Eastern European (and other) Stereotypes


Does the political correctness rule really apply to movies?

Early in June the news site Emerging Europe (EE) posted an article, “Hollywood’s dreadful representation of women from Eastern Europe needs to end”. In it, Milana Nikolova writes about the 2020 film Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm and the success of Bulgarian actress Maria Bakalova (who plays Borat’s daughter). Although the topic is not new, the points made are thought-provoking.

Nikolova notes that “…while some Hollywood actors with an immigrant background often wear their ethnic identity as a badge of honour and even represent their culture while in character, actors with an Eastern European background are most often completely stripped of their cultural identity.” My         question would be, is the preservation of cultural identity possible or even necessary in the “fake” world of movies?

Nikolova also interviewed Claudia Sadowski-Smith, a professor of English and American Studies at Arizona State University, and author of The New Immigrant Whiteness: Race, Neoliberalism, and Post-Soviet Migration to the United States. The professor tells EE that “Representations of Eastern Europeans as mobsters and terrorists became more widespread in the 2000s as a ‘stand in’ for representations of West Asians because it is less ‘controversial’ to make fun of and stereotype Eastern Europeans”. Bakalova stands by the assertion that the film set out to ridicule Americans who are ignorant to the outside world rather than people from the region she is representing – which is a good point. However, Sadowski-Smith wonders if this is the true cultural impact of the film. “Every time a stereotype is mentioned, even if it is for the point of critique, it is reinscribed or in some cases even introduced to some audiences who may not even know that the stereotype existed in the first place,” she says. She further notes that there are many stereotypes about women from the region we refer to as emerging Europe. (I would say to this: where aren’t there stereotypes? Are Lithuanians exempt because we’re actually from Northern Europe?)

While Eastern European men are frequently represented as violent, drunks or aggressors, Eastern European women’s whiteness and womanhood have led to depictions of heightened sexualization and objectification. “There is definitely the idea that such women are ‘golddiggers’ but also that they will integrate themselves easily into the dominant ‘white’ and largely still conservative US culture,” she says. She ends with questions pinpointing the problems she perceives: “Why can’t critical cultural representations function without reaffirming stereotypes and move to a new place that does not depend on them? Also, why can’t we have less stereotypical representations of Eastern European women at this point in time when we are becoming more aware of the power that harmful forms of cultural discourse have had with regards to other groups?”

These are valid questions, but on the other hand, are we forgetting that controversy is what sells movies and books? Conflict is what any good story turns on. Some stories reach into our hearts and touch us, others transport us to a place where we can forget our troubles – or be happy the troubles depicted are not ours. Some stories are just silly, and  their purpose is only to distract us from reality.

Movies are the realm of fantasy and escape. Have you noticed? Nearly every woman has a “good figure”,  perfect clothes, hair and makeup, even in bed. On what planet? Stereotypes are rampant in the movie world. From the beginning of time creatives have used their medium to purposely minimize, exaggerate or mock the world they see around them. If you take away the satire and rely strictly on political correctness – what would entertainment be for the average person, who needs a break from the everyday world? Movies can be “cultural representations” and reflections of society – but real only in travelogues or other documentaries. And unless you’re reading radical literature or press, everyone in the news media is currently doing their best to avoid gender and ethnic bias.

But the crux of the matter is deeper, and it’s omnipresent. The problem is not just in movies.

June has been a brutal month in Canada, whose polite and “pc” image has suffered harshly from revelations about the life-shattering and sometimes fatal abuse of indigenous children at residential schools, perpetrated until the 90’s in the West; about the targeted murder of an innocent Muslim family in London, Ontario; about a shooting at a birthday party where small children were injured in Toronto. Evidently prejudice, abuse and gun violence is not foreign to Canadians. Many of us are inclined to think that this is only typical in the US and – elsewhere, just not here. Historically, prejudice is everywhere. Welcome to reality.

The source of intolerant attitudes is not ridiculous movies about women from a particular region, we are. We are the problem. It is not news to anyone that children learn prejudice from their parents. From body-image to social bias of any kind, the precarious burden of teaching tolerance is on the shoulders of every parent. Listen carefully to the comments you make about others in front of your children. The movies you watch with them. The jokes they listen to you laugh about with your friends. The attitudes you have adopted from your own parents. And decide what’s most important for your children to hear. RJ