The following is an analysis of the sociocultural impact of ethnic representation in media.
Media: Breakfast at Tiffany’s
The motion picture Breakfast at Tiffany’s is regarded as an American classic. Audrey Hepburn played the iconic Holly Golightly, where the film cemented the glamour and culture of Madison Avenue marketing into the audience’s consciousness. Another aspect of American culture can be found in Mickey Rooney’s unflattering, yellow face portrayal of Golightly’s landlord, Mr. I.Y. Yunioshi. There are two important cultural implications that will be addressed in this analysis. The first is the veneration of the vulnerable, youthful, innocent young woman who worships commercial endeavors, and the second is the portrayal of negative Asian stereotypes through American media and the propagation of orientalism (Jandt, 2016, p. 362).
The cultural values portrayed in Breakfast at Tiffany’s occur on two distinct planes. The first is the elevation and creation of iconic youth in Holly Golightly, a spirited twenty-something woman whose adoration of the iconic jewelry store Tiffany & Company continues in modern-day women across demographic segments (Edwards, et al., 2009).
The second is the casting of a Caucasian actor, Mickey Rooney, to play a Japanese landlord in Mr. Yunioshi; an exclusionary practice that continues today. See: Emma Stone cast as Allison Ng who was a half-Hawaiian character in Aloha (Smith, 2015). Hollywood perpetuates the cultural values aligned with white privilege, defined by Jandt as the dominance and advantage of one culture over another (2016, p. 11).
Holly Golightly was a stereotypical, flighty young woman who loved to party; was drawn towards diamonds and the affections of an undeserving man. Mr. Yunioshi’s character was stereotypically portrayed through mannerisms and makeup: the exaggerated accent, the slanted eyes, and the buck teeth. The role would have been more effectively played by a Japanese or Japanese American actor, instead of a white actor washed yellow through a stereotypical version of undesirable Asian traits.
During the 20th century, American women were coming into their own. The prevailing cultural shifts of the century included women’s suffrage, the right to work, and the right to education. Thus, women like Golightly enjoyed more sociocultural and economic freedom than any generation prior. Conversely, Asian Americans experienced American culture differently in the 1900s. From Japanese internment camps to the Korean War and the Vietnamese War, it is no surprise that Hollywood films utilize ethnocentrism to perpetuate the stereotype of the Asian villain (“Asian American Perspective on Mickey Rooney’s Yellow-Face Portrayal on Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”). Although Mr. Yunioshi is not portrayed as villainous, he is quite antagonistic.
Contrasting Intercultural Interpretation
In Nairobi, Kenya, where the human and spirit world are existentially linked, a Kenyan viewer of Breakfast at Tiffany’s may not perceive the same cultural messages and affects as those who have been heavily exposed to commercialism and American culture (Kenya Culture – Kenyan Culture, Customs and Traditions,” 2015). Kenyans are comprised of many tribes whose members wear brightly colored traditional attire, jewelry, and headdresses (“Kenya Culture – Kenyan Culture, Customs and Traditions,” 2015).
From a contrasting cultural perspective, a teenaged student in Nairobi, Kenya, who has had little exposure to American media may not understand why Golightly dresses in such drab attire, and why Golightly is so fascinated with a storefront. Furthermore, it may or may not be evident to the viewer from Nairobi that the person who is playing Mr. Yunioshi is an actor wearing heavy makeup. It is highly unlikely that the interpretation of this film will translate into a meaningful story from the perspective Kenyan culture, which is heavy with symbolism and mythical superstition.
Global Context and Impact
The positive cultural consequences of Breakfast at Tiffany’s in a global context include the autonomy of Holly Golightly who came and went as she pleased, and was empowering and relatable regardless of the ethnicity of the viewer. However, it is important that through the lens of assuming similarity instead of difference, keeping in mind the plight of being born female in certain areas in the world such as present-day Saudi Arabia, a young woman behaving the way Golightly does in the film could have dire consequences. The translation of Golightly’s appeal only exists within the Western cultural context.
The positive aspect of Mr. Yunioshi’s character locally and globally has been the raising of awareness through the promotion of stereotypes; the power of media and its role in moving cultural narratives. Furthermore, the Centennial Collection DVD of Breakfast at Tiffany’s includes a companion documentary that shines a spotlight on the issue of the toxic Asian caricature that was Mr. Yunioshi (Yang, 2014).
The potential negative consequence of Breakfast at Tiffany’s regarding Golightly exists interculturally. A woman living in areas of the Middle East including Saudi Arabia could face state-sanctioned death if she lived the same way Hepburn’s iconic character lived. The continued elevation of this film highlights the celebration of young women acting frivolously: fawning over jewelry, flirting with all the men included in the dialogue, and chasing the one. The challenge lies in understanding that not all young women behave this way, and such is the stereotype that should be overridden, especially in modern contexts.
The negative consequences of Mr. Yunioshi’s character lie in the continuation of misrepresentation of Asian characters in American culture. Perpetually portrayed as immigrants and stereotyped as thickly accented and cranky; the challenges lie in the expectations of those who interact with those who hail from Asian descent, and those who play characters of Asian descent.
Hollywood as a cultural influencer needs to do a better job with casting actors and actresses of various races who fit the ethnicities of the characters whom they play. Mr. Yunioshi would have been translated more effectively across Caucasian and Asian-American (as well as Eastern Asian) viewers if an actor of Asian descent had been chosen instead of Mickey Rooney.
Globalization must be taken into consideration when films with multicultural characters are portrayed. Ethical casting practices must be adopted. Overriding the sociocultural expectations of Hollywood’s portrayal of such stereotypes can only occur with the casting of actual Asian actors who portray favorable, strong, positive characters.
Media: Forbes’ Tweet Regarding LeBron James and Blaze Pizza
Figure 1. Tweet by @Forbes. 11 July 2017.
Forbes’ Twitter media managers refer to LeBron James’ investment in Blaze pizza as an “Off-court hustle” (2017). The cultural value that is communicated in this tweet is the utilization of slang to appeal to a wider demographic regarding the subject matter. Communication shapes culture and vice versa (Jandt, 2016). The culture that Forbes magazine caters to deals with wealth: growing wealth, accumulating wealth, and keeping the wealth. The cultural value in this tweet is the elevation of an entrepreneur. As such, the language used in this tweet was an appeal to Twitter users who are basketball fans and may be familiar with James, but not necessarily with investing. It was assumed that the term off-court hustle was more appealing to James’ audience than the oft-used word investment.
The term side hustle is accepted as a second job or an additional stream of income, whereas the term investment relates to dealings by the wealthy that result in an ROI. Using the term off-court hustle does not have the same impact as the term investment, regardless of the intention behind the usage. By using the slang term instead of the word investment, Forbes’ Twitter manager may have touched upon a stereotype about basketball players and basketball fans – that they respond more favorably to street vernacular. Furthermore, as a reference to an African American entrepreneur, the assignment of the term hustle carries a negative, racist connotation.
From the perception of a Twitter user from London, England, this tweet about a pizza franchise investment appears the same as every other tweet by Forbes: it is about a person and what s/he does with money. This tweet may have been met with slight interest, then apathy. The subtlety of the nuance behind the utilization of off-court hustle instead of the term investment may be lost upon those across the pond who pay more attention to football (soccer), and whose use of the English language differs from Americans’ usage of English. An audience in Great Britain may not consider the racially charged term hustler, and this tweet would not have raised any eyebrows.
The positive consequence of Forbes’ tweet regarding LeBron James and Blaze Pizza is the revelation that athletes are no longer just athletes – they are also entrepreneurs. With Michael Jordan came Nike and with LeBron James, Blaze Pizza. Entrepreneurial professional athletes are forces to be reckoned with in the business world (which also has the power to shape culture) because they have access to so much capital and marketing.
A young person from an impoverished area who aims for perfection in his craft, whether in basketball, football, or baseball, may be inspired to excel in his sport with the goals of playing professionally. Then following James’ lead, later investing in businesses during their career.
The negative consequences directly stem from the reader of this tweet. There are Twitter users who will read this and be inspired, and there are users who will view it as a slight to James’ entrepreneurial achievement because of the tone of the message. Cultural impact is decipherable in the nuances that exist in communication; if this tweet was about soccer player David Beckham instead, would the Twitter manager have used the term off-field hustle? Off court hustle, investment, side hustle, can all mean the same thing. However, it is important to keep in mind cultural sensitivities in order to avoid communicating with racist undertones. Forbes focuses on business culture. As such, any difference in messaging must be viewed through the lens of outreach while recognizing and avoiding the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes.
It is Forbes’ Twitter manager’s responsibility to understand the cultural values of the company from which content is sourced. Instead of tweeting about James’ off-court hustle, the language that appears in a majority of Forbes content should also be applied when reporting on African American entrepreneurs. The tweet should have read, “Blaze Pizza, one of LeBron James’ investment companies, is the fastest growing restaurant chain ever.” The tone of the tweet links contrasting values of those who follow NBA players while appreciating Forbes’ investment culture.
Media makers can apply ethical, interculturally sound globalization by avoiding verbiage that perpetuates harmful, racist stereotypes.
News Media Analysis
News Story: President Rodrigo Duterte Compares Himself to Adolf Hitler
The newswire service that produced “Rodrigo Duterte Compares himself to Hitler and pledges to ‘slaughter three million drug addicts’” is on a British news outlet, The Independent (http://www.independent.co.uk). In the online news article, video of Duterte is shown stating that he would be “happy to slaughter 3 million drug addicts” (Sims, 2016).
The Guardian also reported on this story, with Pres. Duterte likening himself to Adolf Hitler. The notoriously conservative British tabloid which presents itself a news outlet, The Sun, however, did not cover this story at all. Instead, they focused on sensationalized news stories. The bias in the style of reporting is evident between The Independent, The Guardian, and The Sun.
The Independent and The Guardian appear to report stories based on facts. The piece about Duterte comparing himself to Hitler focuses on the leader’s brutal demand for conformity in his citizens – Duterte wishes to wipe out drug dealers and drug addicts alike in the country he leads. The Sun’s avoidance of this story speaks volumes. The Sun is a British tabloid and as such functions as a tool to generate sensationalistic journalistic culture while fostering fringe ideology. Rupert Murdoch, who owns Fox News, also owns The Sun, both of which avoid reporting by ethical, fact-based journalism, but instead cater to anti-intellectuals who hold conservative views (Crookes, 2012).
U.S.-based newspaper The Christian Science Monitor also reported on Duterte’s statement comparing himself to Hitler, but Ellen Powell pointed out that even though Duterte labels all of his victims as “criminals,” the impoverished Filipinos are left with no form of contest nor defense, while wealthy and powerful drug lords continue to supply drugs to citizens (2016). This is a very important point that the two British news outlets omitted – the role of socioeconomics on Duterte’s death campaign against the most vulnerable members of society.
The Sun can be compared to right-wing Fox News, which also omits necessary reporting on relevant, newsworthy events while elevating sensational news stories. For example, The Sun ignored reporting on the Duterte/Hitler comparison, yet published a story about Duterte’s cousins joining the terror group ISIS (Sardana, 2017).
The Christian Science Monitor’s approach to reporting is a stark contrast from the heavily corporatized American news media system. Liberal MSNBC, somewhat moderate CNN, and conservative Fox News are all corporate-owned news entities. On any given day, flipping between the three aforementioned news channels could show the same reporting while reflecting the bias the news organization propagates. British news media outlets also report according to various forms of bias.
Two British news outlets reported on Duterte’s desire to wipe out 3 million Filipinos, similarly to the way Hitler exterminated Jews. The Independent and The Guardian reported on this story, while The Sun completely ignored it. Upon searching The Sun’s database for Rodrigo Duterte articles, only the most sensationalist pieces appear. The Sun caters to sensationalism.
The news coverage in Great Britain echoes the news coverage in the United States. Mostly, British news coverage is balanced with news organizations focused on factual reporting. Fringe news media organizations sensationalize and capitalize on fearmongering, discrediting minority cultures, and propagating the climate for British cultural hegemony.
It is necessary to acknowledge that both British and American cultures highlight individualism and the impact of the whole on the Self (who happens to be consuming the news). Furthermore, news outlets in Western developed countries are focusing more on associating other regions around the globe with political unrest and terrorism (Jandt, 2016, p. 237). The Sun editors found it more important to draw a connection between Duterte’s family and ISIS than to his musings as a dangerous, ruthless dictator.
One recommended approach to creating ethical news media is by adhering to best practices regarding factual reporting and ethical journalism. Newsmakers must cast aside any biases when reporting on newsworthy events. Remaining objective serves the audience better than any sensationalized news story. The Sun should have reported on the human rights crisis that has fractured families and has ended the lives of thousands of Filipinos. Duterte’s comparison of himself to Adolf Hitler is an abominable notion and deserves global outrage. It is a journalist’s moral and ethical responsibility to better inform readers about events unfolding around the world.
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(Submitted as my final project for Intercultural Communication at Southern New Hampshire University)