base ...
... Australia gets some of that crazy architecture ...
... and Africa gets ... naked dudes brandishing spears?
"No, don't stop, keep poking it until it's all the way down!"
Apparently, this barren land is the closest thing the aliens could find to a major population center in Africa. That's because for Hollywood, the entire continent hasn't advanced much since Jesus was still around. The opening to Casino Royale, for instance, introduces us to Africa with the image of a bunch of black guys betting on a fight between a mongoose and a snake.
We're not sure why they even had a title card telling us the location; this is all we needed to see.
The one area where Africans have caught up to the rest of the world is guns: They don't have any modern buildings yet, but they've figured out how to attach a rocket launcher to the side of a truck. This is only natural, since half the continent's population consists of corrupt soldiers.
Contrary to popular belief, Africa's chief export is not lead.
Congo, Black Hawk Down, Blood Diamond, Hotel Rwanda ... all these movies spend the whole time telling us that Africa is scenically beautiful, but terrible in every other way.
So What's the Deal?
In the same way that Hollywood needs to dumb down a novel to turn it into a hit film, they also dumb down Africa's reality, because they assume that you'd be bored by a realistic portrayal of the continent (or you simply wouldn't believe it). They do have things like poverty and corruption and giraffes in Africa, but they also have universities and industries and modern cities, like Nairobi:
Every building is made out of rocket launchers.
Imagine if every single movie set in America was filmed in Alaska and focused on gang violence -- that's how Africans feel every time they watch a Hollywood movie about warlords fighting in the desert. Which is a problem for their tourism industry: A board member for the Association for the Promotion of Tourism to Africa even takes the time to explain that there are "middle class people in every African country commuting to work every day, complaining about taxes and watching their kids play soccer every weekend."
That's right: Instead of focusing on the rich wildlife and history, the tourism industry actually has to remind people that coming to their country isn't a fucking death warrant.
"Come for the piles of free skulls and AK-47s, stay for the architecture!"
Movie Women Can Only Talk About Men
In the '80s, feminist comic artist Alison Bechdel introduced a test for movies consisting of three little rules: The films only "pass" if they have (1) at least two female characters who (2) talk to each other at one point about (3) something other than a man.
It seems pretty simple, but here are some movies with "strong" female characters that don't pass it: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Dark Knight Rises, The Lord of the Rings (all three), Pirates of the Caribbean (1, 2 and 4), Tomb Raider, Underworld and every movie on this list. Most of them fail at the "talk to each other" part. If the test was reversed (male characters who talk about something other than a woman), all of those movies would pass.
If these two met, it would be just awkward silences for two hours.
But most of those are genre movies, which are mainly aimed at men. What about romantic comedies, which are usually aimed at women? Nope: When Harry Met Sally, Kate & Leopold, Marley & Me, 50 First Dates, (500) Days of Summer ... even ones specifically made as vehicles for female stars, like How to Lose a Man in 10 Days with Kate Hudson or Material Girls with Hilary Duff don't pass the test.
Ninety percent of the dialogue in this movie is people trying to pronounce "McConaughey."
Obviously, the Bechdel test on its own doesn't prove that a movie is sexist (or, for that matter, bad), but it does show that, in general, women in movies tend to be defined by their relationships with men, whereas men can be defined by a variety of things (their work, their weapons, their Adam Sandlerness).
So What's the Deal?
Turns out this isn't a coincidence. Apparently, film schools specifically discourage screenwriters from writing scenes where women talk about something other than men, because they believe that this is an easy way to lose the attention of the audience fast.
"It's been literal seconds since anyone mentioned a penis. To hell with movies."
It's just one of those film industry tricks: Use a calendar to show the passage of time, show a bomb to create tension, don't write female characters that sound like real people. What's more, according to a study by the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, women made up only 29.9 percent of the speaking roles in 2007's top movies. As a reminder, 51 percent of all people are women. Again, it's about playing it safe: Movies have been making money with male leads for decades (with both male and female audiences), so why change it now?
In the same year, Warner Bros. CEO Jeff Robinov reportedly said that the studio wouldn't develop any more movies with female leads after the latest Jodie Foster and Nicole Kidman vehicles underperformed, which doesn't make sense -- when John Carter and Battleship flopped, they didn't stop making movies with men; they stopped making movies with Taylor Kitsch.
And we're not entirely sure if that counts.
Now, Warner did go on to make The Women the next year, which has an all-female cast ... but all they do is talk about men. So they do develop movies with female leads, you see, as long as the characters themselves aren't too developed.
White People Are Better at Being Asian Than Real Asians
Last time, we used The Last Samurai as an example of how movies whitewash foreign history, but we didn't mention that there's something even weirder going on in that movie: Namely, the fact that Tom Cruise's character is somehow better at being a samurai than the actual samurai.
Then again, the Japanese are even better at being bizarrely crazy than Tom Cruise, so it evens out.
Turns out the whole "white character beats Asians at their own game" thing is pretty common: In Rising Sun, the aggressive Japanese business tactics threaten American interests until Sean Connery learns to use their own strategies against them. If you haven't seen it, the entire movie can be summed up by this clip:
In Kill Bill Vol. 1, the Bride (Uma Thurman) is better at martial arts than not just Lucy Liu, but an entire army of yakuza warriors. They even have Lucy Liu's character, who has spent her entire life training and clawing her way to the top of an international crime syndicate, specifically say that the Bride is a better samurai than her.
So What's the Deal?
Hollywood has a big fascination with Asian mysticism, but an even bigger fascination with making lots of money. Since it's believed that you can't have a hit movie without a main character who's white, that means transferring all the positive values of the Asian culture to Tom Cruise, Sean Connery or Uma Thurman and relegating the Asian characters to villains or supporting roles. Unless you're Jackie Chan, Jet Li or, more recently, Ken Jeong.
Not sure if this is an improvement.
For example, in the '70s, Bruce Lee was developing a TV series called The Warrior about a kung fu master who goes around the Old West kicking ass. Ultimately, it was decided that America wasn't ready for a show with a main character who was Asian ... so they developed the series anyway, but called it Kung Fu and put David Carradine in the lead, a non-Asian playing a half-Asian martial artist. The network was fine with Bruce Lee as a masked limo driver in The Green Hornet, but putting him in a main role? No way, that's crazy talk.
This is the most offensive way we can put it.
Lee would go on to prove himself as a bankable star, but it was too late: Hollywood had stumbled upon a magic formula that allowed them to cash in on Asian culture without taking any risks, and they've been using it since.
Non-Heterosexual Characters Either Die or Are Murderers
A few decades ago, it was still extremely rare to see gay or bisexual characters in movies, and if you did, they were never acknowledged as such -- you just knew it because they all acted like raging queens. Today, things are different, and Hollywood is more open to gay characters ... as long as they die or are psychopaths.
Seriously: Think about all the movies where the gay character ends up dead. First there are the obvious examples, like Milk and Boys Don't Cry, which are based on real-life hate crimes, so those get a pass ... but what about Brokeback Mountain, or Philadelphia, or A Single Man? Or the show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where they spent two and a half seasons setting up one of the most healthy and complex lesbian relationships in the history of television, and then randomly killed one of the women and made the other murderously psychotic, abruptly fulfilling both stereotypes out of goddamn nowhere.
They go from "hugging" to "flaying a man alive" in one commercial break.
Then you have movies like Pulp Fiction and The Silence of the Lambs, where the only gay characters are murderously enforcing their gayness upon the straight folks and must die. There's also Basic Instinct, The Talented Mr. Ripley and Jennifer's Body, which use non-heterosexual tendencies as an explicit signal that a character is about to get stabby. Obviously there are plenty of movies with gay characters who aren't violent or dead, but the fact that this is even a thing is still troubling.
Gimp suit troubling.
So What's the Deal?
Simply put, killing gays is Hollywood's way of being progressive.
From the '80s to the early '90s, there was definitely a tendency to use gay characters as villains, from the gay serial killer in Cruising to the evil lesbian vampire in The Hunger. But then in 1995, the highly influential documentary The Celluloid Closet pointed out this problem, and its release coincided with a series of protests about the depiction of gay people in movies like The Silence of the Lambs and JFK (where a gay conspiracy is responsible for killing Kennedy).
Hollywood caved to the pressure and began including more non-psychotic gay characters, but only in supporting roles -- author Brent Hartinger argues that today, non-heterosexual characters are more likely to die simply because they are rarely the protagonist. Harting even points out that within a period of a few weeks in 2010, the shows Spartacus: Blood and Sand, Big Love, Law & Order: SVU and NCIS: Los Angeles all killed off minor characters who happened to be gay.
And to fulfill yet another stereotype, two were hung.
If a movie or show has to kill someone, obviously they'll go for the least important person, i.e., Willow's girlfriend in Buffy. So, in that sense, gay is the new black.
Anything (Including Death) Is Better Than Being Disabled
In movie universes, there's two ways to get disabled: Either you get a sweet superpower out of it, like Daredevil, or it makes you absolutely miserable for the rest of your life. One of the most infamous examples is Million Dollar Baby, which ends with (spoilers) the protagonist becoming a quadriplegic and Clint Eastwood euthanizing her because, you know, what's the point of living like that? Never mind the fact that millions of people do just that every day.
Man, Clint Eastwood really hates chairs.
But this also manifests in subtler ways: Take the character of John Locke in Lost, a paraplegic who would rather stay on a remote island filled with smoke monsters, displaced fauna and all sorts of crazy bullshit because he can walk there, which many actual paraplegics found offensive. Something similar happens in Avatar, where the paraplegic protagonist leaves his entire life behind and travels across the universe to get a shot at walking again in the body of a blue alien. There may be other reasons why he made that decision, but they don't really tell us because "he can't walk" is enough.
"Actually, I just wanted a couple of extra inches down there."
Lots of times, the disability exists as something for the characters to overcome and show that they've changed: In The Goonies, when Mikey throws away his inhaler, we're supposed to understand that he's a stronger person for not needing it. What it's really showing is that Mikey is going to end up in the hospital if he doesn't get a replacement soon, because asthma is a goddamn medical condition. The people still using their inhalers aren't doing it because they're not brave enough to have their Mikey moment.
So What's the Deal?
Showing someone using sheer willpower to overcome something is a great character arc, and Hollywood applies that to everything, from learning kung fu despite being an overweight panda to "beating" a real-world disability. The problem is, this arc has some tragic implications for the real-world people who come out with the message that they are "too weak" to overcome their disabilities.
"The fact that your spine isn't regenerating says a lot about your supposed 'bravery,' Timmy."
The result is that moviegoers think that disabilities are way worse than they actually are, and filmmakers have to cater to that: For example, while filming an episode of Dollhouse where Eliza Dushku was blind, the producers brought in an actual blind woman to show the actress how to move and get around, but the result was that "she didn't look blind," and they had to make her act clumsier so the audience would buy it.
In the end, they just showed her a bunch of Mr. Magoo episodes.
Even in Avatar, real paraplegics thought that Sam Worthington's character was making way too much effort transferring from his chair, but that's the way we're used to seeing it in movies. It's a vicious cycle, and it isn't going to stop until either Hollywood wises up or people with disabilities stop living happy, fulfilling lives.
In Fantasy Movies, Everyone Has to Be White
You've probably noticed this before, but there are no black characters in The Lord of the Rings. The only black actors involved in the movies are covered under 3-and-a-half inches of makeup.
The same approach they took with the black characters in Friends.
But, you know, those movies are based on books written in the '40s ... so how about something a little more recent, like Game of Thrones? Well ...
That lady in the middle is winning the game.
The only non-white characters that have shown up so far are the Dothraki (who in the show at least are more like mocha) and a couple of shady foreigners who come to the land of rich white folks to take their women and their throne.
Or both at the same time, if possible.
Then you have The Chronicles of Narnia, where the only black character is a monster. The Harry Potter movies, on the other hand, do have black characters, like that one kid who announces the Quidditch matches, and, you know ... that other kid ...
Does Gary Oldman's character count?
So What's the Deal?
It's all Tolkien's fault, basically. Most fantasy is still pretty heavily based on the stuff Tolkien came up with, and even though he was pretty vehemently anti-racist in his life, he's still a product of his era: Because of him, when we think "fantasy," we think "white people with British accents dealing with savages and fighting monsters."
A good example of Tolkien's influence is the fact that the characters in Game of Thrones speak in British accents ... even though George R. R. Martin is from New Jersey.
Which does explain this douchebag.
This problem is a lot more noticeable in the adaptations than the books themselves because in TV and films, everything has to be standardized -- just like there's a special type of lighting that screams "THIS IS A SOAP OPERA," fantasy shows need to follow a certain aesthetic, and part of it involves "everyone is white." The Thrones books do have non-white characters, but so far they've been almost entirely written out of the show. On the other hand, the two shady black guys we mentioned before are white in the books ... and coincidentally, they have a much bigger role there.
And then there's the opposite scenario: Here's Harry Potter's classmate Lavender Brown as shown in the first five movies ...
... and here she is in the sixth movie, where she gets a bigger role and hooks up with Harry's friend Ron. Notice any differences?
"I suddenly require much, much more sunscreen."
Now, in the early movies she was just a background character with no lines, so there's a chance that the producers didn't even notice that her role had been cast before. Also, her race isn't described in the books. However, isn't it a little telling that when she was a minor character they said "Sure, let's make her black," but when she became important they automatically assumed that she was white?
Again, that's because this is the default mode for a fantasy movie: White people with British accents, fighting monsters.
For more things that Hollywood needs to let go off, check out 6 Groups Who Don't Work as Movie Bad Guys Anymore and 5 Old-Timey Prejudices That Still Show Up in Every Movie.
If you're pressed for time and just looking for a quick fix, then check out Skull It: An Infomercial from the He-Man Universe.
Do you have an idea in mind that would make a great article? Then sign up for our writers workshop! Do you possess expert skills in image creation and manipulation? Mediocre? Even rudimentary? Are you frightened by MS Paint and simply have a funny idea? You can create an infographic and you could be on the front page of Cracked.com tomorrow!