Prepare for a long, rather rambly, slightly rant-y post. You've been warned.
Several days ago, my husband stumbled across another author's great blog entry on bucking gender (both genders) stereotypes. My husband was delighted to find, in his words, a blogger so clearly "intelligent and academic!" So he dived in and joined the conversation.
Only to have it suggested that his input was unwelcome because he is male.
I kid you not.
So after a few pert words, he took his shovel and pail and left them to their tea-party.
But since I actually like boys here at my playground (Hi James! Hi David! Hi Graham!) I really did want to look at some of these issues in a nice, neutral marketplace of ideas.
We'll start with a story that you may have seen if you follow me on twitter. Last week I was at the airport waiting at the curb for my mom to pick me up. Two men (looked like a father and grown son) were also waiting. A pretty blonde woman starts to drive by, sees him, and pulls in at a sharp angle. The man (husband, I assume) gestures for her to pull up into the enormous empty space in front of her and says, "Pull forward!" The woman gets this utterly, completely vapid look on her face, I see her "get it," she giggles rather insipidly, and pulls forward. . . . about twenty feet. The husband's shoulders slump a little as he picks up his bags and mutters, "Not that far," and tromps after her. The father follows and in response to the little giggles that went through the crowd says, "She's pregnant." Everyone surrounding me goes, "Ahhhh."
What?? How is that justification?? Talk about perpetuating a stereotype that is completely false! She's not being a moron because she's pregnant, she's just a "dumb blonde," pregnant or not.
Don't get mad at me yet. I know I vilified one stereotype and used the other. I'll come back to this.
One of the issues that my hubby brought up that was instantly misunderstood and attacked, was the question, is it always wrong to write stereotypical characters? He may as well have asked, is it always wrong to ritually sacrifice children? But if I were writing the above scene into a story, would it be my responsibility to change the woman's hair color to brown so that I was not perpetuating the "dumb blonde" stereotype? But she was blonde! Is it politically incorrect for me to change that?
The word "stereotype" is pretty much always used in the pejorative sense. Why is that? Well, no one wants to be defined by a stereotype, and no one wants to read a book that is drowning in clichés. But there is very little you can do that someone else can't use to stereotype you--especially in high school, in my opinion. How often are the valedictorian and the captain of the football team the same person? How many members of the chess team are finalists in the Junior Miss pageant? How often is the fastest runner on the cross-country team one of the chain-smoking bad boys?
Never say never! But let's say... rarely. Sometimes (except maybe the chain-smoking bad boy!;)), but not often. Call it cliques, call it social borders, but if you see a high schooler walking down the hallway, and guess what their extra-curricular activities are based solely on their appearance, you will often be right.
So why do we abhor them so much, in life and in writing? Don't we write about real life? Certainly, if we don't like a stereotype that is being applied to us, it's good to remember that it is possible to cross those boundaries--even to cut them down. And teenagers especially will often do things with no more reason than to "be different," because that is part of understanding who we are! But I think a lot of people have become so fixated on bucking gender stereotypes that main characters who "buck stereotypes" have become their own cliché.
Like if I hold up a book and say, "This is a kick-a$$ chick book," you instantly know what I am talking about. And so the idea that we can "never" write stereotypes, seems like one of a million other "never" rules. It can't always be true--it must be a stereotype!
I think maybe what people really mean when they say don't write stereotypes, is to make strong, unique characters. See, that is a phrase I can live with. Because sometimes the interesting story IS a character who resides within a stereotype. I recently read the ARC of a book called A Match Made in High School by Kristin Walker, out next year. It is hilarious! I loved it! However, as time passes, the character who really sticks with me is a side character. She is every cheerleading stereotype you could imagine. She is popular, blonde, skinny, mean, slutty. She is a cookie cutter. I should not like her! The author sets you up not to like her. But as the book went on, she became redeemed in my eyes.
**MINOR SIDEPLOT SPOILER ALERT** Not because you see her soft side, or because she changes. In fact, the only real vulnerability you see is from her boyfriend's point of view, which is--at least somewhat--biased. But the character you really get to see is the boyfriend. Despite being quite cruel at the beginning, you come to realize that he really is just a show-off with a good heart, and he loves this cheerleader. I thought the author was setting things up for the well-rounded boyfriend to leave the two-dimensional cheerleader for the main character. But he doesn't, he keeps loving her, and because he does, the reader does too. If this cheerleader had not been such a stereotype, it would not have been nearly so compelling of a story line.**END SPOILER**
I sometimes get really frustrated with all the "rules" and "responsibilities" and "politics" that everyone likes to perpetuate around the web in the writing community. We are "supposed" to make our female characters strong and confident! But I mention that Laurel knows she's pretty and some readers assume that means she is "stuck up." We are supposed to present diversity, but despite Tamani being dark-haired and dark-skinned (there is no "race" as such among faeries, just appearances), some readers see blonde Laurel and say I am equating goodness with light hair and skin. (Aren't there good blondes in this world too?) And on the other side of the spectrum, some people think that it is unbelievable that Laurel comes in and attracts the "hottest guy in the school," and I am like, uh . . . really? You think the science geek is the hottest guy in the school? No one is ever going to be one hundred percent happy with your text--but what's more, people will stereotype your characters in ways you never intended.
So what do we, as writers, do? Honestly, I think the way to go about this is to go old school. Just write the story that wants to be told. If your main character is ethnic/gay/female/handicapped/whatever, great, but if that's the most interesting thing about their story, you may be writing yourself into a cliché! And definitely don't write in token ethnic/gay/female/handicapped/whatever characters--people will see through that. Rather, focus on writing unique characters in an interesting story, and remember that doing the "stereotypical" thing can be just as "unexpected" as being a rebel!
I'm going to wrap up (yes, really, I'm ending it now) with a quote from Neal Stephenson that I think applies to SO many aspects of life (and was rebuffed in the blog entry because, yes, Neal Stephenson is a boy so his input doesn't count). At the end of a book called Diamond Age a young woman is asked by a mentor-figure whether she will “conform or rebel,” and she answers, “Neither . . . . Both ways are simple-minded--they are only for people who cannot cope with contradiction and ambiguity.”
So when faced with this litany of rules that I am expected to follow, I ask myself, will I follow them, or refuse? And, like the girl in Diamond Age, I reply, neither. I will follow when I see fit, and break away when I feel necessary. In that, I feel I am more free to tell the best story.
Hehe, you made it to the end, eh? I'm impressed!