Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Think Twice About Stereotypes

I'm about to get super serious on y'all so we'll just get the lolcatz out of the way now...

I know I wasn't a normal kid, and I definitely wasn't a normal teen.

I adored English class. Math & Science made me giddy. Oh, but Sarah, nobody likes English and Math. Does that mean I have to choose? I don't want to choose.

I loved to play volleyball. Oh, but nobody can be both smart and athletic. So does that mean I'm not smart? Or am I not athletic? Do I have to choose between books and sports?

I was on the Science team with all guys. Because girls don't like science. Wait, am I not a girl, then? Or is me liking science wrong? Do I have to like "girly" things less to fit in - or more to compensate?

I got some of the best grades in my class. But popular people are dumb and smart people aren't popular. Great, so I either have to do worse in class or accept that I'm not going to have many friends.  

I loved reading more than just about anything. Except for maybe people. But bookworms are awkward introverted wallflowers. Are you sure? I don't know how to decide whether I'm an extrovert or book nerd...

I got along with just about everyone. You really shouldn't associate with those people (poor, rich, christian, atheist, white, black, green, whatever). But, but... they're so nice.

I knew I never wanted to choose a guy over my school/career. There is something terribly wrong with you; the most important thing in a girl's life should be falling in love. Then getting married. Then having a baby. Ummmm... I'm 15?

Here's the thing about all those red statements: They were stereotypes perpetrated over and over again by movies, tv shows and - yes, books. But they're harmless stereotypes, right? I mean, who doesn't love that smart geeky girl who's painfully shy and clumsy? Who doesn't love to hate the dumb pretty bitchy rich girl?

As a teen, trying to figure out who you are is hard enough without media telling you who you can and can't be. I loved these books/shows/movies. Everyone loved them. So that meant they had to true, right? Unfortunately, my parents did nothing to contradict these images I was seeing. I don't mind admitting (now) a lot of these messed me up for a long while - I'm still straightening some of them out.

What I'm saying is - just think twice before you put that old stereotype in your book. It may be a harmless, easy characterization for you, but to someone else it may be another thing telling them they can't be who they want to be. I'm the absolute last person to advocate political correctness (really, ask any of my IRL friends), but I'm seeing a lot of books lately with not one single character who defies a stereotype - and I think that's troubling.

Most will tell you the danger of stereotyping lies in judging a group of people based on what one or a few people in their "group" do. But I think there's also a danger in the subconscious message stereotypes impress on everyone who doesn't fall into the mold.

"Stereotypes can sink into people's real image of themselves and do real harm. When stereotypes sink into the psyche of a group and they come to define themselves by that stereotype, a whole culture is harmed."  For more, read this article at BrightHub Education. (I wrote this blog, then found this article, which basically says everything I want to say, but better)

On that note, do you have any book recommendations with characters who defy stereotypes?


  1. I don't have any recommendations, but if you find one please let me know. I was recently watching Ted's Women Conference videos and was astounded to see how much stereotypes actually affect me on a very basic level. Great post!

  2. This is an excellent post and definitely has me thinking about my characters and what stereotypes they might perpetrate.

    Jandy Nelson's "The Sky Is Everywhere" didn't have any stereotypical main characters in it (that I can remember). That book is truly just about perfect, IMO. I loved the diversity of the characters and how they felt about things.

    1. I'm glad I got you thinking :-)

      Thanks for the recommendation!

  3. I don't have any recs either, but I TOTALLY agree with this post! I try to write non-stereotypical characters, and I'd like to think I usually manage it, but my problem is getting stuck in character ruts - I alway write sensitive, troubled boys, and angry, tough, girls. It must be my inner feminist ;)

    1. :-) I think a lot of us have character types we like to write. As long as they're nuanced, I don't think that's a problem.

  4. Great post! Actually, I think most people aren't actually "stereotypes". I meet few people who actually fit those bills. A bunch of my friends, who are girls, are intelligent and love science and sports. I'm a book-nerd and I'm super quiet, but that's cause I'm super shy.

    I love books and math (although only algebra). And I'm agreeing with the whole "don't let a boy rule your life thing" in the last red statement. I've decided that no boy should dictate my life. And when my ex told me he wanted to go to the same college as me, I put the brakes on and said no. I'm a very romantic person, but when it comes to long term, lasting situations, I think logically.

    Anyways, great post! And I recommend Perfect Chemistry by Simone Elkeles. The first part of the book kinda has its stereotypes, but the last part of the book, I think the characters defy those stereotypes.

    1. I agree. I think Perfect Chemistry actually uses stereotypes pretty effectively to shift your thinking.

  5. I love to break stereotypes in my writing!!

    1. me too! i don't even realize I'm doing it until someone tells me that my science-loving character shouldn't be so social (or whatever) and I'm like, why not?

  6. Our YA book club read The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, and since the character is all about not fitting into the role everyone wants her to be in, you could say she's defying stereotypes.

  7. One of the reasons is that an attractive, athletic, popular, self actualized girl who likes math and reading doesn't make very interesting stories. Also most girls feel deeply flawed, even if they're not, so would have a hard time relating to characters like this.

    I was a not popular, not athletic, not academic (though smart), not attractive girl who desperately wanted love and sold my soul over and over trying to find it. Only in my 40s am I even able to read books like Stephanie Perkins's because as a teen these would have broken my poor little heart.(what books were there like this in the 80s anyway?)

    Some people ARE stereotypes. Or maybe I should say, stereotypes are people too. It's important to remember that in the subverting of stereotypes we don't want to end up with Mary-Sues.