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Stereotypes bite back

Stock ethnic characters still appeal in Hollywood, but critics argue that they color a child's perceptions.

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"There are other types you can reach for, such as jealousy, anger - there are many things you can reach for that aren't tied to ethnicity," Mr. Berg says. "Ethnicity is a cheap laugh."

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There's a simple way to determine if a laugh is based on stereotypes, adds the professor. "Can you substitute another ethnicity and will it work just as well? If you can, chances are it's just a good joke," he says. "If you can't, then indications are it's a stereotype."

Beyond that, some who have studied stereotypes in the media believe films that trade on stereotypes for humor have an insidious effect. Young children don't have the same level of critical thinking as adults.

"When humor relies on stereotypes, you decide what's acceptable and what's not. That's critical thinking," says Caryl Stern, associate director of the New York based Anti-Defamation League (ADL). But children, particularly those under the age of 6, can miss satire and only see stereotype. It's important, she adds, for filmmakers to remember that "children's entertainment is children's education."

The images children see can influence their attitudes toward others.

"Promoting stereotypes can make children fearful of certain kinds of strangers," says child psychiatrist Michael Brody.

"Clich├ęs can make them feel either that they're better than some people, or inferior to others, or make them feel these people are so different than they are that they can't relate," he says.

Some parents say critics are losing perspective about what's important in this post 9/11 era. "I'm much more worried about violence than I am about stereotypes in movies," says Ms. Cantreras. "Add to that drugs and sexuality, and stereotypes just don't worry me that much."

Dan Strull, a filmgoing parent, agrees. "That's just not an issue for me or for them," he says, pointing to his children, aged 4, 6, and 9, after a screening of "Shark Tale" in Los Angeles.

Today's films have come a long way since "Birth of a Nation," the 1915 silent film by D.W. Griffiths that demeaned black Americans. Even so, allegations of negative stereotypes in films periodically make news.

Asian-Americans were unhappy with "Lost In Translation," set in Tokyo, which depicted the Japanese as sycophants who can't stop bowing. Arab groups objected to the images of "dirty Arabs" in the "Mummy" films, and African-American activists protested the lingo used by the Jar-Jar Binks character in "Star Wars: Episode I."

Hispanics are often portrayed as drug lords, just as they were portrayed as sleazy villains in Hollywood westerns.

Professor Berg, who also wrote "Latino Images in Film," relates the day he asked a roomfull of Fulbright scholars to describe the classic Mexican bandit. The descriptions were detailed and vivid, despite the fact that none had actually encountered "el bandido" in person. Old TV shows and films were the source of this persistent stereotype.

Berg says various groups have cycled through the national psyche as popular scapegoats.

"It was the Irish 100 years ago," he says. "They're replaced by the Arab, the Asian, or Mideast terrorist. But it's all about how we create categories to deal with the unknown."

Stereotyping can, however, be countered. "The antidote," Berg says, "is information."