VAL 140/ 340
Prejudice & Discrimination
Professor Kathryn Russell
Stereotypes in context
    Understanding stereotypes: media
  In Philosophical Issues in Prejudice and Discrimination, we will study stereotypes having to do with gender, race, class, sexual orientation, disability, age and so on.

This unit on understanding stereotypes in the media will have three topics:

  1. What makes something a stereotype
  2. What it means to put issues in context
  3. Media literacy

What, then, makes something a stereotype (1)?

Here is a definition:

...assumptions and beliefs about the physical, behavioral, and psychological characteristics assigned to a particular group or class of people... (Cyrus 65)

Examine the images and dialogue from Pulp Fiction to decide if any stereotypes are used. Answer the discussion questions.

Listen to the dialogue. Click on the picture to play the selection as many times as you wish.
Discussion: Why do you think the people who designed the poster for Pulp Fiction chose the specific content they did. Why is the poster formatted as a 10 cent comic book? What makes the image of the woman a stereotype? What stereotype is it? How can you tell?   Discussion: In light of the definition of stereotypes above, what are the physical, behavioral, and psychological traits associated with "dorks?" Are those traits linked to any particular group of people? Can any person of any age, class, race, or gender be labeled a dork? Why or why not?

Discussion: Have you ever felt you had to laugh when a stereotype in used in a joke even though you didn't want to? How does the laughing in the Pulp Fiction dialogue function? Does laughing make you complicit in the stereotyping that's going on? What could you do instead of laughing?

Native Americans have been severely stereotyped in the US.
Discussion: Click on the picture to the left to view the "Ten Little Indians" video and answer some discussion questions. This link should be used with Ward Churchill's article "Crimes Against Humanity" in Andersen/ Hill Collins.

Contextual analysis (2): To figure out if something is a stereotype we need to put it in a context.

This image was part of a student's presentation on women's body images in the media.
Click on the image to hear what she said.

But let's put the issue of self esteem in a larger, more analytical context.

  • What is self esteem?
  • How do you get it?
  • Is it an achievement?
  • How can parents foster it in their children?
  • How can you foster it in yourself?
  • What factors present in a larger society can help people develop strong self concepts and self esteem?
  • What factors in a society can hinder the development of self esteem?

To get a different perspective on Obsession ads go to this website:
Link to Adbusters for alternative Obsession ads.
In Philosophical Issues in Prejudice and Discrimination, we need to cast our analytical nets very wide, out from a family and individual context to a social, historical and political context.

We need to take a social scientific perspective which, following C. Wright Mills could be called the "sociological imagination."

Mills taught me how to view the world through the lenses of social theory, and when I took my first look, the world jumped out at me as if I had donned the 3-D glasses that Hollywood was hawking at the time. I saw the invisible structures and secret signals that shape our social lives, that have a power over us that I thought resided only in face-to-face relationships. I was astonished at this new vision of life in which people walked about, not freely, as I had imagined, but controlled by strings attached to their minds and hearts by invisible puppeteers.

Parker Palmer in The Courage to Teach, page 26

Exercise 3 at the bottom of this unit will help you put issues facing individuals into a global context.

The opportunities facing the child in Iraq and the children in US schools are quite different.

John Berger uses an intellectual context to examine the sexual objectification of women in advertising. He develops a phenomenological approach through a philosophical analysis of women's consciousness.

A woman has a split self - herself watching herself being herself - the surveyor and the surveyed. (Berger 46)

You will see questions about his theory in Exercise 6 at the bottom of this unit.

Media literacy (3):

Media literacy is the ability to access, analyze, critically evaluate, and produce communication in a variety of forms.

How many forms of media have you encountered so far today? Brainstorm a list of them now. Bring your list to class.

Five Principles of Media Literacy:

  1. Media messages are constructed.
  2. The media construct reality.
  3. Different people experience the same media message in different ways.
  4. Media are primarily businesses driven by a profit motive.
  5. Media have embedded values and points of view.

Link to a brief explanation of each of these principles from the Ontario Ministry of Education.

Questions like the following are suggested by media literacy experts to analyze any piece of media:

  1. Who is "speaking" and what is their purpose? (Who produced or sponsored the message?)
  2. Who is the target audience, and how is the message specifically tailored to them?
  3. What techniques are used to attract attention?
  4. What values and lifestyles are promoted? (What is communicated as good to be, or have, or do? What is not good to be, or have, or do?)
  5. What is implied without being specifically stated (especially about the credibility of the message)?
  6. What is left out of this message that might be important to know?

From Project Look Sharp, Ithaca College. Check out their web site, especially if you want to be a teacher!

It is important to be clear about the goals of media literacy. People in the media literacy movement argue that being genuinely literate in an advanced technological society like ours requires being able to read and understand all forms of media, not just the printed word.

Some, like Neil Postman, adopt a "protectionist" approach, seeking to shield young people from the effects of media addiction and corruption. But others follow an orientation more like that of Paolo Friere's literacy work in Brazil. Words, sounds, and images reflect a society's power relations, and they can be used in oppressive or liberatory ways.

For Philosophical Issues in Prejudice and Discrimination we will concentrate on the latter approach to media literacy. We will see evaluating the media as a way to critically analyze the culture of our society. We will NOT assume that people, especially young people, are mindless couch potatoes absorbing values that distort otherwise healthy American "family" values.

The media are powerful, not because they control our minds and behavior but because they frame controversies in ways that are assumed by many to be true.

Study the article "Myth: The Media Tell the Truth about Youth" from Framing Youth by Mike Males. Placing the following quotes in the context of his article, explain his approach to media literacy.

[There are] two types of media influence progressive critics have delineated: the media as corrupter of public morals, and the media as framer of public debate. Of these, the media's power to frame the debate--in this case, by presenting a systematically false image of teenagers--is far more powerful and far worse than its ability to corrupt. After working with children, adolescents, and their families for a dozen years and studying patterns of youth and adult behavior, . . . I'm doubtful that the media corrupt innocent, jello-brained kids. Parents may not like it that their kids are learning American values, all the worse that these expose the parents' (unadmitted) values as well. (263)


Media literacy is reasonable, but it doesn't get at the real problem. What is really required is reevaluation of the far larger effect on youths of growing up in a product-driven society whose adults, including parents and teachers, spend $5 trillion per year on personal consumption. . . The problem with [some media literacy] analyses. . . is that they encourage the distancing of adults' from youths' values, blame media for the latter, and hamper sober examination of adult values. (274)

Understanding Stereotypes in the media (USM) unit assignments:

USM assignment 1: Study the handout on stereotypes and summarize what a stereotype is in your own words. Bring your summary statement into class.

USM assignment 2: Visit the following website and scan some of the articles:
Send me an email about what you learned from the articles. Focus on how women and people of color are portrayed in the media stereotypically.
USM assignment 3: Sexual objectification exercise
USM assignment 4: Political and economic contexts
USM assignment 5: Name that context quiz
USM assignment 6: Cultural definitions of men and women
USM assignment 7:

Click on the picture to the left for a larger version and to answer some questions.

USM assignment 8: Humorous Quotes

USM assignment 9: Repeat USM assignment 4 using the 5 principles and 6 questions above.

Send an example to the class archive!

Created by Kathryn Russell
SUNY Cortland - Philosophy
Last modified on 8-5-99