REPRESENTATIONS – COMMON STEREOTYPESREPRESENTATIONS – COMMON STEREOTYPES
Key to your task for the AS exam question on US TV Drama is grasping the stereotypes against which you are
partially judging the text (you are also analysing how meaning is created through editing, sound etc).
This often involves thinking in terms of binary oppositions: young vs old etc.
In most cases, any given category will be closely tied to one or more additional catgeories, eg sexuality &
Most of the points here are on US TV drama, but I’ve also kept in some UK examples (from a UK exam guide)
to help with British cinema work.
Lets quickly run through some of these (to follow up you should create a table and add in the key binary
oppositions for each as an easy-to-view guide):
Age isn’t necessarily straightforward: there are many sub-categories beyond young v old: teens, children,
infants, 30-somethings, mature, middle-aged, elderly/pensioner, and even the mid-life crisis type.
I’d advise you to avoid the terms ‘old’ and middle-aged’, stick with mature or elderly where appropriate.
However, in most regards the key binary opposition is young v old, where the young are stereotypically less
responsible, perhaps criminal, out of control (it wasn’t like this in my day/young people today…),
scholastically/academically weak – yet perhaps also cunning and conniving. Innocent, pure and naïve can also
apply, especially to younger children and infants.
When children are portrayed as quite adult this is usually meant as critical, and bemoaning the ‘lost innocence
of childhood’. Look out for narratives revolving around new media technologies; older generations’ ignorance
of new media has led to recurring moral panics over use of the web, violent video games etc.
The older are also negatively stereotyped though as slightly dim, with romantic or sexual plotlines often used
for cheap laughs. Elderly people can also be represented as essentially childish.
Consider non-diegetic music used and how it may reflect a target audience of a certain age range (eg jazz older,
dance music younger). Clothing codes. Language used, especially slang.
KEY WORDS: ir/responsible (possibly criminal); im/mature or foolish v wise/sensible; innocent v cynical;
REPRESENTATIONS – COMMON STEREOTYPES Media Studies @ StG’s 1
A key question for all: are people within your category differentiated, made to stand out from
others; do they fill the role of ‘the other’, a strange, slightly alien presence compared to more
typical everyday folk? Do they play an active or passive role in the drama?
Although we have advanced beyond the crude stereotypes of women as housewives/mothers and nothing but,
this tradition remains alive, if more subtle. Values that put men as superior to women are described as
patriarchal; a patriarchal society is one in which men dominate power (matriarchy would be the unlikely
We’re looking for binary oppositions of strength/weakness; domestic/professional; emotional/unemotional;
victim/hero. Strength is mental as well as physical: men brave, women screaming helpless victims.
The rise of male grooming has narrowed the gender divide somewhat, as has the rise of so-called metrosexual
icons such as David Beckham, comfortable and secure in their heterosexual identity but happy to take on
traditionally feminine attributes with clothing and grooming as examples.
KEY STEREOTYPICAL IDEAS: physical or mental power/fortitude/strength; hero v victim; emotionally
closed v open or expressive (eg tears); professional v domestic (housewife, child-rearing)
Look out for oppositional gender attributes (a feminine male, masculine female)
Ask yourself if a gay character is being highlighted as very different or just a typical, everyday bloke/woman.
Gay characters often used for comedy and therefore not treated very seriously.
Lipstick lesbian – positive representation or more about the male gaze?
If a clip portrays heterosexual couplings only, then it is normative: reflecting and reinforcing stereotypical,
common sense perceptions. If it is more complex it may be counter-hegemonic; CHALLENGING social
values. There are gender issues too: a sexually aggressive or domineering female is often transgressive,
challenging expectations, and is often used as a villain. A woman who pursues multiple sexual partners will
typically (in the real world and in media depictions which inform our real world social behaviours) be harshly
judged, with terms like slut forming a direct binary for the typically positive reception of a male who does the
REPRESENTATIONS – COMMON STEREOTYPES Media Studies @ StG’s 2
Since 9/11 political issues are frequently involved when we see certain ethnic groups represented. Religion is a
key signifier here – look out for religious figures being negatively represented (including white Christians as
slightly odd or eccentric) and secular (non-religious) figures being treated more positively. Immigration is also a
key contemporary issue which may be reflected.
National and regional identity can also be issues, with the whole question of Americanness and citizenship often
featured. Indeed, Western v non-Western (in terms of clothing, social attitudes – eg towards women and alcohol
– religious practice, music etc) can be a key binary opposition to look for.
The most negative stereotype, of Muslim Asian/Middle Eastern characters, is actually very similar to an old
stereotype of the Northern Irish: violent, backwards, religious, fanatical. A bearded Middle Eastern male has
become shorthand for terrorist suspect, just as in the 1960s-90s the Northern Irish accent would trigger such
More sympathetic representations may well focus on issues of social class & status, though working class black
youths are commonly stereotyped as criminal, a stereotype which is spreading to Asian youths too.
With black youth in particular, in international (non-US) drama we often see heavily Americanised
characteristics through language, dress and musical tastes for example. Series like The Wire show the
complexity of representation: young black drug dealers within a slum area (‘the hood’) feature heavily … but
the programme isn’t seeking to stereotype young black youth in this way, rather it explores the social factors
behind such communities, and is often sympathetic to the criminal youths in scenes with the police.
Nonetheless, black youths are very commonly stereotyped as criminal.
You may also get white racist characters to contend with. A clip with all African-American characters may
subtly feature skin tone as an issue.
A key, fundamental question to ask: are different ethnic groups represented as having more in common than
they do differences? In a given clip does any character or group have leadership status or authority? Is this
linked to their ethnicity?
KEY IDEAS: alien/difference; non-/Western; religious v secular (can be linked to backwards/old-fashioned v
progressive/modern); criminal/threat v law-abiding/threatened
The key thing about disabled characters is their sheer invisibility!
This is easily the most under-represented of all 7 types listed.
The key here is dependence v independence; storylines typically revolve around the carer, and not so much the
individual disabled person themselves. We often will see physical and mental disability combined, a rather
harmful stereotype in itself. Most disabled characters are those who have had an accident; a long-established
character who then has to deal with issues around this, rather than someone born with a disability, presumably
as it’s judged the audience can more easily relate to such a character – this is something to pick up on.
Sexuality is often simply ignored for disabled characters.
The handling of mental disability on TV dramas has been heavily criticised in recent years, and is usually seen
as sensationalised and stigmatising those who suffer from this.
KEY IDEAS: in/dependence; invisible; result of accident; focus on carer; issues around sexuality
REPRESENTATIONS – COMMON STEREOTYPES Media Studies @ StG’s 3
SOCIAL CLASS & STATUS
This has much in common with issues around urban v rural which can be seen with regional identity. Clothing
codes are often crucial, but so too accent and speech: use of slang v complex language. Possessions naturally,
and housing, are key factors. Camera angles can be used to establish class difference, as seen in the opening of
Tess of the D’Urbevilles with the minister high up on horseback and the humble peasant literally beneath him.
In dramas with a degree of comedy (‘dramedy’) the clash between the classes will be used as a source of
humour, the refined tastes of the ABC1s (middle to upper class) clashing with those of the C2DEs (lower-
middle class to working class). Class identity is established in Monarch of the Glen partially through choice of
drink, and the receptacle (container) it is poured from: from the cheap lager of Shameless to the decanted
brandy of MofG. The easily offended sensibilities of the middle classes are also often a source of humour.
With working class characters, the key stereotype tends to revolve around crime, though laziness/dole
scrounging can also be commonly seen.
KEY IDEAS: refined/sophisticated v crude/backwards, eg with language, choice of drinks, clothing; often
similar to urban v rural; power/less; victim v criminal
Usually the main issue here is urban v rural; advanced v backwards.
Accents can be used for comedy and to signify backwardness – and not just from the North or Celtic nations:
the SouthWest (eg Bristol) accent is typically used like this (picture a bumpkin saying oh arr, drinking cider and
chewing a straw). In the US the southern states (Texas, Mississippi etc) are used as common stereotypes of
backwardness, compared with the sophistication of northern states like New York – the hillbilly v the
Clothing codes are also important in establishing sophisticated/advanced v backwards, often also tied into an
urban v rural identity. Look out for the latest fashions and sharp clothing v outdated leisure wear (tracksuit
bottoms) or heavy jumpers etc. The Yorkshire stereotype, for example, is not of your typical
Leeds/Sheffield/Bradford city dweller, but rural.
With regards to the Welsh, Scots & N. Irish there also issues around national identity. This is a complex area
for American drama, with most citizens identifying with multiple national identities, eg Italian-Irish-American.
Irish- and Italian-Americans are often used as shorthand for criminal and backwards – though the posh English
villain is also common in US TV and film.
Whether it’s a Geordie, Brummie or Belfast boy though, there’s often an attempt to highlight some differences
but ultimately cast us all as essentially British and the same, especially through groups of apparently diverse
people coming together (eg Benidorm).
Regional Identity and Social Class & Status are very often linked, though ethnicity can also be a key factor.
REPRESENTATIONS – COMMON STEREOTYPES Media Studies @ StG’s 4
REPRESENTATIONS – COMMON STEREOTYPES Media Studies @ StG’s
REPRESENTATION BINARY OPPOSITIONS
REPRESENTATIONS – COMMON STEREOTYPES Media Studies @ StG’s
REPRESENTATION BINARY OPPOSITIONS