Not Working It: Race and Gender Stereotypes in Entertainment Media

ABC recently courted controversy with its television show Work It. The show centered on two men who dress as women in order to find work during the recession. It did not fare well with critics and was canceled after two episodes.

Work It attracted attention for several reasons. Despite being widely regarded as very bad, it also was criticized for employing stereotypical representations of transgendered people as well as relying on base racial stereotypes. Regarding the former, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) pressured ABC to drop the show due to the damage they argued it could cause transgender people. In response to the latter, a group called Boricuas for a Positive Image protested the racial stereotypes they argued the show promoted. Specifically, during the pilot episode one of the main characters attempts to convince his white friend to help him land a job at a pharmaceutical company by remarking, “I’m Puerto Rican—I’d be great at selling drugs.”

The outrage from Boricuas for a Positive Image is grounded in the fact that there are very real stereotypes about Latinos and work that undermine the reality of their experiences in the labor market. Within the familiar stereotype of Latino/as as illegal immigrants, they are also frequently depicted as criminals and low wage workers. These representations are often gendered, as a recent article on Huffington Post points out by observing that Latinas in media are disproportionately cast as grandmothers and maids.  As much sociological research shows, racial stereotypes like these can have an adverse effect on many groups’ efforts to advance in the workforce.   Latino/as already rank among the lowest paid, lowest status workers in the U.S. workforce, so representations of them as drug dealers and maids likely do not serve to facilitate their upward mobility.

Additionally, the suggestion that male workers can “pass” as women in order to experience better treatment in the labor market belies extensive sociological research. While there are some reports that suggest that men have faced greater displacement and economic instability as a consequence of the current recession–perhaps due at least in part to declines in the male-dominated construction industry coupled with stability in industries like health care and education where women are well represented–data show overwhelmingly that women face serious challenges in the work force, including but not limited to lower pay, sexual harassment, the effects of glass ceilings and/or escalators, and difficulty finding mentorship. Thus, while male-dominated industries have certainly taken a hit during the current economic crisis, the suggestion that dressing as women will offer men easier avenues to employment overlooks key social realities as well as persistent labor market and workforce inequalities.

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