When we read a book and find the character of an old lady, what comes to our mind? We might think about a grandmother whose hobby is knitting on a rocking chair in the terrace accompanied by her cats. However, this can be completely wrong: turns out the old lady doesn’t have any grandchild and her hobby is dancing.
Let’s see another example. When a writer writes about a computer nerd, what do we imagine? We probably think about a man wearing braces and specs who only has one or two friends and likes to sit in the corner. Bzz, wrong again: this one computer nerd is a girl without braces or specs who has a lot of friends. Based on this, how come do we draw a conclusion about someone’s personality solely based on one characteristic? How is the computer nerd a geeky-looking boy and the old lady a knitting whiz? Apparently, both cases are examples of stereotypes.
A stereotype is “a fixed, over-generalized belief about a particular group or class of people” (Cardwell, 1996). It is the assumption that a person has the same characteristics as the rest of his/her group does. In the examples mentioned before, the stereotype of an old lady is a woman who likes knitting while a computer nerd is a boy wearing specs and braces. Other examples of stereotypes include strict Asian parents, black people being good athletes, and women crying easily. Such stereotypes are commonly found in our society.
In writings, stereotypes risk simplifying characterization, but at the same time, they help enhance the characters’ traits and allow readers to relate to them more easily. The readers will have their own judgment of the character, make their first impression, and decide how to view the character throughout the story. The readers can confirm or investigate the stereotypes themselves too.
However, they are not always true. Just because someone has a certain characteristic, it doesn’t mean the rest of the group does as well. If a writer carelessly uses an offensive stereotype, it would stick with the readers, which may lead to a certain group of people getting prejudices. In this case, using stereotypes can be seen as an act of spreading hate and distrust towards a certain group. For instance, if black people are often mentioned as criminals or rebels, they would have that image continuously tied to them in the public’s eye despite its falsehood. The writer can then be ‘accused’ of disseminating hate and discredit towards black people.
Relying solely on stereotypes makes the writing boring because the writer tends to stick with them instead of creatively exploring the characters or is too afraid to bring up something less common. If the stereotypes are irrelevant to one’s own assumption, it also reduces one’s personal preferences. Say we regard metal music as a cool genre and the metalheads—the fans of metal music—a groovy bunch. It’s all good until we hear people say metalheads are brutal and rude. We start having an ‘internal conflict’, torn between holding on to our assumption or believing the stereotype.
There are plenty of stereotypical characters found in literary works. In Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, the Kongo tribe is described as uncivilized and powerless people, judging by how the white men treated them and forced them to work in their company. In To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Bob Ewell is a stereotypical poor white man living in the South and Tom Robinson is a black man accused of a crime (since a black man is often depicted as a criminal). In Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, Victor Frankenstein is a typical ‘mad scientist’. In The Great Gatsby by Scott Fitzgerald, Gatsby’s behavior is that of a typical bourgeoisie who overcolors his life.
On the other hand, stereotypes in writings can be broken by developing the characters and reversing the common assumptions. For instance, Asians—who are commonly viewed as being good at maths—can be written as people who excel in other fields such as sports and cooking. In Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Elizabeth Bennet is the contrast of a stereotypical woman in nineteenth-century England. In modern literature such as Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling, Gryffindor is generally brave and benevolent whereas Slytherin is wicked and mean. However, it doesn’t apply to two dwellers of the houses: Peter Pettigrew, who used to be a Gryffindor, turns out to be a traitor and Severus Snape, known as a true Slytherin, turns out to be the hero of the story.
A stereotype is an over-generalized belief regarding a certain group of people. It generalizes how one views people in society. Stereotypes abundant in writings and literary works can’t be erased easily, but we can help break the negative ones by not letting them shape our way of seeing people.
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