Friday, October 17, 2008

The Nature of Stereotypes

I recently finished reading The Nature of Monsters by Clare Clark, an intriguing novel where the lines between “normal” and “inhuman” are explored. The story is set in 1718 London, where modest apothecary and scientist Grayson Black is conducting some very unusual experiments. Born with a disfiguring birthmark after his mother witnessed a fire, Black is obsessed with “maternal impression,” the idea that a mother can mark her unborn child. He therefore invites Eliza, a pregnant sixteen-year-old, into his home, and attempts to disfigure the fetus by traumatizing the mother. As the story develops, Grayson Black proves himself to be a monster—perhaps not in appearance, but certainly in nature.

Obviously, this is just fiction, but a good story always has a little truth in it. Black, after years of being labeled a “monster” because of his appearance, becomes one in truth. Which raised the question for me: do people mold themselves to fit society’s expectations? For example, do blondes sometimes purposely act like the stereotypical “dumb blonde” because it’s what is anticipated? The same goes for “fiery redheads” and “dependable brunettes.” Or is society simply programmed to notice the people who fit these stereotypes rather than those who defy them: e.g. the even-tempered redhead, brilliant blonde, and vivacious brunette. No one wants to be stupid, over-emotional, or boring, yet it seems strange how many people “fit” their labels.

I think the same applies to more serious typecasts. If someone can’t speak or read clearly, they must be stupid; obese people are lazy and gluttonous; all African Americans speak in Ebonics. When a person encounters this sort of negative attitude constantly, unless they have very high self-esteem, they might adopt some of these traits, or simply believe they have them, out of pure hopelessness. A girl with a speech impediment, having been told she’s an idiot for the hundredth time, may start to believe it. The overweight little boy might stop attempting to lose weight after enough wise cracks from his thin older brother.

Society’s views and expectations have an effect on how people present themselves. Modern American culture is one full of categories, and almost everyone feels the need to fit in somewhere. We want to fall into a category, even if it isn’t necessarily accurate or flattering, for the sake of having a niche.


matt jacobs said...

You are saying, I think, that conforming to the stereotype society has for us is natural because it is our way of trying to fit in. Even thought, obviously, most of these stereotypes are not particularly flattering.

It seems to follow, then, that Black, while he is becoming a monster (conforming to the stereotype that everyone else assigns him), is also becoming more human. What he is doing is in human nature, to find a group, he "wants to fall into a category, even if it isn’t necessarily accurate or flattering, for the sake of having a niche".

Also, it is scary to think that society is the reason people think they should conform to a certain stereotype. However, I don't think that always means the one they are "assigned". For example, isn't it the same society (our society) that sort of sets a standard or a definition for what we consider to be attractive or successful, etc. and don't people try (by doing little things as well as the extremes) in order to fit this stereotype?

leecbryant said...

This is an interesting post Scarlett. I agree that there are obvious categories in our society and people often settle into them. I wonder if this can at all be linked to the idea of fear. By being what society expects of you, you are safe from the criticism of trying to be something different. "Molding" is the easy way out, or the least vulnerable. Or it can be looked at the other way around: someone tries to be what they aren't, society beats them down, so they settle back into what's expected because they fear being ridiculed again.