I love going to the movies. Whether it's that inimitably delicious popcorn, the eager anticipation built by trailers, or just the thrill of watching a blockbuster on the big screen, Spending an afternoon at the theater is downright wonderful. Of course, movie theaters are invested in providing an enjoyable experience to everyone who visits, and part of their attempt to do this is their constant exhortations that patrons behave themselves. If you've been to the movies recently, for example, you may well have seen an announcement reminding patrons to be on their best behavior, an announcement that looks like this:
It's easy to call these posters largely irrelevant, an uninteresting backdrop to your afternoon or night out, and the top two photos of this one truly aren't remarkable in any way. The last, however, is something far more noteworthy. Unlike the top two, in which the outfit of the person doing something they shouldn't is largely secondary, the clothing on the subject of the third photo is a carefully chosen. The hoodie, after all, is a large part of our imagination of criminality in America, and using it was a conscious decision on the part of the people who designed the poster. Unlike the first two photos of this depicted, the last is participating in a dialogue about how a criminal dresses, both drawing on our construction of criminality in America and reinforcing it.
I'm not, of course, claiming that movie theaters are somehow engaged in a single-handed crusade to paint the hoodie as a criminal accessory. Indeed, the fact that I can say with any confidence that the hoodie in the poster is part of portraying its wearer as criminal shows that this idea of what a criminal wears is something of a consensus. We'ce already been subliminally convinced, on a cultural level, that the hoodie is the outerwear of choice for criminals. But here's the thing: if posters like this and other representations of criminals choose to show them wearing hoodies simply because it's the easiest way they know to convey that the person they're showing us is a bad guy, they both tacitly accept and reinforce the cultural perception out of sheer laziness. And that's as ridiculous as it is dangerous.
After all, we have a word for the unquestioning application of broad assumptions to individuals: stereotyping. It's one of the ugly words of American history, and its caused everything from painfully awkward moments to heartbreaking tragedies. And lest you think this discussion of hoodies is purely academic or that I'm being ridiculous or melodramatic here, Trayvon Martin likely died one night years ago because a man was quick to assume that his hoodie meant he was a criminal, and I do not think he is the only person this has happened to. He's merely the one we've heard about. Accepting and applying stereotypes without question is a recipe for disaster. Posters like the one discussed above make a conscious choice to do so, to adopt a lazy set of symbols for criminality, and these messages seep, inescapably, into those that experience them. We notice these touches, and when we don't interrogate them they infect us, changing our behavior. NFor our sake and the sake of others, we must notice that we notice them.
With Excitement and Optimism,