I. What is a Stereotype
Stereotyping is assuming that “they’re all alike.” It’s looking at a whole group of people and assuming that they all share certain qualities. For example, when you meet an elderly lady, you might assume that she has certain traits – that she likes to knit, or is a grandmother. But these assumptions are stereotypes, and there’s no guarantee that they are right! After all, the lady might not have any grandchildren or might prefer dancing. Stereotypes are very common in popular culture, and can be found in literature as well – mostly due to a lack of information or awareness on the part of the writer but also for comedic effect.
II. Examples of Stereotypes
Only boys can play sports.
This is a very common stereotype against women and girls. However, like most stereotypes it’s inaccurate. Most people who say this aren’t thinking about the fact that some of the world’s greatest athletes are women: women like Abby Wambach and Carli Lloyd, for example, who recently brought the World Cup gold to America, or the world-champion tennis player Serena Williams. Most males would look pretty foolish if they had to go up against Williams in a tennis match!
Asians are good at math.
Stereotypes are not necessarily negative on the surface – sometimes, they can appear complimentary. For example, Asians are sometimes stereotyped as good at math, while Africans are stereotyped as athletic. But these stereotypes are still inaccurate. For one thing, they are simply false: many Asians are bad at math, and many Africans are very poor athletes. In addition, “positive” stereotypes oversimplify the complex abilities of each group. After all, Africans can be great scientists and Asians can be great athletes.
III. The Problem with Stereotypes
Stereotypes are wrong on several levels:
- They’re inaccurate. Most stereotypes are based on racism, sexism, and xenophobia (fear/hatred of outsiders).
- They’re offensive. An effective writer doesn’t go around offending people recklessly. Discussing certain sensitive topics might become offensive, but when readers take offense at your work it’s important to take this seriously and try to adjust your views when necessary.
- They’re boring. Stereotypes are common images in the culture – that’s how they become stereotypes in the first place. So we’ve all seen these images countless times, and they’ve become tired and predictable. If you rely on stereotypes, readers will begin to suspect that you’re not very interesting or creative.
IV. Examples of Stereotypes in Literature
In the Harry Potter universe, there are many stereotypes about the different houses of Hogwarts. For example, Slytherins are often viewed as wicked and mean-spirited, whereas Gryffindors are supposed to be courageous and strong-willed. But this isn’t always true! [SPOILERS:] After all, Severus Snape (a Slytherin) turns out to be one of the books’ great heroes, and Harry himself calls him “the bravest man I ever knew.” On the other side, Peter Pettigrew is a Gryffindor, yet he turns out to be the coward who betrayed Harry’s parents to Voldemort.
Great literature is usually designed to challenge stereotypes, not reinforce them. But sometimes this involves using the stereotypes satirically, as we’ll see in section VI (Related Terms), Jane Austen is one of the great masters of this. In Pride & Prejudice, for example, the contrast between the two Bennet sisters is deliberately crafted to challenge stereotypes of women in 19th-century England. Jane Bennet embraces many of these stereotypes actively, while her younger sister Elizabeth spurns them.
Fantasy and science fiction are based in fictional universes, so it might seem like they can’t possibly contribute to stereotypes in the real world. But actually, they do so all the time. When you read fantasy stories, for example, you might notice that dark-skinned people are usually depicted as “exotic” foreigners, and they often have a dangerous, mysterious air about them. Even great authors like J.R.R. Tolkien have been guilty of this in their books, and it’s a subtle way of contributing to broader cultural stereotypes.
V. Examples of Stereotypes in Popular Culture
A lot of hip hop music videos look like they come straight out of a stereotype factory. They show stereotypes of men and women alike: the men are flexing their muscles, waving guns, and obsessing over cars and drugs; the women are vain and superficial, obsessed with men and with their own appearance. And, of course, these videos usually ignore the existence of gay culture altogether – when this culture is acknowledged at all, it’s often in a dismissive and highly stereotypical way.
What did you think of example 1? If you’re a fan of hip hop, you probably noticed that it was based on a stereotype. While some hip hop videos are guilty of this sort of thing, many are not. Hip hop culture also explores political themes and personal stories in its videos, and example 1 is just satirically exploring a common stereotype about hip hop.
“All these years, I thought I liked chicken because it was delicious!” (Dave Chapelle)
In this joke, the stand-up comedian Dave Chapelle takes on an old stereotype of African Americans: that they love to eat fried chicken. Dave’s view is: of course we like fried chicken. Everybody likes fried chicken. It’s not about our heritage – it’s about the chicken.
VI. Related Terms
In addition to being offensive, most stereotypes are clichés, or tired images that have grown stale through overuse. Even when they’re not offensive, clichés are bad writing – they’re just too predictable and uncreative.
Prejudice means “pre-judgement,” or drawing conclusions before you’ve actually learned and experienced the facts. Stereotypes are a very common form of prejudice – they’re ideas that you receive from the culture and then apply without bothering to find out the truth.