Cultural Reality and Stereotypes

By Thomas Kochman - 11.21.2009

The mixed African American reaction to the film “Precious” is a reminder again of what happens when a portrayal of black life draws attention to prevailing social stereotypes of African Americans as a group. One reviewer saw the film as full of “brazenly racist clichés”. Another reviewer talked about what happens when you flatten the black experience by showing only the positive side which “denies our humanity.”

I think the Jewish reaction to the latest Coen brother’s film “A Serious Man,” will be similar. Some Jews will see it as reinforcing stereotypes. My own initial gut reaction was to see it as providing a rationale for anti-Semitism, even and including genocide.  Other Jews will see it, as I also later did, as a defiant film, confronting the public with Jewish stereotypes head on, mocking the mockers, so to speak, and more importantly, a very good film.

Ultimately, the question becomes for groups that have been stereotyped: can the whole truth of an ethnic group be told, one that would show “warts and all.”

The short and quick answer is “yes”, but if the whole truth is to be told then the question is how. Ideally, the public should see any portrait of an individual or family as a slice of life — as one segment of a larger cultural mosaic — and not standing for the collective and varied social and cultural experience of an entire group. Read more »