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The Stereotype Saga

I was watching a Bollywood movie the other day in which a bunch of gangsters burst into a department store. They were dressed in black, with straggly hair and bloodshot eyes, and carried these enormous guns. Your typical ‘bad guys’. You see, it really wouldn’t do to have a bad guy even remotely resemble a normal human being. Switching channels, I came across an ancient Ramsay Brothers creation. It was a stormy full moon night, as clouds scurried across the sky and a wolf howled in the distance. The howl cued the entry of the big, scary ghost: dressed in all white, with blood pouring down its body (and don’t forget its hideous face). There's more horror for you. Soap operas, too, endlessly propagate the stereotypes of the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. Ekta Kapoor must have taken a special course in stereotyping if her serials are anything to judge by.

Hollywood isn’t all that better. Renowned author and media critic, Jack Shaheen, in his book, "Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People", exposed the relentless negative stereotyping of Arabs in Hollywood movies right from 1896 up to the present. According to Psychiatric Times, there has been negative stereotyping of patients with mental illnesses for a long time in Hollywood. From DW Griffith’s The Maniac Cook in 1909 to the Summer of Sam (1999) and the controversial American Psycho (2000), mental problems have always been equated with violence. Hispanics have also long been stereotyped as lazy criminals good enough only to work as maids or gardeners. Well, art may be an imitation of life – or maybe life is an imitation of art. Either way, we live out millions of stereotypes in our day-to-day lives without even realising it. Most of us have an almost instinctive reaction to categorise everyone we meet into one of several stereotypes. In fact, in the very act of writing this, I am living out the stereotype of the bespectacled ‘wannabe-writer’ trying to put the world around him into words. School life is a sterling example of this stereotyping mania. You have the teacher's "pets" who inhabit the front-most benches. The "cool" kids inhabit the back benches. There are the science "nerds" stereotyped to be perennially scruffy and harried-looking and who use only their cherished blue ballpoint pens (and to truly fit into the stereotype, they must be chewed). I could go on forever with this list, but I think these examples are enough to highlight what I’m trying to get at.

Stereotypes are dangerous because they limit our potential, rob us of our identity, and prevent us from making personal choices.

Society itself enforces several stereotypes, with the gender stereotype being the most common. A girl must learn to be "ladylike" and a boy must learn how to "act like a man." Basically, this implies that girls must be quiet, demure, submissive, and polite at all times. A boy must never do anything as "feminine" as cry, and not being obsessed with sports is a cardinal sin. Why is it that girls who step out of this stereotype are labelled "tomboys" and boys who step out of their stereotype labelled "wimps"? It’s not wrong for a boy to be crazy about cars or for a girl to like pink, but people must do what they want to do without being scrutinised by the rigidity of societal stereotypes. Girls don’t have to try and look like a model or a soap opera star, and boys don’t really have to try and be Brad Pitt. Be whatever you want to be...

The bottom line is that stereotypes are dangerous because they limit our potential, rob us of our identity, and prevent us from making personal choices. Out of sheer embarrassment at not obeying societal "norms," we end up conforming to stereotypes even if we don't fit into them. Racial stereotypes reduce tolerance and propagate bias against a people for no real reason. For instance, the persecution of Indian Sikhs after 9/11 took place because of the stereotype of guys in turbans with beards being Arab or Afghani, and hence potential terrorists. Dr Samuel Johnson once said that "all generalisations are dangerous", and stereotypes are generalisations in their most extreme form. Stereotypes can be self-destructive, and the only way to battle them is to accept people's individuality and learn to respect it.

There's no such thing as a "good" stereotype.


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