9/17/2015 Stereotypes–Not So Believable Anymore
In my writers’ critique groups, someone’s draft characters or plot will sometimes be criticized as “unbelievable” or “unrealistic.” Sometimes that may be the writer’s ineptness, but since just about anything can happen on this planet, the criticism is more an expression of a lean toward assumptions and stereotypes.
Fifty years ago, a Harvard-educated African-American would be considered “unbelievable,” ditto a mountain-climbing woman or a marathon-running 100-year-old. Anyone who grew up in the fifties might remember how stereotypes were common and drove the plots in the movies and on network TV. Women stood by and screamed and wrung their hands as the male white hero whipped the villain. Black men turned white when they saw a ghost. No kidding. This happened regularly on “The Stu Erwin Show.” Birdwatchers were strange, wore odd clothes and ran around with binoculars. Chinese were inscrutable. The only good Indian was a dead Indian, except for Tonto. Ethnic and racist jokes were the coin of humor until they finally became politically incorrect.
Stereotypes as a way to pigeonhole people can also be used to manipulate. An elderly grandfather or, say, a priest, couldn’t possibly be a child abuser. A nice young white girl couldn’t be a thief. A black man wouldn’t be an FBI agent or police undercover agent. Writers use stereotypes to surprise the reader as in having a motorcycle riding, leather-jacketed and tattooed tough guy read medieval poetry.
Thank goodness most stereotypes have been vanquished to the grave they deserve, but a few persist and one of the most persistent is the stereotype of the elderly as wheelchair or walker-bound, weak, dribbling Pablum, deaf, blind, or a bit dotty. Certainly over the hill in every respect.
I often tell of watching a slim, attractive woman swimming laps at a pool party. She was 91 years old. 91! Shortly after that, I met a grandmotherly woman who worked as a private investigator. When tracking down a felon suspected of hiding in a certain neighborhood, she would go door to door with a leash, say that her little dog was missing and had they seen it. Often she was invited in for coffee and a gossip session about the neighbors that would tell her all she needed to know.
I base the characters in my 90s Club cozy mystery series on these two women, but I have a pile of articles about 90 and 100-year-olds dancing, running marathons, lecturing, canoeing, sky diving and taking part in just about any other activity you can name. My 90s Club characters also sometimes use the “little old lady” image to find out what they want to know.
So even though new members in my critique groups may complain that my characters are “unbelievable” and “unrealistic,” I have the evidence to prove them wrong. Even if they never found anyone quite like my 90 years club members, I can quote Shel Silverstein to them: “Anything is possible, child, anything can be.”
Stereotypes are politically and morally incorrect, but some people still use them to pigeonhole, crooks use them to manipulate, and writers use them to surprise the reader.