Whose Planet Is It Anyway?

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Lights, Camera, Stereotypes

Originally posted January 2006

It's not easy being in showbiz, especially in a tough market where you're having to resort to ever-flashier gimmicks and sensationalism just to hold an audience. There's much more competition for the entertainment dollar nowadays, and your shareholders won't tolerate mediocre ratings and loss of advertising revenue. So what do you do?

There was an easy answer in olden times—just trot out a few exaggerated stereotypes of minority characters and pander to the audience's bigotry and ignorance. Minorities weren't your preferred demographic anyway, so who cared if they weren't watching? But it's the twenty-first century now, and most people are at least pretending to value diversity, so you can't do anything as blatant as
minstrel shows in blackface or that odious fad that was popular in the 1980s, TV dramas and magazine articles about women who became irrational and violent because of PMS.

Those dramas got good ratings, though. Hmmm. Maybe there's some other group that you can stereotype as irrational and violent. You'd have to pick on a small minority group, one without much purchasing power, so that it wouldn't matter how much you offended them. Ideally, you'd want a group that already had been stigmatized as abnormal, that very few people knew any real facts about, and that easily could be portrayed as "weird" on camera.

And you conclude that the good Lord made autistics just for you.

Presumably that's the sort of reasoning that our TV trashlords engaged in recently when they decided to treat their viewers to an episode of Boston Legal in which an autistic lawyer held his boss hostage with a knife in a conference room and a Dr. Phil show that described Asperger's as an extreme disorder causing sudden fits of rage that made parents afraid of their own children. (I never give active links to enemy sites, but for those who don't mind copying and pasting, go to abc.go.com/primetime/bostonlegal/recap/season2/12.html and drphil.com/shows/show/634/ for the ugly details.)

When a minority group finds that it has become a target of this sort of media abuse, what can it do? There's really only one effective answer: protests, protests, and more protests. And I'm not talking about a few gripes here and there, but a sustained, concerted effort. We need to get our parents and other family members involved, to the extent practicable. We need to drown the offending shows, their network bosses, and their advertisers in a deluge of e-mail, snail mail, and telephone complaints. We need to build websites that will have their advertisers quaking in terror.

(I'm told that a boycott website is under construction, listing curebie sponsors and other miscellaneous supporters of anti-autistic bigotry. Stay tuned.)



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