Stereotypes: Good or Bad?

Back on Tuesday, Zavirevire brought up the issue of labels leading to stereotypes. This raises the question about are stereotypes inherently good or bad, and how we should address them.

We all know the stereotypes. Gay men are flaming, limp wristed, lisping men. Lesbians are ultra-mannish and don’t shave their body hair. Trans women are just men badly pretending to be women. Black people love fried chicken and watermelon. Asians are good at school, but lousy in bed. These kinds of stereotypes are based in prejudice, but not all stereotypes are bad. There’s worse ones for black people than the fried chicken and watermelon one, and lots of people like both foods. And much like labels, sometimes stereotypes help us find our identities when we’re struggling to find them.

Take for example how common it is for trans women to go overboard and be ultra-femme for a while until they come back to a comfortable middle ground, discovering themselves. Or the young gay and lesbian people just coming out of the closet, looking to older queer folk to teach them how to be gay, how they dress, act, where they shop, etc. Sometimes, the stereotypes serve as a starting point. Sometimes, that’s all someone goes to. Which is not inherently bad.

Stereotypes exist for a reason, because there’s a visible trend. The stereotype about asians being good at academics stems from cultural traditions in some East Asian countries where parents are very strict on their kids about school, and some like Japan even have cram schools after school for additional study. The stereotype about the ultra-mannish lesbian comes from some very butch lesbians and some of the more extreme feminists (many of whom are likely lesbian as well). But stereotypes can change over time as culture shifts.

Which leads to the other side of stereotypes. Trying to avoid them completely leads to creating new ones. Those who try to cast down the gender binary and deride all those who aren’t transcending it as helping enforce the standard. They fail to realize that in order to make a world of true gender equality, that means that all gender identities and presentations must be acceptable, including ones within the existing binary. If that does not happen, it just creates a new binary. The same applies with stereotypes. The more a community tries to fight the image of stereotypes, the more they create a new one.

Look to the black community for an example. 100 years ago, they were viewed as stupid, ignorant, and less human than white folks. Now, years after the civil rights movement began to change that image, what images do we have? Gang bangers, pimps, prostitutes, and people abusing the welfare system, despite this being such a minority of the actual black community. Native Americans were once viewed as savages and thieves, now they’re viewed as drunks and casino owners. Trans women used to be the ultra-femme only crowd, but now we’re seen as more of sex workers of all presentations.

I gave advice to someone a couple days ago worrying that he might not be a trans man because all of the ones he knows are chauvinistic misogynists and that’s not him. I told him then that there’s more than one way to be a man, more than one way to be a woman, and the only one who can tell him that he’s trans is himself. That he shouldn’t worry about how others are, and just be himself, whoever that may be. That advice still applies when it comes to stereotypes. Let stereotypes and labels be an initial guide, and if they don’t fit, don’t accept them. Be who you are, regardless of race, sex, gender identity, gender presentation, religious beliefs, etc.

What do you all think on this matter?

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