Stereotypes: Working with them, working against them.

As you all know I’m one of the good little camp followers who always toes the party line. It’s made me no end of friends and been wonderful for my career. Personally I think brown is such an attractive color for the nose, and that stuff is so protective of the sun.

Meanwhile, far away from the divergent parallel universe, back to here where I am myself, a natural-born outlier… A writer of my acquaintance was getting terribly upset because some dork had written to say she plotted very well for a woman (or had she had male help?)

Instead of tossing it away with ‘well that about wraps it up for Agatha Christie’, she perceived it as a male attack on women, and the stereotyping and denigration of women. And then the whole boiling froth of outrage came out from female writers about male stereotypes of women and women writers.


The guy is idiotic. So was the stereotypical response. You know, although I know this going to bring out the hysteria again, the likelihood every behavior (and a bunch of other things from… ear size, to flatulence volume) can be described by a probability curve. Very often this is a normal bell-shaped curve (I can hear the hysterical screams. ‘he said bell-curve! burn him, burn him’) Of course there are women plotters who will walk six ways to breakfast over the average male. There are women sharpshooters who will do the same. Women weight-lifters. The point is these exist. But are they the norm? The middle part of the bell curve? And when you compare the middle part with the middle part… is there a difference?

All right. Can I have a sharp-shooter (and I don’t what gender) to deal with the smart-alec who said ‘the one middle bit sticks out and the other middle bit sticks in.’ You know perfectly well what I mean.

In some cases there isn’t a difference. In many cases there IS. Trying to pretend (and being terribly offended) because someone assumes that your heroine won’t be able to field dress a buck and takes you task for it, is nearly as intelligent as assuming some guy won’t get fashion. Someday you and I must have LONG talk about the gender that does most of the display in the animal kingdom. Including near relatives like my species (we don’t quite like to admit it in public but us monkeys share quite a lot of the same genes with humans, especially when our genes are in the wash) and about which sex dressed up most in most of history. Like the ability to field dress a kill, these differences are recent cultural weirdnesses. Women would throughout most of human history have been competent at doing that. The point is, unless you, the author, set out for the reader kicking against that stereotype, it is not liberating women. It’s bullsh!t and your reader will know that. Some of them will get upset that any reader (discriminatory male pig) would laugh at the idea. Others (male and female) would laugh at the idea that heroine (with perfect fashion sense and great nails and makeup from the inner city or fantasy land equivalent castle. With a huge wardrobe, and flush toilets) could do so.

Writing the stereotype wrong did no-one any favors. The story would have had many more happy readers if they’d stuck to the stereotype. Of course no one would have written doctoral theses on their services to feminism… but well, the book would have been much more widely read.

Of course… if you want to write well and really get inside people’s heads, hopefully lots of them, and break stereotypes and stuff… you have to work WITH the stereotypes. It’s something I have tried to do for… so many books and stories I lose count. Stereotypes can be very useful tools. Look at the David Eddings books — he set out to use the stereotypes to exploit the way we do accept and believe in these. The key of course to unlocking stereotypes is accept that they exist – even if only the mind of your reader. Ergo the readers who fervently believe All women are oppressed, men conspired for hundreds of generations to hide the secrets of contraception from them. Simply telling the reader that she needs to take off her stereotype blinkers, and that men are not generally precisely any good at keeping a secret for 10 minutes from women who want to know, let alone uniformly good conspirators (if they were that good, you think that women’s lib would exist? Or the pill?) won’t work. You can only twist it or work around it, or show it ridiculous by example. Don’t even try simply telling…

The power of stereotypical belief is deep, and it works at levels that most of us miss. And as I said you can only defeat it in one of two ways. The first one is of course by making it clear your individual falls outside the normal bell, and therefore needs to be evaluated as an individual. She’s a farm girl. Daddy died young and she’s been helping mama slaughter pigs. Or she’s practical and likes maths, and finds fashion and nail varnish indescribably boring (I LIKE her already) Or She has no idea how to butcher the doe, but she’s not going to let that stop her (and then describe the making of something of a horse’s butt of it – with enough success to be plausible, and enough disasters that have happened to anyone field dressing their first to make the reader who has been there nod). Of course – being able to field dress a deer falls outside the practical experience of a lot of the male readers, and given the modern middle of that bell-curve – most of the female readers. But homework and or having been there are the only way to make that work. This is so often missing it’s scary.

The other of course is to SHOW how ridiculous a preconceived stereotype is.

I never do this. And neither does Sir Terry Pratchett. (The only difference is how well he does… er doesn’t do it). His witches are a masterpiece of this. And he’s done more than a million retellings of Cinderella in a PC fashion ever will for making us aware of stereotypes and their ridiculousness.

So what stereotypes bug you? Besides the overpaid author (male, natch) living off the fat of the land?

18 thoughts on “Stereotypes: Working with them, working against them.

  1. Female combat infantry that are as good as men is a fantasy stereotype that bugs me. I know a bunch of women who are athletic – in some cases highly athletic – and the average adult man can still beat them up, and also he can out run them and carry more weight while doing so. There’s a reason why pretty much every form of sport has male and female championships and why male sporting records are better than female ones…

    One on one encounters between a trained female fighter and an untrained male will of course be different but in a mass the outcome isn’t really in doubt. Women may be better at light cavalry (they weigh less so the horse has it easier) but that’s really the only part of the pre-gunpowder battlefield where there is a female advantage and even there male upper body strength means that the male light cavalry will be more effective in anything more long lasting than a fast skirmish.

    1. Individual women may win. On average, they won’t. On the other hand women who do try out for elite military units tend to be the strongest and toughest of their cohort, and this usually tends to mean mentally as well. So: I’d guess that in areas where the physical strength aspects are somewhat mitigated (using firearms for example) that determination might work.

      But this of course is anathema: if you accept that men -on average- are capable of physically beating women, then you also have to accept that the reason they don’t actually do so is by choice. So therefore, rather like the myth of the victorious MK (who lost every battle) it becomes necessary to invent these battlewomen, or you would have to give credit to your foes for their honorable behavior. Actually it’s a variant of the khaki-boer syndrome (town afrikaaners, usually the underclass in those towns pre-boer war, did not by en large join the Boer side. Instead they kowtowed to the Brits… later when the Afrikaaner Nationalists succeeded in taking control, they became the most rabid of anti-anglophone supporters of those in power, creeping their way up to control it.

    1. on the basis of considerable research (I was a hopelessly aggressive little guy at school, having figured out that small and passive (especially when this is not your nature) is a great way to be the bottom of the pecking order at an all boys boarding school. I was never going to get to the top, but I did establish a sort of ‘do not taunt the mad dog’ reputation. And a nose broken 6 times at school.) the degree of sensitivity of ‘family jewels’ and this being a male weakness, is another stereotype. One guy will be in agony, the next will take pain but not be seriously afflicted. And as I started rock-climbing in the days of the Whillans harness (which had a strap between the legs) another stereotype (I am assured by several female climbers of the same era) is that women suffer less from a sharp blow (or jerk-stress from a strap) just there. It’s a sensitive spot on anyone, but there is no guarantee that it will put them down.

      1. To be honest, it’s more sensitive on teen males, which gave me great advantage in fights, BUT for the love of heaven, if you use that gambit, have a follow through and a worse case scenario plan ready. I’ve won fights against men, when I was a slip of nothing, 120 lbs soaking wet. BUT I did it by the Dave Method: Outhink them, out-bastard them and out-mean them. They were prepared for slapping and maybe kicking. They weren’t prepared for biting, eye-gauging, fingers stuck in sensitive places AND kicking and punching. Much less were they prepared for the custom built umbrella with a weighted ball, which could do the part of a war mace, in need. Frankly, looking back, it was only my size that kept me from killing someone. And yes, even the most massive guy stays away from what Pratchett calls the bottle-covey. The madman or woman who simply will not know he’s had it.

        1. chuckle. I think we should both apply for a substantial reward for our services to oppressed minorities. I think there must be a fair number of large and potentially oppressive humans out there who have decided that negotiation is easier than finding out if the little bastard is a bottle-covey, the hard way.

  2. I’m not nearly as bothered by stereotypes existence as I am by the people who perpetuate them unthinkingly. Statistics vs Reality and Group vs Individual are something some percentage of people refuse to or are unable to parse…I have negative use for those people.

    1. I have always been a fairly fanatical believer in the individual not being defined by the average, and that this is an important point.

  3. The “evil” clergy and/or the “evil” religious person theme annoys me. Sure they exist, but when the author never shows clergy and/or religious people as “non evil” they are showing their bias.

    1. (smile) I THINK I can safely say I am one of the relatively few modern sf writers who can’t be accused of that bias. I’ve known a few dishonest exploitative priests (there was one back in Eshowe who also sold real estate, who was the model of my villain in Soot and Cassandra). But I have also know a lot of exception good folk who have done vast – and usually unacknowledged – good for their community and the world in general.

  4. Oppressive, unreally smart males. Mind you, if I met one of these evil villains, I’d go over like nine-pins for him, because he’d have to get god-like. Um… maybe that’s the appeal. In fact, I just lost it over at my blog, to that tune, heaven help me. I forgot my manners again!

    In many ways you and I are on the same page. I’m just more wordy.

    In my experience most men get plot INSTINCTIVELY. Most women get CHARACTER instinctively. But to be a writer, both of us need to learn the rest — intellectually.

    1. oddly, I know two far left wing femmenazi women who have picked as partners the kind of male they profess to detest. And their nastiness to men is entirely confined to the rest us, whereas with their rather creepy men they are good little submissive women. Sets my teeth on edge just watching them do it. I begin to wonder if they’re actually sick in the head enough to actually want that behavior from men, and we’re actually all in trouble because they don’t get it from the rest of us.

      We’re talking bell curves again – there are male character writers and women plot writers (Agatha…) as well as a lot crossover, and both skills can be learned. If anything the stupid comment comes out the fact that it’s not okay to tell women writers the plot sucks, in case that’s taken as sexist, but it’s Okay to tell men character and plot suck. If the authors in question is the learning who gets the benefit of this?

      1. Well… I treat my mentees the same way exactly, except… except for Dan and Robert. Normally when dealing with people outside the family I pull punches. Inside the family, I don’t. This is the corollary of “I never told the kids their art was wonderful, unless it REALLY was. I wanted them to trust me.” Anyway, Dan and Robert I gave OBJECTIVE detailed critique from the first story, no tablespoon of sugar. Just “This story is not a story, here’s why” etc. Dan took it. I mean, he ranted and told me I knew nothing, then sat down and wrote. Robert didn’t even rant. Within a year of starting mentoring, they were both professionally published, Robert at 13. My friend Charles heard one of Robert’s critiques and called me an unnatural mother and an abuser. BUT now when I tell Robert “This is good” And back then when I told him “This is better” he had reason to believe me. My idea was that if he was going to apprentice to me, he was going to be GOOD.

        Sigh — I hate to say this, but I think a lot of American feminism consists of wanting to be told lies. If I had a dime for every husband who voices “My wife is much smarter than I” when that’s PATENTLY not true, I’d be wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice. I don’t know about you — I prefer no punches be pulled. I don’t like meanness and name calling. (I don’t use it on people who don’t use it on me, either.) BUT I do like the truth, naked, not wrapped up in clean linen… Which tends to get me in trouble.

        1. Mind you I NEVER understood the sort of genetics which says ‘pick-a-dim-partner-to-breed-with’. If I was a woman, brains, reading, and some degree of physical aptitude (goes with genetic fitness I am afraid) would be in my selection criteria, as they were for my selection as a male. I could no more have chosen a dim-wit than male partner to have kids with, and I wanted those kids.

          1. That one I actually understand. Not saying I agree with it mind you, but… It’s the people who find their own higher ability or station a burden or imposition that tend to do this. They tend to crave normal (and invisible) like a drug.
            The flip side of that is the folks who do it so they don’t have a challenge to their position…

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