Today I’m going to revisit the stereotypes theme, a topic I first wrote about four months ago. Two seemingly unrelated events that took place in the past week prompted me to write a continuation of my previous post:
1) An unfortunate ad for the Popchips brand that was deemed racist and quickly taken off the internet.
You might wonder what in the world connects those two events, and how they both relate to the topic of “not so benevolent” stereotypes. Read on to find out.
The Full Skinny on the Popchips’ Ad Incident
On May 2 2012, the popular blogger and self-proclaimed entrepreneur Anil Dash wrote a scathing post about Popchips’ poor judgment in making an ad, featuring Ashton Kutcher impersonating several different nationalities. The ad’s punchline was intended to be that the Popchips snacks appeal to a diverse audience and unite (in taste) seemingly different personalities.
Anil Dash’s main complaint was that the ad was racist toward people whose descent originates from the Indian subcontinent. Maybe he was right, or maybe he was wrong. I’m going to leave that call to my Indian friends who are, of course, much more competent to comment on that. I personally think Anil overdid his complaint a little – and lost his credibility by being extremely one-sided and arrogant in his post. But the key outcome is that due to his public outcry, as well as similar complaints by many more people of Indian descent like him, Popchips ditched the ad, took it off from their official page, and the company’s CEO made a public apology. On top of that, the story was picked up by major news outlets, such as the BBC, and thus spread quickly across the world.
The Scoop on Episode 9 of Season 1 of ABC’s Missing TV Series
Now, let’s fast forward to 8 PM Eastern Standard Time today, May 10 2012, when ABC aired Episode 9 of its new spy TV series, Missing. In that episode, Ashley Judd’s character, former CIA agent Becca Winstone, continues her relentless search for her kidnapped son. Together with her husband Paul, played by Sean Bean, she drives through Bulgaria en route to Istanbul where her son is kept captive. So far, nothing out of the ordinary. A typical spy drama, taking us on a tour of Europe.
The funny part is that countries are presented very differently in this TV series, depending on who they are. France, Austria, Italy all look glitzy, which is no surprise. But then again, Croatia’s Dalmatian coast line is shown in its full flair, as well as Istanbul’s beautiful Bosphorus strait. So far so good — I was enjoying watching all the coolness dripping from the TV screen as they were showing off those familiar places. There were stereotypes, but good, positive stereotypes, so I ignored them for the sake of enjoying the TV series.
Then, however, the stereotypes turned darker, as the action rolled on to Bulgaria. All of a sudden, the sun miraculously disappeared, the colors turned dim, the buildings, the cars, the clothes on the passers-by all started looking shabby. “Why not?” — You may ask yourselves. After all, this is the stereotype that has been ingrained in TV viewers’ and movie watchers’ minds for decades. As one web site dedicated to exposing such “Truth in Television” stereotypes rightfully indicates, no one really expects anything else from a scenery in Bulgaria other than grief-stricken people walking wearily on the streets, tough and mean policemen randomly bullying people, and the occasional glimpse of Russian Matryoshka dolls on a decrepit store’s window pane.
It does not matter that Bulgaria has been a member of the European Union since 2007. It does not matter that Bulgaria has parted with Communism (and the old Eastern Bloc) for 23 years. It does not matter that despite going through economic turmoil in the 1990s, Bulgarians have increased their GDP per capita (in Purchasing Power Parity terms) more than 2.3 times in the last decade (see chart below). It does not even matter that the Matryoshka dolls are a distinctly Russian tradition — and hard to be seen in Bulgaria, except at the old-school tourist trap flee markets, which almost do not exist anymore.
What matters is the stereotype. The sun never really shines and the people are really never happy behind the “Iron Curtain.” That was the stereotype during the Cold War, and continued to be the stereotype during the transitionary 1990s, and lingers on even now — in 2012!
So What’s the Big Deal?
The main reason for my post is that those two incidents reveal the big difference in the way “benevolent” and “not so benevolent” stereotypes are treated in different situations.
In the case of Ashton Kutcher’s clumsy impersonalization of a Bollywood producer, there were many vocal and media-savvy activists who quickly exposed the alleged wrong-doing and exacted prompt apologies from the wrong-doers. Contrary to Anil Dash’s frequent whining, Indians are a well known and established constant in modern-day American life; many Indians are successful leaders of some of the largest Fortune 500 companies (for example see Citi Group’s CEO Vikram Pandit or Pepsi’s CEO Indra Nooyi).
On the exact opposite side, in the case of the Missing TV series’ episode in Bulgaria, there was no vocal and concerted outcry in the public domain. There are only 7.5 million people in Bulgaria, with maybe another 1-1.5 million Bulgarians living elsewhere across the world. There are no big-shot Bulgarian CEOs or venture capitalists living in NYC or San Francisco. There is no equivalent of Bollywood in Bulgaria. The same applies to Romania and, basically, all other countries of the former Eastern Bloc who seem to be forever destined to bear the grim, post-Communist stereotype in popular Western culture.
That is the “Big Deal,” in my humble opinion!
With that in mind, my dear friends, I hope this post has managed to raise your awareness of the ongoing burden of the “not so benevolent” stereotypes born by countries like Bulgaria. Next time you watch a spy movie that plots the stereotypical image of dilapidation and despair in those countries, I hope you think about ways you can help to dispel such stereotypes.
Perhaps going to Anil Dash’s extremes is not necessary — I think a desperate attention seeking of the kind he is professing may actually go against the cause. But maybe some small action on your side can make a difference — such as emailing the producers of the “wrong-doing” TV show or movie to ask them how truthful they have been in representing the countries in which their plot is taking place. Action like this may look like baby steps, but it will in fact serve as a giant leap toward fixing the problem with those “not so benevolent” stereotypes.