So many characters, so many stereotypes.
Netflix’s Emily in Paris is a roaring success worldwide and has been renewed for two more seasons. But unsurprisingly, it has received criticism for its stereotypical portrayal of French people as unfriendly, lazy, and unfaithful. Season 2 further outraged people with more cliches. The Brits found football-and beer-loving Alfie an unrealistic bloke, and Ukraine’s culture minister Oleksandr Tkachenko lambasted the show for poorly writing a Ukrainian character, Petra. “In Emily in Paris, we have a caricature image of a Ukrainian woman that is unacceptable. It is also insulting. Is that how Ukrainians are seen abroad?” he asked.
But Emily in Paris isn’t the only TV show that perpetuates stereotypes and prejudices. Characters are often reduced to one unflattering identity and all the complexities of human nature are taken out of the equation. Let’s have a look at some of the shows that have portrayed such characters. (And this is really just the tip of the iceberg because there are so many others. Remember Marguerite in The Golden Girls, Mrs. Kim in Gilmore Girls, Han Lee in 2 Broke Girls, Jacqueline Voorhees in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and Tina Cohen-Chang and Matt Chang in Glee?)
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'The Big Bang Theory'
This uber-popular American sitcom revolved around awkward, nerdy scientists. In its long run of 13 seasons, it brought home many controversies, but a major problem with the show was one of its main characters, Dr. Rajesh Koothrappali. An Indian astrophysicist at Caltech, Raj has a thick accent, he can’t talk to women, and his parents are always trying to arrange his marriage. His friends are always cracking jokes about his culture—from elephants to the Kamasutra—and it’s forgiven because it’s humorous and Raj is amused, too. Raj is not an ideal representation of an Indian man—he is neither aspirational nor relatable, but a butt of jokes, used in the series for comic relief.
In an essay for Catapult, Nikesh Shukla writes, “I find him offensive, unfunny, a backwards step for representation of brown people on television. I want us to be seen. But not like this. He’s a sexually repressed stereotype, written through the white gaze. He reflects nothing from my community.”
Apu in The Simpsons is another problematic stereotype that has gone on for years. An Indian store owner with a thick accent, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon has an arranged marriage and eight kids. The show perpetuates stereotypes in different cultures, and with Apu, the racial insensitivity poured out of the TV screens and into real lives.
In a documentary, The Problem With Apu, comedian Hari Kondabolu explored how kids of South Asian descent were bullied because of the caricature. “Kids in the playground would always mimic the accent and say ‘Thank you, come again!’ or ‘Hello, Mr Homer!,” the comedian told the BBC and added that he worried his school friends would make fun of his parents.
For years, Apu was voiced by a white man, Hank Azaria, who himself has apologized for the role he has played since 1990. He stepped down in 2020 and said, “I apologize for my part in creating that and participating in that. Part of me feels I need to go round to every single Indian person in this country and apologize.”
'That ‘70s Show'
Another classic with a problematic character. That ‘70s Show has been criticized for making a mockery of Fez. He is an immigrant in the U.S. but it is never revealed where he is from. In fact, his friends call him Fez (Foreign Exchange Student) because they can’t pronounce his name. Addressed repeatedly as “foreigner,” he is ridiculed for many things including his accent, his nationality, and his lack of understanding of American culture. He is depicted as creepy and he commits many crimes that are laughed off–not a flattering portrayal of an immigrant.
Modern Family is a beloved sitcom that made Sofia Vergara a star. But her character, Gloria, has also come under fire for promoting Latina stereotypes of a fiery, temperamental, oversexualized woman. Isabel Molina-Guzman, author of Latinas and Latinos on TV: Colorblind Comedy in the Post-racial Network Era, points out, “She’s playing a stereotypical character, but Gloria has also been allowed to be more nuanced in ways that are unexpected and really interesting.”
The Colombian actress represented the community in a way no one did before. She was the highest-paid actress on TV and strongly disagreed with the flak she received. Defending Gloria, she has reiterated multiple times that she doesn’t think there is anything wrong with the character. “I created Gloria as a mixture of my mom and my aunt and the women that I grew up with in Colombia—they were loud, they were super intense, they were super colorful, super crazy, minding everybody’s business, super passionate and loving.”
Italian-Americans were not impressed with this show about a mafia family in New Jersey. Along with the stereotype of associating Italian-Americans with the mob, the show also failed its women characters. Martha Lauzen, professor at San Diego State University, told The Guardian, “The well-worn stereotypes of women as victims and sexual playthings represent a cop-out on the part of the show’s considerably talented behind-the-scenes staff.”
Even Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito Jr. said that the show encouraged stereotypes. It was also sued by a lawyers’ group in Chicago for violating the dignity of Italian-Americans. The lawsuit was later dismissed.