When it comes to depicting race, culture, and ethnicity in movies and television shows, it can be a complicated issue. Different cultures have their foibles and that’s partly what makes a culture unique. The problem is that if these depictions aren’t sensitive enough, it can come across as stereotyping, or discriminating, and that’s if diversity is shown at all.
It’s important to note that a lot of this is debatable, and we are not accusing the people involved with these works of being racist. If you disagree, we’d love to hear why in the comments. Just remember to be respectful, because this is obviously a sensitive topic.
10. The Smurfs
The Smurfs started off as a comic strip in 1958 by Belgian artist Peyo, whose real name is Pierre Culliford. Since then, the Smurfs have grown so much in popularity that they are now a pop culture mainstay. There have been a number of Smurf movies, a television series that ran for eight seasons, over 20 video games, and there are Smurf theme parks. It’s hard to believe that something that is so ingrained in Western culture could also be racist. But according to Antoine Buéno, a lecturer at Sciences Po university in Paris, the Smurfs are communists that are anti-Semitic and racist. Some of the evidence he points to is that the Smurfs live in an insular community where everyone pretty much looks the same. They have no money, all wear the same style of clothes and eat together. There is one boss, Papa Smurf, and he resembles Karl Marx.
As for the Smurfs being anti-Semitic, according to Buéno, Gargamel, the antagonist of the Smurfs, represents Jewish people. Buéno argues that Gargamel looks and acts like a caricature out of anti-Semantic literature; he has a hooked nose and he is greedy. Also, his cat, Azrael, shares the same name as the angel of death in some Hebrew stories.
Besides the anti-Semitism, Buéno also points out the importance of the purity of the Smurf’s blue skin. For example, there is a story in the comics where a Smurf turns into a black zombie and starts attacking other Smurfs and they, in turn, have their skin changed to black. The change in skin color becomes a huge problem for the Smurfs and they call a dark Smurf “the ugly one.”
Finally, there is only one regular female character in the history of the Smurfs and that is Smurfette. She is known for her beauty and for her pretty blonde locks. Buéno believes that Smurfette is actually the idealization of Hitler’s master race, even though she has blue skin. Buéno doesn’t think that Peyo intentionally made the Smurfs racist and anti-Semitic. Other people think that Buéno is wrong, and he received strong online backlash over his book.
Friends and Seinfeld both have the same problem: both take place in the incredibly diverse New York City, but on both shows, all the main and secondary characters are white. Yes, both shows had Jewish characters, but they were still all Caucasians. Why didn’t either show have at least one character that had different skin color? If you think that we’re just making it up, name one recurring character on Friends who was a person of color. Out of all the storylines involving all six characters, how many of them intersected with characters that weren’t white? We’ll give you a hint: there aren’t many.
Seinfeld had a bit more diversity in the show, but again, the lack of characters of color is concerning. If the story did involve people of different ethnicities, their cultures are just used as plot points and the characters are never really developed. This includes characters like the native woman Jerry dates, the Soup Nazi, and Babu. They even made a joke about this in an episode where George struggles to find a black friend. These characters are just relegated to catch phrases, then their ethnicity and their differences are used to create conflict for the white characters.
One time Seinfeld’s take on race got the show in some hot water. That episode was “The Puerto Rican Day Parade,” which was the 20th episode of the last season. In the story, Kramer accidentally sets a Puerto Rican flag on fire and stomps on it in front of a group of Puerto Ricans. The flag burning was offensive enough, but people were also upset with the depiction of Puerto Ricans. They start rioting and trash Jerry’s empty car, after which Kramer says, “it’s like this every day in Puerto Rico.” After the episode aired, NBC apologized and pulled it from the rerun schedule.
In an interesting contrast to an examination of race in Seinfeld, Jerry Seinfeld says that political correctness is ruining comedy. Some critics argue that, of course, people can look back in hindsight and see the problems with these shows, but that doesn’t necessarily make them racist in the context of the time. Looking back at the two most popular shows of the 1990s, it perhaps speaks to the culture of the time and that racism and depictions of diversity in the media has come a long way, but it still has a long way to go.
8. The Walking Dead/Fear the Walking Dead
The Walking Dead is nothing less than a cultural phenomenon. Who would have thought that a show about dirty and hungry people walking around being attacked by zombies, whose heads squish like grapes, would be so popular? Well, what’s interesting about The Walking Dead is that there’s a somewhat diverse cast (although there are plenty of shades of white), but the problem is that there always seems to be a revolving door for black characters because they get killed more often than the red shirts in Star Trek.
Producers of the show say the show isn’t racist and that they have killed more white characters than black characters. That is true, as 60.7 percent of the white characters have been killed in the first five seasons, while 60 percent of the black characters have been killed. But this stat is kind of deceiving because there is a disproportionate amount of white characters to black characters. Also, those numbers have only recently leveled out. In the earlier seasons, black people were more likely to be killed and since then more white people have died out which has balanced out the stats a bit. Also, there has not been one black character that has appeared in all five seasons. Finally, a controversial death happened in season five when a well-liked black character was killed on the first Sunday of Black History Month.
Another question is why is there a lack of diversity among the survivors? Rick and his group often come across other groups of survivors and they are usually white or possibly black, but America is a diverse place – particularly Atlanta (the city around which the early seasons were set), where as of 2010, 54% of the city’s population was African American. And why haven’t they come across any Indian or Chinese people? Instead, it just looks like white people, a few black people and Glenn (an Asian American character) have survived the zombie apocalypse.
Fear the Walking Dead, the companion series to The Walking Dead, has also been accused of racism in its short broadcast history. For example, in the first two episodes there are three African American characters and all three die within those first two shows. Perhaps that will change as the series goes on, especially since the producers are aware of the controversy surrounding The Walking Dead regarding their depiction of race.
1984’s Gremlins is arguably one of the best Christmas horror comedies of all-time. Directed by Joe Dante, the film is about Billy, a teenager who gets an odd animal as a gift from his father – a Mogwai. The Mogwai comes with three very specific rules: you can’t expose them to bright lights and sunlight could kill them; you can’t get them wet; and you can’t feed them after midnight. If you do feed them after midnight, they turn into killer reptilian gremlins.
One of the troubling racial aspects of the movie is the caricature of the Asian man who owns the oddity shop where Billy’s dad finds the Mogwai. He has a long beard and even smokes a pipe. Besides the caricature, the film is also an example of Orientalism, that an Eastern culture is mystical enough to have an animal as remarkable as a Mogwai.
Also, some have suggested that the Gremlins/Mogwai are actually a metaphor for a fear that plagued white Americans in the 1980s – young black men. For example, in the film Dear White People, one of the characters points out that they breakdance, are loud, talk in slang, love fried chicken, and get freaked out when their hair gets wet. Then the conflict of the film is that the white suburban people have to fight off these invaders. But then again, others suggest the film is a metaphor for consumerism, while others think it’s a fun and scary movie with great puppetry.
According to Joe Queenan at The Guardian, the beloved sports underdog film series, Rocky, has an undercurrent of racism to it. Looking back to the first movie that was released in 1976, Queenan says that Apollo Creed, who is brash and outspoken throughout the film is actually a stand-in for Muhammad Ali. Back when the movie came out, Ali wasn’t popular with white American boxing fans. Rocky Balboa, on the other hand, connected with white audiences because he is just a white, blue collar guy from the streets of Philadelphia, who is just working hard and trying his best. So, according to Queenan, Rocky is just a white fantasy of a “regular” American man beating a mouthy black man based on the fact that he works hard.
Also, throughout the film, it’s suggested that Creed has “God-given” talent and he’s just naturally gifted. Suggesting that African American athletes are good solely because of genetics is insulting because it implies they didn’t work hard to get where they are, which is obviously false. Any professional athlete, especially if they are the champion, had to work incredibly hard to get there. Of course Rocky works hard, but still gets a moral victory despite losing in the big fight. In the second film, Rocky defeats the naturally gifted Apollo Creed.
Queenan says that this trend continues all the way to the sixth sequel, Rocky Balboa, where Rocky is 60-years-old and has been retired for some time. In the film, the current boxing champion is an undefeated African American boxer named Mason Dixon, who really hasn’t been challenged in the ring. So Rocky steps into the ring and they go toe-to-toe, with Rocky getting another moral victory over the clearly more gifted black boxer. Dixon gets taught a lesson that natural talent only takes you so far and experience can go a long way. He also finds out that he was lucky to only face Rocky when Rocky was at an extreme disadvantage…because African Americans obviously don’t understand disadvantages, we guess?
5. Black Hawk Down
Black Hawk Down is a dramatic retelling of the Battle of Mogadishu, which took place during the Somali Civil War in September of 1993. The film tells the story of 123 American soldiers who were on the ground in Somalia and they were trying to capture Mohamed Farrah Aidid, a man who proclaimed himself president after ousting the government. The soldiers find themselves trapped when they are surrounded by a militia that is thousands of men strong.
While it’s an interesting story that does work well as an action movie, different groups of people had a problem with the depiction of the Somalis. Yes, in real life, they were the ones trying to kill the Americans, but the movie doesn’t explain why the Somalis wanted to kill them, nor does it explain why America is there in the first place. By making the story shallow, it makes the Somalis faceless enemies, but they were real people that were engulfed in political turmoil over basic necessities like food. Finally, even though this was a real event, involving people of a certain nation, the filmmakers didn’t cast any real Somalis in the film, who are known for their distinct facial features, nor do any of the characters talk like Somalis.
People will argue that Black Hawk Down is just an action movie and to tell the complex political drama of the situation would detract from the action. What’s interesting about that is, apparently, in the original script, there were scenes that questioned why the United States was getting involved and gave more depth to the Somali characters. Yet they chose to dumb it down and make it a shoot’em up. It is possible to make an exciting movie that includes political context, of course, with one example being Captain Philips. It even has a similar story to Black Hawk Down: white Americans are trapped by a group of Somalis in hostile territory. But Captain Philips is different because the Somali characters were real people and the suspenseful nature of the film isn’t affected. In fact, the film is stronger because of it.
4. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
Based on the popular toy line from Hasbro, the first live action Transformers movie in 2007 was a commercial success and it, of course, spawned a sequel. That film was Revenge of the Fallen and it was released in 2009 to incredibly poor reviews. One problem that a number of people had with the movie was the characters Skids and Mudflap, who are orange and green Chevy cars. For some reason, they are also stereotypes of black urban men. Both of them have big ears and buck teeth (why alien robots have teeth or ears in the first place is beyond us). They talk in slang and one of them actually says, “don’t do much readin’.” And finally, Skid has a gold tooth.
Let’s pretend for a second that the whole concept of The Transformers makes sense. That there is an alien life form that is both humanoid and can change into vehicles that are manufactured on Earth. But why would an alien culture have the stereotypes of a specific minority from a different solar system? Wouldn’t the Transformers’ manner of speaking, intellect level, and even appearance be more of a representation of their own culture? But, again, that’s trying to apply logic to one of Michael Bay’s dumbest movies.
When asked about the characters, Michael Bay said he was marketing the characters toward children so they are supposed to be over the top and cartoonish. But if you think about it, that’s even worse, because there’s nothing like trying to reinforce racial stereotypes to impressionable young people by suggesting that the stereotypes of minorities are literally universal.
3. The Blind Side
The Blind Side is based on the book by Michael Lewis, which has two different narratives. One is the evolution of the game of football, and the second part tells the real life story of NFL football player Michael Oher. Oher, who is African American, grew up in poverty until he was taken in by the a wealthy white family, who adopted him.
For the adaptation, the movie took a pretty Hollywood angle to it, where Oher didn’t know how to play football until Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock) steps up and tells him how – which Oher steadfastly denies was the case. Then the rest of the movie involves Leigh Anne wandering around her mansion, or driving around in her luxury car, thinking about what lengths she should go to help this young man. The Blind Side is an example of what critics call a “White Savior” movie. That there is some character that is a different race or ethnicity that is in trouble, but the day is saved when a white person swoops in and fixes the problem. Because without white people helping them out, how would people of minorities in America get ahead?
While The Blind Side is based on a real story, it has this odd sense of self-satisfaction to it. Don’t get us wrong, it’s great the Tuohys opened up their home and their hearts to Oher, but, do they need to be rewarded with a big Hollywood adaptation of their kind act? Besides, is the story about Oher and his success? Or is it Leigh Anne’s story, where she’s supposedly the true hero because she’s played by an A-list actress?
2. 2 Broke Girls
2 Broke Girls is a CBS sitcom that has somehow been on the air for five seasons despite the fact no one has ever actually admitted to watching it. We assume witchcraft and blood sacrifices were involved. The show, which debuted in 2010, follows the misadventures of Max (Kat Dennings) and Caroline (Beth Behrs), two waitresses who want to run their own bakery. Max grew up poor and Caroline grew up rich, but her father was involved in a Ponzi scheme and she is now broke.
On the show, there are a number of racial stereotypes, and the one that people find most offensive is a character named Han Lee played by Matthew Moy. He owns the restaurant where the two main characters are waitresses. Lee speaks in broken English, is short, asexual, work obsessed, and is always misunderstanding American culture. The only thing he’s missing is buck teeth and a Fu Manchu. And as if one character embodying all these stereotypes wasn’t bad enough, he’s then ridiculed by the characters because of those traits. The character of Han Lee isn’t given any depth and no attention is given to his heritage, just that he’s Asian (possibly Korean, but it’s never made clear). Because, you know, countries like China, Korea and Japan are all the same. Besides the offensive Asian character, there’s also a character that plays an Eastern European stereotype named Oleg. He’s sex obsessed, dresses terribly, and talks like he’s doing a bad Borat impression.
Finally, the show doesn’t seem to be content with just having shallow ethnic caricatures for characters, they also say offensive things. One controversial remark got the show in trouble in Australia. On an episode in the fourth season, Han tells the characters that he’s been talking to an Australian girl online and says, “She’s part Aboriginal, but she has a great personality!” After the remark, both stars apologized on Twitter. 2 Broke Girls is hailed for having two talented and funny female leads, but the out-of-date stereotypes is simply baffling in this day and age.
There are a few movies that can be lumped together into the same category as Avatar, like, Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, and even Fern Gully, because they all follow the same premise. So we’ll group those films together based on certain similarities for this argument, but for simplicity’s sake we’ll focus on Avatar.
If you weren’t one of the hundreds of millions of people who saw Avatar, the film starts off with humans mining the environment of Pandora, a moon which is inhabited by the Na’vi. The Na’vi are blue, 10-feet tall and humanoid. They live at peace with the nature of their planet and their very way of life is threatened. To explore the moon, which is poisonous, humans use “avatars” which are human and Na’vi hybrids. They are controlled by people who are linked to them through DNA. When a paraplegic former Marine named Jake Scully gets a chance to replace his twin brother as an avatar pilot, he becomes immersed in the Na’vi culture and has weird tail sex with one of them. Then it turns out that he is the chosen one and he leads a battle against the humans and against all at odds, the Na’vi win.
Avatar, and films like it, are another example of a white savior movie. In these movies, the protagonists are implanted in the endangered culture, then they rise through the ranks to become their leader and he uses the natives’ tools, weapons and fighting style to defeat the all-powerful white invaders. Why couldn’t a native fighter, who has been living his or her whole life in that culture and is fighting for their way of life, be the one to defeat the evil? Why include an outsider at all? Instead, these stories present the notion that white people can walk in and do everything better than every other ethnicity, even things that make the culture special and unique.