Jews are cheap, Blacks don’t swim, gay men are freaks and fat people are lazy. No matter how unreal and/or absurd stereotypes can be, they continue to spread and breed a life of their own despite however much we try to disprove or eradicate them. They run the gamut from ludicrous clichés to destructive untruths. Many of us would like to believe we harbor no stereotypes at all, but the dirty truth is, many of us consciously or subconsciously carry them within (and in some cases even reinforce them).
“We all have these twisted perceptions of people we don’t discuss. These ideas are forced to fester inside,” states Ryan Hall, host of the man-on-the-street web series, StereoTypes. “I want people to stand by their conviction, but be open to other possibilities if presented. That takes talking about these issues, and not just staying quiet and running away when they come up. The easiest way to weaken the grip of stereotypes is to discuss them.” In public and on camera, Hall has been encouraging such discourse on his show.
Since its premiere on Pharrell Williams’s YouTube network i am OTHER, StereoTypes has created an unrestricted platform to share perspectives on race, class and sexuality in relation to everything from music, style and current events. “The show’s authenticity is a huge draw,” says Pharrell. “It’s super honest in its ability to encourage people to speak the truth on issues both serious and funny that affect all of us.”
These taboo tête-à-têtes stray away from the straightforward, dry approach of cable news. Instead, this series’ street-corner debates are refreshingly spontaneous and hilarious. The show’s distinctiveness is credited not only to the pedestrians’ responses (which can be thoughtful, questionable, just plain jaw-dropping), but also to Hall’s non-judgmental approach to questioning, as well as his biting wit.
The Cleveland, Ohio native, who now resides in Harlem, earned his comedic stripes performing with an improv comedy troupe for the last seven years. His gift of gab on social issues comes courtesy of his mother and grandparents, who raised him to be very conscious. Hall grew up thinking it wasn’t enough to simply entertain, you have to educate as well.
“Ryan isn’t just a host, he’s a curator of great stories,” Pharrell says. “You can tell he really loves talking to people. He has that rare ability to connect with anyone, from a conservative Republican to a free-spirited hippie. We’re lucky to have him.”
In an episode entitled “What Color Is Your Music?,” Hall asks a White guy in Brooklyn, “What is White music?” The interviewee responds, “Probably anything that’s on a Top 40 radio station that suburban teenagers listen to.” To which Hall replies in a dry tone, “Like… Nicki Minaj?”
“I use my sarcasm to diffuse any sort of tension,” Hall explains. “On top of that, I’m dressed like a clown. I’m literarily a court jester. If I was dressed in a suit, there would be some skepticism.” Hall, who initially moved to the city to work in fashion, is routinely outfitted in eye-catching kaleidoscopic prints, colors and playful accessories. The trick instantly draws inquisitive gazes from passers-by. “I’ll play the idiot,” he says. “I want you to be comfortable and answer honestly. When you look at some of my outfits, the questions become the least shocking part of the interview.”
Hall seems born to host StereoTypes, so it’s hard to believe that he almost passed on the opportunity. A mutual friend of the show’s creator convinced a reluctant Hall to audition. He nailed it and was invited back to shoot the pilot, which he then backed out of before finally showing up on another shoot day. “It’s crazy how this ended up being my dream job. I can’t believe I get to do this.”
StereoTypes travelled to the streets of London and Paris during its second season. While the original premise of the show revolved around music, it fast became clear that one’s taste in music opened the floodgates to a myriad of other topics. “It became a jumping off point for conversations that broke down boundaries on social issues, politics, race and current events,” Hall says.
“He also improvises a lot in the street and lets conversations take him and us on a ride,” says executive producer Robin Frank. “We’re not trying to steer the conversation in any specific direction, or trying to provoke any specific answers; we want people to react in a genuine way.”
There’s no shortage of outlets today, from Twitter to Facebook, that allow people to voice their opinions. But for the most part, the exchange of thought-out ideas has taken a backseat to soundbites of 140 characters or less.
“The show is about being brave enough to carry on the art of conversations while respecting opposing opinions, says Hall, who says that even some of the stereotypes he’d held on were shattered on the set. “Sometimes with racism, there has to be room for it to be released in a controlled manner. If I can be a conduit by which you release that tension, then stand here and talk to me. “You have to approach these issues, or you’ll forever be the most p.c., seemingly approachable, polite and ignorant fool on the block.”
Alexandra Phanor-Faury is a Haitian-American writer living in Brooklyn, New York with a slight (OK, major) addiction to fashion and pop culture. When she's not up in the middle of the night filling her online shopping carts and catching up on style blogs, she's writing about fashion and entertainment for a number of websites and her blog, Fringueuse.