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?