Tuesday, June 12, 2007

What is it that People have Against Stereotypes?

A day back, Swetank sent me a piece of his writing which, in my opinion, is the best piece that he has ever written. However, when I talked to him afterwards, he himself was not very happy with the way his writing had come out. He said that it was too stereotypical. He wanted it to be more subtle.

A writer not liking his writing in hindsight is hardly a surprising fact. It happens all the time. In fact, I may claim that it happens always. And he might really have wanted it not to be so stereotypical. But his comment made me think. What is it that people have against stereotypes?

I do not like the negative connotations that are linked with the word stereotype. So like all engineers true to their profession, I googled. (BTW, Blogspot composer does not recognize the word googled, neither does it recognize blogspot. And blogspot is owned by Google. How very intellectually honest of Google!)

Here is the definition that Wikipedia came up with: Stereotypes are ideas held about members of particular groups, based primarily on membership in that group. The article also goes on to explain that most stereotypes have a negative connotation. In fact, some people believe that all stereotypes are negative.

In real life, certainly stereotypes can pose a problem. However, within literature, stereotypes have a very important role to play.

1. A Common Language: Stereotypes provide us with a common language. It gives a writer immense freedom. If I'm writing a fantasy and I introduce a character that is old and wise and has a long flowing beard and knows magic, I have a stereotype of the old, wise wizard. Now this, to my understanding, isn't all that bad. I suddenly get a character who I don't really need to explain to my readers. There is a plethora of history attached to such characters (remember Gandalf or even Dumbledore?) and I can rely upon this history and leave a lot of things unsaid. This is a boon for any writer because then I can concentrate more on what the real essence of my story is. So unless I'm actually trying to attack the stereotype, it is quite okay to have them in my story.

2. The Mythical Element: Barthes in some of his essays argues that a myth is something that is repetitive and unchanging. Clearly myths have a very important impact on human psyche. Myths are part of our collective subconscious. Stereotypes are modern myths. Take for example one that Swetank uses in his short piece. (It doesn't quite qualify as a story and it is hardly a poem, though quite poetic. So I don't know what to call it.) He uses the stereotype of an Indian prostitute -- gaudy make up, raunchy behavior. This stereotype, I think, constitutes a modern myth. One that we have seen countless times in countless movies and countless stories. As a myth it has powerful story-telling potential.

I like stereotypes. I use them a lot in my stories. A lot of other people also like stereotypes. Frank Miller is one. He's used exaggerated stereotypes in Sin City and 300 and turned out beautifully graphic novels and movies. So maybe stereotypes aren't all that bad really.

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