Stereotypes in literature can help craft a story or steer an audience to a certain perspective. In this lesson, you’ll learn more about the uses of stereotypes in literature and explore some examples where they’ve been used.
How Stereotypes Work
Have you ever heard somebody say one of these lines:
- ”She can’t drive. All women are bad drivers.”
- ”He’s black, so he must be a good athlete.”
- ”I just won’t vote. All politicians are crooked.”
While some women probably are bad drivers and some talented athletes are also of varying races, it seems pretty silly to make broad assumptions about entire genders, races, or groups of people, doesn’t it? We’ve all experienced this in our personal lives somehow; maybe we’ve even made an assumption about someone based on their nationality, gender, religion, or the color of their skin. These types of broad, over-simplified ideas about groups of people are called stereotypes.
Stereotypes usually involve applying general traits or characteristics to a group of people. Most experts would say that using stereotypes to classify people is both hurtful and harmful; after all, you can seldom use one trait and apply it to everyone in a particular group, right? It’s not accurate to say that all blondes are ditzy, because that’s simply not true. And, it may hurt a person’s feelings or harm your relationships as a result.
However, authors and writers frequently employ stereotypes for a number of reasons. Let’s take a look at why.
Stereotypes in Literature
After all we just learned about how stereotypes can be harmful and hurtful, why would writers of literary works choose to implement them in their stories? The answers can be found in a couple of places:
First, they can be used to connect with an audience. By using stereotyped characters, you can create a common ground with your readers. For example, if you identify a character as a computer geek, you’ve helped to build an image for readers that they can associate that character with. This can also be useful for directing your audience to think about a particular character in a certain way, either positively or negatively.
Stereotypes can also be used in literature to help tell a story. Whether they’re a minor or a major character, stereotypes can help an author construct a story. It may help a writer to explain a character’s personality or actions or, simply, it may be easier to assign a stereotype to a character to work on developing other pieces of the story more fully.
Finally, stereotypes can be crafted to be broken. Say what? Crafted to be broken? Absolutely. Crafting a perceived stereotype for a character, only to have that character break those stereotypical traits as the story progresses, can create a character that is intriguing to readers. Imagine you’re introduced to a goth, punk-type teenage character. You immediately think they’re depressed, into heavy metal music, and are troublemakers. Imagine your interest in that character when you find out he or she is a straight-A student who volunteers in his/her spare time. Much more interesting, right?
Now that you’ve seen some ways that stereotypes can be useful in developing literary characters, let’s take a look at a few examples of these types of scenarios in literature.
Keep in mind that stereotypes can be assigned to any number of groups, based on race, gender, religion, or even age. Here are a few popular literary stereotypes:
First, let’s look at To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. There are a couple of possibilities to fit into what you might consider a stereotyped character in this story of racial tensions in the deep South. Tom Robinson, an African-American, is on trial for allegedly raping a white woman. His lawyer, Atticus Finch, argues against the stereotypes placed against Robinson that, because he is black, he is a liar, immoral, and not to be trusted around women.
A second stereotyped character could be Bob Ewell, who is depicted as a poor white Southern man. Neither Bob, nor his wife, have any formal education or upbringing and no money to speak of. And, to top it off, Bob is lazy. In short, Bob is portrayed as poor ”white trash.”
Next is Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind is portrayed as the stereotypical Southern belle. She is a young and fragile-minded lady, well-dressed, of well-to-do upbringing, l and well-versed in social graces. Scarlett, in her fancy dresses with the hoop skirts, is the image many of us perceive when the stereotyped ‘Southern belle’ is presented.
Cinderella by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm is a more lighthearted example of stereotyping, but an example nonetheless. Have you ever noticed how most every fairy tale presents the stereotypical wicked stepmother? In fact, we’re so accustomed to the stepmothers being wicked, that they’re automatically referred to as ”the wicked stepmother.” Cinderella has one. Rapunzel does too. And, don’t forget Snow White and Hansel and Gretel. Stepmothers have been getting a bad rap in literature since the days of Prince Charming and poisoned apples.
One last example comes from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Jim is a black adult slave in the book and is portrayed as unintelligent, inhumane, and unequal to his white peers. There are other instances of stereotyping in Twain’s work, including portraying the female characters as weak, while the male characters are seen as bolder and stronger.
In everyday life, stereotypes can be a problem. Stereotypes occur when broad, general assumptions or characteristics are used to categorize entire groups of people. While they can be harmful or hurtful in real life, writers often successfully employ stereotypes to help connect readers to a story, to help construct a story, or to break a perceived notion about a character. We can see examples of stereotypes in all types of literature, including instances in To Kill a Mockingbird, relating to race; in Cinderella, relating to stepmothers as a group; and in Gone With the Wind, stereotyping the traditional Southern belle.