Political Correctness and the Generational Gap

Do even the most progressive young people turn into inflexible adults?
September 21, 2018
8 mins read

Last week, my mom and I were sitting on the couch flipping through TV channels per usual. I was losing interest, becoming more enthralled with my phone, but she stopped with excitement on a channel that was showing a documentary of one of her favorite childhood sitcoms, “Three’s Company.”

At first, I wasn’t really paying attention to the show, but it became difficult not to notice my mom’s obvious joy in reliving her childhood days. I knew nothing about the show’s premise or its characters, but the more I eavesdropped, the more surprised I was to learn about it — more specifically, that the premise followed a man who pretended to be gay so that he could live with two attractive girls.

My initial reaction was shock and unease — to me, it seemed both overtly sexist and homophobic. Were people laughing at the predatory nature of the character and the fact that homosexuality existed only as a punchline? When I shared these feelings of unease with my mom, she seemed almost offended. My mom — one of the most liberal, white suburban moms I know — was getting defensive that I was calling out sexism and homophobia. I was surprised.

Something that I sometimes forget in a very anti-Trump era is that a political correctness gap still exists between generations. For young, generation-Z liberals, the lines of sexism, racism and homophobia are very clear, and they’re quick to call out any injustices in any context. The way that millennials were raised is already different, and the lines for political correctness start to blur. When you start looking at people in an age range like like my mom’s — or, even older Baby Boomers — the liberals’ understanding of political correctness changes immensely.

A large part of this has to do with the environment and era in which people of different generations are raised. My mom was born in the same year that African Americans gained the right to vote in this country. At that point in time, there would still be plenty of years before “Will & Grace” gave us appropriate representation of gay couples on network television or before you’d see a black female lead in a popular drama. My parents’ generation grew up consuming very different portrayals of minorities — most of which were extremely stereotyped or offensive, if they existed at all.

Think about Mr. Yunioshi in “Breakfast At Tiffany’s.” This was a highly stereotyped Asian character played by a white actor. That’s right — the production team literally taped the eyes and added other exaggerated features to this white actor in order to transform him into an offensive Asian caricature. The character was fully equipped with a terrible accent and embarrassing, agitated demeanor.

Sure, this was back in the early ’60s, when times were very different. But that’s no excuse, given that this was about 15 years after the end of WWII and the age of Japanese internment camps on American soil. The media should have been working to change the narrative surrounding marginalized minorities and people of color.

Most of us today can’t even imagine a world where yellow-face was not only acceptable, but applauded in a major motion picture. And still, older generations who grew up with “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” might not want to hear what you have to say in critiquing it. After all, it was funny for its time, right?

Well, what about 20 years after that, when yet another problematic Asian stereotype was featured in “Sixteen Candles”? Long Duk Dong was the foreign exchange student whose entire character, consisting of broken English and stereotypes, existed only as the butt of countless jokes. The character follows an immense number of harmful cliches in a movie that’s already overwhelmingly white. He was the only minority representation the movie had, and he was only included to perpetuate problematic ideas about people from Asia.

But older generations laughed when they watched it in 1984, and they’d probably still laugh if they were to watch it today. Older liberals will defend political correctness often only to a certain extent; they’ll close off and accuse younger generations of being too sensitive once the issue becomes personal. People like my mom have connections with some of these problematic characters from old film and television. These are the movies and shows that raised them, made them laugh and cry, gave them comfort. They don’t want to have to ridicule the content that makes them feel nostalgic.

The generational gap for political correctness goes beyond TV and film portrayals, and that’s the problem. It’s fine to watch these movies and laugh because they make you feel good. It’s not fine to be comfortable watching characters like Mr. Yunioshi and then carrying that level of prejudice outside the living room to other aspects of your life. And given that people of older generations are used to this type of humor, it often does have some level of impact on their worldviews.

A lot of older liberals will brand themselves as being progressive, but draw the line when issues become too leftist or too far from what they’re used to, such as gender fluidity or breaking racial stereotypes. Humor and entertainment play a big role in how people see the world: If the media is implementing a certain ideology, inferring it’s okay to be laughed at, audiences will play along. Nostalgia that’s intertwined with oppression or bigotry cannot be tolerated. It reinforces problematic ideas and brings back years of social progress.

Even today, the media’s portrayal of diverse stories are not always perfect, and maybe in 50 years, I’ll be cringing at my own favorite childhood shows. But identifying with progressive issues and believing in political correctness means carrying that ideology through every aspect of your life. Sometimes, this means holding your favorite movie accountable for its harmful portrayals and choosing to favor a more complete and whole depiction of humankind. Supporting progressive filmmakers is always a plus!

Monica Petrucci, Emerson College

Writer Profile

Monica Petrucci

Emerson College
Writing, Literature & Publishing

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Don't Miss