Storytellers have always relied on stereotypes as a shorthand way of explaining characters. Stereotypes are easily recognizable and understandable -- like the dashing-but-clueless Prince Charming or a tough-talkin' gal with a heart of gold. But as we all know, stereotypes are a delicate matter. They can bolster negative perceptions, justify prejudice, and reinforce sexism, racism, and other negative views about particular groups. Plus, they're insidious -- creeping into our attitudes without us even realizing. Help your kids take a critical look at what stereotypes mean, how they paint so many people unfairly, and, most importantly, how they may misinform us about the world.
Economic, gender, and ethnic stereotypes are all over kids' TV shows, movies, video games, and even music. White male heroes far outnumber both women and minorities in media portrayals. And although women have come a long way in how popular culture reflects their status, statistics show that women are still most often relegated to roles of love interest, sex object, or selfless saint.
The images our kids see powerfully inform their sense of what's "normal." When kids see the same class, racial, and sexual relations portrayed over and over, it reinforces class, race, and gender stereotypes. The characters kids see can become role models -- and kids may want to imitate the behavior they see. They may also form judgments about others based on portrayals in video games, in stories, and on TV.
Tips for parents of all kids
- Start counting. When you're watching TV or playing games with your kids, keep a tally of the characters. How many are female? How many are male? How many are white? Do you see any correlation between the characters' race and gender and how they're portrayed? Talk about these observations with your children. These sorts of questions will help your kids build awareness –- and provide you with opportunities to further discuss stereotypes.
- Find alternatives. Common Sense Media can help you find movies, books, and video games that run counter to these portrayals. For example, check our recommendations for Best Smart Movie Girls or Multicultural Books.
- Don't buy it. Game makers and movie studios keep making products with unfair portrayals because people pay for them. Remember that you can vote with your dollars.
- Challenge assumptions. Depending on your kids' age, you can talk about common stereotypes and debunk your kids' perceptions. Use examples from the real world to show that media portrayals aren't accurate -- like all blondes aren't dumb, for example.
- Discuss social media. Flag negative stereotypes reinforced in social media -- such as when certain groups are targeted for their gender or race -- and make sure your kids understand not to perpetuate them in their own social networks.
- Talk about humor in stereotypes. Stereotypes can be humorous -- even ones that describe our own friends and families. But they can turn mean-spirited very quickly. For kids -- and adults -- it can be difficult to determine whether a joke based on a stereotype pokes fun inappropriately at a particular group or whether it's making fun of people who hold a prejudice against that group. One yardstick you can use is if your kids wouldn't make that joke in front of that particular group -- that means it's not funny.
- Watch, play, and listen to the edgy stuff together -- and explain. Certain shows -- like Key and Peele, Fresh Off the Boat, Black-ish and Betty White's Off Their Rockers -- explore stereotypes with humor and irony. But kids won't always understand these portrayals and need parents to explain them.