Media Stereotypes

From Ageism to Xenophobia

by Andrew C. Billings (Volume editor) Scott Parrott (Volume editor)
©2020 Textbook VIII, 296 Pages


When we think about the "pictures in our heads" that media create and perpetuate, what images are we truly referencing? Issues of media stereotypes and representation (both past and present) are crucial to advancing media literacy. Media Stereotypes: From Ageism to Xenophobia becomes one-stop shopping for synthesizing what we know within the composite of stereotyping research in the United States. Utilizing a cast of top American scholars with deep roots in asking stereotype-based questions, this book is essential reading for those wishing to understand what we know about past and present media representations as well as those wishing to take the baton and continue to advance media stereotyping research in the future.
Winner of the 2021 BEA Textbook Award!

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Preface
  • Introduction (Andrew C. Billings / Scott Parrott)
  • Section I Foundations of Media Stereotyping Research
  • 1 Theories of Media Stereotyping Research (Rhonda Gibson / Jacob R. Thompson)
  • 2 Consumption Junction: Content Analytic Media Stereotyping Studies (Cory L. Armstrong / Sharon E. Baldinelli)
  • 3 Experiments & Outcomes-Based Study of Media Stereotyping (Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz / Andrea Figueroa-Caballero)
  • Section II Forms of Media Stereotyping
  • 4 Gender-Based Media Stereotypes and Their Effects on Audiences: The More Gender Changes, the More Media Representation Stays the Same (Jennifer Stevens Aubrey / Kun Yan)
  • 5 Black Stereotypes in the Media: A Continuing Problem (Kristopher R. Weeks / Travis L. Dixon / Amanda N. Tolbert / Melinda Sevilla)
  • 6 Stereotypes of Latina/o Populations (Dana Mastro / Kevin N. Do)
  • 7 Constructing Youth: Stereotyping Young People (Sharon R. Mazzarella)
  • 8 Stereotypes Based on Looks/Appearance: “Beautiful Is Good” (Rachel F. Rodgers / Jenna Campagna)
  • 9 Media Stereotypes of Class and Socioeconomic Status (Rebecca Ann Lind)
  • 10 Coming Out in Primetime: Stereotypes of LGBTQ Communities (Leigh M. Moscowitz)
  • 11 Stereotypes of Religion: Tired Tropes and New Market Possibilities (Stephen J. Lind)
  • 12 Stereotypes of Immigrants and Refugees (Jennifer Hoewe / Seth P. McCullock)
  • 13 Media Stereotypes of Mental Illness: Nurturing and Mitigating Stigma (Scott Parrott)
  • 14 Positive Stereotypes and Counter-Stereotypes: Examining Their Effects on Prejudice Reduction and Favorable Intergroup Relations (Srividya Ramasubramanian / Asha Winfield / Emily Riewestahl)
  • List of Contributors
  • Index


The genesis of this collection emerged through our conversations about media stereotyping, an area of inquiry we believe is entering perhaps its richest period to date: the foundations are established in the literature, theoretical approaches are advancing, and scholars are increasingly turning critical eyes to the representation of social groups via television, film, news, and social media (and those representations’ consequences). Despite the burgeoning paradigm, we realized through our conversations with students that our field needed a volume that could serve as a one-stop location for those wishing to understand decades of media stereotyping research. Scholars, whether undergraduate students, graduate students, mid-career or beyond, needed somewhere to turn for an overview of the field, including its methods, theories, and literature. Media Stereotypes: From Ageism to Xenophobia was born.

Of course, the most telling factor of any edited book project is whether one can secure key contributors. That’s not always easy as highly productive scholars are, quite predictably, in high demand. Here was where the true magic happened for this project: one by one, top scholars in the area of media stereotyping, realizing the need for such a volume, said yes to the prospect of including a chapter. The result is a true state-of-the-field advancement of what we know (as well as what we don’t yet know) about a variety of forms of media stereotyping. We are proud of the high quality work our contributors advance here; we hope you enjoy it as well.

We both must thank those contributors here, who worked with tight writing deadlines and always took our feedback in the constructive manner in which it was intended. We also need to thank Peter Lang Publications for their steadfast support of the work, specifically Acquisitions Editor Erika Hendrix, who always responded to our queries promptly and clearly.

We both wish to thank our families for their consistent support and understanding, as well as our colleagues in the Department of Journalism & Creative Media and the College of Communication & Information Sciences at the University of Alabama. Additionally, Billings wishes to thank the Thompson family, creators of the Ronald Reagan Endowed Chair of Broadcasting at the University, while Parrott wishes to thank the Reese Phifer family, creators of the Phifer Fellowship at UA. Each provided the necessary support to be able to advance this project in the manner it deserved.

Oddly, our dream is to make this book out-of-date in relatively short order. We’d love for these stereotypes to disappear and/or for scholars to advance work to such a degree that our current understanding of media stereotypes would be downright pedestrian. Until then, we present Media Stereotypes: From Ageism to Xenophobia, which collectively shows you that the mediated world continues to be a trick mirror that often must be both scrutinized and opposed.

Andrew Billings

Scott Parrott

Tuscaloosa, Alabama

January 2020

←viii | 1→


The Practice of Studying Media Stereotypes

Andrew C. Billings

University of Alabama

Scott Parrott

University of Alabama

In 1990, just a few months after its initial debut, the animated television program The Simpsons introduced a character that was destined to be—very contradictorily—one of its most beloved, debated, reviled, and ultimately memed and mimicked characters. Indian immigrant and manager of the local Kwik-E-Mart, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, became a mainstay of the fictional Springfield town. With catchphrases both simplistic (“Thank you, come again”) and stereotypical (“Hello, Mr. Homer”), Apu was endearing to some while offensively stereotypical to others (Biswas, 2018). Simmering on the fringe of acceptability for years, Apu became a symbol endemic for race-based stereotypes and microaggressions for some, while being endemic of political correctness run amok for others (Houghton, 2018). Pakistani-American Actor Kumail Nanjiani reported that he was often asked to do the “Apu accent” in auditions (Rao, 2015) and debates roiled with the release of the 2017 documentary The Problem with Apu. Three decades of characterization and consumption had still not answered the core questions in this stalwart Simpsons character: Was Apu a media stereotype? Even if so, could he be “grandfathered” into a culture that was less enlightened about such things decades ago?

Is it inaccurate to disproportionately cognitively place Indian immigrants in the role of gas station/convenience store attendant? No—at least it was not in the age when Apu was introduced—according to New York Times’ Lorch (1992, para. 1) who traced the “immigrant job specialty” of many different ethnic descendants to cultural values and transferrable skills; yes—according to the latest job demographics from the U.S. Department of Labor (“Labor ←1 | 2→Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey”, 2019). Every aspect of Apu could be debated: yes, Indian immigrants are more likely to struggle with English along with no, not all Indian immigrants remotely exhibited such struggles. The discussion of Apu was said to be about media stereotyping, yet ultimately was about many ancillary tensions within: bias vs. difference, exemplar vs. generalization, representation vs. omission.

In similar ways, discussions over broader stereotypes within media feature the same fault lines. Women represented the majority of professions in areas such as nursing and elementary school teaching, yet it was a stereotype for media to advance narratives making the majority seem like the consensus. Black athletes were disproportionately represented in the NBA, yet it was a stereotype to argue Black people are innately predisposed for success in the game. Even stereotypes that were argued to be positive reduced people to caricature (hence the “supercrip” stereotype of the differentially abled) or inferred reduction of abilities in unrepresented areas (the career-driven Asian strong in math and science could reinforce the lack of interpersonal skills or life-balance harbored within these “strengths”). Considerable deviation could be found between the terms “stereotype,” “tendency,” “bias,” “difference,” or a dreaded “-ism” (e.g., sexism, ageism, ableism). Yet the ability to explore the tenets of these differences was beyond the Twittersphere or most colloquial conversations.

Enter this book. Partly because of the need to explore stereotypes in concert rather than in isolation and partly because of the need to represent what stereotypes are—and, hence, the ramifications therein—this book is designed as both a survey (of key theories, methods, and types of studies that collectively represent the investigation of media stereotyping) and reference guide (outlining the seminal works in a variety of related yet distinctive fields). As such, we hope there is insight that can be gleaned for the reader no matter if it is their first or 500th foray into the world of media stereotypes. Each heuristic utilized is debated, yet core agreements have been established within each and will be explored in subsequent sections of this opening chapter.

What Is/Is Not Media Stereotyping?

Given the debate concerning which media representations constitute stereotypes, it would be prudent to conceptually define what “stereotype” means in the research literature. Stereotypes are overgeneralized beliefs about the characteristics, attributes, and/or behavior of social groups. Research from the fields of social and cognitive psychology often provides the foundation for studies concerning media stereotyping, and indeed, these fields have devoted ←2 | 3→extensive empirical attention to understanding the formation, maintenance, and application of stereotypes (for a review, see Hilton & Von Hippel, 1996). Stereotypes may contain positive (e.g., Southern people are polite) or negative (e.g., obese people are lazy) valences, and each may be problematic because they inform the beliefs, attitudes, and behavior of both ingroup and outgroup members. Stereotypes have been described as the byproduct of social categorization, an automatic cognitive process in which humans divide the world into categories, eliciting ingroups and outgroups, “us” versus “them.” Similarly, stereotypes have been described as the result of the miserly way in which humans employ our limited cognitive resources, mental shortcuts that help us process information without expending much cognitive effort (see Fiske, 1998). A number of models have been advanced to explain how stereotypes are mentally represented (Hilton & Von Hippel, 1996), including an exemplar-based approach in which we store concrete examples of social groups (e.g., Apu as representative of Indian Americans) to a network approach in which concepts are linked in memory via associative pathways, their proximity influencing the likelihood they will be activated and applied (e.g., “convenience store clerk” closely associated with “Indian American”). Stereotypes can serve several functions, helping an individual quickly process and interpret information, navigate social norms, or experience a self-esteem boost through downward social comparison with an outgroup member. They can also be problematic. While stereotypes may contain a kernel of truth, as Allport (1988) put it, their overgeneralized nature often renders them inaccurate, misguiding subsequent attitudes and behavior. In this way, stereotypes provide the foundation for prejudice and discrimination.

Given this foundation, we conceptually define media stereotypes as mediated messages that communicate overgeneralized information about social groups, associating positive or negative characteristics, attributes, and/or behavior with the social group. The mass media perpetuate stereotypes through both creation and reinforcement, providing audiences novel representations but also perpetuating existing cultural stereotypes concerning social groups. Media stereotypes emerge when news, entertainment, and other programming repeatedly present homogenous messages concerning social groups, increasing the likelihood an audience member will associate a social group with characteristics, attributes, and/or behavior. For example, researchers have examined the representation of mental illness in American television, film, and other media products since the 1950s, and regardless of decade or medium, media have consistently associated mental illness with violent and unpredictable behavior. The stereotype pervades everything from news stories, where people with ←3 | 4→mental illness assault innocent strangers, to children’s television programming, where mental illness is a convenient explanation for diabolical behavior.

Sheer frequency is not necessarily a defining factor for media stereotypes, however. Social groups may rarely appear in mainstream media content, but when they do appear, be relegated to roles that reflect and reinforce existing social stereotypes. Take Apu. Indian Americans are largely absent as characters in American media content, and commenters have noted that when they do appear, they often speak with an overly strong accent, work menial jobs (e.g., Apu as convenience store owner), and/or demonstrate social incompetence (e.g., Raj in The Big Bang Theory). As Ramasubramanian, Doshi, and Saleem (2017) demonstrated, exposure to such stereotypes may affect the self-esteem of Indian Americans.

Root Causes of Media Stereotyping

While scholars have well-documented media stereotypes within American mass media content, little formal attention has been devoted to the reason stereotypes actually appear. There are hints within the literature, however, suggesting myriad reasons. A number of these potential explanations are represented in Shoemaker and Reese’s hierarchy of influences model (2014), which posits that social systems, social institutions, organizational structures, media routines, and individual media practitioners inform the substance of media content.

The mass media, whether news or entertainment, are designed to reach mass audiences, including people from diverse educational, socioeconomic, and cultural backgrounds. Given the economic and ideological desire to reach broad audiences, content creators focus on simplicity of messages. Journalists employ simple wording and brevity, while entertainment writers convey archetypes that are widely and easily understood. One reason stereotypes appear in media content is because they afford simple explanations for complex phenomenon. To illustrate, an entertainment television writer once asked one of the editors, “What is the simplest and quickest way to communicate that a character is a nerd? Put her in glasses.” The representation of mental illness provides an illustrative example. The United States witnessed a number of mass shootings in recent years, in which gunmen murdered innocent people for no apparent reason. The murderous behavior elicited questions concerning motive, asking people to comprehend the incomprehensible. As journalists (and society) grappled with the question “Why?” explanations emerged that were both simplistic and rooted in politics, including mental illness, firearm access, and violent video game exposure. While mental illness may certainly ←4 | 5→factor into a gunman’s motivation for assaulting innocent people, news stories generally avoid more complex explanations involving mental health, negative life experiences, the glorification of harmful role models, access to firearms, and bullying. Instead, stories most often associate severe mental illness with mass violence (e.g., McGinty, Webster, Jarlenski, & Barry, 2014).

Gerbner and colleagues (1978) described television as the central cultural arm of U.S. society, the great storyteller sharing homogenous values with diverse audiences. Along these lines, stereotypes appear in media content because they reflect dominant societal norms. For example, U.S. society endorses a so-called thin ideal, defining physical beauty for women as involving a thin body shape (e.g., Harrison, 2000). Magazine producers are motivated by profit (among other factors), and might therefore seek to sell more magazines by highlighting social norms such as the thin ideal, including manipulated images of models on the cover and tips for losing weight centered around eating and exercise. Media content perpetuates the thin ideal, and in doing so, labels as “other” or “unacceptable” heavier body shapes. Mass media also perpetuate anti-fat stereotypes, such as the false notion that people who are overweight are lazy (e.g., Ata & Thompson, 2010).

In addition, stereotypes appear in media content because of professional routines. For example, journalists produce stories by interviewing people and conducting research, yet studies suggest marginalized groups often do not appear in news stories even when they are the subject of the coverage (e.g., Nairn & Coverdale, 2005) and that reporters more often consult elite, official sources such as politicians and CEOs. Given the lack of diversity in America’s corporate and government leadership, “elite sources” often translates into “White,” “male,” “wealthy,” and “senior.” Researchers have long noted a gender imbalance in sourcing, such that female sources are either missing or relegated to subjects that conform to gender stereotypes (e.g., Armstrong, Boyle, & McLeod, 2012). Similar to routines, stereotypes may appear in the media because a media organization endorses the representation. For example, news coverage concerning immigrants and refugees may differ depending on the news outlet an audience member follows, with one network associating immigrant status with criminality and another network describing immigration as the pursuit of the American dream.

Finally, stereotypes appear in the media because content creators harbor implicit and explicit attitudes concerning the social groups they are representing in print, television, and film. Implicit attitudes are evaluations that people might not necessarily know they have. For example, a football announcer may praise the performance of a black quarterback by focusing on his athletic prowess, while attributing the failures of a white quarterback to his physical ←5 | 6→shortcomings (e.g., Billings, 2004). Conversely, people are aware of explicit attitudes, in which an individual openly endorses a belief. To illustrate, a news commenter might condemn the acceptance of refugees into the United States by associating refugees with terrorism and disease.

“Pictures in Our Heads”: Ramifications of Media Stereotyping

It is important we study media stereotypes because of the potential for mass media to inform the “pictures in our heads,” as Lippmann (1922) famously put it, which help us make sense of the world around us. Exposure to media stereotypes (or counter-stereotypes) can affect audience members’ beliefs, attitudes, emotions, and behavior toward social groups. The mass media may be especially influential when an individual lacks personal experience with the social group (Schiappa, Gregg, & Hewes, 2006). As highlighted by the chapters in this book, researchers have found stereotypical media exposure affects attitudes concerning everything from social closeness (e.g., mental illness in Chapter 13) to governmental policy (e.g., immigration in Chapter 12). Given the pervasive presence of media in modern life, it is important to note that exposure may influence not only explicit attitudes by informing beliefs, but implicit associations that can operate beyond the individual’s conscious awareness. Because most people do not want to appear prejudiced, even when they harbor negative attitudes toward social groups, media researchers have begun to account for implicit attitudes that may provide the foundation for prejudice and discrimination. In a seminal study concerning media stereotypes and implicit attitudes, Brown Givens and Monahan (2005) exposed participants to stereotypical examples of African American women (e.g., mammies, jezebels) before asking participants to rate either an African American or White female job candidate. While exposure did not affect explicit outcomes, stereotype exposure did lead participants to more quickly associate negative words with the African American job candidate, an indicator of increased cognitive association. Other indirect measures of prejudice involve content analyses of reader comments sections, where people provide opinions concerning news topics while under the cloak of anonymity. To illustrate, Gwarjanski and Parrott (2018) found that readers were more likely to express stereotypes and prejudice in the comments section accompanying stereotypical news stories about schizophrenia, compared to counter-stereotypical stories.

In addition to outgroup members, media exposure may affect people who are targeted by media stereotypes. For example, an experiment by Saleem and Ramasubramanian (2019) exposed Muslim American college students to media stereotypes (e.g., terrorism) and counter-stereotypes (e.g., ←6 | 7→schoolchildren) concerning Muslims. Muslim-American college students who encountered the stereotypical news content subsequently expressed less desire to be accepted by other Americans and greater desire to avoid interaction with other Americans. Similarly, people with mental illness expressed less desire to engage with others following the mass shooting at Virginia Tech because they assumed that news of the tragedy affected people’s attitudes concerning mental illness (Hoffner, Fujioka, Cohen, & Seate, 2017). When members of marginalized groups avoid contact, the decision can isolate the individual and carry societal implications. It strips other people of contact with a marginalized out group, which is an important approach to mitigating stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination (as outlined by Gibson and Thompson in Chapter 1). In addition to such social identity threats, people who are subjected to media stereotypes may internalize stereotypes, experiencing decreased self-esteem or altering their behavior for fear of confirming the misinformation. For example, a famous social psychology experiment had participants play miniature golf on the understanding that (a) success on the course represented an indicator of sports intelligence or (b) it was an indicator of athleticism. White participants performed worse than a control group when the game was described as an indicator of “natural athletic ability,” while Black participants underperformed in the “intelligence” condition (Stone, Lynch, Sjomeling, & Darley, 1999).

While research has largely focused on negative outcomes, researchers are increasingly investigating how exposure to counter-stereotypical media content may nurture more prosocial attitudes toward social groups. As reviewed in Chapter 1, the parasocial contact hypothesis suggests that the mass media may afford audience members an opportunity for contact with marginalized groups, which can challenge stereotypes and elicit positive attitudes when the contact is positive. For example, Schiappa et al. (2006) examined the hypothesis using the American television program Will & Grace, which featured two prominent gay male characters. The more participants watched the program and parasocially interacted with its characters, the more positive attitudes they expressed toward people who are gay.

Chapter Overview

This book unfolds in a two-fold manner, working from the general (foundations of media stereotyping in Section I) to specific (types of media stereotyping in Section II). In the opening three chapters, the focus is on macro-analyses of theories frequently employed and oft-utilized methods within past studies of media stereotyping. The aim in these opening pieces is to give a sense of how understanding of various media stereotypes work in concert with one ←7 | 8→another—as well as to delineate areas in which they differ. Forming a plethora of cognitive Venn diagrams, these pieces set the stage for understanding what we tend to talk about when we mention the theories undergirding and the methods analyzing the presence (or lack thereof) of media stereotypes.

The first of these core groundwork chapters is advanced by the team of Rhonda Gibson and Jacob R. Thompson as they advance understanding of key theories as they have been applied to this subfield. Chapter 1 explores the theories that rise to the fore, whether largely the result of content discrepancies, often advanced through the lens of framing, for instance, or the result of effects-based discrepancies, often advanced through theories such as the parasocial contact hypothesis. We opted to open with a chapter on theory simply because these are the communicative lenses in which all other findings must be understood, interpreted, and advanced.

Next, Cory L. Armstrong and Sharon E. Baldinelli use Chapter 2 to explore the wide range of content analyses that inform the field. Arguably the largest collective program of methodological work in this area, content analyses identify what stereotypes are present in current media, providing an appropriate springboard for then understanding what the presence of these stereotypes could mean for various crosshatches of people. Armstrong and Baldinelli articulate the core problems with the characterizations advanced in media, yet end the chapter on a more optimistic tone, advancing a call for also exploring what media gets right—a useful and necessary contrast to draw.

Finally, experiments and outcomes-based studies of media stereotyping become the crux of Chapter 3, where Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz and Andrea Figueroa-Caballero survey the field in this second key methodological regard. Whereas content analyses inform us of the potential impact of problematic stereotyping, experiments allow for causation-based conclusions, showing the ramification of the “pictures in our heads” as they become enacted within public, social, and interpersonal settings.


VIII, 296
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (October)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2020. VIII, 296 pp., 1 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Andrew C. Billings (Volume editor) Scott Parrott (Volume editor)

Andrew C. Billings (Ph.D., Indiana University) is the Ronald Reagan Chair of Broadcasting in the Department of Journalism & Creative Media at the University of Alabama. He has published over 200 journal articles and book chapters along with 20 book projects, the majority of which pertain to issues of media content and effects. Scott Parrott (Ph.D., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) is an associate professor and Phifer Fellow in the Department of Journalism & Creative Media at the University of Alabama. His research examines media stereotypes, focusing on the stigmatization of mental illness.


Title: Media Stereotypes
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