Stereotypes in Writing and Reading: Love them or Not?

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I like to think that I am a non-racist individual that dislikes prejudice in any form, and then I write.  When I write, in developing my characters I can’t help but depend on stereotypes.  Do you think they are derogatory? I like to think that I do so without the element of Hate, and that makes it okay.  Like the book and the movie “The Help”The help by  Kathryn Stockett, I used the stereotype of the Southern maid, a big boisterous buxom black woman, who smelled of baby powder, sweat and peppermint.  Hannah’s nanny, who accidentally and erroneously taught her why black people were black.  It was funny.

Like comedians:  We writers sometimes depend on these images to develop our characters into real and believable immediately recognizable images.  Moreover, I don’t believe that society dictates that to us in our everyday lives, as much as visual media demonstrates these images over and over again until they are fixed in our brains.  We, as writers are trying to place or fix a visual image in our reader’s mind relying on their own imagination.

You do know that if I said, “Gangsta dude,” you would immediately conjure an image a of black guy with his pants dropping down and his underwear showing, shooting hand gestures and wearing bling with his ball cap placed backwards on his head or a hoodie on.

Likewise if I said, “Flapper”, you might immediately conjure an image of a lady in the roaring twenties without further explanation.

Swedish cartoonist Mattias Adolfsson: Check him out

Swedish cartoonist Mattias Adolfsson: Check him out

Sometimes, I try to deliberately cause the reader NOT to get a stereotypical image in their mind, because I am trying to go in another direction.  This can be more challenging than writing the stereotype.  Do you depend on stereotypes or try to avoid them?

I made two lists of stereotypical images of Southern men and women.  Does your mind automatically distinguish the sometimes subtle differences or would they have to be explained? Do you get a visual image?

Southern Men:                                                                       Southern Women:

1)      Swamp man                                                              1) Redneck mama

2)      African-American                                               2) White trash/trailer trash

3)      Redneck                                                                     3) Hillbilly Queen

4)      Hillbilly                                                                   4) Southern Belle

5)      Mountain man/Mountaineer                            5) Steel magnolia

6)      Good ole boy                                                             6) Swamp Witch

7)      Southern gentleman                                             7) Proper Southern lady

8)      Southern guy                                                            8) Good ole girl

9)      Black Sambo                                                              9) African Princess

10)   Flaming Fag (like Chablis, in                       10) Somebody’s Child

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil)         11) Church lady

11)   Dirt farmer                                                               12) Holy roller/Biblethumper

12)   City boy                                                                     13) Island girl

13)   Cracker Jack

When you write or read to you feel facilitated by stereotypes or hampered by them?

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37 thoughts on “Stereotypes in Writing and Reading: Love them or Not?

  1. Fantasy is weird with stereotypes. We have to depend on them because various races have things etched into them. Dwarves have beards and can be gruff. Elves have pointy ears and are pretty. Orcs are savage and ugly. Nobody likes goblins. It’s difficult to alter these stereotypes in fantasy because people are so used to it. Many times people look at the change as being done for attention and shock value instead of a unique twist on a theme.

  2. I agree with this. It is hard sometimes not to stereotype. I’m British. People stereotype me all the time. Still, there are some images I can’t stop from coming to my mind when I hear certain phrases. I try to avoid those when writing, because I assume if I think it, chances are good others will as well. Great post.

    • Thanks. I am puzzled by whether I am going to offend or make a character more real when I allude to a stereotype. I want my characters to take on a real personality, like the bumbling detective who always manages to get it right in the end, but again that is a stereotype that serious detectives might be offended by. You see it on television all of the time, but I think readers are different. they expect to be entertained by something new. If I write about the South, I almost always have to use stereotypes. I think of British as very proper. That’s not a bad thing. And I think of you as proper, but with a funny twist…so I guess you are still in my mind as a somewhat stereotypical image. Charles does not fit my image of a long Islander tho. When I was there for six months, I saw only rich ones with party on the brain. He strikes me as a more laid back easy going guy who might have a couple of beers at Cheers.

  3. I loathe stereotyping and I try to avoid it in my writing. That way of thinking pigeon-holes people as well as characters in stories. I love stories which surprise me. Seeing the seemingly tough-as-nails gangster who is actually compassionate or the elementary school teacher who is a homicidal maniac keeps me guessing. Stereotyping doesn’t leave any room for growth and doesn’t allow us to recognise people, or characters, as unique individuals. I think that it’s really important to really look and see what someone is like and what their motivation is, whether they’re real or fictional.

    Also, even when stereotyping, I don’t think that there’s ever a situation where it’s acceptable to call someone a ‘flaming fag’. Lady Chablis (from the Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil) is a transvestite which is a gender issue rather than one of sexual orientation.

    • Sorry your comment was captured in spam and I did not have chance to review it right away. I agree that with how you note that it is not always appropriate to use stereotypes in that it detracts from the true character and does not allow for them to develop as unique individuals. The examples I gave: like gangsta dude, flapper, and flaming fag, were purely that, examples. I wasn’t condoning their use, and feel many are inappropriate. Likewise, I hate the term redneck, and think it is used too very broadly for southerners. It apply by far to many who are not at all southern, and not all southerners are rednecks. I think writers often abuse stereotypes in that they take the easy way out rather than spend the time fully developing a character. Even I am guilty of that with the black nanny I had in childhood in my book. She was a side mentioned character and I did not give her a lot of attention, only a little to make a point on how Hannah was introduced to racism as a child

    • It does. Like Sybil in my book breaking away from the proper Southern Lady image of the domesticated woman who was expected to stay home and tend to family. She opened her own business in the white man’s world of the early sixties. It was tough for her.

  4. I think if the stereotype is part and parcel of the storytelling than it is unavoidable but away from a story like The Help, if it is always in your face on every page then it seems like the writer is not telling a story anymore but is trying to make a divide.

  5. Great post. I think stereotypes exist for a reason, and it’s useful for writers to help conjure mental images for readers. As long as we avoid “telling” words like “typical” (as in: “he was a typical gangsta dude”) I think relying on stereotypes is okay. But I think it’s even more effective to defy the stereotypes.

    • I couldn’t agree more! Exactly my point. They came by the names stereotypes for a reason. They are useful when treated with respect and the reader is not made to feel like..oh you just did that because you couldn’t think of anything better to write.

  6. Pingback: Are we guilty of stereotyping? | Jade's Jungle

  7. Pingback: Part II: Stereotypes: Love Them or Hate Them | S.K. Nicholls

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