This paper presents the experiences gained during the research carried out on the dissertation project ‘Stereotyping and the Marginalisation of African Americans in Hollywood’. The project aimed to examine the representation of the African Americans in the contemporary media, specifically looking into how African Americans are being placed into redeveloped stereotypical roles, how these images influence the viewers’ perceptions of the race, and what effects these perceptions have on African Americans’ achievements. This contextual paper is threefold: first, it explains why and how the theme for the research was chosen, and then moves on to a supporting secondary literature search whose overall purpose is to show why it was necessary to carry out this research. Secondly, a method will be presented to discuss my personal experiences in applying my chosen methodology. The paper goes on to present an analysis of, and derives insights from, a discussion of the primary experiences undergone during the project, such as the analysis of contemporary films and television programmes. Finally, it concludes by putting together what the research has tried to achieve. Throughout the contextual paper, the challenges encountered while carrying out the project are mentioned.
Carrying out the research for a special project involves several functions and requires a range of planning and researching skills. One of the first challenges encountered during this project was that of looking at different ideas, and deciding on an area and topic theme for the dissertation. My first idea for the project was to look into the issues surrounding the representation of women in reality television. The reason for this first idea was that I was already quite familiar with the topics pertaining to reality television, due to other previous work done in this area. However, what clinched the issue was the current social climate in the wake of the Ferguson riots and the Black Lives Matter movement which mirrored previous social tensions, such as the LA riots and the era of the Black Panthers, whereby there was a major distrust between the African American community and a predominantly white police force (or, authority in general). This drove my thinking towards the representation of African Americans in films and TV, as these have a significant impact on the popular perceptions. A preliminary look revealed that African Americans were being represented differently in films and TV – they were not given as much importance as their white American counterparts, and were treated as an inferior race. Has the role of African Americans in the society at large, at present and in the past, been accurately reflected in TV and films (Hollywood)? Or, has it been reduced to certain stereotypes, thus negatively affecting the popular perception of the African American community? These were the questions and ideas that sparked my interest in the topic of the representation of African Americans in the contemporary media. This interest was further sharpened by a look at the theories, such as that of Ellen (1986), who says:
‘The mass media are populated with stereotypes that are readily recognised largely on television and films, primarily functioning by inverting cause and effect. They contain an evaluation that justifies social differences. For example, stereotypes about blacks often describe the differences between blacks and whites. The complex, deeply entrenched factors that keep blacks from succeeding in a white-dominated system – an effect of their subordinate position in society – is represented in the stereotype as a single, racial characteristic: blacks are less gifted than whites.’
With this, I became increasingly impatient to explore the possible use of negative stereotypes in relation to the representation of African Americans in contemporary Hollywood. Furthermore, the recent Oscar nominations and the lack of diversity in the nominations only increased my desire to examine the marginalisation of African Americans in Hollywood, both in the past and in more recent times.
With this aim in mind, a fairly wide reading was carried out as a literature search, which can be looked at in two stages. The phase one was more to define the basic concepts within the issue, confirming and supporting with my own previous knowledge to then allowing me to look for further more extended research, dealing more directly with the key thinkers on the topic. The second phase then mostly referred to the historical context of African Americans, before leading to the present-day context. This was to get a more comprehensive perspective and deeper understanding of the depiction of the African Americans in Hollywood films and TV.
The searched literature in the field of representation and stereotyping from scholars such as Schneider (2005), Valdivia (2003), Leavitt et al. (2015) and Branston et al. (2010) etc. defines and highlights the effects of negative stereotyping, and discusses how the constant use of these repetitive negative stereotypes can allow racial groups to be viewed in a predominantly negative light. This supported and confirmed my concern with an examination and evaluation of whether the reason for African Americans still being seen as a threat, and not being fully accepted in Hollywood and in areas of US society, had something to do with the long-term effects of the repetitive negative stereotyping of African Americans in the previous history of Hollywood. Works of Smith (1997) and Harry et al. (2009) are a further study into representation and stereotypes, also examining the impact these repetitive negative stereotypes have on racial groups, like African Americans. These works brought forward that the representation of the African American in films, like D.W Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), simply mirrored many of the negative stereotypical social views which white Americans had of African Americans at the time, and which stemmed from their historical background of slavery. This again supported my earlier concern and thoughts which I carried into the project, as to whether the views and stereotypes of African Americans in Hollywood today could be reflecting or relating to social issues, for example the recent Ferguson riots.
A further study in the field of representation and stereotyping by Donald Bogle (1973), titled Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, also informed my research on the exact type of stereotypes that were being used to represent African Americans. Highlighting how these were negative stereotypes played by the white Americans, depicting how the thought of the African Americans race.
These works of the scholars; Bogle (1973) Smith (1997), Harry et al. (2009), Schneider (2005), Valdivia, (2003), Leavitt et al. (2015) and Branston et al. (2010) were brought in to overall provide a basic understanding on the concept of stereotypes and representation. With this being said the literature then drew on some historical context.
Key findings from researching on the historical context of African American in Hollywood, were from scholars such as Dawson (2012) and (Jayness, 2005) who brought forward, that for the African American it was hard to be considered into Hollywood, whether be it for on screen or working behind the scene. His works also informed that there were only allowed entrance when taking on stereotypical roles. This then lead for the literature to draw upon a Social Problem journal by Hughey (2009). Which informed on some of the new representations and acceptance for African American, suggesting how their depiction on screen was much more positive and moving away from the old negative display. Another study on the acceptance of African American in Hollywood was that of Green (1999), which was drawn on to give a useful context and a different perspective to the new positive depiction and acceptance of African Americans in Hollywood. It discussed and brought forward that African American in fact now displayed by new negative stereotypical roles which also echo trades from the older stereotypes. This led for the literature to search further into the hidden stereotypical roles of the African American. Works of Kretsedemas (2010), which discussed how these common new stereotypes of the African American would appear to mix in with other older racial stereotypes, with not one but many of the older racial women stereotypes, like:
To allow for some degree of accuracy in proving the hypothesis that the African Americans of the 21st century are in fact, now being represented by contemporary stereotypes, which echo qualities from the past. I decided, carrying out a film analysis by using the method textual analysis on a range of contemporary films and television programmers seemed to be the most reasonable method to do so. Using the method of analysing a range of films and TV programmers generally was a very much sufficient method, as it has allowed me to show that the negative portrayal and stereotypical representation of African Americans in contemporary Hollywood films and television shows today are still apparent. If I had used questionnaires, which would have required me to wait for floks responses before being able to carry out the analysis. This method has allowed to me to work in more free time frame were I didn’t have to wait or depend on people. However, the method was very much time consuming as it required to watch the films and television programmers in detail more then once. But also having to find a more silent reserved place to work.
(Explain how the insights, the challenges of the secondary research and wider context informed the project)-
In conclusion, you bring your ideas to a point whereby pull all your ideas together. Again, you literally say ‘In this essay I have tried to give a reflective account of my contribution to the project etc. Try to have at least conclusive analytical thought here- why I felt it was important to carry out a research dissertation for this topic…
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