Tuesday, 27 March 2012

The Power of Stereotypes - John Dougherty

Stereotypes can be really useful to a writer. You want to quickly communicate exactly what sort of person this is? Just pop in a few generally-recognised characteristics, and the average mind will fill in the rest.

So, for instance, you give a character bad breath and equally bad teeth, and chances are the reader will identify him as a bad person.

Or give her blonde hair, long legs and a high-pitched giggle, and you’ve got a bimbo. See? There’s even a specific word to match the image! And just one little detail can make a big difference: replace the giggle with a sly, sulky pout and, hey presto, instant High School Queen Bitch!

Then there’s this one: a young black man in a hoody wandering through an expensive, exclusive gated community at night. He’s got his hood up and is walking slowly, muttering to himself. There’s something in his hand. So: burglar, probably on drugs. Possibly armed. Definitely dangerous.

The problem here, of course - as some of you will already have worked out - is that real life doesn’t deal in comfortable stereotypes. And the character I’ve just described wasn’t a character. He was Trayvon Martin, a 17-year old who had every reason to be in the expensive, exclusive gated community, since he was staying with his father who lived there. And he wasn’t actually talking to himself; he was on his phone, using a handsfree headset. And he was walking slowly because…

You know what? I don’t know why he was walking slowly; and actually, it doesn’t matter. At all. There’s no reason anyone should have to explain anything about Trayvon Martin’s behaviour that night. He wasn’t doing anything wrong. Walking slowly isn’t a crime in Florida, where the gated community is; nor is talking on a mobile phone; or carrying a bottle of iced tea and a bag of Skittles; or wearing a hoody; or wearing your hood up; or being young, black and male.

Yet now Trayvon Martin is dead. He’s dead because he fitted another man’s stereotype of villainy; and because that man was licensed to carry a gun.

And because Florida has a law that allows anyone to use deadly force if they believe themselves to be in danger of death or serious injury, the man who shot Trayvon Martin has not been arrested or charged.

Stereotypes. They should come with a warning.

You can read more about the Trayvon Martin case here, and you can sign a petition to have his killer prosecuted here

John's website is at www.visitingauthor.com.
He's on twitter as @JohnDougherty8.

His latest books include:

Finn MacCool and the Giant's Causeway - a retelling for the Oxford Reading Tree
Bansi O'Hara and the Edges of Hallowe'en
Zeus Sorts It Out - "A sizzling comedy... a blast for 7+" , and one of The Times' Children's Books of 2011, as chosen by Amanda Craig


Miriam Halahmy said...

Very good points John - yes stereotypes give writers quick pen portraits - yes we all stereotype and also sometimes we need our defence mechanisms up on high alert. As a middle aged short woman walking the streets alone I am wary of teenage boys with their hoods up. But no way would I shoot one!! Or expect anyone else too. Because while being on high alert, I also remain open and I am just as likely to nod to such lad and say, 'Alright?' as I go past, with a motherly smile. Because I refuse to be sucked into - They are all this, that or the other. So the death of this poor boy breaks my heart too and should make all of us stop and think how far we allow ourselves to be influenced by stereotypes, particularly of teenage boys.
Thanks for your post John.

Michele Helene said...

A great post John. We're looking at stereotypes and prejudice in class at the moment and I think I shall use your post (if you don't mind) to get them thinking and changing attitudes.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Its amazing and also sad how we're wired to to look at a few visual clues and then bingo draw the wrong conclusion! I wrote about this on ABBA a week or 2 ago (11th March) called In Praise of Hoodies and Skateboard Parks.

Giles Diggle said...

Therefore I think that children's writers have a duty to eradicate stereotypes from their books. I don't care that I might be labelled by the anti "politically correct" lobby.

If we don't write about real people as individuals with all their positives and negatives, then attitudes will never change. I think the children's writer can make a small but significant contribution here.

catdownunder said...

There are other stereotypes which are just plain wrong. How often do blind people get portrayed as being exceptionally musical or able to hear more acutely than other people?
I really liked In Praise of Hoodies and Skateboard Parks, not least because it reflects my own experience.

John Dougherty said...

Michele, I shall be honoured if you use my post to facilitate your work in class - but thanks for asking!

Dianne, I thought your In Praise of Hoodies... post was spot on. It reminded me of one October night, a few years ago, when I took my kids - then about 7 & 5 - up a nearby hill to watch the firework display. We ended up near some rough-looking and very loud hoodied teenagers, and when one of them, fag in mouth, approached us I felt instantly apprehensive - until he drew a lighter from his pocket and offered to light my children's sparklers.

Giles, I agree - I'm not sure if we can entirely eradicate stereotypes from our work (the human brain is, I think, wired for them) but we should challenge them as much as we can.