How Film Stereotypes Ethnic Groups

By Vanessa Sam


Asians are always smart, black people are loud, Latinos are the bad guys. How long did it take for you to realise that these phrases are fiction? These are only some of what we call racial stereotypes that are repeatedly portrayed in film.


So what is a stereotype? A stereotype is described as a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image of a particular type of person or thing.

As much as we don’t see it, stereotypes form the way we view the world and the people in it.

As much as representation is crucial, we are always seeing the same one-dimensional character on screen and therefore presenting one type of person amongst so many more. The media we consume on a daily basis also takes part in what we call our unconscious bias. These are the attitudes that we don’t necessarily believe in but we have unintentionally taken on.

One could argue this is the reasoning for a lot of the discrimination and internalised racism we see today.


Perhaps in your favourite childhood tv show, the south Asian character has an over-exaggerated accent, gets the best grades, yet trembles when it comes to social interaction. This influences the way you expect other south-Asians to act like, because of this internalised standard. Here are some examples of the continuous stereotypes we see amongst ethnic minorities, in film and TV.


Black actors and actresses are repeatedly refined into a box of what the black character is and can only be. The black best friend in film is so consistent you begin to think writers have given up on new ideas. The black best friend trope is mainly written to become an accessory of support for, majority of the time, the white main character. Typically, the black best friend is vibrant, loud and sassy, feeding into the stereotypes some perpetuate into everyday life.


The black character can also be shown as the athlete or the charity case, reinforcing the “white saviour” term. For the longest time, black performers have had to play the same type of character over and over again, never being given the same opportunities their white co-stars would.

However, the industry is beginning to produce projects that show multi-dimensional people and give the black actors and actresses the spotlight they have been deserving for decades.


Films like Get Out and Us, became extremely popular, showcasing black main characters in the horror genre, which is usually dominated by white actors. The academy award-winning animation, Soul, proves how important representation is in all forms, and Spider-Man into the spider-verse.


Moving onto Asian representation. There are so many unrepresented asian ethnic groups that are not shown in the media. In 2017, only 3.4% of film roles were given to asians. Asians in film are used as a caricature of their culture and race as a tool for comedic effect. Asians are consistently portrayed as submissive, extremely smart and nerdy.


The trope of either being a geek in all things technical or math-based, or being fluent in martial arts creates a standard despite the clash of cultures. The east-asian females either play the Dragon Lady trope or the Lotus Blossom, that most commonly appears in Kung Fu films. They are portrayed as either submissive and purely exists for the white male, or as extremely stern.

Some Kung Fu films that feature a white main character are written this way to appeal and relate to the white viewer. This further fetishises asian culture. Racial fetishism is fetishising a person or culture belonging to a specific race or ethnic group. Racial fetishisation comes in many shapes and forms. This fetishisation dehumanises a race and culture, treating it as something to fulfil their own desires.

Many have spotted, when asians are represented, they tend to have colourful streaks in their hair. When looking at the symbolism of this, this additional feature is put to make the asian character seem different and stand out. This implies that an asian can’t stand out in their own way if they don’t have multi-coloured streaks of hair.

Fortunately, in the past upcoming years, asians are being given the attention they need and authentic representation. The hit rom-com “Crazy Rich Asians” released in 2018, was the first American movie to feature an all asian cast since 1993’s The Joy Luck Club. To put that into perspective, it took 25 years for this to happen, to cast only asians in a setting outside of damaging stereotypes.

Other films like academy-award winning Parasite, To All The Boys Ive Loved Before and The Farewell express different genres and multi-dimensional characters. Shows like Fresh Off The Boat, Never Have I Ever and The Mindy Project, present asians as the stars of their own life with a comedic storyline, rather than being used for comedy.

The last racial stereotype is Latino. From all the racial groups I’ve discussed so far, the latino community is the least represented in film and media.

Not even above 10% of Latino or Latina performers get their representation.

The Spicy Latina Trope is written as the loud and obnoxious Latina, that is either used for comedic effect or for the pleasure of the male audience. The harmful stereotypes of the drug dealer and illegal immigrant are the main representation latinos get, when they do get it. Another very continuous trope is the Latin Lover, which is written to help the white characters get back on track with the storyline. The Latin Lover role is only ever temporary and once not needed is just put to the side.


Few films break these stereotypes and hopefully in the future we will see more, but the new release of ‘In The Heights’ is a perfect example of representation and showing different parts of the community through different lights. It is a musical that creates the space for latin actors to share their talents after not being given the space for so long.


The live action “Dora and the Lost City of Gold” presents a Latina main character in the setting of an action film, rather than in the stereotypical realm.


So you may be wondering, yes these stereotypes are damaging and one-dimensional but what if some turn out to be true? Yes not all stereotypes are 100% false and you may meet someone who shares some of the same characteristics as a specific trope. But showing only one characteristic is what makes these stereotypes bad. Constantly showing the same type of person on screen, makes us only imagine the same type of person linked to that ethnic group. It’s not that we don’t want representation, it’s that we need to see representation that actually, well, represents us.

Because as the saying goes, you can’t be, what you can’t see.

Asians are different, black people are different, Latinos are different, we are all different and its about time the screen shows us that too.


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