Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Case of the Insidious Stereotype

Wait, I'm a sterotype?!? It can't be!
I hate stereotypes. And not in a “Wow, that kind of sucks” way, but with the burning fury of a thousand suns. Even more than facing down stereotypes, I hate when I watch them on TV or read them in books.

I REALLY hate them in books.

We hear it all the time, right? You can’t judge a book by its cover. Don’t judge another person unless you’ve walked a mile in their shoes, yada yada yada. So why do we still use stereotypes? I’m not a big marshmallow, but stereotypes hurt. It sucks when people form an opinion of you before you even open your mouth. And it’s even worse when people try to sell a book to you based on what they think you’ll like.

And it really bugs me that I’ve been seeing a lot of stereotypes in the books I’ve tried reading.

Sure, sometimes stereotypes are supposed to be funny, a sort of “Ha, ha, I know what you were thinking, but this character is NOTHING LIKE THAT!” Most often, the author throws in a stereotype without even thinking about it, because stereotypes are so easy to write. Cheerleader? Well, she must be blond and easy. Smart girl? Glasses and bookish, awkward around boys. Black girl? Sassy best friend. Same with the gay guy. I could go on all day. But I won’t, because I don’t want to give anyone any ideas. Because stereotypes are dangerous.


Hey, everybody, look! I found a stereotype.
One of my favorite shows, even now, is Scooby Doo. Me and my kiddo watch the new ones on Cartoon Network, and the old ones on BOOM, which is the moldy-oldy cartoon channel. Last night I watched an episode with a mummy and an Arab Egyptian expert, Dr. Najib. As if the sharply pointed nose and bad accent weren’t bad enough, they drew the dude with a fez. Which is a Turkish hat, not Arab. When I looked it up, to make sure I wasn’t turning into a conspiracy nut, I read this line on Wikipedia:
In tourist hotels in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco, porters and bellhops often wear a fez to provide local colour for visitors.

That made me realize why stereotypes are so very scary. When we here it often enough: Asians are good at math, blacks can really dance, white people loooove mayonnaise and so on, we start to believe it about ourselves. Then it starts to enter our social consciousness, and we perpetrate the stereotype we’re told we fit.

I spent half of my high school career thinking I was good at basketball. Until I realized I really, really wasn’t. No one was more disappointed than the girls basketball coach.

But when these stereotypes enter books, which are supposed to tell us some higher truth about the world (at least I expect them to. Even Twilight had a higher truth: if you get preggers by a vampire your unborn baby might kick out your spine), it subtly skews our worldview without us realizing it.


I. Don't. Care. I'm rich!

And I’m tired of the same flat characters in movies, where actors can make an entire career out of being a stereotype (Yeah, I’m looking at you, Samuel L. Jackson. You too, Michael Cera.) It smacks of laziness, like no one could bother to go back and give a character depth. Look at the new TV show Outsourced. Wow, really NBC?

I’m not going to call on all authors to stop writing stereotypes, because that’s just silly (I find myself doing it sometimes, and then I have to rework the character until they have some sort of depth). But I think we all need to be cognizant of the stereotypes we encounter, and question the stories we read that rely too heavily on stereotypes to carry the plot through. The best movies and stories are the one that turn stereotypes on their heads, and teach us something about ourselves in the process.

Even Scooby-Doo.

7 comments:

Lyrenne said...

Amen to that. I struggled with a character in my current manuscript -- you will remember her when I mention her to you, I'm sure -- because while I need her to be a minor character, I hate to make her a stereotype. But how to do that without using too many words and too much importance away from the story...it is a quandary. But one well worth considering.

Magan said...

Stereotypes are this biggest thing that bother me in literature and TV. The sassy gay friend is probably the one I never see waiver from anything. I don't know the last time I ever saw a gay male character that just acted normal- wasn't scheming, trying to do makeovers, or just overly flamboyant.

Thanks for the post on stereotypes, definitely something to always keep in mind when writing!

Cholisose said...

Yeah, stereotypes drive me up a wall. I suppose the best way to avoid this sort of thing is to just make every character as three-dimensional as possible (strengths, weaknesses, aspirations, etc). For brief one-scene side characters, why not think about what are the stereotypes and just do something else with them for a change, you know?
Movies and television are especially drenched in the lazy writing of stereotypes. It shouldn't be so difficult to do some research on a different culture, religion, etc in order to make a realistic character.

Teh Awe-Some Sauce said...

Thanks everyone. I totally agree with what you've said. Stereotypes seem especially prevalent on TV, but I'm not sure it's the script or the casting (for example, we have a promiscuous character, we get a blond to play her). It's definitely a problem, though.

Georgia McBride said...

What beaaaaatch! You be buggin'. Yeah. Was asked to review a book by a pubs in which the "black" girl kept saying really stupid things. She was supposed to be really "smart." But didn't want anyone to know because acting the way they "exptected" her to got her lots of "poor kid" perks. Her sister turned into a cat (you read that right) and she said, "girl, you was purring." I had to stop reading.

E. Kristin Anderson said...

Justina, so glad you mentioned Outsourced. I thought it was going to be an awesome show that exposed sterotypes instead of used them. My boyfriend and best friend are both Indian (from very different parts of the country -- India has so many cultures) and the show made me cringe. Did you notice that the only smart chick on the show was really light-skinned with almost Mediterranean features? Yeah. Way to go, NBC.

I think we all use stereotypes in our writing. It's almost inevitable. But I think that we need to use them as a tool to explore why we stereotype people, and what it does to our culture.

Also your line about your basketball coach made me lol. <3

kellybarnhill said...

Oh, dear lord. Georgia, I would have set that book on fire.

What bugs me most about stereotypes - notwithstanding its outdated and lame reinforcement of one culture's dominance over another (stereotype=literary colonialism? A way of simplifying and reducing those who the writer's culture defines as Other?), but it's just freaking lazy writing. To reduce an African-American character to a series of catch-phrases allows the writer to let himself (or herself) off the hook with the difficult work of character development and refinement. And even worse, it lets the reader off the hook. It's like saying, "Don't bother getting to know this character, don't bother caring about this character. I've given you all the information you need to know." It's paternalistic, it's sloppy and it sucks.

Same goes for the Sassy Gay Friend, the Hooker With the Heart of Gold, the Smart Asian Sidekick, and all the rest. Give us characters we can believe in, give us diverse and nuanced and vulnerable people in these stories. ARE YOU LISTENING, UNIVERSE???

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