Exploring Stereotypes with American Film and Television

Objectives/Abstract: This versatile lesson can be used with classes from middle through high school to enable students to understand how stereotypical portrayals are embedded into various entertainment outlets.Classes can use one of a variety of Hollywood productions as a vehicle for uncovering and discussing the effects of stereotypes at a particular period in time.  Another option is to view a variety of different samples released over longer periods of time to gain a sense of the evolution of media representation of Arabs, Islam, and the Middle East.

Aladdin, the 1992, animated Disney film, is replete with both subtle and aggressive stereotyping of Arabs and Middle Easterners, but 23 years have passed since its release. In contemporary America, difficult conversations about racial and ethnic disparities have been gaining traction, challenging people to openly confront long-ingrained cliches, generalizations, and convictions about one another. The depictions in Aladdin can now be seen as both shallow and exaggerated, and just plain wrong. Since 9/11, the United States’ geopolitical relationship with and perception of people in the Middle East have dramatically shifted. The ongoing military presence in the region and the advent of social media have made ideas of Islam, Arabs, and the Middle East more easily accessible, but greater access to information has not necessarily been accompanied by accurate and fair representation.

Increased engagement with the Middle East has also led to a proliferation of television shows and films focused on the region, its people, their relationship with the West, and an ongoing battle between good and evil, or freedom and repression. Complicated and fuzzy relationships between political leaders, collaborators, terrorists, men and women, intelligence agents, civilians, the military, and even aid workers have muddled the us vs. them divide, and overt stereotypes have given way to the expression of more fundamental ideological differences but also a sense of shared humanity. Further, the United States’ missteps in relation to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has challenged the reliable paradigm of the inherently good and heroic American. Stereotypes persist, certainly, but has the entertainment industry perpetuated stereotypes or merely mirrored the ambiguity and confusion felt by many Americans?

This exercise can help students grasp how ideas and opinions, and stereotypes, are developed and shaped over time, and with discussion, help them relate fictional representations to real-life situations.

Skills Addressed: Critical thinking, intercultural awareness, media literacy, anti-bias, visual discernment
Grade Level: 6-12
Time: 1/2-1 hour for session, or could be extended into a longer unit

  1. Begin by asking the class what a stereotype is. Have a student write down class suggestions on definitions of stereotype on one side of the board. You may want to use the Global Connections activity on stereotypes for guidance.
  2. Once the class has reached a consensus on what stereotyping is, elicit commentary on the possible effects of stereotyping on individuals and society. Have the student continue to record class responses.
  3. Select an age-appropriate excerpt (10-15 minutes) from a variety of options for your classroom. The class could look at one work or compare depictions from different films. [See partial list below.] Teachers will need to be judicious in their selection as language, violence, and other graphic material may be inappropriate.
  4. Ask the students to write down any stereotypical images or impressions they notice as the film runs (for example, the climate and settings, skin color and physical features of the characters, judgments about groups or beliefs, ways of speaking or behaving). Turn off the film. Go around the room so the class can share its reactions.

Guide the discussion and organize the feedback into specific categories that can highlight different sets of stereotypes:

  • Setting: Where is the scene taking place? What is the name of the place? Is it an actual place in the Middle East or an amalgamation? What is the background for the scene? Urban, rural, desert? How is the location depicted? Clean, dirty, modern, run-down? How do the buildings appear? Can they describe any characteristics related to religion or the Middle East. After gathering the responses, you should point out that the Middle East has enormous geographical and architectural diversity.
  • Time/Change, and Traditional/Modern: In Aladdin, current time blends with magical time and the distant past. In other examples, the “other” people are depicted as frozen in time and resistant to new ideas and technology. Scenes of religiosity may be used to depict characters as rigidly devoted at the expense of certain rights and freedoms. Students can consider how people look and are dressed, how they get around, and what insights they share in the scene. Again, there is diversity in terms of regional development that can be noted. After gathering the responses, give a more accurate insight into the modernity of the Middle East. People have tv’s, cell phones, modern cars, etc.
  • Race/Foreignness/Exoticism/Religion: What do the bad guys look like? Who are the good guys? Facial features, skin tones, and accents should be considered. What do they talk about? What are their moods and attitudes? How do the Middle Eastern characters communicate with the “Western” characters? Do they speak English? Arabic? A dialect? Note any odd, “ethnic” elements – certain animals, other races or ethnicities, turbans, or different activities. How is religion acknowledged and woven into the scenes?
  • Traits and characteristics: Students should talk about how the different characters, both Middle Eastern and “Western”, are portrayed. Honest, angry, loving, crazed, kind, strict, fun-loving, violent, sneaky, funny? What about the women? What do they look like and what role do they play? Are they active in the scene or in the background?
  1. Allow the class to discuss what value judgments underlie the use of these stereotypes in the film(s) they watched. Ask students to give examples of similar stereotypes of Middle Easterners or other groups used in other commercial films or other media. How do the depictions change across time and throughout different films or series? Relate to other instances of harmful misrepresentations in the media. Why do they think filmmakers rely upon stereotypes in their films? How or how not is this effective storytelling? Does understanding how stereotyping is used “spoil” a movie? Why or why not?
  2. As homework, ask students to write a brief reaction paper on how they might now watch films differently with their awareness of stereotyping. Does this change their views or opinions on existing films or shows they have watched in the past? How does any of this matter if films are just for entertainment? Can stereotypes be justified for entertainment value or are they always inherently harmful? Can they describe an instance when they felt they were the victims of stereotyping? How did it make them feel?

The following concepts can be explored in your classroom discussions:

Stereotypes are generalizations that are assigned to groups of people. These groupings can be by race, class, gender, religion, country of origin, etc.
— These generalizations (whether negative or positive) are used to confine a group to others’ standards and expectations . For example, all Indian-American students are good at spelling and always win the Spelling Bee, or, all African-Africans are great athletes.
— There may be a grain of truth to some stereotypes insofar as you can usually find examples of people who do possess commonly-attributed characteristics or abilities. There are fantastic African-American athletes, but there are likely plenty with no interest in sports who are drawn to other fields like science, or literature, or social work. Some Asian-Americans might excel in math, but also be interested in drama. Stereotypes can put limitations on people’s potential.
— People can be mistrusted and mistreated because of the stereotype associated with their group; racial profiling young black men is a contentious issue in the United States, while people perceived as Muslim, some of whom were in fact adherents to other faiths, were treated degradingly following the September 11th terrorist attacks.
— One can also note that stereotyping is in some ways a natural mode of human learning— we often use overly broad categorization when we don’t have enough information about a subject. However, our generalizations and simplistic understandings need to change as we are exposed to more complex information on a subject.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Aladdin (Animated,1992)
True Lies (1994)
The Siege (1998)
Three Kings (1999)
Rules of Engagement (2000)
Babel (2006)
The Kingdom (USA/Germany, 2007)
Body of Lies (2008)
The Hurt Locker (2008)
Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
American Sniper (2015)

Television Series
24 (Fox)
Lost (ABC)
Homeland (HBO)
Tyrant (FX)

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