Several months ago, I had a conversation with someone who was annoyed that the extras in the Laketown parts of The Hobbit weren’t all white guys. It was distracting, he said, that there were people of varying ethnicities there. The Asian guy in the room and I exchanged looks and set down to a serious talk about, among other things, the real ethnic mixes of historical port towns, the issue of exclusion in cinema, the studies that suggest that audiences find any population of extras with more than thirty percent women to have more women than men, and various other relevant data points. Finally, in frustration, I told him that the problem here was that he was expecting crowd scenes to be full of people who looked like him, and the Asian guy and I weren’t, and that’s a problem.
He denied it. Oh, not the hypothetical problem—we didn’t get that far. He denied that he expected crowd scenes to be full of people who looked like him. Despite the fact that his entire argument rested on the fact that it was “weird” and “distracting” and various other adjectives to have people in a fantasy movie who weren’t white because everyone knows fantasy has “a certain aesthetic.”
The problem is that we’re very all-or-nothing about such things. It’s hard to have a serious conversation about the damage words and images can do without one side or both falling into hyperbole. Actually, I don’t have a problem with putting ratings on albums, if the ratings system makes clear what the issue is. A simple warning label? Not helpful. “The lyrics in these songs are sexually explicit/violent/full of cursing/whatever”? More so. The problem, of course, then becomes who you trust to decide what the rating is, and we haven’t solved that in film after fifty years.
There is a modern trend in parenting—one, I admit, I never even considered following—to limit your kid’s exposure to screens as much as possible as long as possible. There are a lot of reasons for this, but what I think would be interesting about it would be to see if kids so limited absorbed some of the same lessons pop culture has taught us for generations of shared imagery. The fact is, one of the things kids learn from watching TV and the movies is where their place in society is. Kids who aren’t straight white boys quickly learn that their place is “in the background if you’re lucky.”
This, when you get right down to it, is the root of my problem with comedians such as Seth MacFarlane. It isn’t just that his humour is lazy, though goodness knows that’s true. It’s that it reinforces patterns of thought. It isn’t that his show creates them; I would imagine that someone without certain stereotypes who watched Family Guy wouldn’t get why chunks of it were supposed to be funny, because a lot of the humour of the bits I’ve seen rests on the existence of stereotypes. It’s that by making jokes that are just “this is a stereotype, which is funny,” he encourages his viewers to take the stereotype for granted. The joke isn’t funny if the stereotype is wrong.
It bothers me, a lot, that so much supposed comedy is based on calling girls, in particular teenage girls, fat and/or ugly. Famously, the fat jokes slung at Tracey Gold on and off camera in Growing Pains contributed to her eating disorder, because when you’re called fat for years, and you’re shown by the culture in which you live that being thin is extremely important, it’s not surprising if you put vast amounts of effort into being thin enough to make the jokes stop. It doesn’t matter if you were a normal size to begin with; you’re being called fat day in and day out, and you start to internalize it. Especially if you are in an industry that can and will fire people for not meeting certain expectations of appearance.
Gay kids grow up with more role models now than they did when I was a kid, but they still do grow up in a society that tends to make their very existence a joke. The word “gay” is used as an insult. It wouldn’t surprise me to discover that a lot of people who use it that way also support marriage equality and don’t see the contradiction, because “it’s just a word.” I do not, however, think it’s “just a word” if it seems aimed at you.
This is not intended as a call for censorship. I believe Seth MacFarlane has the legal right to make cheap, cruel jokes all he wants to. I would just like us to start evaluating what world we’re creating for the victims of those jokes. The defense tends to be that “he makes fun of everyone,” but I’m not sure I agree.
When he hosted the Oscars, the alleged joke was that he would have been shamed and ostracized for singing the “We Saw Your Boobs” song, but they still showed it. We were still expected to laugh and not, you know, think of the very real gender disparity between male and female nudity in film and how even critically acclaimed actresses still have an expectation to appear naked.
Studies suggest that children internalize when they’re not represented in their media consumption. When rape is treated like a joke in all the media you consume, it’s hard to overcome that and take it seriously—just look at the sheer number of gay panic prison rape jokes out there. In a way, that absolves us from dealing with the problem; it’s just a joke, right? There are several toxic attitudes toward rape that permeate the media we consume, including variations on the themes of “she was asking for it” and “women use rape accusations as a tool to deal with regret.” Would it be easier to overcome those societal attitudes if we stopped making jokes with those ideas as an assumed underlying truth?
The media did not create rape culture. The media did not create a culture wherein a white male’s resume has a better chance of getting a response than a black female’s. The media did not create a culture wherein gay and especially trans teens are at enormously high rates of suicide. We did that ourselves. However, it is certainly possible that media perpetuates the problem. By relying on stereotypes for humour, we perpetuate the stereotypes.
What to do instead? Treat your characters as people. If you have to joke about the stereotype, joke about the person who believes it. Joke in a way that presents the harm it does and shames a society that maintains these attitudes. Don’t just present the stereotype and expect that to be funny all by itself. It isn’t.
Note: My intended image for this post was a picture of Tracey Gold at the height of her anorexia, when she was still getting fat jokes made at her expense all the time. However, the site wouldn’t load the image, so instead, have Bilbo Baggins unable to even understand the argument I had with that guy.