The theme of stereotypes in film, literature and television is one that has been lurking at the back of my mind for some time now. Only five minutes ago did it lurch to the forefront of my thinking, and with such aplomb i might add that i near leaped out of the bath in order to write out what came to me.
The initial impetus of this thinking came in the form of the character Dean Pelton, from the US Tv series Community. He is an effeminate, gay man. He also appears somewhat pursuant towards straight men and has some strange sexual interests. He also happens to be one of the funniest characters on the programme, and one to which the finest acting can be attributed. I laugh more at his character than at any other, and as a gay man myself a small voice speaks up every now and then saying “That’s a stereotype, that’s wrong.” The resultant thinking of the culmination of this conflict is what you’re reading right now.
(look at me, assuming readership)
The conclusion that i came to with the Dean is that you can see him as a character that ties into stereotype. Or you can look in more than one dimension, and see a well-written, fleshed-out character that not only is believably portrayed, but also one that has more to him than what the stereotype would dictate; and is thus, not a stereotype.
If, while sat in front of your blank Word Document (which as a side note is in my opinion inferior to a great many applications, but just this once i’ll adhere to the stereotype) and a character comes to you who is a stay-at-home mother, or a ditzy blonde, or an effeminate, gay man and you dismiss that thought on the grounds that they may appear to match a perceived stereotype, then that is almost as ridiculous as the stereotype in the first place. By all means dismiss them on the grounds that you have written a thousand such characters before, or they don’t fit the idea you already have, or if you know nothing about that which you would be writing. But if you start a work bound by the chains of ‘what has been done before’ or ‘what could be seen as stereotypical’, then the creative spark to your work is stifled under a bowl before you’ve even begun.
If you believe or believe you must believe that no black people are criminals, or no women are bad drivers, or no men are arrogant, then i hate to break it to you but life has some surprises for you. In the course of your life, you’re sure to see a perceived stereotype or two come strolling down the street towards you. The error in judgement comes when you hold the opinion that ALL Muslims are terrorists, or ALL gay men are effeminate; and this is an error in thinking that has caused a great deal more strife in our world than have stereotypical characters in books.
If JK Rowling had matched up a three-word description for each of the characters that appeared fully-formed in her mind to a list of perceived stereotypes: the bossy motherly housewife, the wise old wizard, the brainy bookish girl, then the world may have been ever deprived of Molly Weasley, Dumbledore and Hermione Granger. And frankly in my opinion, a world without Dumbledore seems akin to a half-illuminated chandelier. Instead, what Ms Rowling did was write people. Characters who were people, and thus characters on which stereotypes had no bearing. As Ms Rowling has stated herself in interviews, Hermione (in the books) is a plain, know-it-all, bookish girl, but that isn’t all she is. Molly Weasley is a stay-at-home housewife, but that isn’t all she is. Hermione is a girl. Molly is a woman. They are people.
This, therefore, shapes my recommendation to authors, screenwriters, scriptwriters, playwrights, producers, anyone who any creative input into the formation of characters: write people. Write characters that remind us of people we know, or people we wish we knew. Characters that challenge the way they are perceived to be, characters that are exactly who we think they are. But to limit creativity because of a perceived stereotype is, i would say, immensely wasteful.
N.B. As it happens, i also have much to say on the topic of a direct link between long, hot baths and idea-sparking; but perhaps that is a topic for another time.