Entertainment Media

Case Study: Stereotyping and National Identity in entertainment media

The Simpsons is one of the most popular entertainment television shows in the world. The show has been running for 19 years, and has been dubbed into many languages, including Japanese, Spanish, German, Portuguese and Arabic (Woodburn, 2007). The Simpsons have influenced how certain cultures are perceived across borders.

In each season, the Simpsons travel to a foreign country or region for an episode. They have visited Japan, Australia, China, France, Brazil, England and Cuba, and regions including "the South Pacific" and "Africa". In these episodes foreign nations are depicted in a variety of ways, all through comedic devices. Although very popular, The Simpsons has at times been criticised for its portrayal of foreign countries.

The following lesson plan is about stereotypes and identity. Using The Simpsons, this exploration will show how entertainment media use stereotypes and what the possible implications are for understanding other cultures. Below are excerpts from an episode that raise questions about how entertainment media define other nations. The survey that follows will take some of these representations and apply questions that can relate to television shows around the world.

EPISODE: Simpsons Safari
PLOT: In the episode entitled "Simpson Safari," Homer wins a trip for the family to "Africa." On their trip they meet members of a Masai tribe, are chased by a hippo and run into Greenpeace workers who expose a diamond plot.

The entire continent of Africa is treated as one country. This ''Africa'' the Simpsons visit is presented in stereotypical ways: as wracked by famine, filled with exotic animals, and ruled by corrupt politicians.

Lisa: [reading box] "Find the golden giraffe and we'll send you and your family to Africa!"
Homer: "Africa! They're bound to have food there!"

The episode ends with this following scene of the family leaving Africa--complete diamonds in their pockets:

[The plane taxis past a billboard reading, "Hail President Kitenge." Kitenge, their former tour guide, is pictured as looking presidential and
as carrying a scepter]

Homer: "Hey, look! Our tour guide got a new job."
Marge: "Hmm. Quite a promotion."
Homer: "I was wondering what became of him."
Marge: "What happened to President Muntu?"

[Muntu emerges from the back of the plane, wearing a flight attendants' uniform, and pushing a food cart]

Muntu: "I don't want to talk about it." [tosses some peanuts to Bart]
[The Simpsons laugh]
Homer: [through his laughter] "He got overthrown! Now he's just a stinkin' flight attendant. Hey, where's my pillow?"

In another Simpsons episode the family travels to South America, where the show depicts Brazilians--and Latin Americans in general--with very negative stereotypes. This episode, "Blame it on Lisa" (2002), offended Brazilian officials who were "upset over the show's ... general depiction of Brazilians as being Congo-dancing, mustache-wearing folks with Spanish accents."

Perhaps because The Simpsons is a cartoon and it's hard not to laugh at the story on occasion, it can be easy to overlook the show's reliance on negative stereotypes--or to think the use of such stereotypes as a joke is not really a problem.

But is it a problem? Entertainment media''s use of negative stereotypes of ethnicities, religions, cultures, nations, and entire regions can shape their viewers' understanding of others--especially when viewers don't have many other ways of learning about those "others."