Stereotypes are well-worn representations which reduce people and places to basic generalisations. This representation process often involves making values and assumptions, so the stereotypes tend to be exaggerations with negative connotations.
Stereotypes can also reinforce the dominant ideology and power of elite groups because it influences the audience’s attitude towards those people and events being described. That is why it is important to recognise and study these images on our television screens, social media feeds, and print media. We should critically assess how texts encode nationality, ethnicity, race, faith, age, sexual orientation, social class, occupation, political values, and even our taste in music, because the messages can be incredibly hurtful.
Stereotypes and the Media
Before we delve into the history of stereotypes and some of the debates surrounding the concept, we should have a quick look at why these representations are used in media texts.
Stereotypes are very common in the media because they are an effective way to construct a narrative which will be easily understood by the audience. This is especially true in advertising where the message needs to be condensed into just one image or a fifteen second slot on television. The producers might use a stereotype to make the character seem familiar to the reader or viewer, so it is easier for us to engage with the message. We are conditioned to accept the message because we see the representation time and time again. Of course, this can have a damaging impact on our perception of that particular group or place.
Stereotypes in Television Programmes
Sitcom writers often rely on social typing in their stories. Think about the “dumb blonde” archetype in “The Big Bang Theory” and “2 Broke Girls”. Both Penny and Caroline are incredibly kind but also dim-witted. Of course, the protagonists are dynamic characters who can to break free of their initial representation, but stereotypes remain a convenient way to introduce them to the audience.
Whatever show you are binge watching at the moment, take a look at how the secondary characters are usually stereotyped in terms of their gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation. Inevitably, the writers have to quickly encode their appearance and behaviour so they are immediately understood by the audience and the narrative can maintain its pace.
Stereotypes in Advertising
The laziest sort of stereotyping occurs when the main characters travel to another area or country. These representations are too cringeworthy or too offensive to provide you with examples. However, check out this advertisement for Jaguar which relies on national stereotypes:
The car manufacturer plays with British stereotypes, representing the people as well-dressed and emotionally-repressed tea-drinkers with an incredible desire for power. The stereotype is framed as a positive representation and the advert positions the audience to admire the actors. Jaguar is a luxury brand so it is no surprise they are appealing to their target audience’s sense of wealth.
The cumulative effect of these sort of narrow representations can have a significant impact on how we see the world, positioning the audience to take a particular view of a group of people or an event. But not all men are incompetent fathers and not all blondes are dumb. The UK has a wonderfully diverse range of accents and not everyone drinks a good cup tea.
Consider the following advertisement for Aptamil milk formula for babies. The agency wanted to promote the benefits of their product for young children and their development, but it depicts the boys becoming scientists and rock climbers, and the girl grows up to be a ballerina.
What ideology does the advertisement seem to reinforce?
Advertisers have over-relied on the image of the struggling father trying to complete simple household tasks and look after the baby, or the mother should just be the primary carer. Consider the ads for Philadelphia Cheese Spread and the Volkswagen car in this BBC News segment:
The Advertising Standards Agency in the UK banned these ads from the television screens because they perpetuate the negative stereotype of incompetent men and imply only women are suited to look after children.
The word stereotype was first used in social studies by Walter Lippmann (1920). The journalist described how we only notice bits and pieces of information because “modern life is hurried and multifarious” so we “fill in the rest of the picture by means of the stereotypes we carry about in our heads”. He called this an “economy of effort”. In other words, stereotypes are shortcuts which we use to label and order the world so we can quickly make sense of it.
Lippmann also recognised how stereotypes are not neutral because they reinforce “our own sense of our value, our own position and our own rights”. Although stereotypes can make us feel “safe in the position we occupy”, they are also a way for one group to firmly differentiate themselves from another.
For a modern example of this process, consider the language football supporters use to describe the opposition, especially if they are local rivals. Or is this just a dangerous stereotyping of football fans? News reports also rely on stereotypes to construct a version of the story, so you might be interested to read Lippman’s ideas regarding how the representations shape public opinion in our guide to framing in the mass media.
A stereotype is a “distorted picture or image in a person’s mind, not based on personal experience, but derived culturally”.
Orrin Klapp (1962) made the distinction between stereotypes, which are broad definitions of things outside our immediate social world, and social types, which are descriptions of things more familiar to us. Focusing on the representation of the hero, the villain, and the fool in American society, he argued these epithets indicated “social approval or disapproval”. If someone was labelled a hero in politics, for example, it had important implications for their status and how they would be viewed by the public.
Therefore, social types could be representations of those who “belong” to society or others who are perceived as deviant and disruptive.
Klapp also pointed out how we might use these representations to inform our own identity and our behaviour. When you are editing your life into a narrative on social media, do you present yourself as an Instagram hero or a TiKTok fool? Perhaps you are a Facebook villain. Klapp’s book was re-released in 2014 to take account of how we construct online versions of ourselves on social media.
In her very influential essay, Tessa Perkins (1979) wanted to widen the definition of stereotypes beyond the idea they were simple constructs used to label groups of people. She argued stereotypes were ideological concepts which actually expressed very complex cultural relationships.
For example, the “dumb blonde” stereotype might reduce someone to their hair colour and lack of intelligence, but the label implies her status in society and her relationship to men. Or the stereotype of the “career woman” acknowledges her intelligence but usually has connotations of being an unnatural role.
Consider the representation of the reluctant schoolboy trudging to school. This stereotype is commonly depicted in the media and some of you might fully appreciate his situation and feelings. Even your teacher probably wants to be somewhere else. However, the image is also encoded with the importance of education and its tremendous value in society because we know the boy has to go to school to learn and fulfil his potential.
“…the whining school-boy with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like a snail
Unwillingly to school.”
It does not matter if the stereotypes are positive or negative. The message will only work if the more complicated cultural meanings behind the phrases are understood by the speakers and then decoded by the audience.
Six Characteristics of Stereotypes
Working on her own definition, Perkins listed the following six characteristics as essential parts of stereotypes:
- A stereotype is a group concept.
- It is held by a group of people.
- Stereotypes reflect an “inferior judgemental process” but are not necessarily inaccurate.
- It a simple structure which frequently conceals complexity.
- It is predominantly evaluative.
- A stereotype is a concept – or system.
Categories of Stereotypes
Tessa Perkings also listed different categories of stereotypes and offered some examples:
- Major Structural Groups – age, social class, gender and race.
- Structurally Significant and Salient Groups – ethnic groups, artists, scientists and mothers-in-law.
- Isolated Groups – socially and geographically separate.
- Pariah Groups – junkies, and Communists in USA.
- Opponent Groups – (counter stereotypes which reinterpret a dominant group) upper-class twits and male chauvinist pigs.
- Socially and Ideologically Insignificant Groups – media studies teachers.
Stereotypes and Ideology
Since stereotypes are not merely reflections of ideologies but were “selections and arrangements of particular values and their relevance to specific roles”, Perkins was worried they were a mechanism for social control. If we continue to internalise negative stereotypes, such as the “persistent class-consciousness of an often apparently apolitical and apathetic working class”, we will never be able to break free from the limits of our labels.
You can find out more about this concept in our introduction to ideology and the media.
Positive and Negative Stereotypes
Perkins (1979) recognised that stereotypes are not always pejorative (negative). Some stereotypes could be laudatory (positive). In terms of national stereotypes, France is well-known for its cuisine and Germany is lauded for its engineering skills. Stereotypes are broad statements so it is important to note that not every French person is an expert in the kitchen and not every German is fantastic builder.
When a group is represented positively in media texts, it can increase their social status. By contrast, if a group is repeatedly represented in a negative light, the stereotype can be very damaging to their life chances and lead to discrimination and exclusion.
A great definition of stereotypes comes from O’Sullivan et al (1998) who said they were labels that involved a process of categorisation and evaluation.
As Martin Barker (1989) noted, these labels are usually criticised for misrepresenting and distorting the “real world” with their falsehoods. However, he also pointed out how stereotypes can cause public outrage when they are too accurate in their representation because they reinforce existing power imbalances and prevent important social change. Either way, by analysing stereotypes, we can learn more about the values and ideologies of a society.
Stereotypes are not fixed, but Festinger’s (1957) theory of cognitive dissonance could help explain why we continue to believe false stereotypes even when we are presented with evidence that strongly contradicts our mental concept. The psychologist argued we desired a balanced mental state so we would ignore any facts or figures which might lead us to question our existing beliefs and views of the world.