Could it Be? It’s Becoming Chic to be Geek
Mary Vanderlinden / Averett University

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The Chic Geeks of The Big Bang Theory

Alternative personifications appear on television with each new season, but few portrayals have had the kind of staying power as what we would define as the geek image. During the past few years, shows have emerged celebrating numerous characters who are do-gooders embodied by their own sense of self-confidence, desire for true knowledge, and a pivotal notion of what is best at that particular moment in time. Characters such as Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory, Betty Suarez in Ugly Betty, and Dwight Shrute of The Office have aided in making this monumental step forward.


Sheldon Cooper Explains Being Treed by a Chicken

For those of us who are self-proclaimed geeks these images are meaningful and have left us with a sense of justification: it is okay to embrace our quirky, socially inept side.

Television is a Socializing Mechanism
So why are such images so important? Simply, television plays a role in shaping our world and the inclusion of alternative personifications relates meaningful information to society. For years researchers have proven that television is a pervasive medium that affects the lives of individuals by developing their behaviors and decisions. Seminal research on this subject was performed in 1964 by DeFleur ((DeFleur, L. M. (1964). Occupational roles as portrayed on television. The Public Opinion Quarterly, 28(1), 57-74. Retrieved from then followed by the likes of Christiansen (1979), ((Christiansen, J. B. (1979). Television role model influence and adolescent occupational goals. Human Communication Research, 5, 335-337. Retrieved from Dates (1980), ((Dates, J. (1980). Race, racial attitudes and adolescent perceptions of Black television characters. Journal of Broadcasting, 24(4), 549-560.)) Abelman (1989), ((Abelman, R. (1989). A comparison of Black and white families as portrayed on religious and secular television programs. Journal of Black Studies, 20(1), 60-79.)) Elasmar, Hasegawa, and Brain (1999), ((Elasmar, M., Hasegawa, K., & Brain, M. (1999). The portrayal of women in U.S. prime-time television. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 43(1), 20.)) and Chory and Corozza (2008) ((Chory, R. M., & Carozza, B. L. (2008, November). Television exposure and wishful identification as predictors of occupational self-efficacy, interests, and desires: The case of television doctors. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the NCA 94th Annual Convention, San Diego, CA.)) to name a few. Their findings align, showing that television provides us with ideas about the world and the people we meet. Elasmar et al. (1999) expressed this notion and wrote:

Television may teach general expectations of self and others and whether behaviors for self and others are appropriate. For example, for a young female teenager, the actress she admires can serve as a multipurpose model: a source of occupational aspiration, clothing style, hair design, and more. ((Elasmar, M., Hasegawa, K., & Brain, M. (1999). The portrayal of women in U.S. prime-time television. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 43(1), 20.

Such relational occurrences described do happen in real life and they are neither rare nor unique. Take for example Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor who told a similar story about her decision to study law.

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Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor was Influenced by Perry Mason

Proclaiming herself “a true media child,” Sotomayor said she was influenced and motivated by the fictional television attorney Perry Mason. Sotomayor explained, “I noticed that Perry Mason was involved in a lot of the same kinds of investigative work that I had been fascinated with … so I decided to become a lawyer”. ((American Bar Association (2000). Sonia Sotomayor: Raising the bar, pioneers in the legal profession, para. 5. Retrieved September 12, 2009, from American Bar Association, 2000)) Sotomayor’s admission lends credence to the notion that television is a powerful tool for informing a person’s decisions and behavior.

Too School for Cool
What research indubitably shows us is that the more characters appearing on television that are book smart, technology savvy, too school for cool, and accepted by their vicarious group of peers, the more society will acknowledge and be tolerant of our being: truly this is good news for any geek. Two such character portrayals that are blazing the trail are Dr. Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory who at one time was bested by an ornery chicken, and Dr. Spencer Reid, appearing on Criminal Minds and who attempted to share his knowledge of Dr. Who to impress an attractive young detective.


Dr. Spencer Reid Attempting to Impress by Referencing Dr. Who

Room to Grow
Perhaps one of the most interesting developments of the geek genre is the fact that many shows are allowing these characters room to grow. Years ago geeks like Steve Urkel on Family Matters, a sitcom that aired from 1989 to 1997, never really got the girl and was relegated to a life of loneliness played out on 30-minute weekly television show.

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Geeks Like Steve Urkel Did Not Have Girlfriends

Though geek characters today are depicted as maintaining their frequent trips to the comic book store or annual pilgrimage to Comic-Con, they are now shown as engaging in a more rounded life. For example, in The Big Bang Theory the character Leonard Hofstadter dates his attractive neighbor and budding actress Penny. Further, the other characters on the show are matched with girl friends that complement their unique personalities and physical traits. To further make this point, Betty Suarez in Ugly Betty blossoms into a beautiful and talented woman who has found her way in the overly competitive and often hateful world of fashion magazine publishing. Here is a clip from a season finale illustrating this point:


Betty blossoms while tackling the world of fashion magazine publishing

Television shows are indicative of the period in which they appear. For example the 1960s were marked by westerns like Bonanza and Gunsmoke, the decade of the ‘70s was known for social awareness in programming such as All in the Family and Maude as well as fantasy crime shows like Charlie’s Angels, sitcoms like The Cosby Show became the norm in the 1980s and so on. The question remains, will future writers refer to the new millennium as the decided era of the geek?

Image Credits:
1. ShareTV
2. The New Republic
3. wikia

Prostitution or Oprah: The Impact of Dichotomous Images of Black Women
Mary Vanderlinden/Averett University

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Images 1 & 2: Participants Identified Limited Portrayals of Black Women on Television

How are Black women characterized on television and what do these depictions mean to you? This was the primary research question posed to a group of 15 African American college women who participated in a qualitative study on the portrayals of Black females on television and the influence such representations have on their personal development. (( This article highlights a portion of Vanderlinden’s dissertation titled “Associating with Occupational Depictions: How African American College Women are Influenced by the Portrayals of Women in Professional Careers on Television.” )) This article is comprised of participants’ reflections that highlight my findings on how this intense imagery affects the lives of these women and impacts their decision to attend college. (( Participants in this study were African American, female, enrolled as a degree seeking student, and at least 18 years old. ))

Participants described vivid portrayals polarized as exceedingly negative or positive. Georgette (( Pseudonyms were used to protect the confidentiality of participants. )) summarized the groups’ collective assessment:

… there’s only two types, the video vixen kind of girl or the professionals like Oprah. Honestly, those are the only two types I can think of, yeah, prostitution or Oprah.

This response served as a precursor for many of the reactions that followed. Interestingly 14 of the 15 participants described negative images first, using the following descriptive words: poor, jobless, loud, angry, addict. Donesha discussed the Black female character (Video 1) in True Blood named Tara:

… there’s one show that I watch, it’s True Blood, a vampire show. There’s a Black character and she’s very loud, very angry, very mean, you know she doesn’t have any money, she’s very poor, her mother is an alcoholic. And I mean she displays a lot of things African American women have, or at least are given in the television shows or the movies … they usually portray them in a lower class.

Donesha summed up the feelings of many participants by stating that Black women are “ … stuck in that type of role.”


Video 1: The Type of Role Black Women Seem Stuck Playing

Conversely, participants also recognized positive portrayals of African American females on television. Overwhelmingly, participants said the affirmative images are determined, smart, strong and successful. The iteration of these qualities was repeated by several participants. For example, Alaina’s description of Dr. Bailey, a character appearing on Grey’s Anatomy (Video 3), echoed these traits:

She is very strong minded, she is very smart. She is top notch; she is head of the surgery department. She was the only Black person in the entire program when she interned, and she is just brilliant, well educated, excellent surgeon, and she overcame those circumstances while being a parent. Now that she’s in control, she is the boss of the other interns and other doctors. She is kind of a mother influence towards them because she makes sure they are strictly business … she doesn’t expect anything but greatness.

So, what do such images mean to 15 African American college females? For many of these women the positive vicarious characters gave them a sense of realization, of hope, and intensified their aspirations to achieve. Importantly, these portrayals had a degree of influence on some participant’s decision to attend college.

For Tonya watching reruns of the 1980s sitcom A Different World (Video 2) was the impetus she needed.

I used to watch A Different World. I thought I wanted to go to college and I want to be just like Whitley, Dwayne, and Denise. I wanted to be like that, that influenced me to go to college.


Video 2: A Different World Spurred College Ambitions

Tonya further recalled how A Different World made her believe that college was not an option but something that students did after high school. Other participants discussed accomplishing their own aspirations based on the careers of their favorite characters or personalities. Isis shared her dream of becoming a lawyer and how watching the attorneys in Law and Order influenced her decision:

… like when I watch Law and Order and I listen to the attorneys talk … I know that I’m not going to talk like that right out of high school. So, I guess the attorneys language, I guess that’s how I can phrase it, really told me that like, yeah, in order to become something you’ve got to go to school, you have to have the education. I know they had to go to school in order to be where they are. They didn’t just up and say well I’m going to court and I’m going to defend somebody today.

Dr. Bailey, the principal character on Grey’s Anatomy, was inspirational for Alaina who wants to achieve a doctoral degree:

I’m going to graduate, I’m going to go for a Ph.D. because I have it in me. Even if I don’t see it now, but in a few years, I’ll have this, and I’m approaching that I can be a success.


Video 3: Dr. Bailey: A Strong, Smart Portrayal

Phillipa continued this line of thought, referring to her interpretation of events in Oprah’s tumultuous childhood:

Oprah’s case … she taught people that no matter where you come from that doesn’t matter. If you put in the hard work then you can go anywhere. That takes away your excuses because you know a lot of people, like in my family, they try to use their background to like say… I didn’t have this … I didn’t have money to go to college. Oprah kind a takes away that excuse.

But, it’s not exclusively the positive images that drive these participants to achieve. Donesha responded that the constant negative images of Black women appearing on television can have an inspirational effect and gave her the impetus to achieve instead of succumbing to prevalent stereotypes.

I mean, as far as like some of television shows where there are African American women who are put on a lower scale, I mean that influences you know. That makes me say I want to do better, I want to go to school, I want to get an education, and I want to surpass those limits … because of these television shows. You know, like I said, I mean, my family doesn’t have a lot of money, and my family doesn’t have a lot of education … (the portrayals) makes you, not angry, but it makes you want to show people not everyone is like this. Not everyone that is female and Black portrays these aspects. That’s a strong key in me wanting to get an education.

Literature reviews on the persuasiveness of television reveals that often researchers focus on the negative influences of television on individuals. If, however, this ubiquitous medium has the power to encourage unconstructive and even harmful behavior, then it also has the capacity to promote a person’s constructive actions. Albeit my findings are greatly truncated for this article, what this qualitative research shows is that positive television portrayals can be potentially motivational, prompting some to achieve and possibly offering individuals a sense of self affirmation.

It is important to remember that in qualitative research we cannot use information gleaned to make full generalizations of an entire population: this information only serves as a snapshot in the lives of these 15 study participants. Qualitative information, however, can be the foundation for quantitative questions and lead to future formative research on this or any topic.

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Robbing Opportunities: Stereotyped
Portrayals Put Latino Actors out of Action
Mary Vanderlinden / Averett University

rob cast

A Missed Opportunity

Despite the fact that the Latino population is one of the fastest growing minority groups in America, character portrayals reflecting this segment have never been truly prevalent on prime time television. The lack of such depictions is indeed a curiosity for two important reasons, (1) according to the most recent Census Bureau demographic report, the U.S. Latino population has increased to 16.3 percent, approximately four percentage points more than that of African Americans, and (2) Nielsen Media states that this segment of the viewing audience is growing at a rapid clip, faster than the television viewing audience for the entire U.S. population. Given these two cogent points, a logical conclusion would be that a leading television network such as ABC, CBS, NBC, or FOX, would develop more viable programs to both capture and capitalize on this surging portion of the population.


An Attempt to Capture and Capitalize a Growing Latino Audience

It appears that CBS tried to do just that with the situational comedy Rob!. The show, however, was an abject failure and station executives cancelled it after only eight episodes. Alas Rob! had no lasting affect on improving the number of Latino portrayals on television: today such characters make up a mere five percent of depictions found on the primary networks. Rob! was potentially an opportunity to facilitate a unique portrayal of a Mexican-American family in a situation comedy. As criticized, however, Rob! did little to improve the representation of this minority group and seemingly served to affirm stereotypical concepts. Even the photos used to promote Rob! were filled with trite ideas of Mexican-American life and included a conga line, piñata, sombrero, and maracas [Image 2].

The show was the brainchild of comedian Rob Schneider, who played the lead role and whose name was given to the program. The premise was that Rob, a Caucasian and totally ignorant of the structure of a Mexican-American family, married Maggie after a six week relationship. Rob’s quest was to win over Maggie’s extended Latino family by trying to assimilate into their culture. The show was comprised of a well-known slate of actors including Cheech Marin who was cast as the cynical father Fernando, Diana Maria Riva as Rosa the overly sarcastic mother, Eugenio Derbez as Hector, and Lupe Ontiveros as Abuelita the grandmother. The character Maggie was played by Claudia Bassols.

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Stereotypical Concepts of Mexican-American Life

Clichéd Images Kept Intact
Though there have been a number of exceptions, Latino men have often been depicted as weak, clumsy fools, vagrants, bandits, and thieves. Rob! kept the typecast intact with the character named Hector, an illegal alien scheming to stay in America and essentially line his own pockets. When Uncle Hector meets Rob for the first time, Hector asks for a $7,200 loan and remarks that his weekend stay will actually last a lifetime. In this clip [Clip 2], the obtuse Hector is a bumbling buffoon when learning to cook enchiladas with Rosa. Latin women are often portrayed as highly seductive, sexual women scantily dressed or wearing tight tops and pants. The objectification of the female character Maggie is evident in this still shot
[Image 3]. An interesting point is that the show went beyond the clichéd image of Maggie by affixing another stereotype of women and infantilizing the character. Maggie, Rob’s much younger wife, seeks constant validation. In this short clip, Rob provides firm and somewhat fatherly guidance to Maggie as both characters seek validation of their new marriage.


Hector the Bumbling Illegal Alien

There were a few counter-stereotypical aspects displayed in Rob!. For example, the family is depicted as successful and living in a more than modest modern home. Further, the Latino characters enjoyed improved work roles over those typically depicted, such as car washers, waiters, handymen, and construction workers. Yet, it is interesting to note that Rob! did not necessarily abolish the perceived work field but improved the position for the story line. For example the father, Fernando, worked his way up in the carwash business to develop a successful chain.

Latinos Losing Ground on Television
A recent study by Monk-Turner, Heiserman, Johnson, Cotton, and Jackson (2010) ((Monk-Turner, E., Heiserman, M., Johnson, C., Votton, V., & Jackson, M. (2010). The portrayal of racial minorities on prime time television: A replication of the Mastro and Greenberg study a decade later. Studies in Popular Culture (32)2, 101-114.
)) indicates that Latino characters have lost considerable ground in positive depictions over the past 10 years. This study was a replication of a review of minority portrayals on television and a content analysis conducted by Mastro and Greenberg in 2000. ((Mastro, D. & Greenberg, B. (2000). The portrayal of racial minorities on prime time
television. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, Fall, 690-703.
)) In their original research, Mastro and Greenberg found that Latino characters were generally more respected and less negatively stereotyped than African American television characters. A decade later, however, the landscape for Latino actors on television has changed dramatically. Monk-Turner et al. found that Latino characters are more likely to (a) have heavy accents with poor articulation skills, (b) exhibit immoral behavior, (c) be ridiculed in comparison to other characters, and (d) be less respected in comparison to African American or Caucasian characters.

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The Latina as Highly Sexual, Seductive Woman

Perhaps one can argue the justification of using typecast images. Television producers need to establish shows quickly in an effort to gain an audience. Sometimes the use of commonly held perceptions about a class of people can allow for fast construction of characters that may be accepted by the viewing public. Conversely, it must be noted that the use of counter stereotypes has its benefits. For example, the The Cosby Show and its spinoff A Different World broke the common depictions of African Americans on television. Though highly criticized for being ‘too white’ Cosby and his television wife and children helped many viewers see a different side of an African American family, thus providing a break in generally held beliefs about this minority group.

The question remains regarding the inclusive role of media. Are programs such as Rob! created solely for entertainment value or do creators have an obligation to lesson labels and reduce trite racial depictions. In other words, what responsibility should show producers accept regarding the perpetuation of negative racial stereotypes? If one believes that television adds to the cultivation of the viewing public and is a cognitive filter that shapes our perceptions, then show creators possess a powerful position in our world, literally holding the ability to showcase characters in a different light, in alternate environments, with varying social ranks, and in turn reflecting new realities of a particular population.

Image Credits:
1. The Cast of Rob!
2. Trailer for Rob!
3. Image 2: Promo Photo for Rob!
4. The Wrong Way to Cook
5. Claudia Bassols and Rob Schneider in Rob!