Do popular sitcoms exacerbate attitudes of racism and sexism in our society?
Elliot Rodger’s recent killing spree and the subsequent #YesAllWomen hashtag has certainly shone some light on the type of society we live in. Combine that with the various racial scandals surrounding UKIP, and you start to wonder if modern society has become a place of equality and harmony, or whether we are simply stuck in reverse gear, and accelerating rapidly. Unfortunately, it is far from difficult to find evidence for proving the latter. The Sun still has its infamous page 3 feature, and an unsettling majority of the press publish stories riddled with racism. However, this problem extends far beyond the realms of the media, and right onto our television screens.
In The Big Bang Theory, blatant discrimination is thrust onto our screens for us to blindly accept and laugh at
Ever since the 90s, sitcoms have been the ‘sliced bread’ of television. Programmes such as Seinfeld and Friends led the way in this genre, and soon became the pied pipers of comedy, tempting endless keen producers to follow in their footsteps. So what are today’s frivolous offerings? And what does this have to do with equality? Well, looking at one of the most recent American success stories, The Big Bang Theory, it isn’t long before blatant discrimination is thrust onto our screens for us to blindly accept and laugh at.
Think about the character setup. Raj seems to act as the token ethnic minority character, who is then used to build and develop a completely delusional stereotype of not only Indian people, but the Asian population as a whole. The discrimination sadly doesn’t stop there. The character of Penny, unarguably the show’s leading female character, is portrayed as a helpless blonde bimbo, desperately seeking help from the leading male protagonists. The characterisation alone is something that should seriously concern us as viewers, but does it? Considering The Big Bang Theory is America’s highest rated sitcom, the answer is likely a resounding no.
As if this level of prejudice wasn’t bad enough, it seems to have become the norm for modern day sitcoms. Another example is HBO’s latest comedy series, Silicon Valley, which follows a nerdy group of men as they attempt to start a new internet based company. Minutes into the pilot episode and we’re getting deja vu. Where have we seen this character structure before, a few nerdy white guys followed by a token Asian character? It’s like there are certain ‘golden rules’ for a successful sitcom. Whilst incorrect stereotypes provide the majority of the comedy, the complete overuse of the ‘I don’t understand women’ cliche provides the cherry on top of the cake of inequality.
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One of the UK’s highest rated comedy programmes, The Office, featured even more blatant offensive remarks. However, there is a subtle difference between The Office and the aforementioned American sitcoms. While The Office may have been offensive, it was so deliberately through the scriptwriting, as opposed to reliance on basic character structure. This provokes a clear reaction from the audience, as opposed to subliminally informing us about the role of women and ethnic minorities in society.
Objectified female characters and the stereotyping of ethnic minorities form the basis of modern sitcoms, and we should be asking ourselves why
For example, some of David Brent’s antics in The Office may depict sexism, but certainly don’t endorse it. The comedy arises from the viewers realising how offensive he is being, and therefore laughing at how outrageous his remarks and actions are. This differs from the other sitcoms subtly, but significantly. Shows like Silicon Valley aren’t depicting discrimination through the characters, but are instead building the entire programme around it. Objectified female characters and the stereotyping of ethnic minorities form the basis of modern sitcoms, and we should seriously be asking ourselves why.
The problem is, it’s a simple issue of supply and demand. The three shows mentioned are beacons of success in the sitcom world. As they rack up the high ratings and award nominations, the incentive for creating similar styled programmes increases. The more we blindly laud prejudice, the more frequently we will see it in television. The solution therefore seems rather simple: viewers shouldn’t boycott these programmes and sell their televisions, but watch their favourite shows with a more critical eye. Sure, there might be the occasional hilarious moment, but at what price? Perhaps before you give that episode 9/10 on IMDb, ask yourself “what am I really voting for?” The humorous comic timing? The ridiculous situations? Or maybe the advocation of misogyny and casual racism?
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Featured image: HBO
Inset image: CBS