Professor highlights stereotypes within the media in presentation

By Jen Wozniak
April 2, 2009

Stereotypes litter the media and one must be critical to prevent themselves from adopting distorted views of what the world is like.

This message was stressed by Dr. Maya Gordon, assistant professor of psychology, in her presentation, “The Obama Family: Hope for a Change in Media Representations of African-Americans,” held on Wednesday, March 18, at 6 p.m. in the Mansion.

Gordon presented her research on the effects of African-American media stereotypes to a group of students and faculty. Those in attendance learned that there are seven categories of stereotypes linked to historical images of black people.

These categories have names such as “Mammy,” “Tom/Uncle Tom,” “Sambo/Coon,” “Jezebel,” “Black Buck,” also known as the “Baby Daddy,” “Brute” and “Sapphire.”

The characterizations portray black women as cheery house servants, black men as loyal, obedient servants and all black people as lazy, dumb, silly, hypersexual and promiscuous. The last two categories portray black people as violent, aggressive and loud-mouthed.

Characters that fit these stereotypes can be found in all aspects of the media, from TV shows to advertisements, movies and music videos. Gordon gave examples of characters for each stereotype, such as black women in music videos being portrayed as sex objects.

Gordon’s research shows that people of color make up only 16 percent of characters on primetime television. African Americans are mostly limited to comedic roles and are represented as the laziest, least respected group, often as criminals or as having low-paying jobs.

“Positive images occur too infrequently, and it is the stereotypical images that dominate media portrayals of African Americans,”

Gordon said. “In terms of media effects, the argument is that we imitate the behavior of media personalities and we are more likely to model people who are similar to us and whom we identify with.”

Black youth are at risk when they are impacted by these exaggerated images. When black children believe they are supposed to be like the people they see on TV, then they don’t try as hard in school, focus more on their body and being appealing to the opposite sex and may have lower confidence and self-esteem.

“The media is extremely influential on children, no ifs, ands or buts about that,” Dr. Anthony Tomasco, professor of psychology,said. “Shows are made to make money; nobody oversees the message of the show.”

Shannon Winters, junior English and secondary education major, said, “I think the media is a powerful thing and it definitely influences you, but not in conscious ways. There have been times where you watch something and you think how untrue it may be, but because it’s a sitcom or movie, it’s easy to dismiss it.”

Gordon’s hope is that President Obama will change the stereotypes, and being a real life example, perhaps he will be even more meaningful and influential than a character in a show.

“I am hoping that the Obama family will serve as a counter-image to the stereotypes, meaning that African American youth will see them as a real life example of what they can do or who they can be, rather than defining themselves in terms of the stereotypes,” Gordon said.

“I also hope that the media executives will see the Obamas, and their great popularity among the American public, and realize that there is a market for images of an intelligent African-American leader who loves his equally intelligent and dynamic African-American wife and is actively involved in their children’s lives. I hope these executives will realize that they can create TV programs and movies and promote music artists who present on non-stereotypical messages about black people and still be successful. The American people are interested and it is long overdue.”

Those in the crowd had the opportunity to voice their opinions on what they see when they view the Obama family in the media. Some answers included a loving, hardworking and successful family, and also seeing Michelle Obama as a good role model of a smart and respected working mother.

The presentation concluded with how parents can prevent children from adopting stereotypes by limiting how much and what media they consume, teaching them to be critical of the media and discussing that what they see is not always how things are in real life.

Winters said, “Just by letting kids know that not everything they see or hear should be taken as the standard or the norm could be a step to help shape their conceptions of themselves and the media in general.”

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Jen Wozniak

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