Gender stereotypes that perpetuate sexism are more prevalent in the media than most people realize. Most of these toxic stereotypes have been formed from the Hays code, which was a self-imposed censorship to accommodate governmental preferences in Hollywood between the late 1930s to the late 1960s. According to MasterClass, this code prohibited anything that was deemed immoral or perverted. This included anything related to profanity, kissing, interracial relationships, homosexuality or any disrespect towards law or religion.
This influenced how stories were told, even past its end in the late 1960s. Many popular, heavily advertised and box office-grossing movies and television programs casted a positive light on misleading tropes such as the Nice Guy, the Ladies’ Man and the Tough Girl.
These tropes are misleading in the sense that they promise an archetype that would provide a unique perspective in media, but deliver a stereotype that glorifies harmful behaviors.
For example, many of the popular “boy next door” Nice Guys in the media are only performative nice guys who use their “benevolence” as a way to make other people feel in debt to them. They are, for the most, selfish, and stalk the main heroine, like Ted Moseby from “How I Met Your Mother” or Dawson from “Dawson’s Creek.”
In the Hays era, if, at the start of the film, a character diverged from the determined moral standards, another character would have to correct this behavior by the end of film. This led every Ladies’ Man to have a nagging, annoying woman to spoil his fun, reminding him of his responsibilities, such in the plotlines of “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Guys and Dolls”.
The rejection of this code led the way for modern Ladies’ Men to become prolific adulterers who were forgiven because they were charming and had money, like James Bond. Another trope emerged from this rejection: his female counterpart- the Femme Fatale. Awaiting every Femme Fatale, there was either her matrimony or her death by the time the credits rolled, such as in the case of many James Bond villains.
On the other hand, the Tough Girl, another rejection of the Hays code, although capable of unbelievable deeds, is stripped of any personality, lacks emotional complexity, and can easily be replaced with a robot, like Lara Croft from “Tomb Raider”.
A real-world example of these tropes being used is how easy it was for Ned Fulmer to fool audiences into thinking he was a Nice Guy when he was cheating on his wife with his workplace subordinate.
Another consequence of stereotyping is typecasting, in which talented actors are forced to play the same character types repeatedly, without any room for nuance or challenge to the status quo, developing their public persona as a cookie-cutter stock character.
For many years, the general public has criticized the movie industry for beating the same dead horses with multiple franchises pumping out unnecessary sequels and reboots or questioning why such bland, unoriginal or mindless scripts keep getting written for eventual box office flops. But how could Hollywood create new award winning cinema when all writers have to work with the same old cliches?
Understanding that these gendered cliches and tropes exist is a reminder that what is concocted in a writer’s room isn’t always what reflects reality and is more harmful than what was first thought. Abusing stereotypes for a quick punchline isn’t an effective or inclusive form of comedy, just as using biases to form judgment on another person isn’t a fair or just depiction of their character.
Through understanding and accepting past mistakes, it can make for not just a more diverse, but more effective form of cooperation now, and in the future.