“Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.” Romans 12: 2 (The Message)
Every day we see images that are meant to typify entire groups of people. In news reports we might see images of homeless people living in cities, Asians working in factories with deplorable conditions, politicians arguing in Congressional hearings, or angry rioters fighting with police. Having seen those images, we often take quantum leaps and make general assumptions about them.
Also, in the vast number of movies and TV programs available, there are endless depictions of groups or types of people who are immediately identifiable. Their clothing, nationality, language or accent, skin color, or living conditions let us know whom they are meant to exemplify. This typifying and exemplifying sets the stage for the drama.
A stereotype is defined in the dictionary as “a generalized belief about a particular group or class of people.”
There is a need in the mass media to quickly associate certain people with specific qualities, characteristics, and beliefs to move the storyline along. If we see cowboys and Indians in a movie, the movie-makers know we already have established opinions of these subsets of the population. When we recognize middle-eastern people who are quickly identified by their apparel, for example, we may react with subjective generalities about those who are portrayed.
“Stereotypes are sometimes overgeneralized, inaccurate, and resistant to new information, but can sometimes be accurate. While such generalizations about groups of people may be useful when making quick decisions, they may be erroneous when applied to particular individuals and are among the reasons for prejudice attitudes.” (https://en.wikipedia.org)
In perhaps an overreaction, this year “six Dr. Seuss books will no longer be published because ‘they portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong,’ the business that preserves the author’s legacy said.” (www.cnn.com/2021/03/02/us/dr-seuss-books-cease-publication-trnd/index.html)
“In 2017, a school librarian in Cambridge, Massachusetts, criticized a gift of 10 Seuss books from first lady Melania Trump, saying many of his works were ‘steeped in racist propaganda, caricatures, and harmful stereotypes.’” (www.cbsnews.com/news/dr-seuss-enterprises-racist-images-cease-publishing)
Stereotyping can certainly lead to unfavorable and hurtful opinions about ethnic, religious, political, disabled, preference-based, or age-related subsets of the population. For example, ageism is a noticeable undercurrent in our present culture. A negative attitude towards those of the “over 50 crowd” has permeated much of the media’s attitudes. “Originally it was identified chiefly towards older people, old age, and the aging process; discriminatory practices against older people; and institutional practices and policies that perpetuate stereotypes about elderly people.” (ageism, wikipedia.com)
Indeed, stereotypes are oversimplifications about any population subset of human beings (teenagers, journalists, Walmart shoppers, Muslims, redheads, girls, boys, single parents, athletes) that can result in misrepresentations, hurt feelings, strained relationships, and alienated population groups within the American people.
A recent media example is the overwhelming number of spokespeople who share a narrative designed to link Trump supporters to “white supremacists” and to “insurrectionists” who attempted to overthrow the American Republic on January 6th by entering the Capitol building in Washington D.C. The definition of insurrection is “An organized opposition to an authority; a mutiny; a rebellion” (www.definitions.net) This is certainly a troubling and inaccurate generalization to describe those who entered the Capitol that day and demonstrates the destructive power of stereotyping.
We fall short of the people God calls us to be when we make blatant presumptions about groups of people. Scripture reminds us: “Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly.” John 7:24 (NIV) Consider John 3:17: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” God doesn’t care what group we are part of – God’s love transcends all stereotypes.
So how can we help teens become media-savvy about the culture that surrounds them?
Important conversations can result from open-ended questions and discussion starters. Try these:
• Introduce this definition: “a stereotype is an oversimplified description based on limited experience. Television programs often use stereotyped characters such as a hillbilly or a nosy mother-in-law who are instantly recognizable by viewers.”
• Ask, “What stereotypes of girls are often in the media?” Discuss.
• Ask, “What stereotypes of boys are often in the media?” Discuss.
• Discuss familiar stereotypes of teens that are often depicted in movies, TV shows, and commercials.
• Ask the teens to discuss their beliefs about rock stars, jocks, politicians, models, the elderly, royalty, and cheerleaders. Ask if they ever find themselves “painting with a broad brush”, believing all people in each category are the same.
• Ask, “What are some dangers that can result from stereotypes portrayed in the media?”
• Ask, “How does social media increase stereotyping and judging?”
• Share, “When we make decisions about other people based on stereotypical ideas, we are judging them before we know them as individuals.” Ask the question: “Is judging inconsistent with loving?” Have teens discuss examples of how others judge or stereotype Christians.
• Jesus said, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” (Luke 6:37) What do you think this means?
It’s imperative that we think about the images we see and react in an open and loving manner to all people.
Note: Share this blog with your church’s youth pastor as a lesson for youth group gatherings.
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Sue Summers is a Christian media analyst, teacher, author, and speaker. She is the Director of Media Alert!
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