Why Does Hollywood...?

Why does Hollywood always seem to portray certain types of people the same way? - Mike F.

This question about clichés quickly became a can of worms, ones equipped with can openers that seek out other cans of worms. Also, all the worms are racist. Regardless, I’m going to attempt to hook as many of these racist worms onto my belabored fishing pole of a metaphor as possible.


Some outsized character representations come from a place of loving parody. Many creatives had a new-age art teacher or a tyrannical director who JUST WANTED RESULTS! Other times, exaggerated characterizations can add variety to content. A frivolous teacher, for instance, may break up the monotony of a moody teen drama.

An effective example is the Rabbi character in A Serious Man. The main character is going through a cosmically inflicted ordeal and, upon seeking advice, gets a meandering spiel about a parking lot. The Coen Brothers, raised Jewish, based the rabbi character on religious leaders from their childhood and used his portrayal to inject levity into a heavy movie.


Stereotypical representation, though, more typically comes from corner cutting (among other reasons this article doesn’t have space to properly cover). Writing is difficult, exhausting, and inconsistent, often with inflexible deadlines. Many storytellers, unfortunately, rubber stamp clichéd characterization to save time. Since Hollywood is the largest global media distribution center in the world, though, this misstep can have insidious consequences, affecting how billions of people see professions, nationalities, and ethnicities.


I don't watch "Real Housewives," but, according to The Internet, this woman is the worst one.

I witnessed a disturbing example of this when I first lived in Los Angeles. As I was folding my clothes at a local laundromat, I saw an obese black woman screaming into her phone while wearing five-inch nails, yelling “nuh-uh” if someone approached her (finger wave included). Until then, I’d never seen the “sassy black woman” stereotype in real life (nor have I seen it often since). Because of opportunities in my life, I’ve been able to live in multiple parts of the U.S., each with varying ethnic makeups. I’ve met and befriended dozens of black women, each with their own identity and personality, none of whom conformed to a TV archetype. Not everyone has those opportunities, so the only black woman they might “meet and befriend” is the cookie-cutter sassy black woman.


Maybe the laundromat woman I observed chose the clothes and nails she was wearing because she felt a genuine affinity for them and had that personality imprinted on her DNA while in the womb. More likely, however, she was mimicking a portrayal she’d gleaned from TV, unknowingly taking part in the latest of black, female caricatures dating all the way back to the “Sapphire” persona of Jim Crow minstrel shows. From there, the character evolved into “The Help,” then “Aunt Esther,” followed by “Madea,” ending up as a “Real Housewife.” Lazy or harried creatives didn’t all collectively see this one laundromat woman, then base dozens of TV and movie characters off of her. They likely based it off zero women, then sent the script on down the assembly line, taking part in a “time-honored” tradition.

The character of "Mammy" from "Gone with the Wind" defined "The Help" cliché for almost a century. On the other hand, Hattie McDaniel, the woman who played this character, is anything but cliché.


Aunt Esther, from "Sanford and Son," was mimicked in dozens of sitcoms over the past 50 years.

Once again, writing is difficult. Mistakes happen to even the best screenwriters. The key, though, is to sincerely apologize, ask for feedback, and redraft, which will almost always result in a stronger design. It’s understandable if a (again, oversimplified) worker in a canning factory accidentally let racist, can-opening worms sneak into one of the products because said worker was too rushed to do a quality check. It becomes an issue, however, if that can makes it all the way through the assembly line and out the door often enough that it becomes a featured question on this newsletter.

So the next time you see a profession, gender, ethnicity, etc. shown in a clichéd manner, ask yourself if the portrayal is lovingly drawn or just stamped. If it’s the latter, consider that the media you’re spending time/money consuming might not be the thing you want worming into your brain.

Madea, the contemporary "sassy black woman" portrayal with which most Americans are familiar.

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