Below, we outline storytelling areas that can easily fall prey to stereotypical writing or thinking. While education is key, research has shown that hiring content creators with cultural experience and perspective is the best way to craft an authentic story AND avoid stereotypes.
Script-Based Descriptions & Stereotypes
The way that characters are described in a script can evoke stereotypes for casting directors, breakdown services, and even those reading for the part. Consider the following when describing characters in your script:
● Is there a reason to specify a character’s gender, race/ethnicity, LGBTQ+ identity, or disability in the script? Does source material specify a character’s identity in any way? Are you deviating from that depiction? Why or why not?
● Are there places where you should specify information about the characters’ background or identity (gender identity, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender expression, or disability) to help with casting? Consider sharing this information only if it is needed for the story.
● We recommend that writers be specific and authentic in their descriptions, to help casting directors and those reading for the part avoid harmful stereotypes.
Gendered or Sexualized Depictions
Sexualization can have negative effects on viewers. Sexualization of characters of all genders occurs on screen, but research indicates that women and LGBTQ characters are more likely than straight men to be sexualized. This begins when the script is written, with how your characters are described.
● Are your descriptions of characters grounded in their appearance, versus their personality? Are there descriptions of girls or women that lean toward their relationships or appearance, rather than who they are as characters? Are you writing about characters who are men in the same way? Are LGBTQ characters solely defined by their sexual identities? Are people with disabilities infantilized and/or desexualized?
● Are LGBTQ+ characters in overly feminized or masculine occupations? For example, are gay characters shown in appearance-related professions (fashion, entertainment, etc.)? Are they excluded from occupations in education, healthcare, or civil service (including police or fire department)?
● Although you may not realize it at the time you’re writing the story, adults are often cast to play teen roles. Consider carefully how these characters might be sexualized on screen. How might the descriptions you write about the characters be impacted if adults are cast in these roles?
The description of a character’s personality or distinctive traits may lead to appearance-related stereotypes. Sometimes character descriptions are written in a way that draws upon stereotypes or tropes. This is particularly likely when writing women characters, or individuals from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups.
● Are you describing women’s personalities in ways that lead to assumptions about their sexuality? For example, are descriptions such as the “girl next door” used for characters?
● Be sure that your character descriptions do not evoke stereotypes related to women of color. Avoid use of the terms “exotic,” “feisty,” “sassy,” and other words stereotypically used to refer to underrepresented women. It is better to be specific — e.g. the lead is from Puerto Rico, loves to sing, and has a big group of friends.
● For LGBTQ+ women, ensure that personality traits do not play to stereotypes, either about femininity/masculinity or over-sexualization.
● Descriptions of people with disabilities may focus on aspects related to disability rather than a range of characteristics. Make sure your characters with disabilities are well-rounded and defined by more than their disability.
Consider asking the following questions when writing about romantic partners:
● Are women from all backgrounds and experiences defined solely by their relationship or relationship desires?
● Are men shown as dominating relationships or shown in romantic partnerships that revolve around their jobs and/or the demands of their work?
● Are there opportunities to include LGBTQ+ romantic partners in the story? Even if you are not able to depict the romantic partner, could your characters refer to their relational partners in the script?
● Are there opportunities to show underrepresented groups (including non-binary people, people of different religions, and people with disabilities) in romantic relationships that counter typical narratives?
Consider the depiction of caregiving and romantic relationships, and whether they fall along stereotypical or traditional lines (e.g. heteronormative, women as subservient, men as protector/provider). For more information on the concept benevolent sexism, read here. "Rescue" storylines, or those focusing on chivalry, can be particularly problematic. Consider which groups are erased from being shown on screen in caregiving positions. For example, the LGBTQ+ community is rarely shown in parental roles or as relational partners. Yet between 2 and 3.7 million US children have one or more LGBTQ+ parent.
Narratives that involve abuse, harassment, or sexual assault require deeper thought. When these topics are included in a storyline, have they been handled with sensitivity? Have survivors been consulted for their perspective and insights? Do storylines reflect myths or misconceptions about these topics? Is it necessary to include these aspects in the story? Evaluate whether abuse, harassment, or assault are deployed in gratuitous ways, or are handled sensitively to advance the storyline.
Consider asking the following questions when writing about parents/caregiving roles:
● Are women from all backgrounds and experiences defined solely by their relationship to children?
● Are LGBTQ+ characters shown as parents?
● Are non-binary characters shown as parents?
● Are characters with disabilities shown as parents?
● Are men presented as inept when shown as parents or caregivers?
● When elderly relatives requiring care are included in the story, who provides that care?
Stereotypes & Humor
We understand that the best comedy can derive from the unexpected and be an agent of truth-telling. We urge content creators focusing on comedy, humor, or satire to engage with their material in deep ways. Ask the fundamental question: Are you the right person to tell this story and/or these jokes?
Begin by thinking about whether, as the storyteller, your humor comes from outside or inside the group at the center of the comedy. Out-group members using humor to mock or joke about characters from underrepresented groups can be highly problematic. Humor may reflect insensitivity, play to broad stereotypes, and reinforce historical tropes for members of underrepresented groups. Creators might try to challenge or spotlight stereotypes that have been oppressive—in other words, the comedy stems from good intentions. But content lacks authenticity when it doesn’t come from or take into account the perspectives of the in-group members at the core of the stereotype or context.
Humor may be used to illuminate the way a group has been treated, and can spotlight important ways that racism, sexism, and other biases and prejudices affect the lives of group members. One impulse content creators may have is to purposefully flip stereotypes or to deploy them in an exaggerated way to create humor. If you take this path, think critically about what role this stereotype has in your story. Make sure that by poking fun at stereotypes you are not inadvertently reinforcing the bias you seek to challenge.
Here are a few things to consider when you include humor in your storytelling:
● If characters from underrepresented backgrounds or historically marginalized groups only appear in your story to deliver humorous lines or as a source of amusement, this is problematic. Ask: Do these characters have any other depth or insight or do they merely serve to deliver comedy?
● If it’s the latter, how can you add depth to the characterization? Or, who else needs to weigh in to ensure the character is not one-dimensional?
● Review the script and story with members of the communities you are depicting to ensure authenticity and limit hurtful humor. Ask more than one individual to review the script/story. What audience members find amusing will differ from person to person. Your goal is to be certain that the jokes do not offend the communities featured in your story.