Ethnicity Slickers

Ethnicity Slickers

Ethnicity Slickers

Letters from our readers.
June 3 1999 3:43 AM

Ethnicity Slickers

But They're Harmless Stereotypes

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In "The Merchant of Menace," Bruce Gottlieb took George Lucas to task for using racial stereotyping in the new Star Wars movie. While it's undeniably true that Jar Jar Binks is reminiscent of Stepin Fetchit, and those two noseless Federation guys are sinister Asians of the type not seen since World War II movies, I take issue with the implication that this is harmful.

Let's face it--these stereotypes have been out of circulation for 30 or 40 years, kept alive almost exclusively by crackpot racists and horrified anti-stereotype brigades, mostly the latter. Your typical 5-year-old does not associate those traits with those ethnic groups. Lucas stigmatizes no one but computer-generated alien creatures with these portrayals--in fact, a black man is prominent on the Jedi counsel. There is a distinct Asian influence in the court of the queen of Naboo. As Gottlieb points out, the ultimate villain of the story is an influential, rich, white guy.

Lucas has been appropriating elements from other movies his entire career. It only makes sense that he would revive these long-unused stereotypes and squeeze them for their entertainment value. I salute him for finding ways to do it without hurting real people.

--Daniel Krause
Canoga Park, Calif.

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Bruce Gottlieb replies:The response to my recent article "The Merchant of Menace" has been overwhelming--3,000 e-mails and counting. In that article I argued that The Phantom Menace revives long-standing racial stereotypes about Asians, Jews, and blacks. Many of the 3,000 e-mails told me that I was wrong to make this claim. A smaller number told me that I was right. Other than what I wrote in the initial article, I have nothing to add to this debate.

But a number of respondents, such as Daniel Krause, concede that Lucas did indeed revive racial stereotypes but think this revival is no big deal. Krause says that in this modern age stereotypes no longer have the power to do harm. A surprisingly large number of respondents add that only intentional racial stereotypes are harmful (and, as I say in the original article, I don't think Lucas intended to offend anyone).

Frankly, I had not anticipated this type of argument. I'd always assumed that the revival of certain racial stereotypes in a children's movie would be universally deplored. But apparently not everyone feels this way.

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So, why is it wrong to milk ancient stereotypes for modern-day laughs? Mostly, it is tasteless, since the racial stereotypes at issue have been used to justify all sorts of historical barbarities. Admittedly, there is no bright line dividing an ethnic joke that seems funny from one that is vicious. The ingredients of humor are hard to pin down. But reviving Shylock--without a trace of historical awareness--to amuse uncomprehending children seems obviously vicious rather than funny. At least to me. One thing is sure--it certainly is not imaginative.

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And there is yet another valid concern: that the widespread transmission of racial stereotypes might indeed be helpful to hate groups. The influence is sure to be diffuse. Many claims about the influence of popular culture are exaggerated. But it's hard to believe that people are not affected by the images and stereotypes they encounter as children. I am not completely confident that racial stereotyping in movies has a significant effect on racial politics. But neither am I confident that it doesn't.

Naboo Tea Party

I liked James Surowiecki's analysis of economic issues in the imaginary universe of The Phantom Menace ("Moneybox"). But his attempt to characterize the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal as ridiculously hostile to taxation forgets that the Journal people are in good company. Have you forgotten U.S. history? By making a tax dispute the putative reason for invading a planet, Lucas merely transposed historical events that Americans ought to be familiar with. Beyond substituting spacecraft for sailing ships, it wasn't much of a reach. Does "Boston Tea Party" ring any bells? How about "Lexington and Concord" or "no taxation without representation"?

Moviegoers are told very little about why Naboo was invaded, but the few facts we get are credible, albeit too sparse to test with the criteria for just wars.

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--Patrick O'Hannigan
San Luis Obispo, Calif.

Let's Go to the Tape

David Plotz needs to hit the replay button on the Prepare To Win tapes ("Learn Politics While You Drive"). As obvious and as simplistic as he deemed the content, he still managed to miss the point.

We want to encourage more women and minorities to run for office. Frequently, candidates announce before they have given real consideration to the basics: Why am I running? Where will I get the money? How do I get started? "Thunderingly obvious" to Plotz on his perch it may be, but to candidates who rush to announce before thoughtful consideration, the result is a no win.

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He takes on Sen. Kit Bond for advising listeners and potential candidates to "be true to yourself." This advice is easier said than done, and Bond cautions the candidate that once you sell your vote, you sell your integrity. Plotz finds this advice cynical and shabby. In this case, the eye of the beholder is less than 20-20.

Cynical and shabby is alive and well in the White House, and that is just one of the reasons it is necessary to caution potential candidates--on the obvious--that selling your vote or the Lincoln bedroom is a formula for "prepare to lose."

--Patricia Harrison
Co-chair, Republican National Committee
Washington

TV's Golden '90s

I suppose it figures that you would pick two sitcom writers to debate the value of writing for television and movies ("Which Are Better Written, Movies or Television?"). What either of them has to say is irrelevant: Half-hour comedy writers write jokes, not shows. One exception, which they both ridiculed, is, in my opinion, Sports Night.

As far as screenwriters go, it is hard to remember a movie in the last few years that is as well written as the prime-time dramas we have seen in the past 15 years. I am referring to Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, Murder One, Picket Fences, Chicago Hope (the Kelly years), Law & Order, Homicide: Life on the Street, Brooklyn South, The Practice, and yes, even Ally McBeal. Show me any half-hour show that approaches the wit, intelligence, character, relevance, and drama of the shows I mentioned.

We are experiencing right now a golden age of drama on television, not in the theater, not in movies, but (mainly) in the 10 o'clock-to-11 o'clock hour almost every night. Look at these scripts then go back and look at what was called "the golden age of television" in the '50s. Sadly, most of it doesn't hold up compared to what we see now.

There are some fine writers out here, and they are writing drama, not jokes.

--Robert Duncan
Sherman Oaks, Calif.