Stereotypes and Your Television: Welcome to the ‘PC’ Backlash

There’s been a disturbing uptick lately in the use of stereotypes in television, and passionate rhetoric in defense of such. Viewers inform people that stereotypes ‘have some basis in reality’ and that they are only included in television for satire and humour anyway, so they’re no big deal. People are informed that they do not understand the intent of the work, and that if they did, they wouldn’t be so up in arms about stereotypes, because the creators are clearly making a clever embedded social commentary.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this and the best explanation I can come up with is that it’s a backlash against a growing social push to stop tolerating -isms. Especially in progressive circles, and a lot of television is made by people who consider themselves progressive, there seems to be a sense of irritation and anger at people who are tired of being oppressed. There’s a sort of ‘first the Black people, then the women, then the crips, now what?’ going on here. They dislike being told over and over again that, yes, what they are doing is not ok.

I get the sense, in a lot of progressive communities, that people have absorbed the code words and they know how to fake it, but aren’t actually interested in engaging at a deeper level with the social issues they pay lip service to. And, in pop culture, people have a safe outlet to express their -isms. They can say what they can’t say at dinner parties, in the coffeehouse, at the neighbourhood watch meeting, because they can hide behind the claim that it’s ‘just’ entertainment.

Hipster -isms are, as we know, a problem, and they are expressing in full flower on a lot of television programmes right now. Many shows actually seem to make it a point of pride to be ‘un-PC,’ as though this, ‘PC,’ is a bad thing to be. Speaking to some people at a panel recently, I said:

Let me tell you something, what people mean by this term ‘too PC.’ What they mean is that the very idea of treating other people like human beings, the idea that people deserve to be treated with respect, is offensive to them.

Many people want to consider themselves progressive. They want to be among the cool kids. They want to feel like they’re doing something for the world. And thus, they front. And they often front very well when it comes to hiding their embedded -isms. They know what not to say and where, and they bide their time until they reach a space where they can ‘breathe easy’ and let their -isms fly. People claim that the idea of not being a complete asshole is ‘too PC’ and lash out about it, and television creators appear to be at the forefront.

You ‘aren’t allowed’ to do or say a lot of things, people claim, despite ample evidence to the contrary. People are just so repressed and sad that they can’t let people know what they really think about Mexicans, or disabled people, or women. And so they must express themselves creatively. In the form of, say, a completely stereotypical Mexican character on a show. Or white people making racist comments but embedding them in a ‘tee hee, I know it’s not PC’ narrative in an attempt to preempt critics.

When people have to make a point of being contemptuous about the idea of treating other human beings with respect and consideration, it tells me that their progressive values are a veneer. They don’t genuinely believe, for example, that people with disabilities are human beings, although they will make nice-nice words when they know they are supposed to. They don’t think that women exist for something other than pleasing men, but, of course, they will call themselves ‘feminist’ when they’re in a space where they cannot be themselves.

When people have to lead with ‘no offense but’ or ‘I’m sorry if you’re offended by this,’ it tells me that their claims of caring about oppression and social issues have no validity or basis.

Personally, I’d rather people just be themselves. I like it when bigots helpfully out themselves to me, preferably as early as possible. Progressivism, true progressivism, is not about following scripts and using the right words and making nice. It is about genuinely believing that this world we live in is a shitty one, and you want to make it better. And knowing that one of the ways you can make it better is fighting for equality for all people; not just for you and yours, but for everyone. Fighting for equality includes not writing shitty, stereotyped characters on television and acting like you’re striking a blow for the cause.

People tell me they ‘don’t feel safe’ making racist jokes around me? Because, what, they think this is a pro forma thing, and the issue is the joke? No, the issue is the underlying attitude. Saving the expression of that attitude for a space where you are ‘allowed’ is not somehow virtuous. Television creators making offensively stereotypical characters and milking it for all it’s worth are not being progressive.

They may be creating a safe space for bigotry, and an excuse people can use to indulge their hipster -isms, but they are not really doing anything positive for the world. They’re not subverting anything or challenging social norms. They are just using their medium, their incredible power, to be bigoted. Which isn’t really much different from anything else in the long history of the entertainment history.

You can’t dip a shit sandwich in chocolate and try to pass it off on me. I can smell the shit just fine through that ganache layer, and I am not so desperate that I will gobble it up anyway and then praise your culinary talents. Using stereotypes isn’t just old, or boring, or of questionable creativity. It’s also a red flag warning that for all you spout about progressive values, you’re as bigoted as someone who is unafraid to express those values to my face.