December 30, 2009

"Lighthearted" and "humorous" stereotypes

What should you say when somebody tells you stereotypes are "lighthearted," "humorous," "not meant to be taken seriously," or "just a joke"? The Racialicious blog offers a good answer.

The issue came up when Latoya Peterson "talked about Chris Mottes, CEO of Deadline Games, and his defense of racism in his title Chili Con Carnage." She wrote:

Ching Chong Beautiful Exposes Racism in Video Game DesignEmploying Mexican-American voice actors? Great job! Promoting underground Mexican bands? Even better. I was so impressed by Mottes’ initiative, I was completely blindsided by his next statement.

However, in reviews, forums, and blogs following the releases of both games, some people slammed Deadline for being bigoted towards Mexicans. While we did employ stereotypes we considered lighthearted and humorous, our intent was most certainly not to cast Mexican individuals in a derogatory light…But despite our best efforts, critics still slammed us for being racists.
Why, Chris, why? Why would you throw away all your hard work for a couple cheap, race based humor shots?

The reality is that no stereotype can be considered light-hearted and humorous. A stereotype is defined as “an often oversimplified or biased mental picture held to characterize the typical individual of a group.” Stereotypes are negative. Even “positive” stereotypes are ultimately detrimental to the groups that struggle to find a sense of self within the narrow parameters of society’s vision.

I was blown away. The tone of Mottes’ piece is unmistakably clear–this is how game designers think. This is how they justify their characters. It is as if the thought never crossed their minds that maybe, just maybe, the industry is sending a very powerful message out to minorities by saying that we do not exist outside of our stereotypical roles. If there were five or ten games with a multi-faceted, modern latino protagonist, maybe slipping in a few “light-hearted” stereotypes in one third person shooter would not be such a huge deal. It is still ill-advised, but you would have enough positive images on the market to balance out the negative images broadcast into the homes of every person who purchased this one game.

However, there is no balance. Stereotype after stereotype abound in the virtually crafted console world, with very few characters of color to provide an alternate perspective. Mottes argues that “most games with racist characters do not reflect the mindset of their developers.” I would argue that they do. It reflects the developer’s mindset in dealing with the world and in dealing with minorities. If the developer was not holding on to this mindset that minorities can be categorized with one or two main characteristics, we would have multi-faceted characters of color to play.
Comment:  Excellent response, Latoya. Needless to say, it applies to other entertainment fields besides video games and to other minorities besides Mexicans.

A few more thoughts on the subject:

  • As always, what matters is the effect on viewers, not the intent of the creators. Especially young viewers, who are ill-equipped to discern stereotypes in materials aimed at them--e.g., comic books, cartoons, and video games. Psychologists have documented the harm of stereotyping and I don't think they've made an exception for "lighthearted" or "humorous" stereotypes.

  • Psychologists also understand how people use humor to disguise or soften an angry or mean-spirited attack. If you're ignorant about the concept of using humor as a weapon, you have no business making a joke. While you're educating yourself, spare us your ridiculous claim that humor is "harmless."

  • For more on the subject, see "Joke" About Indian Shooting the Bull and Racist "Jokes" Are No Jokes.

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