Sunday, June 17, 2012

Seven classes of portrayals of minority characters

So I've been horribly sick for the past two weeks, and when I haven't been sick, I've been working, so I'm a bit behind on - well, everything. But as I've been working my way through the Lady and the Tramp review, I've been considering why the stereotypes in that movie (and there are a LOT) barely offend me at all, while the Indians in Peter Pan threw off the whole balance of what was already a very tepid movie. In the end, I developed seven classes of minority portrayals, which I've illustrated here (just click if it's too small to read):

Now, I just want to be clear, this isn't a scale where 1 is worst and 7 is ideal. (1 is definitely worst, though) It's just seven classes that these characters can be placed into, in an attempt to explain my reactions to them, and the reactions people in general have.

Any of these classes can be used poorly, and any of them can be used well. Even 1 has its place in storytelling. For example, Chin-Kee from American Born Chinese is an undeniably racist collection of Chinese stereotypes, but is used to confront the reader with the existence and source of these stereotypes, as well as the fact that there is no functional difference between "good" and "bad" stereotypes. Type 2 is more often than not EXTREMELY problematic, but it can also give characters like Scrooge McDuck, who I would unhesitatingly place as one of my favorite characters in all of fiction. Type 7 may seem like an ideal of color-blindness, but can just as easily lead to tokenism and the negation of real racial experiences. Type 4 may seem like lazy writing, but it's just as often a function of plot economy.

What I'm saying is that the classes aren't at all useful for determining what's offensive or not, which is the whole reason I came up with them in the first place. Dangit. Oh, and for those of you who don't speak Disney, I've translated into Star Trek.

Two notes: 1) That's English stereotypes on Bashir, not Arab ones. 2) I love O'Brien, we all do, but come on, the first time we see him in his downtime, he's complaining that his wife doesn't cook him enough potatoes.

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