Friday, December 10, 2010

Stereotypes Are Essential

Let’s play Guess the Gender of this Character. It’s from an excerpt written by Annie D. Shirley:

                 My apartment burned down several weeks ago.
                 I had fallen asleep in the leather recliner in my living room with a
          burning cigarette in my hand. When I awoke, there were white flames
          lapping at my pant leg. Adonis, my miniature pug, was running around
          yipping. I could barely breathe; there was thick smoke all over the place,
          and it was all I could do to drop to the carpeted floor and roll like they
          had taught me in grade school. Everything became a gray and white hot
          blur, and I lost consciousness before I could make it to the door.
                I survived, of course; I regained consciousness outside on a stretcher.
         One of my neighbors had called the fire department. Lying with the oxygen
         mask over my face, the metal roof of the ambulance and the faces of helpful
         strangers hovering above me, I felt uncomfortable, being out in the open and 
        surrounded by unfamiliar men. I remember trying to mumble to them, “Put
        me back…put me back.”

I assumed the character was male. It took me a while to figure out why I felt that way, and after a lot of thought, I realized it was for these reasons:

  1. He has a cigarette, which I think is gross and unfeminine
  2. He has a pug, which is an ugly dog, and I'd picture a girl with a poodle
  3. He's sitting in a recliner
  4. He burns down his house by being negligent, and I assumed his apartment was messy and their were flammable things nearby
  5. He's alone, so I pictured an old and lonely bachelor
That’s a lot of offensive stereotypes, but it turns out I was right. Nailed it! The author was able to communicate to me who this man was without specifically coming out and saying, "I'm a male, I'm 30 years old, and I'm a bachelor." Most people thought he was a woman, though, because he was uncomfortable being around unfamiliar men.

I read a story in a critique group about a character who can take away other people’s guilt. For the intro, the character listed all the sins he/she carried. The character said things like, “I’ve cheated on my spouse 50 times. I’ve dealt drugs. I’ve robbed dozens of stores and homes. I even killed someone.”

We all assumed the character was male, but she was a woman. We made this mistake because crimes are masculine. In order to keep readers from getting confused, we brainstormed feminine things that would cause guilt. We decided on strip dancing and porn movies.

A brilliant short story I read in college (and I can’t for the life of me remember the title) was about a black girl and a white girl who were friends in the 60’s. After reading the story, the teacher asked us which girl was black and which one was white.

I was confused because the answer was so obvious. I discovered that everyone thought they knew the races of these girls, but they all thought differently. The whole point of the story was to challenge racial stereotypes. We made a list of all the things that indicated their race, and this is what we came up with:

Girl A:
Initially skeptical about the friendship
Against segregation
Narrator of the story
Lives in the suburbs

Girl B:
Frizzy, afro hair
Supports segregation
Had a huge mother who wore a cross

Everyone in my class was white, including me. I thought Girl A was black because she was the narrator and only black people talk about race, and that Girl B was white because she was stuck-up. Most of the people in my class thought Girl B was black because she had frizzy hair and because Girl A lived in the suburbs.

These stereotypes are enormously offensive, but we didn’t use them consciously. How we felt about race was already programmed into our brains. We came to conclusions without even thinking about it.

In writing, we need to consider stereotypes – sometimes even use them to our advantage – to help readers understand our characters. Otherwise, it’s easy for readers to get confused. It's also important to understand stereotypes because writers have these ideas programmed into their brains too, so we can unconsciously give in to stereotypes we disagree with.


  1. What kind of guy names his pug Adonis?

  2. ^Yet another example of the negative effects of stereotypes regarding gender. Why couldn't a guy name his pug Adonis?

  3. This is interesting. A man certainly could name a dog Adonis, but it tells you a lot about who the guy is. If a woman gave her dog the same name, it would tell you something completely different. If this was an abnormal name for a man to give a dog, readers would assume he was an abnormal man. Good questions.

  4. For me, I was leaning on the fence between girl and guy after "cigarette", but, I don't know how to explain it, but the voice toward the end, how the character referred to how he was lying with the oxygen mask, made me think guy, particularly, early twenties guy. Possibly Michael Cera-esque.

    With the other example, however, about the woman who'd committed crimes, I would've said male...Except, I just can't imagine a man using the term "spouse".

    I agree with what you're saying, that we need to consider stereotypes. But don't you think that we should only do this to a certain extent? I think that using certain stereotypes (i.e. the cruel, dimwitted jock or the peppy, conniving she-bitch) can make secondary (and primary) characters come off as bland and 2-dimensional.

  5. That's a good point. I didn't consider that. I think there's a difference between stereotypes and type characters. A stereotype is just one quality, whereas a "type" is a whole package of qualities that don't allow any room for originality. Characters definitely need to be individuals.


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