Have you ever watched an old TV series or a movie from years ago and found
it particularly offensive?
You may find some of them which are really offensive towards the
communities that today are fighting for an equality not yet fully achieved
in some countries of the world; some others are not yet totally freed of
racial stereotypes or, in other cases, they are full of carefree jokes and
The character of Jim Crow is the most striking example of caricature. It is
Thomas Dartmouth Rice, a white American actor, who between the end of the
nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, ridiculed
the somatic features of the African American community, giving rise to what
is now known as the black face phenomenon. This
kind of “shows” was a common occurrence despite not being exempt from
criticism, especially from the community represented. The media impact of
Jim Crow was such that society called the subsequent racial laws, enacted
between 1877 and 1964, as “Jim Crow Laws“.
It was only with the onset of civil rights movements that this genre
declined in interest and popularity. However, the matter is not over:
even today, the phenomenon of the black face still provokes
hilarity in some people.
But how can we recognize the discrimination represented today?
First of all, this kind of representation is based on preconceptions and
stereotypes with a negative connotation and ends up depicting the community
it refers to in an unrealistic way: each of those groups has its own
cultural and historical identity; reducing the very essence of a community,
or of a single individual, to a grotesque representation does not make any
good at all.
The second aspect to consider is the cultural heritage: to use the black face today, forgetting its history, is “an unintentional”
assertion that the wounds caused to the Afro-American community were
nothing more than petty.
Everybody has his own personal emotional baggage: if an Afro-American boy
hears the word “nigger” (which today has only a discriminatory and
offensive connotation), despite the context or the intention it is used
with, he will associate it with a history of wrongdoing and fear.
the difference between past and current generations lies mainly in the
sensitivity with which certain representations are put into practice
. Today’s society reached a sensitivity that has matured to the point of
seeing individuals not as part of small social groups, but as part of a
common shared environment that confronts us all. Therefore, we cannot “not
see” certain individuals, since the same social debate leads us to face and
relate to ethical issues.
Criticism and controversy generating debates
The media impact of a TV series or a TV program exposes it to a global
judgment and, consequently, to different perceptions. There are many
popular TV series accused of being stereotyped. The US TV series Homeland, for example, was heavily judged on the web to be
anti-Islamic. Also, Emily in Paris has left a lot of French people
offended as they found their representation in the series to be unrealistic
and caricatured. The French are portrayed as unwilling to wake up early to
go to work and there is a redundant use of the infidelity cliché. Another
example that paradoxically generated more hilarity than annoyance can be
found in South Korea: in Vincenzo, a Korean boy adopted by an
Italian family finds himself involved in “typical” Mafia affairs.
At the time depicted in these movies, any criticism was nipped in the bud.
In a period characterized by a profound ignorance, pretentious individuals
exploited scientific research to endorse their racist ideologies. Moreover,
the systematic division between different ethnic groups, based on alleged
irreconcilable differences, prevented any form of contact, both
communicative and, consequently, empathic. It was, therefore, a society in
which there was no “need” to discuss civil rights since the subjects were
not considered equal.
The current situation in the media and cultural panorama
Today, enormous progress has been made with respect to the past. Even
though forms of discrimination and preconceptions are still present, the
social debate pushes us to question the rights of others and
thus allow a cultural evolution that was previously unattainable
. Likewise, a higher level of education has allowed the growth of empathy
in each individual. The mass media constantly propose images of societies
and realities at risk. Visions that touch us for the amount of violence, and for
the obvious inequality, make us compare them to the past ones, and
therefore to process and internalize the wounds suffered.
The resulting awareness is consequently based on understanding different
perspectives that drives us to putting ourselves in the shoes of those who
suffer discriminatory conditions.
The generational gap lies therefore in the tools at our disposal
to be able to compare ourselves to society and especially to those who are
not different from us, as they wanted us to believe not too long ago.
The representation of communities has an enormous social and educational
importance. Hence it is essential to understand that it is equally
important and fundamental to do so by allowing the viewer to know a certain
culture looking at it without forced preconceptions.