A few evenings ago, I was comfortably tucked away in the dark, flickering movie house of an art gallery watching a specially restored version of a silent comedy called Seven Chances. I was pleased to see the genius of Buster Keaton craft a light, frothy story on the screen that elicited plenty of easy laughs. If you don’t know Keaton, he is considered one of the true comedy greats of the silent era and with good reason; he was an incredible stuntman and athlete, a straight-man who oozed physical comedy, a writer and director who worked wonders with small budgets and kept his freedom for a number of years from the tyranny of big studio creative control. If you are familiar with Buster Keaton, then you probably know what I’m going to say next.
Keaton’s best works are ruined by his patent endorsement of the racist conventions of the time. If you watch Seven Chances, you’ll probably find, just as I did, that as soon as you start to enjoy the movie, you are jarred out of your viewing comfort by a gangly, oafish white man with bad false teeth and terrifying blackface (the ham-handedness of the makeup makes these folks look more like monsters than black people). This blackface character, not only disturbing in his startling visage, procedes to act as an imbecile at every turn; barely able to preserve his own life or accomplish the simplest task. I can only describe watching this character as a gum-scraping experience of racial shame, but I think it’s an important one.
In contrast, I’d like to examine a different racial trend in media. Throughout the 80’s, there was a trend that has since fallen out of vogue, where white and black best friends or strong camaraderie featured prominently in media, to the point of overrepresentation. If you’re having trouble imagining it; T.C. and Magnum in Magnum PI, Crockett and Tubbs (although the actor who played Tubbs is multiracial), Arnold and Willis and their adoptive family in Different Strokes, Isaac Washington and Captain Stubing in the Love Boat, BA Baracus and Hannibal, a number of folks on Hill Street Blues and In the Heat of the Night, Tootie and Natalie from the facts of life, etc. Although this trend is dated, it doesn’t take away from the viewing enjoyment of these shows or the artistic merit. On the contrary, it seems to add to the richness of these characters in most instances.
To keep it brief, this is my way of saying it is in your best interest to push the social envelope as a writer of media. If it feels forced to turn stereotypes on their heads— if it feels contrived, it is only because you are desensitized to the manner in which stereotypes are contrived. If you want your media and literature to survive, it is essential that you pull out all the stops. Put women in positions of power; not covert, sneaky, implicit positions of power, but actual embraced authority with all its respect. Cast your role models as people of color, show people what the marginalized look like when they have success. Feature gay relationships, but sap the sensationalism from them to best of your ability. Give them no more rationalization, sexualization or emphasis than you would a straight relationship. Consider writing female characters who have no romantic or sexual liasons, as the bulk of male characters usually don’t. Want to feature an exotic dancer or prostitute in your story? Consider using the male variety. To close, here are a few stereotypes I would like you to never again under any circumstance use:
* single race gangs (especially black, latino, or chinese)
* black or hispanic drug dealers or pimps
* lesbian athletes, truck drivers or delivery people
* female secretaries
* asian masseuses
* thrifty jews
* female operators or the equivalent (I’m looking at you, Hoshi Sato)
* black bus drivers or the equivalent (I’m looking at you, Travis Mayweather)
* dumb hillbillies
* queeny gay men
* jive-talking black men of leisure/poverty, who seem motivated only to hustle
* gay lotharios
* vapid, conventionally attractive women
* self effacing, not conventionally attractive women
* cosmopolitan native americans who are as religious as mega traditional tribal native americans, or are bereft without that religion (I’m looking at you, Chakotay)
* Men who can instinctively fight well, even though they are untrained and inexperienced
* (Add your own!)