by Diana Black
Stereotyping – Laziness or Necessity?
You’ve written ‘the great’ teleplay – an ensemble cast that’s sure to please everybody, a tight, compelling narrative arc, characters put through hell, the ‘flavor of the month’ genre – sounds great – more power to you, but how many of those beloved characters you’ve slaved over are stereotypes? And if so, why do you deem them necessary – what purpose do they serve?
Perhaps we’d better define ‘stereotype’. Broadly speaking, it’s the presumption or presupposition of character. In film, it’s closely associated with the notion of typecasting, labeling and/or pigeon holing – take your pick, they all apply. This is not to be confused with ‘archetype’ – (which will be explored in another article.
Unfortunately ‘stereotype’ is not a particularly lofty or noble concept, at least in comparison to ‘archetype,’ but current television programming appears awash with it. Here’s an example where stereotyping may be acceptable because it’s being self-reflexive – drawing attention to itself. Fox’s new comedy, The Grinder (2015 – ) is considered to have the potential to be the best comedy of the season; at least by most reviewers. I make mention of it here because it’s mocking the stereotypes it shows us.
The premise – two brothers: the savvy, handsome television actor who’s played at being a lawyer versus the socially awkward and dreadfully serious, real one. Dean Sanderson (Rob Lowe), the lawyer on a popular television courtroom drama series – “The Grinder” – decides to come home after the Season finale – to Boise, Idaho; not exactly Downtown Hollywood. There, he nobly offers his services to ably assist his younger, real lawyer brother, Stewart (Fred Savage) with the family law practice. How can he (Stewart) possibly compete, with this savvy but, in his opinion, know-nothing actor, who everybody adores?
While the courtroom is satirized and the brothers are juxtaposed in a stereotypical manner, there are already glimmerings of what the show is really about – the relationship between two brothers. Nice work! The writers – Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul along with Director Jake Kasdan have delivered a clever comedy that doesn’t take itself too seriously (it is a sitcom after all). The principals – Rob Lowe, Fred Savage and Mary Elizabeth Ellis – being the intelligent and talented artists that they are, don’t dissolve into stock characterization. They flesh out their respective characters via intelligent choices and sensitivity.
Fred Savage is the ‘quiet achiever’ here – it must be tough to command screen time away from the likes of the adorable and savvy Rob Lowe, but Fred’s ‘Stewart’ is courageous and sincere; making him all the more endearing and compelling to watch.
So are ‘the suits’ getting cleverer? Are writers lifting their game? Well no, not entirely. There are plenty of other TV shows currently being aired that go in for stereotyping and in a less flattering way, such as cultural stereotyping in 2 Broke Girls (CBS, 2011- ) with Han Lee (Matthew Moy) remaining the lovable but geeky Asian dude. Then there’s Modern Family (ABC, 2009 – ) where every single character is a stereotype, lovable though they may have become.
So why do it? As writers – established and emerging, we’re all quite capable of creating interesting, compelling characters, so what’s the issue here? Well, in a word, laziness – and not necessarily on our part but on behalf of the viewer. We’re a social animal and Nature (including us) is lazy. If a joule of energy can be saved and still deliver the same outcome, fabulous!
We stereotype all the time – ‘the’ doctor, lawyer, car salesman, garbage collector, prostitute etc. We only have to mention the occupation and we immediately envision ‘the type’ in terms of education, mannerisms, ethics, even down to the nuances associated with their dialogue. So when TV time slots and air time are limited – maybe we’re being forced into taking psychological ‘short cuts’ but in so doing, are we selling the craft short?