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Stereotypes in TV: how progressive are the shows we watch?

Written by TV

In what is being referred to as the Golden Age of television, stereotypes are being broken down with every new show. Despite this, some false narratives persist, even in those shows who admirably attempt to subvert them.

Bisexual and pansexual people being overly sexualised

The misrepresentation of LGBTQ+ people is a sadly common feature of TV. With a recent increase of relevant LGBTQ+ characters in the media, some new stereotypes are sadly inevitable. One of these concerns bisexual and pansexual people, two of the most stigmatised groups in the community. From claims of confusion to it being ‘just a phase’, their sexuality is constantly belittled and misunderstood, sometimes even within the very same community that claims to embrace them. This, sadly, is reflected in TV, with such characters being portrayed as either overly sexualised or with unusually high sex drives, bordering on addiction. An older example of this is Todd from Scrubs, who’s defining character trait has always been that of the pervert, until he was revealed bi in the series finale. A more recent example of this surprisingly comes from Big Mouth, one of the most progressive shows out there: the portrayal of sex-addict Jay as the only main bisexual character perpetrates this harmful narrative. Nonetheless, numerous shows are addressing this stereotype head on. Most notably, Crazy Ex Girlfriend, with Darryl and Valencia, and Sex Education with Ola. In both these cases, them being bi or pan does not inform their personality, nor is their coming out sensationalized or sexualised without motivation.

“Bein’ bi does not imply that your a player or a slut” might be common sense to other, but it’s still tragically ignored by most.

Needing a ‘good reason’ for having an abortion

There is no doubt that abortion storylines, when done correctly, can be extremely important. For example, portraying abortion as traumatic perpetrates the idea that women should feel guilty about taking ownership of their own bodies. Maeve’s abortion in Sex Education seeks to combat this stereotype, not much in the episode itself, but by Maeve continuing to live her life unaffected in the rest of the season. However, TV seems to overrepresent teenage abortions, while underrepresenting more mature women doing the same. This is unjustified by statistics: in fact, in 2014 in the US, women aged 20–29 accounted for 56.8 of abortions while “adolescents aged 15–19 accounted for just 12% of all abortions.” This might be because of our continued belief that a ‘good excuse’ is needed for a women to get an abortion, and that her simply not wanting a child is not enough. As long as a woman is wealthy, married and educated, why wouldn’t she want a child, right? While Sex Education showed an older woman in the clinic with Maeve, Paula Proctor’s abortion storyline in Crazy Ex Girlfriend is the perfect example of how a TV show can address this harmful stereotype. In the show, Paula already has two sons, is in a strong marriage, and has a stable job. Despite her struggles to get into law school, there is no apparent reason why she should not have the baby. Except that she doesn’t want to. And that should be enough.

Model minorities and ‘perfect’ women

As great as it is to see BAME and women being represented as highly intelligent and capable, it almost seems like sometimes their exceptional capabilities are used to justify their presence in the show. Rarely do we get a women or minorities being allowed to be just average or, dare I say, mediocre.

As with all the stereotypes in this article, we are seeing some shows willing to break the mold

When it comes to ethnicity, the idea of the model minority is particularly damaging. Writing for the Guardian, Masako Fukui spoke about her experience: “As a child migrant, or generation Japanese-Australian, my parents drilled it into me as I was growing up that I was “an unofficial Japanese ambassador” to Australia, that my behaviour would influence how Australians feel about all Japanese” Do I even need to list all the characters in television that reinforce this narrative? Fine, God-awful Big Bang Theory takes the cake, with its only BAME character being so awkward as to not even being able to talk to women. She continues: “Many Asian-Australians […] are itching to be a little reckless, to break free from the narrow definitions that frame Asian-ness in today’s multicultural Australia.” If we look to television for validation, shouldn’t we be seeing more ‘normal’ characters as minorities? As with all the stereotypes in this article, we are seeing some shows willing to break the mold. In particular, Josh Chan from Crazy Ex Girlfriend and Jason Mendoza from The Good Place are both allowed to fill the role that is generally assigned to the white guy: that of a care-free, low-skilled yet incredibly confident dude.

The pressure to be perfect is something deeply felt by women too. As explained by Reshma Saujani: “we are raising our girls to be perfect, and we are raising our boys to be brave”. This is harmful, because “women have been socialized to aspire to perfection, and they are overly cautious”. While the lovable screw up guy is often a character, the same cannot be said for girls, who are constantly needing to be represented as exceptionally talented. I am not going to complain about all the empowering characters we see on television, but I do believe we should be celebrating the average woman, as much as we celebrate the average man. A great character that does this is Eleanor Shellstrop from The Good Place, who leads the show as a mediocre person who is willing to be better.

“We have to show them that they will be loved an accepted not for being perfect, but for being courageous” – TV can help to establish this message through ‘imperfect’ characters.

Last modified: 12th March 2020

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