[DWJ] stereotypes (was Mermaids^Wmer-people (was HP))

Minnow minnow at belfry.org.uk
Wed May 16 07:38:52 EDT 2007

>Farah Mendlesohn wrote:
>> You know, apart from the fun to be had subverting them, I cannot for the
>> life of me  think why children need to learn stereotypes. They are after
>> all not innate to children, they are something adults impose.
>> Precisely what useful function do stereotypes possess?
>> [And I do understand the cognitive process of classification that allows
>> children to build up categories and sub catgories of objects].

Mark Allums wrote

>(To answer your question, stereotype exist for a reason.  There is
>always a truth behind them.  Not all alcoholics are abusive, but many
>are.  Not all stepmothers are Evil, but many are.  Not all hookers have
>a heart of gold, but a few do.  Etc.  Stereotypes are a shortcut.  They
>save time.  In a story, they can serve that purpose, saving thousands of
>words of exposition.  If you don't like that type of story, avoid it, if
>you can.  It's very difficult to avoid stereotypes completely.  Some
>authors do it automatically, and their writing, in my opinion, suffers
>for it quite as much as one whose write suffers from the overuse of
>them.  I'm quite tired of The Ugly Duckling, even DWJ uses it.  It's
>become a cliche in children's lit.)

Um.  So many things here that I find it hard to know where to start.

There is a very grave danger in accepting stereotypes, because they are Not
True: they are fiction.  They are as you say, a short-cut, they save time
in a fictional setting and allow the author to get on with the plot without
having to do too much hard work sorting out an actual person to inhabit the
pages.  This is not how things really work.  Far more interesting are the
stereotypical thugs in DWJ (Ginger Hind and his gang in *Archer's Goon* and
the Goon himself, the Gang in *Wilkins' Tooth*) who turn out *not* to be
stereotypical once one gets to know them, wouldn't you say?

The objection to stereotyping is that it is *lazy*, really.  It's a way to
avoid thinking things through.  The Dark Lord is Evil because, well, that's
what Dark Lords *do*, is the simplest form of this.  The author is thus
absolved of any need to provide any reason for this individual wanting to
take over the entire world and then run it in a way that makes everyone
suffer.  Then rather than the author being in a position to have some
reasonable explanation based in the character for the Dark Lord fouling up
so that the Forces Of Good triumph in the end, the Dark Lord has simply to
be very, very stupid -- which leads to awkward cusses like me wondering how
someone so stupid ever got to be Dark Lord in the first place rather than
ending up as a clerk in some other Dark Lord's organisation.

There may always be *a* truth behind a stereotypical
depiction/trope/whatever, but not necessarily *the* truth.

I have never once met an Evil Stepmother, for instance.  Not one single
one.  I say this in a society in which one in five families has at least
one divorce in the background, and remarriage or re-partnering is common.
Stepmothers who didn't have particularly good relations with their
step-children, yes, but Evil?  No.

A tart with a heart of gold may once have existed, but to be honest, a tart
is more likely to be addicted to either alcohol or some illegal drug, and
thus come under the first stereotype you mention, abusive.  I've known a
few, and "heart of gold" hasn't been a prime characteristic: "eye to the
main chance" is more like it, or "anything to survive".  Any chap who
expected a heart of gold would have got a nasty shock, I fear.

All Jews are preoccupied with money and kill babies?  All black men are
petty criminals and muggers?  Those too are stereotypes, remember, like the
Dumb Blonde and the Jolly Fat Uncle.  They are stereotypes we prefer not to
contemplate, but they are there and should not be ignored when we consider
the matter.

If what we teach our children is stereotypes, what we get is children who
have a very inaccurate picture of the world, I would suppose.  Almost
nobody actually fits the stereotypes; people are individuals.  It is
possible to be a Christian without being abusive: it is even possible to be
a perfectly amiable Jesuit priest who isn't involved in any sort of evil
nasty bigoted plot.  One can be a Muslim, even an Islamist, without killing
anybody or wanting to kill anybody.  And so forth.

I can see that your assertion that people *do* learn stereotypes, and think
in them, is fact; what I don't quite understand is what is good or
inevitable about this, or rather, why we should accept it as inevitable.

One very simple example: when I was younger "skinheads" were known to be
Danbgerous and Nasty, and Nice Folk avoided them if possible.  Nothing good
came of skinheads, was the Received Wisdom.  Yet when there was a truly
horrendous accident on the London Underground, and one carriage was in
flames with people dying in it, one young man took it upon himself to go
back into it and try to rescue as many of the injured as he could.  He was
a skinhead.  Funnily  enough, the Nice Folk he was helping there didn't try
to avoid him at all costs... If they had, they might have died for their
acceptance of the stereotype.

The other group of young men with very short hair, of course, is officers
in Her Majesty's armed forces; how embarrassing if I were to mistake my son
and his colleagues for a vicious gang because I accepted a stereotype of
Received Wisdom as Truth.  :-(

In fiction, perhaps the best place to start considering the stereotype
might be Diana Wynne Jones' *The Tough Guide to Fantasyland*, in which they
are ruthlessly exposed as silly.


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