I’m lucky enough to take a course on video games this semester. Here’s a quick response paper for that course on stereotyping (that draws loosely on the role of comedy). I’m posting this because I imagine video gamer types might be interested…
The stereotype plays a critical role in the formation of cultural artifacts. Because this paper deals explicitly with moving images in video games and fictional television, the scope of stereotype can be narrowed significantly. Unreal people populate fictional visual culture, but they are often familiar figures from our lives, each with a long history. By this I mean that a stereotype in the fictional visual mediums under discussion depends on a lifetime of inputs to the viewer. These inputs may come from real life, films, commercials, television, or media portrayals. These inputs generate our collective memory of gender, race, and ethnicity, which inform our immediate reactions to, say, a 40 year old from Kazakhstan. Though we wouldn’t explicitly deny that such a man could be intelligent and well dressed, we do not expect it. This process has been repeated and remixed over centuries: A well-formed stereotype resonates with what has been ceaselessly streaming through the eyes and ears over the lifetime of the audience. This resonance has different effects in video games and television. Most noticeably, television presents scripted and static representations of a character. Their actions are not in direct response to one’s actions in a video game. To address the similarities and differences of stereotype between Grant Theft Auto: San Andreas and an ad for the European Music Awards, this paper focuses on the role of humor. I argue that comedy plays a unique role in the stereotype by liberally exploiting and overstating otherwise subdued stereotypes. By ˜liberal exploitation’ I mean the habit of comedic formats “in this case the TV show Da Ali G Show’s segments with ˜Borat’ “of cramming decades of prejudices into the representation of one character. Especially in the production of ˜genuine’ characters in film, television, and the young medium of video games, character portrayals depend on (and exist to be paired with) racial stereotypes.
For representations of different races or ethnicities to be effective, they must build from the lineage of stereotypes, a word that can often serve as a euphemism for racism. When this process fails, we get a strange feeling. For example, the representation of a Native American as an ˜average joe’ “especially in a comedy “seems like a non sequitur. What’s funny about a normal Native American? Did the comedy writers responsible for this character forget the long heritage of jokes involving ˜these people’? To label a person as belonging to a race within the frame of comedy assumes cooperation with comedic traditions. The viewer makes sense of characters by comparison and synthesis, and finds humorous those aspects we have come to essentialize and joke about. Neglecting these connections may be more politically correct, but leaves the audience wanting more relevant character traits.
As case studies for this paper, I’ve chosen a one-minute ad for the European Music Awards (EMAs) featuring Sacha Baron Cohen’s character Borat Sagdiyev and a screenshot from the video game Grand Theft Auto San Andreas on Xbox that stars the major players of the game. The one minute Borat clip promotes a fictional MTV-like channel in Kazakhstan now celebrating its one-year anniversary since it was launched (by wired remote) by œPremier Nasu Bazir. It shows a three second excerpt of a fake Kazakh music star named Korki Buchek in which a woman fanning flames provides stage-smoke “a signifier of the poor production value of this sad station. Borat speaks excitedly before a sad scene: A dimly lit neon ˜MTV’ sign and a 1980s-era antiquated stoplight position him in a cheap production studio/living room. He comes from Kazakhstan, a backwards (and backwaters) area, as we’re led to believe, that creates the clueless and awkward Borat. Traditions of portraying Eastern Europe, elements of xenophobia, and the array of social taboos committed by Borat on his program would otherwise seem to make him the least likely contender for having anything to do with the EMAs, but he’s such a perfect encapsulation of so many misperceptions and jokes about eastern Europe that he’s become a hit the world over. He’s become so popular, in fact, that Baron Cohen has retired the character.
In Borat’s 2006 film titled Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, he chases a chicken on the subway, becomes overwhelmed by indoor plumbing, and finds comfort in the company of bears. We get a much larger set of content and back-story for this character than we do for any character in GTA. Generally speaking, we receive very little back-story for video game characters. We are meant to enter their lives as ourselves. Our assumed character grows from what we’re told is our race, gender, and ethnicity. Introductory films and cinematic sequences in GTA focus on actions around one’s character “the game makes few concrete statements about your disposition or life. Entering the body of a young black man in a tank top lubricates the mind to freely associate with the disposition and motives of our new self. The stereotypes at play in video games depend on the freedom to live out stereotypes and motivations in the plotline. Our perspective on the main character of GTA depends on different mechanisms and memories when compared to the style of Borat.
The casting of armed and angry black men in GTA San Andreas takes the stereotype of the LA black male “with a huge history of highly publicized trials, riots, and gang wars “and wraps him up in the characters we encounter. In Sacha Baron Cohen’s work, our point of observation usually comes from the people he harasses on the street. We receive no background of their life, but we can identify with their aversion to his awkwardness. No clips show ˜typical Americans’ getting along with Borat. This keeps Borat ˜weird’ and fulfills a criteria established by Stuart Hall.
œSymbolic boundaries keep the categories ‘pure’, giving cultures their unique meaning and identity. What unsettles culture is ˜matter out of place’ “the breaking of our unwritten rules and codes. (Hall, 236)
And in this purity, Hall writes, our culture is passed down and created. Jarring shifts in perceptions arguably create revolutions, slave revolts, and social movements. In this way, our complacency towards stereotypes is to blame for their large role in culture. In order for a fresh narrative “especially a visual narrative “to represent ˜authentic’ characters, it must mesh well with the general world-view of the target audience.
Digesting these narratives, especially when they’re funny, is a sort of comedic voyerism. Our omniscient perspective into Borat’s jokes and the actions of car-jacking black males solidifies their respective positions in our world-view. Both representations are exploitative, but the work of Sacha Baron Cohen did not spark outrage in the way that GTA did. An insult to the intelligence of an Eastern European turns friendly when comedy becomes a factor. Humor adds a sort of inertia to stereotypes, shifting focus from the actual representation to the effectiveness of comedy. The comedic value of a fictional character belonging to a designated race depends on the solidification and exploitation of his or her stereotypes. This draws us into a complacent state of acceptance, lucidly blending our embedded notions of race and the effects of comedy into what Chris Chesher would likely attach to his loose notion of the ˜glaze.’ In his view, the humor in GTA plays an important role. The overtly stereotypical characters like the tourists in Hawaiian print shirts and the Asian fish market truck drivers all exist to make us feel as though we’re in a peculiar world that exists to point to not exploit the stereotype. Chesher’s conception of the ethical boundaries takes this idea farther.
These glaze world stereotypes reflect recognisable images from a repertoire of Western urban cultural myths. These self-conscious elements reflect a pervading dark sense of humour and social criticism that underlies these games. They are anti-authoritarian, with a cynicism towards legal boundaries as well as perceived boundaries of political correctness. (Chesher)
So what about comedy makes the stereotype mean something else? Perhaps we become comfortable with the idea of a sensationalized race or gender if we know it’s intended to make us laugh. It’s a reflective laugh perhaps: we find the stereotypes of Borat and the thugs in GTA largely non-abrasive characters who are capable of reflecting our stereotypes back at us. The largest difference between the representation of comedic stereotypes in these mediums is perspective: Our first-person viewpoint in GTA speaks to our absorption of racial myths as the game presents us with uniformed and racialized characters. Borat’s universe grows from the myth of E. European ˜backwardness’ and aligns our viewpoint into the identity of the non-other: our sense of normal behavior.
Baron-Cohen, Sacha, (2005) œCorkey Buchek – Bing Bong Bing Bong Bing YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wSWC5cic9jo
Chesher, Chris 2004, œNeither gaze nor glance, but glaze: relating to console game screens , Journal of Media Arts Culture.
GTA Screenshot, Image from http://www.gtasanandreas.net/screenshots/gallery.php?image=1781
Hall, Stuart (1997) “Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices” Sage Publications, London. pp 225-279.