Stereotypes bite back

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

In a scene from "Shark Tale," the latest animated film from Dreamworks, a line of sharks waits to pay respects to the "codfather" of the reef, Don Lino. The great white fish, voiced by Robert De Niro, has just lost his two sons. Later, as Italian music plays in the background, the Don and various underlings exchange lines that could be lifted from any Mafia film all the way back to 1931's "Little Caesar."

"May whoever did this die a thousand deaths," says Giuseppe, a hammerhead. The filmmakers have said that the film is a comedic sendup of the old Italian mobster movies. But some Italian-Americans are not amused. A national organization is protesting the film's "tired cliché of Italians as mobsters."

"It's negative stereotyping at its worst," says Lawrence Auriana, president of the New York-based Columbus Citizens Foundation, who saw the film at last month's Toronto Film Festival. "The sharks all have Italian names. They use Italian expressions and they are violent, criminal, and racist."

Concerns over ethnic and gender stereotypes in the media surface regularly, but some argue that they take on an added urgency when the audience is children. Young viewers, they say, aren't sophisticated enough to discern the stereotypes for what they are.

Warming to his theme, Mr. Auriana says he is surprised that the movie is produced by Dreamworks partner Stephen Spielberg. Auriana notes that the filmmaker once declared, "We are in a race against time for the conscious minds of young people and need to teach them the dangers of stereotyping."

Dreamworks spokesman Andy Spahn says the studio is proud of the final product and makes no excuses.

"We certainly take any concern that has been expressed seriously. In this case we don't think they're valid," says Mr. Spahn, noting that Mr. Spielberg was not directly involved with the film. "This is a family comedy that pokes fun at a number of film types and genres and doesn't demean anyone."

Critics of "Shark Tale" say statistics prove the power of the movies to shape public perception. A recent poll from Research Analysis Corporation of New Jersey found that 74 percent of all Americans associate Italian surnames with organized crime. Yet, according to the FBI, even at the height of the Mafia's power, no more than 5,000 out of the 15 million Italian-Americans have ever been associated with the Mafia or any other crime group.

Auriana calls this misperception "The Godfather" effect, from the 1972 Oscar-winning drama by Francis Ford Coppola, which gave a new life to the old Mafia-movie genre.

Animated films such as "Pocahontas," "Aladdin," and even the blockbuster "Lion King" have been accused in recent years of including clichéd ethnic characters. Early reviews from parents and children who have seen "Shark Tale" suggest that some feel that with this animated film, the comedy outweighs the stereotypes. "You can't take all those Mafia references too seriously," says Rebecca Cantreras, the mother of Jacob, an 8-year-old who liked the film. "If you can't laugh at that 'Don' culture, you're in trouble," she says.

In no way does the comic overlay get the filmmaker off the hook, says Charles Berg, communications professor at the University of Texas in Austin. Comedy works in large measure with types, he says, and that invites the use of easy stereotypes. That there are other comedic elements in the human condition that comedy can employ for laughs, he says.

"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."

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.

"Clichés 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."

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