Stereotyping in the Film the Birdcage (1996)

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Marketing, education, suggestion and propaganda all subtly influence the opinions and values a society’s members hold. All too often, we have no clear idea how we came to hold the opinions we develop over the course of our lifetimes. From the earliest days of the film industry’s rise at the beginning of the twentieth century, film has had an enormous impact in shaping public views and ideas about everything from what it means to be a “good citizen” to what roles are acceptable and proper in a “civilized” society. With the exception of academics and serious students in film or cultural studies, most movie-goers regard the viewing of films (with the exception – sometimes – of documentaries) as simply an entertainment activity when, very often, central to the experience is the swallowing of messages that the creators of the film wish to advance. Since films are often very expensive to produce, the films that find financial backing must also meet with the approval of a society’s elite, moneyed class. It is most often the case, then, that subtle messages and affirmations about the political, social and personal norms the dominant class wishes to endorse and inculcate are embedded in films that reach a wide segment of the population.

Richard Dyer, Professor of Film Studies at King's College London, in his essay Stereotyping (1), argues that one of the most common methods by which the dominant economic class attempts to reinforce the worldview it wishes to have embraced by the people, is the employment of stereotypes, which are often one-dimensional, static characterizations of people in various social roles or members of classes of people. These stereotypes range from the flattering depiction of Hero or Faithful Servant, for example, to the cartoonish, demonic or depraved portraits of a “typical” member of a group of people whose behavior or values the dominant class finds antithetical to their interests. Dyer argues that learning to recognize the use of stereotypes in films is provides some self-defense against being oblivious to the attempt to influence one’s thinking and opinions.

One such group which has long been the target of such propaganda via stereotyping in films is the homosexual community. It was with the rise of capitalism that homosexuality began to be seen as leading to lifestyles that were not conducive to the provision of good, stable, obedient workers. One of the most influential frameworks for analysis of human relations and the evolution of social norms and political structures from the late 19th century through the present has been Marxist analysis, based on the works of Karl Marx (1818-1883). Dyer employs Marxist analysis, with a nod to sociological terminology (role, individual, type, member) to illustrate that stereotyping in film can occur through the use of iconography “Iconography is a kind of short-hand—it places a character quickly and economically. P.32), structurally (“….by the function of the character in the film’s structure {whether these be static structures, such as the way the film’s world is shown to be organized, materially and ideologically, or dynamic ones, such as plot. P.33}, and through typing – the opposite of individuation of characters, instead ascribing of attributes to a person based on the idea they are a certain “type,” and we can understand all we need to know about them by being familiar with that type.

While we, generally, think of stereotyping in a negative light, one consideration clearly of great importance to Dyer is the idea that some aspect of typing –insofar as the typing reflects the positive attributes of gay people – should not be discarded entirely, since the recognition for the audience, of some level of commonality in the experience of being gay will serve to illuminate for viewers the struggles faced and the oppression experienced, hopefully leading to more support in the larger society for improved status and equal civil rights for gay people. In...
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