Play an episode of
I adore the show, but there’s no denying the blatant stereotyping: Ross is the guy who falls in love a little too fast, Monica is the clean-freak, Rachel is the former mean girl, Phoebe is a mystery, and Joey is stupid.
And while they do deviate from these stereotypes at times, the basic foundation is still there. Stereotyping does make for good comedy, and it’s good for characters to have one or two essential traits that you can write dialogue about. Still, such stereotyping enforces specific behavior among viewers.
And it’s not just Friends; it’s nearly every sitcom ever.
I would watch shows like Shake it Up and Jessie as a kid, and while both are very good, they use stereotyping–as do most shows. I felt like I needed to fit into a stereotype, jump into a box, seal it shut, and proclaim that this is me.
And so, I did.
As a kid, I adopted the stereotype of the funny, slightly stupid supporting character. And anytime I deviated from that stereotype, I would get questions: “Why are you doing that?”
But I wasn’t completely innocent either. I would do the same thing to other people too. I incessantly categorized my friends into stereotypes of organized, artistic, nerdy, and many more. But here’s the thing: people have the potential to change. They may want to change, especially children and young adolescence. They want to experience the world around them and try different things, exciting things, new things.
The world tells them NO.
The world presents this box that they innocently climb into–at first as mere observers–until they are cast into a personality that must always behave in that specific way. Proper, contained, manageable.
If we assume that all members of a group have certain characteristics, we are essentially boxing that group in and telling them that if they don’t act in this specific preconceived manner, we will be confused.
In an article from SimplyPsychology, Saul McLeod discusses the social identity theory, stating that “Tajfel (1979) proposed that the groups (e.g., social class, family, football team, etc.) which people belonged to were an important source of pride and self-esteem. Groups give us a sense of social identity: a sense of belonging to the social world.” (McLeod).
So if you’re a football player, you want to act the same way as your fellow football players because then you can have a social identity. Because then, you’ll feel like you belong.
McLeod also explains that by stereotyping, we can “exaggerate the differences between groups, [and] the similarities of things in the same group” (McLeod).
Feeling as though you’re boxed into a personality stereotype is one thing, but racial stereotypes are a whole different bargain. Of course, racial stereotypes used in comedy are why often British jokes are only understood by people familiar with the culture, or why only people from L.A. will understand why Mexican food is just called food since taco truck runs, enchilada and some refried beans are never hard to find. But racial stereotypes can run deeper than just humor. Growing up in America as a child of Indian immigrants, I was well aware of the stereotypes set for Indian people. In lieu of listing them and spreading misconceptions even further, I will state that they aren’t very flattering. I didn’t want to do something that would make others use me as an example to make generalizations about all Indian people. And, honestly, it was a lot of pressure.
I experienced something called stereotype threat, which the Glossary of Education Reform defines as the “risk of confirming negative stereotypes about an individual’s racial, ethnic, gender, or cultural group” (“Stereotype Threat”).
This goes to show that, regardless of the reason, stereotyping can actually cause a lot of anxiety, and even damage to the person or an entire group.
I urge you to pry open your box, step out of it, and realize that society’s assumptions don’t define you. You are defined by what you choose to do and who you choose to be.
Mcleod, Saul. “Social Identity Theory.” Social Identity Theory | Simply Psychology, 1 Jan. 1970, www.simplypsychology.org/social-identity-theory.html.
Partnership, Great Schools. “Stereotype Threat Definition.” The Glossary of Education Reform, 29 Aug. 2013, www.edglossary.org/stereotype-threat/.
High school junior at Adrian Wilcox High School, Santa Clara.
She is a regular blog contributor at VoicED. In her spare time Amitha writes short stories, fiction, and other prose.
You can reach Amitha for questions and comments at firstname.lastname@example.org