In this section we will think about stereotyping and the ways it affects our lives and our sexuality.  Let’s start by reading an article debating whether the representation of stereotypes in the show “Jersey Shore” is ethical.

Read: Outrage Over MTV’s “Jersey Shore”


  1. Does ‘Jersey Shore’ portray stereotypical representations of Italian Americans?
  2. What does ‘guido’ mean? Does it have positive or negative sexual connotations
  3. Does MTV and advertisers have a responsibility to not support stereotypical material or is it the responsibility of the TV watcher?
  4. Is it okay to call someone else a guido? Is it okay to call oneself a guido? If so, why and under what circumstances?

Philosophy and Stereotypes:

Before considering the issue of stereotypes further, let’s consider what a stereotype is.  According to philosopher Lawrence Blum (2004):

“A stereotype is a kind of generalization, linking a group to one or more general traits (Blacks as lazy, etc.). By and large, the literature on stereotypes (both social psychological and culture) agrees that the generalizations in question are false or misleading, and I think this view generally accords with the popular usage. It is false, or at least misleading to say, that Jews are cheap, Blacks lazy, Asians good at math, women emotional, and so on. The falseness of stereotypes is part of, and is a necessary condition of what is objectionable about stereotypes in general” (p. 256).

So the idea of Italian Americans as “guidos,” or as macho and working class, is a stereotype because it inaccurately links Italian Americans to these traits.  Although they are inaccurate, stereotypes are prevalent in our culture, and especially the media.  Do stereotypes hold a “kernel of truth”?

Philosopher Lawrence Blum (2004) considered the argument that stereotypes are accurate:

“While not necessarily wholly rejecting the idea that stereotypes are false or misleading, it is nevertheless sometimes said that stereotypes have a “kernel (or grain) of truth.’…Some say that the stereotype ‘Jews are cheap’ has a kernel of truth because some Jews are cheap. But on that reasoning, every ethnic group could be stereotyped as cheap, since some members of every ethnic group are cheap. But stereotypes imply that, if Xs are Y (e.g., Jews are cheap), this is something distinctive about Xs (there being Y, e.g., Jews being cheap). If there is to be a kernel of truth in the stereotype, it would have to preserve this distinctiveness. So, if it turns out that, on the proposed kernel of truth formulation (‘some Xs are Y’), many, or even almost every, group is also Y, this proposed formulation cannot be accepted as preserving  a kernel of truth” (pp. 256-257).

For example, if “Italian Americans are guidos” is understood to mean no more than “Some Italians are working class and macho,” this is not a stereotype, since some members of every ethnic group are working class and macho.  Blum continues:

“Although the scope of stereotypical generalizations is not generally specified—‘Jews are cheap’, ‘women are overemotional’, ‘Irish are drunkards’ is the typical form of a stereotypical generalization—in general they imply that the stereotypic attribute holds for at least a large majority of the target group, if not all, and in some sense is seen as applicable to the group as a collective entity. (Generally, those members to whom the stereotype does not apply are seen as ‘exceptions’. In this way, the link between the attribute and the group itself is preserved.) A merely comparative generalization goes nowhere near establishing that almost all members of the target group possess the stereotype trait, since a higher percentage of Xs than Zs could be Y (Jews than Christians could be wealthy, for example) without it being the case that a large percentage of Xs are Y (e.g., Jews are wealthy” (p. 259).

Therefore, Blum believes that stereotypes are inaccurate because they do not accurately describe members of the group.  While a stereotype might describe some individuals in a group, it does not describe all of them, and it is therefore inaccurate.  Think about stereotypes of your social group.  Do they accurately describe you and others in your group?

If stereotypes are inaccurate, why do we use them?  Stereotypes are considered by many psychologists to be a cognitive shortcut: they help allocate cognitive processing time efficiently and save mental effort, which is important since we receive so much information to deal with in one day.  This is demonstrated in how people tend to use stereotypes more when they are less alert—for instance, “morning people” tend to stereotype more at night and “night people” tend to stereotype more during the morning.  Similarly, when people are under time pressure and are presented with a lot of information, they tend to stereotype more (von Hippel et al., 1995). Therefore, stereotyping is, to some extent, the way our mind functions effectively in the presence of a lot of information. Do you think this makes stereotyping okay even though it is often inaccurate?

Effects of Stereotypes on Individuals:

We have already considered what a stereotype is and how it may or may not be accurate.  Next, we will use what we have learned to consider the effects that stereotypes have on individuals and whether or not stereotypes are wrong to use.  Think about whether or not you have ever been stereotyped by someone and how that affected the way that person treated you.  Conversely, think about when you have stereotyped someone and how that affected how you thought of or treated that person.

Philosopher Lawrence Blum (2004) argues that stereotypes are wrong to use for the following reasons:

“Part of the badness of both stereotypes and non-stereotypic false or unwarranted generalization is purely epistemic; it is epistemically bad to hold false and inadequately warranted beliefs. But when the beliefs are about other persons there can be a moral dimension to false and unwarranted belief as well. Beliefs are typically part of our forms of regard for other persons. I may disrespect or do someone an injustice by thinking ill of her—for example, by seeing him as stingy, or stupid, without adequate evidence for doing so. Respect for other persons, an appreciation of others’ humanity and their full individuality is inconsistent with certain kinds of beliefs about them. So false beliefs can be bad even if they do not contribute to harm to their targets. In addition, false beliefs can contribute to harm to their targets—for example, by providing rationales for treating others badly, rationales on which their holders, or others influenced by the presence of the rationale, act” (p. 262)”Stereotyping involves seeing individual members through a narrow and rigid lens of group-based image, rather than being alive to the range of characteristics constituting each member as a distinct individual. Independent of the particular stereotype I might have of a group, all stereotyping involves this masking of individuality” (p. 271).”A different bad [of stereotyping] is related to viewing the members of the stereotyped group as more different from other groups (and especially the stereotyper’s group) than they actually are. To see a group through a stereotype is to intensify one’s sense of its and its members’ ‘otherness’. It is to experience a sense of moral distance from them. …As groups stereotype one another, they fail to experience a sense of commonality, of mutual identification—for example, of a shared civic fate, or of common humanity” (pp. 275-276).

Therefore, Blum believes that stereotypes are ethically wrong because they take away individuals’ individuality and inaccurately attribute characteristics to them.  Stereotypes prevent people from seeing members of stereotyped groups as individuals and they blind them to the internal variety of a stereotyped group.  They also create the false impression that an individual is morally or inherently different than oneself simply because he or she is a member of another group.  This impression may cause an individual to treat a member of a stereotyped group differently.  For example, if someone believes that women are not good at math, a teacher may not select a woman to enter an honors class for math.  Similarly, if an Asian American male is trying out for the football team, he may be overlooked because the coach believes that Asians are smart and not athletic.  Or, an African American family may be rejected from buying a house in a high income area because the real estate agent stereotypes Blacks as dangerous.  Can you think of other examples?

Stereotypes also affect how we see ourselves.  This occurs when stereotypes are internalized.  For example, a girl who has learned from media, school, and family that women are bad at math may internalize this message and believe that she is bad at math because she is a girl.  How do you think this would affect her behavior?  Can you think of other examples of internalized stereotypes and how they may affect individuals’ behaviors?

A psychologist named Claude Steele (1997) examined the effect of internalized stereotypes.  His original work examined the effect of the stereotype that African Americans are intellectually inferior.  In one experiment, Black and White college students were given a test of verbal intelligence.  Half of each group was told that it was an intelligence test, while the other half were told it was not an intelligence test.  He found that the Black students who were told that it was an intelligence test performed worse on the test.  However, White students performed the same in both conditions.  He theorized that this difference occurred because a negative stereotype about one’s group can cause self-doubt, and thus hinder performance.

This stereotype related to intelligence has been found to affect other groups, too.  For example, women perform worse on math tests as a result of stereotype threat (Spencer, Steele, & Quinn, 1999).  Latina women suffer from ethnic and gender stereotypes in regards to their academic performance.  As a result, when stereotype threat is invoked, they perform worse than both Latino men and White women (Gonzales, Blanton, & Williams, 2002).  What about Asian American women, who have conflicting ethnic and gender stereotypes?  Researchers find that Asian American women perform better on math tests when their ethnic identity is primed and worse when their gender identity is primed (Shih, Pittinsky, & Ambady, 1999).

The stereotype effect can occur even when the test taker does not agree with the stereotype.  This is partly because stereotypes often operate at an unconscious level.  This means that although you are not actively thinking about a stereotype, it may still affect how you behave.  Therefore, stereotypes are not always under our control.  This can be very difficult for people who fight against stereotypes.  For example, imagine how someone who is socially involved in—and campaigns for—the LGBT community feels when they have homophobic thoughts or behave in homophobic ways.  Unfortunately, due to the pervasiveness of stereotypes and the way in which our minds work, no one is immune to stereotypes.  Can you think of way we can become aware of and counteract stereotypes we may hold?


In the next exercise, we will think of common sexual stereotypes for various social groups in the United States.  Keep in mind that some groups will be easier to think of stereotypes for than others.  Also, be sure to be respectful of others when noting these characteristics.  Stereotypes are, for many, a sensitive topic and they have a great potential of hurting others’ feelings.

First choose five social groups.  Some examples are: Black, Asian, Latino, White, Muslim, First Peoples (Native American), elderly, individuals with a physical disability, individuals with a mental disability, people who are overweight, lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals.*
Next, try to think of a person from popular media that fits in each of the categories.  Persons from popular media may be a character from a television show, cartoon, or movie, or a real person such as a pop star or newscaster.

Then, using a scale from 1-10, discuss and rate how sexy and sexual that person is, as portrayed in the media (1=not at all, 10=the most possible).

Social Category Famous person/character Sexy? Sexual?


*Note: Teacher can assign categories and individuals analyzed

Questions for Discussion:

  1.  Do your characteristics represent sexual stereotypes for that category of person?  How so?
  2.  Is it accurate to equate someone’s sexual characteristics with belonging to a certain social category?
  3. Do these sexual stereotypes harm individuals from those groups?  Explore the reasons for your responses.
  4. What is the media’s part is perpetuating or creating these stereotypes?
  5. Do we, as media consumers, have a role in perpetuating these stereotypes?
  6. Are some stereotypes more harmful than others?  For example, is it more harmful to stereotype someone as “sexy” or an “animal” than it is to stereotype someone as a sexual predator?
  7. Do people experience more harm when they fit into multiple categories that are sexually stereotyped?  For example, is an Asian transgender lesbian woman affected by four sexualized stereotypes at once?
  8. Is it more harmful to stereotype someone who belongs to an oppressed minority group than someone who is in the majority?  Why?


Let’s think about how these stereotypes vary when they intersect with other identities.  First, count the number of persons you thought of that were white versus another race/ethnicity.  Is there any discrepancy?  Why do you think this is?  Many stereotypes involve individuals of a specific race, class, etc., excluding the consideration of other identities.

Were there any categories in which it was more difficult to think of someone?  Which ones?  Many people have difficulty finding persons with disabilities or Native Americans or Asian Americans.  What does it mean that these people are invisible?  Are there good consequences?  Bad consequences?

What about gender?  Did you make any assumptions about gender?  For example, many of you may have thought of the beloved talk show host Ellen DeGeneres for the lesbian category.  How would you rate Ellen on the sexy and sexual scales?  Many would say that she would rate low on the sexy scale and moderate on the sexual scale.  Does this fit common stereotypes for lesbians?  But Ellen has other identities, too.  For example, she is a white, upper class, able-bodied woman.  Can you think of other lesbian women from popular media who don’t fit Ellen’s other identities?  How do they vary on the sexy and sexual scale?

Questions for Writing or Discussion:

  1. Imagine you are at a party and one of the following individuals begins to flirt with you.  How would the stereotypes associated with this person’s social group affect how you perceive him or her as a potential sexual or romantic person?
    1. An individual with a physical disability
    2. An African American individual
    3. A Latino individual
    4. An individual who identifies as bisexual
    5. An Asian American individual
  2. Can you think of how stereotypes may play out in the lives of GLBT individuals?
  3. Are there any ways in which sexual and gender stereotypes and the moral distance between individuals of different groups might contribute to sexual violence?
  4. How can we determine whether we hold sexual stereotypes and what those sexual stereotypes are?
  5. Are we responsible for automatic sexual stereotypic associations that arise in us?  Are we responsible for how sexual stereotypes affect our behaviors?
  6. Can we internalize sexual stereotypes of our own group?  How does that affect us?

Historic Perspective on Stereotypes:

Some stereotypes are remnants of the past, stemming from historic systems of power.  In this section, we will consider how post-civil war race relations influenced sexual stereotypes of that time.  You will also be asked to explore how stereotypes from the late 1800’s relate to today’s stereotypes, and how consequences of stereotypes affect the ethics of stereotypes.  While reading this section, ask yourself:

  • How do ethics apply to these sexual stereotypes from over 100 years ago?
  • Does this information affect how I understand the ethics of sexual stereotypes today?

It is important to remember that although we will discuss sexual stereotypes related to race and gender, not all white people or all black people were part of a homogeneous group.  That means that although many people of a certain racial and gender group (i.e. Black women) had certain shared experiences, people’s lives certainly varied within any given group.  Some of this variation was due to other social identities, such as income level or geographic location.  For example, a poor rural white man’s experience in the late 1800’s was frequently quite different from a wealthy, urban white man’s life.

  • What other social identities (like gender, race) can you think of that affect a person’s life experiences?

Remember:  During this section we will discuss some sensitive and potentially disturbing material.  Please remember to show respect and support for everybody in the classroom.


After the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, Whites attempted to maintain dominance over African Americans through a combination of legal, social, and political means.  One method of social control during this time was lynching, or the act of a mob killing an individual. Lynchings were not uncommon in the United States, especially in the South, and were accepted by much of white society, including the criminal justice system. Lynchings often took place after the white community accused a black man of raping a white woman.  Legally, a person accused of committing such a crime had the right to be tried in a public court and was assumed innocent until proven guilty (like you see on TV when people are arrested).  However, often using accusations of rape as justification, white mobs (men, women, and children) brutally tortured and killed Black men who were still legally innocent (and often innocent of the crime).

  • Have you ever heard of lynching before?

The last lynching was in 1955 when Emmett Till, a 14 year-old boy, was killed.  What was his crime?  Whistling at a white woman.

Ida B. Wells

Ida B. Wells was a brilliant African American journalist who spoke out against lynching and identified the lies and sexual stereotypes that were used to justify lynching.  In 1892, Wells helped write an editorial in a Memphis paper called the Free Speech. She wrote:

“Eight negroes lynched since last issue of the ‘Free Speech’ one at Little Rock, Ark., last Saturday morning where the citizens broke (?)** into the penitentiary and got their man; three near Anniston, Ala., one near New Orleans; and three at Clarksville, Ga., the last three for killing a white man, and five on the same old racket—the new alarm about raping white women…

Nobody in this section of the country believes the old thread bare lie that Negro men rape white women.  If Southern white men are not careful, they will over-reach themselves and public sentiment will have a reaction; a conclusion will then be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women” (Wells, 1997, pp. 51-52).

** The question mark (presumably added by Wells) acknowledges the fact that many jails chose not to protect Black men, even though they had a legal obligation to. Therefore, the mob may not have had to break into the jail at all.

Ida B. Wells exposes the frequency of lynchings (as recorded by the Chicago Tribune) and their purported causes:

The dark and bloody record of the South shows 728 Afro-Americans lynched during the past 8 years. Not 50 of these were for political causes; the rest were for all manner of accusations [including] rape of white women… This, too, in the face of the fact that only one-third of the 728 victims to mobs have been charged with rape, to say nothing of those of that one-third who were innocent of the charge” (pp. 60-61).

Do you think that the white community would try to hurt Ida B. Wells for her courage?  A mob in Tennessee hunt down the newspaper company that she worked for and threatened to kill her, and she fled to Chicago.

Wells looks at the following cases:

For these three cases, break into small groups and consider what you think should have happened to each criminal (or accused person). Then read what actually happened.

Case One: Pat Hanifan

Race: White

Crime: In Nashville, Tennessee, he raped an African American girl who was “ruined for life” by the physical injuries he gave her.

  • What should his punishment be?

Case Two: “White Man”

Race: White

Crime: Raped an African American girl in a drugstore.

  • How should this man have been punished?

Case Three: Grizzard

Race: African American
Crime: Accused (but not tried) of raping a white woman

  • What should have happened to Grizzard?

After you have decided what should have happened to each person, read on.

What actually happened in these three cases?

Hanifan’s Punishment was six months in jail, after which he became a detective in Nashville.

The “White Man” was arrested, but released on bail at his trial.  When it was rumored that African-Americans were organizing to lynch him, white citizens and the state militia came to his house to protect him.

Grizzard was taken from the jail by a white mob, and brutally tortured and killed.  The governor and state militia stood by and watched as the white community killed him.

Here is the quote from Wells containing these three cases):

“In Nashville, Tenn., there is a white man, Pat Hanifan, who outraged a little Afro-American girl, and, from the physical injuries received, she has been ruined for life. He was jailed for six months, discharged, and is now a detective in that city. In the same city, last May, a white man outraged an Afro-American girl in a drug store. He was arrested, and released on bail at the trial. It was rumored that five hundred Afro-Americans had organized to lynch him. Two hundred and fifty white citizens armed themselves with Winchesters and guarded him. A cannon was placed in front of his home, and the Buchanan Rifles (State Militia) ordered to the scene for his protection. The Afro-American mob did not materialize. Only two weeks before Eph. Grizzard, who had only been charged with rape upon a white woman, had been taken from the jail, with Governor Buchanan and the police and militia standing by, dragged through the streets in broad daylight, knives plunged into him at every step [eventually he was killed]… At the very moment these civilized whites were announcing their determination “to protect their wives and daughters,” by murdering Grizzard, a white man was in the same jail for raping eight-year-old Maggie Reese, an Afro-American girl. He was not harmed. The “honor” of grown women…needed protection; they were white. The outrage upon helpless childhood needed no avenging in this case; she was black” (pp. 58-59).

Wells uses evidence to support her claim that Black men rarely raped White women.  Wells includes White women’s testimonies that the accused (and killed) had never raped them.  Wells also uses examples to show that when White women and Black men had consensual sexual relationships, White society called it rape anyway.

What is the Connection between Stereotypes and Lynching?

The lynchings that Ida B. Wells describes above are intricately connected with stereotyping.  “Controlling images” is another phrase that accurately describes stereotypes, because stereotypes are images that can be used by individuals with power to effectively control the oppressed (Collins, 1991, p. 68).  These controlling images can hide oppression by making social hierarchies seem natural or normal.  While you read about the stereotypes below, think about:

  1. How they helped to cause lynching
  2. How they justified the atrocities committed against Black men and women
  3. How they hid the oppression of the Black community, making it seem natural

Black Men

The sexual stereotypes surrounding Black men in lynch law society are the most salient.  These stereotypes say that Black men are:

  • hypersexual
  • sexually deviant
  • sexually aggressive or uncontrollable
  • animalistic and primitive in their sexuality
  • dangerous

These controlling images of Black male sexuality are embedded in lynch law.  They provided justification for lynching, because they spread the idea that Black men were sexually dangerous and therefore needed to be sexually controlled.

With these controlling images present, imagine what it would be like to be a black man at this time.

  • How might these stereotypes affect your romantic and family life?  How might you feel if asked to do a favor for a white woman, like carry her bags to her room?
  • Would you be afraid to work as a gardener for a white woman?
  • Have you read the book Native Son?  How did these stereotypes affect the main character of that book?

White Women

How do you think the stereotypes of Black men would be related to the stereotypes of white women?
White women were sexually stereotyped in these ways:

  • innocent or pure
  • fragile and vulnerable
  • self-controlled
  • asexual
  • valuable
  • property of white men

How could these sexual stereotypes of white womanhood enable myths about Black rape and help to justify lynching?

It is also valuable to note how these stereotypes limited white women’s expression of sexuality and their choice of romantic partners.

  • If you were a white woman at that time, would you be able to take a stroll with any potential suitor?  Could you accept the courtship of any man that you liked?
  • Do you think these stereotypes impacted white women in any positive ways?

Black Women

“Called Matriarch, Emasculator and Hot Momma. Sometimes Sister, Pretty Baby, Auntie, Mammy and Girl. Called Unwed Mother, Welfare Recipient, and Inner City Consumer. The Black American Woman has had to admit that while nobody knew the troubles she saw, everybody, his brother, and his dog, felt qualified to explain her, even to herself.”
–Trudier Harris, 1982 (as cited Collins, 1991, p. 67)

Black women were stereotyped as:

  • sexual animals
  • seductive
  • sexually valueless (i.e. their virginity was not valued by white society)
  • enjoyed sex with white men

These stereotypes reflect many black women’s sexual exploitation and abuse, both during and after slavery.  Enslaved women were frequently raped by or coerced to have sex with slave-owners and male family members of slave owners.  Black and mulatto (today, mixed-race) women, during and after slavery, were sometimes sold into prostitution or became concubines, providing long-term sexual services to white men for financial support.

  • How could the sexual stereotypes above justify black women’s sexual exploitation?
  • According to these stereotypes, how do black women feel about their own sexual abuse?
  • How might these stereotypes have affected a black woman who worked for a white man?
  • Why were white men allowed to rape black girls?  How do you think society understood black childhood?  Do you think these men were pedophiles?

White Men

Stereotypes of the white male during this era are perhaps the least visible, mainly because the white man was seen as the “norm” against which other social groups were measured.  However, there were some sexual stereotypes about white men which relate to lynching.  White men were understood to be:

  • owners and protectors of white women’s sexuality
  • caretakers of society
  • benevolent
  • sexually civilized and controlled

These stereotypes of white men, sexual and otherwise, helped to justify the lynching of black men as necessary and right.  They also obscured white men’s violence against women, especially against black women.

  • How did the stereotypes of white men reflect stereotypes of other groups?  Look, for example, at the idea that white men were protectors of white women.  What does that idea say about white women, black women, and black men?

For example, the idea that white men were protectors of white women implies that white women are innocent, weak, and require protection, but that black women aren’t worthy of protection.  At the same time, this idea is based on the assumption that black men’s sexuality threatens white womanhood.

In what ways would these stereotypes benefit you as a white man?  In what way would they harm or limit you?

Small Group Activity:

Consider each stereotyped group discussed above.  To what extent do you think these or similar stereotypes exist in your community today?


Blum, L. (2004).  Stereotypes and stereotyping: A moral analysis.  Philosophical Papers, 33(3), 251-298.

Collins, P. H. (1991).  Black Feminist Thought.  New York, NY: Routledge.

Gonzales, P. M., Blanton, H., & Williams, K. J. (2002). The effects of stereotype threat and double-minority status on the test performance of Latino women.  Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28, 659–      670.

Pilgrim, David. “Jezebel Stereotypes.” Ferris State University Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia. Ferris State University, 2002. <http://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/jezebel/>.

Shih, M., Pittinsky, T. L., & Ambady, N. (1999). Stereotype susceptibility: Identity salience and shifts in   quantitative performance. Psychological Science, 10, 80–83.

Spencer, S. J., Steele, C. M., & Quinn, D. (1999).  Stereotype threat and women’s math performance.  Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35, 4–28.

Steele, C. M. (1997).  A threat in the air: How stereotypes shape the intellectual identities and performance of women and African-Americans.  American Psychologist, 52, 613-629.

Von Hippel, W, Sckaquaptewa, D. & Vargas, P. (1995).  On the role of encoding processes in stereotype maintenance.  In M. P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology, (pp. 177-254).  Orlando, FL: Academic.

Wells, I. B. (1997).  “Southern horrors. Lynch law in all its phases.”  The New York Age Print, 1892.  In J. J. Royster (Ed.), Southern horrors and other writings.  New York, NY: Bedford Books.

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