I’ve been thinking about stereotypes and generalizations. We’re taught that they’re evil, to be avoided. But let’s be honest. We use them every day to categorize our world. They provide a necessary shorthand, without which we’d be mentally paralyzed.
But how do we know when we’re using stereotypes and generalizations in the negative? I’m not talking about the obvious, easy examples. We know they’re bad. It’s the subtle everyday ones that interest me. The thing about them is that they’re frequently only negative in the eyes of the beholder.
Here’s an example: In one of my books (it’d give too much away to name it) two kids, who’d been abandoned by their birth mother, end up being the bad guys. A few months after the book was published I received an angry email from a reader.
“Adoption has such stigma and challenges already,” she wrote me. “Why did you perpetuate the myth that these kids are problem children in their new homes?”
Short answer? I didn’t.
Longer answer? I wasn’t saying what the reader chose to read into that particular plot point. I know good parents can have rotten children. I knew it at the time I wrote the book too. But the woman my protag cared about didn’t deserve these kids and I didn’t want them to be of her blood.
And now there’s my WIP. It’s a YA novel. The protag is a freshman in high school. She’s a tall girl who has already earned her black belt in Tae Kwon Do. She knows how to take care of herself and is self-confident until kicked in the gut with problems no one should have to face. During her first week at a new girls’ school, the only student who offers her a glimmer of friendship is a “little person.”
Why did I choose to have the tallest kid in the class befriend the smallest? Because that’s how it came out. Both these girls experience being different in a real, physical – visual — way. And that informs who they are and their immediate gravitation toward each other.
And yet . . . I can already see the nasty-grams because the little person in this book isn’t a charmer. The comments won’t come necessarily from “little people” either. With my Sasha books, especially the last one where I reveal some of Sasha’s own nasty prejudices, I’ve received comments from non-Jews who didn’t like her attitude.
Why is it that people take offense at certain stereotypes and generalizations and not at others? I can guarantee that no one will refuse to buy my future book because the blonde is a bitch. Tall people won’t be pissed that my protag doesn’t always act admirably. Martial artists won’t put me in a choke hold when they see me.
So what gives?
Questions for today:
- Can you give an example in your own work where something you wrote with one intention became a hot button for someone else?
- Should writers care about those potential hot-buttons? Does it compromise art to consider them?
- What are some of the stereotypes and generalizations we use daily?
- What are some less common examples that drive you batty?
Enjoy the video below. It’s a happy stereotype buster: