Persistent Racial Stereotypes in TV Shows and Movies

Campaigns such as #OscarsSoWhite have raised awareness about the need for more racial diversity in Hollywood, but diversity isn't the industry's only problem—the way that people of color are persistently stereotyped on screen remains a major concern.

Too often, actors from minority groups who land roles in films and TV shows are asked to play stock characters, including maids, thugs, and sidekicks with no lives of their own. These racial stereotypes of various ethnicities, from Arabs to Asians, continue to persist.

Arab Stereotypes in Film and Television

Disney's Aladdin. JD Hancock/Flickr.com

Americans of Arab and Middle Eastern heritage have long faced stereotypes in Hollywood. In classic cinema, Arabs were often depicted as belly dancers, harem girls, and oil sheiks. Old stereotypes about Arabs continue to upset the Middle Eastern community in the U.S.

A Coca-Cola commercial featured during the 2013 Super Bowl featured Arabs riding on camels through the desert in hopes of beating rival groups to a bottle of giant Coke. This led Arab American advocacy groups to accuse the ad of stereotyping Arabs as “camel jockeys.”

In addition to this stereotype, Arabs have been depicted as anti-American villains well before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The 1994 film “True Lies” featured Arabs as terrorists, leading to protests of the movie by Arab groups nationwide at the time.

Movies such as Disney’s 1992 hit “Aladdin” also faced protests from Arab groups who said the film depicted Middle Easterners as barbaric and backward.

Native American Stereotypes in Hollywood

Native Americans are a diverse racial group with a range of customs and cultural experiences. In Hollywood, however, American Indians are typically subject to sweeping generalizations.

When they aren’t being depicted as silent, stoic types in film and television shows, they’re seen as bloodthirsty warriors out to spill the white man’s blood and harm white women. When Native Americans are characterized more favorably, it's still through a stereotypical lens, such as medicine men who guide whites through difficulties.

American Indian women are also depicted one-dimensionally—as beautiful maidens, princesses, or "squaws." These narrow Hollywood stereotypes have made Native American women vulnerable to sexual harassment and sexual assault in real life, feminist groups argue.

Stereotypes Blacks Face on the Silver Screen

Blacks face both positive and negative stereotypes in Hollywood. When African Americans are portrayed as good on the silver screen, it’s usually as a “Magical Negro” type like Michael Clarke Duncan’s character in “The Green Mile.” Such characters are typically wise black men with no concerns of their own or desire to improve their status in life. Instead, these characters function to help white characters overcome adversity.

The mammy stereotype and the black best friend stereotype are similar to the “Magical Negro.” Mammies traditionally took care of white families, valuing the lives of their white employers (or owners during slavery) more than their own. The number of television programs and films featuring blacks as selfless maids perpetuates this stereotype.

While the black best friend isn’t a maid or nanny, she mostly functions to help her white friend, normally the protagonist of the show, transcend difficult circumstances. These stereotypes are arguably as positive as it gets for black characters in Hollywood.

When African Americans aren’t playing second fiddle to whites as maids, best friends and “Magical Negroes,” they’re depicted as thugs, victims of racial violence, or women with attitude problems.

Hispanic Stereotypes in Hollywood

Latinos may be the largest minority group in the United States, but Hollywood has consistently portrayed Hispanics very narrowly. Viewers of American television shows and films, for example, are far more likely to see Latinos play maids and gardeners than lawyers and doctors.

Furthermore, Hispanic men and women have both been sexualized in Hollywood. Latino men have long been stereotyped as “Latin Lovers,” while Latinas have been characterized as exotic, sensual vamps.

Both the male and female version of the “Latin Lover” are framed as having fiery temperaments. When these stereotypes aren’t at play, Hispanics are portrayed as recent immigrants, gang-bangers, and criminals.

Asian American Stereotypes in Film and Television

Like Latinos and Arab Americans, Asian Americans have frequently portrayed foreigners in Hollywood films and television shows. Though Asian Americans have lived in the U.S. for generations, there is no shortage of Asians speaking broken English and practicing “mysterious” customs on both the small and big screen. In addition, stereotypes of Asian Americans are gender specific.

Asian women are often portrayed as “dragon ladies,” domineering women who are sexually attractive but bad news for the white men who fall for them. In war films, Asian women are most often portrayed as prostitutes or other sex workers.

Asian American men, meanwhile, are consistently depicted as geeks, math whizzes, techies, and a host of other characters viewed as non-masculine. About the only time Asian men are portrayed as physically threatening is when they’re depicted as martial artists.

But Asian actors say the kung fu stereotype has hurt them also. That's because after it rose in popularity, all Asian actors were expected to follow in Bruce Lee’s footsteps.