The debate over representation in any medium dates back to the time of the ancient Greeks. Aristotle posited that among living beings, humans inclined "most towards representation" and learned their "first lessons through representation."1 There is no question that representation is a prominent aspect of human life. While much delight, entertainment and even knowledge can result from such representations, so can less valuable entities, namely, stereotypes.
A stereotype, foremost, is a representation. According to Walter Lippmann, a stereotype is "the insertion between man and his environment of a pseudoenvironment."2 A stereotype not only results from reality, but additionally, it comes to inflect aspects of that reality. The response to a stereotype, as a pseudoreality, does not take place "in the pseudo-environment where the behavior is stimulated, but in the real environment where action eventuates."
Thusly, we see that representations can lead to stereotyping, which is the imposition of a sort of shorthand on individuals, "a representation of the environment which is in lesser or greater degree made by man himself."2 Essentially every characteristic of human culture can be shorthanded by a stereotype, as can any medium transmit these stereotypes. Television, perhaps the greatest surge in public media since the radio, is no exception. The medium of television has aided the transmission of African-American stereotypes immensely. To begin, we will look at the medium within the medium: the sitcom, or situation comedy.
According to Robert Coleman, Associate Professor of Communications Studies and Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan, situation comedy is "one of the most basic, long-lasting genres of programming on American prime-time television."3 The endurance and ease of the form make it a prime tool for transmitting leveled portrayals. Television is not considered a high medium, and this is so because of its mass appeal.
Inside of half an hour, much like in the bustle of daily life, "there is neither time nor opportunity for intimate acquaintance" but instead only traits "which mark well-known types." We "fill in the rest of the picture by means of the stereotypes we carry about in our heads."2 Brevity and quick intercourse characterize the sitcom, and likewise, the stereotype. So it is only natural to see such a preponderance of stereotypes in the medium of television sit-com.
To better understand the history and the full significance of stereotyping on television, a more in-depth and historical lens is required. Later, we will investigate our ideas within the framework of a more modern example, the television show Martin. However, for now, we will focus on the lineage of the form. Only then can we understand the full scope and seeming circularity of the phenomenon.
Television borrowed its stereotypes from minstrel stage shows, "with inferiority, laziness, and lack of worth being the predominant message."3 Much like the sitcom, the minstrel shows showcase the banality of general entertainment, and its focus on the absurd and irrational for its affect. We will look at some specific types of stereotypes a little later. For now, the essence and utility of the stereotype takes precedence. Stereotypes, as has been established, create a pseudoreality in which ideas are formed and then applied to "actual" reality. The essence of the stereotype is that "it precedes the use of reason; is a form of perception, imposes a certain character on the data of our senses before the data reach the intelligence."2 We now have a much fuller idea of the phenomenon of stereotype formation.
Most shocking among the implications thus far, is the fact that, while conditioning reality, the stereotype comes before rationality. So, to condense the matter greatly, at the very least the stereotype reduces all authentic interaction and possibility to an asinine conception, one that has no roots in reality. Such haste and lack of reason are not permissible in other fields such as medicine, science, et cetera, and yet, as rational beings, we find ourselves in a reality composed of a stunning amount of untruth. Why?
The history of stereotype use is not to be contained in a paper of this scope. Suffice it to say that such a history is extremely complex. It will be enough for us to say here that a stereotype acts as a cultural tool. Such tools "may be the core of our personal tradition, the defenses of our position in society." Such tools "are an ordered, more or less consistent picture of the world."2 What does this mean? It means that stereotypes are often taken as reality to defend a reality that does not exist.
By stereotyping blacks, White America had enough "evidence" to continue slavery. Obviously, slavery no longer exists as it did centuries ago. However, the same types of shackles are still applied, for the same reasons of defending cultural values. Sociologist Travis L. Dixon, Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at the Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan, further maintains that stereotypes are the byproduct of the media, and each individual's attempt to simply his/her environment through said media.
He posits four main stereotypes of African-Americans since the times of radio up to and through television's inception. We will look at a few in a moment but for now, it is important to note that, ironically, even more positive portrayals of African-Americans in the media work to solidify those more negative. "For example The Cosby Show's middle-class characters might not be associated with the general category of Blacks and, therefore, the disconfirming information contained in the program is not effective at eradicating stereotypes about African-Americans."4
Let us now look at a counter example. Of the four stereotypical archetypes of African-Americans, we will investigate that of the "coon" in relation to the television show Martin. According to Dixon, the coon "represents Black ineptness at living successfully in White society."4 The coon also represents a sort of purely comical slouch, or a buffoon of sorts. In the episode "Blackboard Jungle Fever"(the title is a reference to a civil rights movie from the fifties involving out of control students and an idealistic teacher), we find the titular character, Martin, played by African-American comedian Martin Lawrence, as he attempts to speak at a gradeschool about being successful. Before arriving at the school to speak, Martin makes a reference to The Cosby Show being a "has been."5 This sets the context for the rest of the episode. The instances of "coon-like" behavior run rampant, but here we will focus on a few general ideas.
Every character in the episode, Martin included, is preoccupied with sex. This harkens back to a dangerous stereotype aimed at blacks, one involving a hyper-sexualized state. To proceed a bit hastily, though thematically, Martin ends up with an opportunity to have sex with his old gradeschool teacher. She is deceitful in her attempts at seduction and Martin is candid throughout about his fantasies involving her (even though he has a girlfriend). In the end, Martin's girlfriend apologizes for not believing him earlier about the teacher coming on to him, not vice versa.
When apologizing, Gina, Martin's girlfriend, states that she is so sorry that she wouldn't blame Martin if he had slept with the teacher after being falsely accused. Hearing this, Martin, not exactly jokingly, motions to go find the teacher again so he can have sex with her, with his girlfriend's approval. Now, this is clearly in the spirit of levity, and yet, it points to a greater spectacle, one derided by Bill Cosby and others. Martin engages in life with very little sincerity. He is always goofing around and acting childish. Every opportunity he has to assert morals, witness the final scene with his girlfriend, he uses to counteract himself.5
Other evidence of "coon-like" behavior can be witnessed as Martin is talking to the class. Ironically, the show sets up the very situation it helps to pervert: a black role model talking to the next generation. Martin boasts about his job as an on-air disc jockey because it only requires him to work three hours a day. Furthermore, two youths in the class, both African-American, begin to "jive talk" with him about what kind of car he drives, and whether or not he could get them a job without having to get a high school or college diploma.
All of the "jokes" and scenes further establish the harmful stereotype of the lazy, materialistic, and generally obtuse "coon." The characters exhibit no real morality or ambition, instead they joke around and act in a manner far more silly than even the most inane of television shows.5
There has been defense of the show however, both from Lawrence himself and other African-American actors. Of his material, Lawrence has claimed, 'I've done nothing wrong. If talking about ourselves gets me in trouble then so be it…this is American, the land of the free.'6 Furthermore, another black actor under fire for a more recent show, One on One's Flex Anderson, said, 'We've all got to wake up and stop being so damn critical. Jim Carrey…