Stereotypes Mask Feelings of Fear


This article originally appeared in Issue# 39

"They are unhappy with their lives and the system that controls them. They would leave readily if they could. They are drab and gray. The majority are uncultured peasants with no interests or talents, They lack incentive to work and do nothing well. Finally, they are fat and ugly, thugs and liars."

Whom does this describe? According to researcher Eric Chivian, a psychiatrist and project director at Harvard's Center for Psychological Studies in the Nuclear Age, these are the common images used by U.S. media to describe citizens of the Soviet Union. These images come from newspaper headlines, TV commercials, movies and magazines.

To most of us, such images are obviously stereotypes and caricatures. But their use betrays a deeper problem: They are images of the "enemy" — a cumulative portrait of men, women and children whose distinguishing characteristics are based not on job or education or ethnic background but on their country's political ideology, an ideology that traditionally opposes the ideology of the United States.

In a current book, Faces of the Enemy, author Sam Keen asserts that such portraits distort reality and create a false dualism that equates "us" and 'them" with the categories of good and evil. In fact, Keen suggests, enemies are commonly portrayed as strangers, aggressors, criminals, torturers, rapists and barbarians. Frequently faceless, they are depicted as death, Satan or as animals.

Both Chivian and Keen suggest that these images of the enemy serve the following ftnctions: By portraying enemies as unattractive, inhuman or immoral, they decrease identification with them as other human beings, and thus lower the threshold for aggression against them. The images also provide moral justifications for the need to physically restrain or even punish those who oppose us.

A Mirror Image?

While we do not know how such imaging contributes to international conflict, we do know that watching aggression on television is correlated with individuals' real-life use of aggression. Furthermore, it is well established that people tend to imitate attractive or powerful role models they see on television. These research results make it likely that not only acts of aggression displayed in the media but also the images of the enemy conveyed in the process are imitated by the audience. A society's enemy thus becomes the foe of every one of its citizens.

What are the origins of these images? Could we do without them? What does the enemy we create say about our own hopes and fears? Psychoanalysts have suggested that we tend to deny our own antisocial and aggressive impulses and project them onto an enemy outside of ourselves or our own national group. Stereotypes and enemy images grow out of our own cognitive limitations.

Some stereotyping, of course, is inevitable. In our complex world, it is impossible to obtain complete information about another person or nation. As a result, we form opinions, make decisions and act on limited information that is bound to be an inadequate representation of the other person or national group.

"My enemy is my mirror. I project onto my enemy everything in myself that I cannot stand, tolerate, acknowledge or accept. My enemy returns the compliment. We are locked in a very tight embrace, my enemy and I."
Walter Wink, Unmasking the Powers

Research into the formation of children's perceptions, however, tends to suggest another explanation. Child psychologists have discovered how difficult it is for children to accept conflicting, ambivalent feelings they have about themselves as well as other people and national groups. Even nine-year-olds have trouble understanding that they can be proud of themselves while disliking certain aspects of themselves. Similarly, it is hard for them to accept that they can love their parents and also feel angry at them. They may have similar problems with their integration of feelings about other ethnic and national groups. Even as adults, we may sometimes share this inability to tolerate ambivalent feelings: hence, the creation of simplifying stereotypes.

Creating the Image

No matter what the exact individual psychological roots of images of the enemy are, the media do play a very important, yet undocumented, role in their socialization. It is striking that according to Chivian's and Keen's analyses, the images of the enemy produced by the adult culture can already be found in children's television shows.

She-Ra and He-Man fight Skeletor and Hordak, who both look like fleshless, deadly skeletons. Other enemies on the two shows are bizarre, archaic creatures, part animal, part human. Some have no faces, others are darkly colored. What they all share is that they are portrayed as evil through and through. While He-Man and She-Ra do not seem to have any overt political intentions, She-Ra fights a rebellion for freedom and He-Man is the strongest man in the universe. Both of these themes may prepare children for two key elements of U.S. patriotism: the struggle for dominance among the superpowers, which is linked to the defense of freedom and democracy in the world.

While it could be argued that He-Man and She-Ra are politically innocent, Rambo and G.I. Joe definitely are not. The themes covered by the latter cartoons are international terrorism, nuclear blackmail, and the competition for military secrets, cultural treasures and scientific discoveries. General Warhawk and his S.A.V.A.G.E. forces "threaten the peace-loving people of the world." Rambo is "liberty's champion," "the protector of the innocent," representing "the force of freedom." The villain, General Warhawk, and his entourage have German, Eastern European and Middle Eastern accents, Rambo and his associates are American.

In this opposing position, General Warhawk is consistently portrayed as a criminal and aggressor, as well as a greedy barbarian who destroys the culture and scientific treasures of other nations. ("There will always be people like the general who want to corrupt things and use them for their own evil purposes." - quote from Rambo cartoon show.)

Through these and other television shows, children are socialized to believe that the heroes they identify with are all good, and that the enemy is all evil. Furthermore, it is conveyed to them that there is one ultimate enemy, a Nazi-Soviet stranger who is the personification of all evil and needs to be contained and destroyed. These TV shows also reinforce children's inherent inability to integrate conflicting feelings about themselves and other people. People are either good or bad; they can never be both.

A New Mission

Because they have become part of our way of looking at the world, these images cannot be eradicated. They will remain inaccurate. And as long as they exist, they are likely to increase the probability of aggression.

But this doesn't mean that media has no responsibility — on the contrary, its responsibility for its images becomes all the greater. With this in mind, how should images of other nations or cultures different from ours be portrayed?

First, they should be as accurate as possible. For example, the Soviet Union is definitely not all evil, while the U.S. is all good. People in the Soviet Union are not barbarians. They do have faces. And, in fact, they don't necessarily look different from people in the United States.

In other words, the media should help us restrain our childlike tendency to divide the world into good and evil.

Given the reality of our current world situation, we need the positive power of today's mass media to help us unify the world, not divide it. If the media can help us see reality instead of promoting polarization, it may become impossible to conceive that any individual or group deserves destruction.

Author Bio: 

Petra Hesse is an associate professor of human development at Wheelock College in Boston.