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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?

Personality Traits

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.

Domestic Roles

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.

Gender, Sexuality, Romance & Humor

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.

For Black characters:

  • Are they shown in connection to violence, either as perpetrators or victims, particularly gang violence?

  • Are they linked to storylines that focus on drugs and addiction or sexual promiscuity?

  • Are they shown as a member of a family unit in ways that do not center on broken homes, single parents, or other aspects of family life that foreground difficulty rather than joy?

  • Are they presented in positions that are linked to entertaining others?

  • Overall, in your story are they primarily dealing with hardships and difficulties that are linked to their race/ethnicity rather than to the plot?

For Hispanic/Latinx characters:

  • If the story is set in the US, are Hispanic/Latinx characters linked to an American identity, or are they framed as “foreigners”?

  • Are they presented in relation to illegal activity—particularly undocumented immigration?

  • What is their family situation? Are they shown in multigenerational contexts? Are they navigating monolingual or bilingual family settings?

  • Are they shown in contexts with violence, especially related to undocumented immigration?

  • Are they shown as sneaky, sly, or scheming?

  • Are they overly sexualized?

For Asian characters:

  • Are men shown in a way that minimizes their sexuality or desirability as a romantic partner? This could include fulfilling the stereotype of a “geek” who is primarily interested in technology, math, or sciences.

  • Are they depicted as predominantly “foreign” versus as American? Consider expectations around Asian characters speaking with accents.

  • Are women depicted as naïve, vulnerable, or silenced? In contrast, are they shown in a provocative light?

  • Are they (particularly those who are shown affiliated with foreign countries) shown as dangerous, evil, or threatening to others?

For Middle Eastern/North African (MENA) characters:

  • Are they shown in violent situations, especially when linked to terrorism or religious extremism?

  • Are they shown at the extremes of wealth, either as royalty, sheiks, or business tycoons, or at the other end of the spectrum in roles associated with poverty or as refugees?

  • Are women associated with sexual repression or men shown as predatory in nature?

  • Are they shown as “good” for their work to assist law enforcement or sympathize with American/Western values?

For Native or Indigenous characters:

  • Do they portray historical tropes of Native or Indigenous characters as violent or antagonistic?

  • Are they given mystical or supernatural abilities regarding nature or natural knowledge simply due to their identity (rather than as a result of study or developed insight)?

  • Is their existence on-screen one-dimensional and solely to drive a plot related to cowboys, or white characters?

Representation Based on Location

The location or time period of a story can affect how inclusive it is. The setting may be used to constrain choices about who can be part of the story (sometimes legitimately, other times as an excuse). Consider two things when developing the setting of your story:

  • For modern or contemporary stories, consider the location where your story is set. Make sure that the characters written into the story mirror the demographics of the location (at a minimum).

  • If your story is set in a metro US area, reflect US Census data for that area. For example, more than 70% of US states feature a higher percentage of Hispanic/Latinx residents than appear in popular films. The most populous counties in the US also have more Latinos than the typical feature film. For US data, this Census table may be helpful. Keep in mind that younger populations (millennial and Gen Z) are increasingly morediverse than the general population.  

  • If your story is set outside of the US, reflect the demographics of that location. Use data to make decisions or inform your choices.

  • For stories set in the past, check your assumptions about the demographic reality of the location. Consult historians and demographic experts to understand who lived in the time and place your story is set.

  • Story descriptions also do not have to adhere strictly to the views many hold about the past. Examples of casting that has countered normative historical views include David Copperfield(Dev Patel), Anne Boleyn (Jodie Turner-Smith), Cinderella (Brandy as Cinderella, Whitney Houston as the Fairy Godmother), Bridgerton, and others. These stories included actors from a variety of racial/ethnic backgrounds, counter to what audience members might assume was the norm for the time.

Race & Ethnicity

Including creative voices from the community is the best and most precise way to avoid stereotyping, but all people are prone to stereotypes and bias. Below are questions to act as speed bumps in the storytelling process, to avoid common stereotypes.

Aging and Older Adults

Consider asking the following questions about characters age 60+ in your story:

  • Are any characters age 60+ not men? Think about women, gender-non-conforming, including non-binary people, and those from a variety of backgrounds and experiences.

  • Are your characters age 60+ written as people who enjoy thriving, fulfilling careers? Are there power differences among men, women and non-binary characters in this age group?

  • Is the full humanity of characters age 60+ depicted? Are they shown in a caring relationship, working or retired, as healthy, exercising, or traveling?

  • Are characters age 60+ shown with challenges that are physical (e.g., using a mobility device to walk), communicative (e.g., hearing loss, reduction of speech fluency), and/or cognitive (e.g., memory loss)? If so, are these details crucial to the plot? Are any of these depictions framed in a humorous light that makes the older character’s age or disability the subject of disparagement?

One way to test biases in this area: Ask yourself if the joke or humorous incident involved a character from another identity group, would it be perceived as unacceptable and derogatory? For instance, saying “I am having a senior moment” is commonplace, but replacing “senior” with Latinx, Asian, LGBTQ+ would not be acceptable, and thus illuminates the potential biases contained in the joke or humorous incident.

  • In terms of romantic relationships, are older characters shown overly sexualized, predatory or without interest in intimacy?

  • Are women depicted with men substantially older or vice versa?

Religious Stereotypes

Religion is another aspect of storytelling that may be prone to stereotyping. Communicating about a character’s religious beliefs or belonging to a religious community can be done via small moments, brief bits of dialogue, or visual shortcuts (e.g., jewelry, décor, or wardrobe). Use caution to ensure that subtlety does not result in storytelling that allows audiences to attribute characters’ behaviors to religious beliefs in ways that reinforce stereotypes.

Take time to understand the diversity that exists within religious communities, including the regional, racial/ethnic, and language diversity. When portraying the Muslim community, refer to this 2021 report “Missing & Maligned: The Reality of Muslims in Popular Global Movies.”

Devout roles:

  • Avoid defining devout characters solely by their religion in ways that eliminate nuance from the depiction of faith. For people around the world who practice faith traditions, the expression of those traditions may vary widely (e.g. the Priest in Fleabag).

  • Use care not to trivialize, mock, or minimize the importance of different religious traditions, rituals, or texts. Consult experts to determine where caution should be used or nuance explored. For example, spiritual songs or illustrations may be considered sacred to members of certain religious groups. Juxtaposing these images or music against content that deviates from faith traditions may be offensive.


  • Religious extremism should be depicted with care. Stereotypes about religion may tie the practice of certain faith traditions or beliefs to violence. These stereotypes erase the peaceful practice and beliefs of different faith traditions. The most obvious example of this occurs when Muslim characters are shown in roles linked with terrorism and violence. Extremism and violence may be over-reported or overestimated. Presenting only images and stories of violence fails to represent accurately the practices of different faith traditions.

  • If you are telling a story that includes depictions of religious extremism, ensure that consultants from this religious group are working with you to eliminate harmful depictions, so that you include only necessary aspects of the story and avoid gratuitous violence or stereotyping.

Job-Based Stereotypes

Research has shown that jobs often bring to mind a specific gender or race/ethnicity of a character. For instance, a plumber or firefighter may summon images of white men. As content creators, you have an opportunity to disrupt this bias. The absence of alternative depictions or the consistent depiction of stereotypes may, over time, contribute to negative outcomes for individuals from a stereotyped group as well as for audience members outside of that group. While it may seem more difficult to review each occupation within a script (e.g. gardeners, hair stylists, computer programmers), it offers the chance to approach storytelling in innovative or unique ways.

Questions to ask about women. Are they shown…

  • Without a job?

  • In lower, service-oriented, or “assistant” positions?

  • In stereotypically feminine career paths (nursing, education, appearance-related jobs, etc.)?

  • Having little power or “clout”?

Questions to ask about characters from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups. Are they shown…

As specific stereotypes related to their racial/ethnic backgrounds? Investigate what those might be by working with outside consultants. Some examples:

  • South Asian characters or Middle Eastern characters shown as cab drivers or corner store/liquor store employees.

  • Asian characters shown in dry cleaning or restaurant management.

  • Latinx characters shown in relation to cleaning, childcare, or yard work.

  • Black characters shown as athletes, drivers/chauffeurs, cooks, security guards.

  • Native American characters shown as unemployed, or as mystical.

Are they shown in specific occupations that reflect a bias about wealth or illegal activity? Some examples:

  • Middle Eastern characters shown as terrorists.

  • Latinx characters shown in relation to drug trafficking or as undocumented immigrants.

  • Black characters shown as gang members, thugs, or in the context of criminal stereotyping.

  • White characters being the only ones empowered with wealth or prestige.

Questions to ask about LGBTQ+ characters. Are they shown…

  • In overly feminized or masculine occupations? For example, are gay characters shown in appearance-related professions (fashion, entertainment, etc.)?

  • Excluded from occupations in education, healthcare, etc.?

Questions to ask about characters with disabilities. Are they shown…

  • Without an occupation?

  • In jobs that emphasize the character’s disability?

  • In occupations that depict the character transcending the disability in ways that frame the disability as something to overcome or that present the disability as a superpower?

Age, Religion, & Occupation​

Research shows that few characters age 60 and older appear in fictional storytelling. How your story depicts aging characters is important, as studies have shown that the physical, communicative, and cognitive fitness of older characters is often mocked or ridiculed on screen.

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