Thursday, March 22, 2007

Even a Caveman Can Do It

What’s wrong with stereotypes?

Good question; glad you asked. I’ve been thinking about that lately—lately being the last coupla few decades—and I have a coupla few thoughts on the subject that I’d love to tie in after I trot out my Alpha Man of the Hour.

Here he is: The Geico Caveman. I love those commercials! Remember the old Folger’s coffee ongoing romance commercials? Misunderstood Caveman is way better. “So simple, even a caveman can do it.” Currently our sensitive, tortured, hirsute hero is in therapy. “How would you like it if they said ‘So simple even a therapist could do it?’” Well, that just wouldn’t make sense. Love it, love it, love it. If we have to stereotype somebody—some human body—it might as well be the caveman, right? Is this not the ultimate alpha male? Or, at the very least, a great piece of satire.

And our society does enjoy the easy caricature—the stereotype. Stereotyping is lazy writing and lazy visual art, but it’s a powerful political and social tool. It’s powerful because it seems so innocuous. It’s just a little joke. A fable, a fairytale. A story to entertain the children. Or teach the slanted lesson about history, tradition, identity or social values. Or a way to underscore one group’s claim to being “in” or chosen or elite or somehow superior to another. And that other group is so simple, so easily boiled down to a few “characteristic” traits that they become a cipher. A stereotype.

So far we’re probably mostly in agreement. But what about the stereotypes that creep into our little corner of the world? I’m talking genre fiction. I’m talking Romance. We don’t see as many of the noble savage/white captive covers as we once did, but when I got started in this business—back when Geicoman was knee high to an eohippus—we’d pay a visit to the
paperback book rack in the grocery store, and my kids would zero right in on the 101 “Savage” titles and pipe right up with “Why is this Indian dude dragging the white lady onto his horse?” Their dad’s a damn good rider, so I can’t imagine why he’s never tried to pull that trick. (Okay, he didn’t have to. Two days after we met he got his horse to rear up Roy Rogers-style, and I said “My Hero!”) Ah, how time doth add romance to the past. But what’s wrong with the “noble savage”? It’s a stereotype, sure, but it’s a good one, isn’t it? It’s conceived in love. Well, isn’t it? What can it hurt?

And what about those team mascots? My husband’s alma mater, the University of North Dakota, steadfastly refuses to retire their “fighting Sioux” mascot. They can’t afford to. A gazillionaire alum single-handedly built them a new hockey arena only after the U agreed not to give in to NCAA pressure. So now they’re in court. Makes you wonder why the guy cares that much. He’s not “Sioux.” Not American Indian at all as far as I know. Does he have an ax to grind, or simple control issues? I grew up in Massachusetts, and I’m proud to say that UMass changed the “Redmen” to the “Minutemen” a long time ago. I doubt they lost any games or alumni contributions because of it. I’ve been thinking about this because I saw that UIllinois finally sent Chief Illiniwek to the Happy Hunting Grounds. (Yes, folks, the HHG is a fantasy of the white man’s making.) You can go to their web site and watch a video of his final dance, which is like no dancing I’ve ever seen at any powwow. The video is moving, really. You’ve got your school spirit, your nostalgia and all that. But a mascot is a pet. It’s a good luck charm.

And it’s represented by a caricature—a cartoonish logo, a person dressed in a silly costume (the one to the left is for sale online intended for use as a mascot), sometimes a hapless animal, although PETA and the ASPCA have cut down of the number of bears and wildcats getting trotted out on the playing field these days. Why American Indians? Why not Chinese or Africans or Scots? Is it really fair to create a cartoon image of a living, breathing people and trivialize their culture this way?

Mind you, I don't presume to speak for American Indians. Only for myself. And I’m just asking.


Helen Brenna said...

Stereotyping is wrong, can be hurtful, and, I think, is strangely distancing. But we all do it, every day, whether we mean to or not.

My guess is half the battle is an awareness it exists.

lois greiman said...

We're strangely fragile beings. I don't think we can figure ourselves out very well and need a reference point, some simple explanation of others so we know where we stand.

And Kathy, I wanna see Clyde do the rearing up trick sometime.

Betina Krahn said...

No, Kathy, it's not fair. It's playground name-calling made worse by the honestly good intentions of some who just don't understand the pain behind the wince that occurs whenever you or your children see that trivialization.

In such situations we(the majority) don't think we're trivializing anything. . . some even consider it a compliment to the groups-- to consider them strong, fierce, formidable opponents. (unlike the poor caveman! lol!) It really is a matter of making people broaden their thinking and engage their sensitivity to understand what happens.

As to the larger issue-- I think it's bred into the human psyche to be wary of "different." At one time it had survival value for a clan and for individuals. It's an old biological imperative we no longer need and we can't afford to hang on to any longer. My clan vs another clan. My color vs another color. My people's beliefs vs other beliefs. The Protestants and Catholics in Ireland. . . the Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq. . . The Hutu's and the Tutsies. . . heck, Democrats and Republicans!

It takes example, persuasion, education, and patience to overcome it. But if there is to be any future for humankind, we have to make the effort and start see the similarities instead of the differences. Starting with the Chief's Last Dance.

Oh yeah, and West Virginia jokes.


Anonymous said...

Even "positive stereotypes" can be hurtful. My children are Asian American, and are wonderful musicians (proud mom brags). I often hear the comment, "Of course they are good at music (or math), they are Asian."

NO! They are good a music because they have an interest and they PRACTICE. They are good at math because they have an interest, and have great teachers.

I have many friends with children who are Asian American, who are not good at math or music. It is not a racial predisposition. It is hard on these kids because some of their teachers EXPECT them to be good at math and don't give them the extra help they need, because the teachers think the kids "are not trying." They have really told my friends this in parent-teacher conferences.

There is no racial predisposition to support positive or negative stereotypes.

There is a great exhibit, at the science museum in St. Paul, about race (called RACE). Check out the website and see if it is coming to a city near you (it is booked out for years) It is very well done, and worth seeing.

thank you for indulging my rant

Kathleen Eagle said...

When I was looking for mascots on the web I discovered that our MN Vikings mascot, Ragnar, is the only "human" mascot in pro sports--meaning that the guy who does him wears nothing in terms of a mask over his head. Interesting. I'm not a football fan, so I don't know what sort of mascot jumps around on the field at a Washington "Redskins" game. The thing about Ragnar--yes he's human, but is it safe to say there really are no Vikings around anymore? MN is like little Scandinavia, so we choose Ragnar. That's different. The school where I taught on the reservation was the Warriors. There was no mock Indian running around on the floor during time-outs, but there were real Indians courtside. That's different. IMO

Christie Ridgway said...

Good post, Kathleen. There was a lot of controversy here in San Diego when San Diego State University (mascot=Aztecs) considered changing that. While some found the image offensive and a stereotype, others didn't want to change tradition and didn't see how it was offensive to see the Aztecs as analagous to "warriors."

The mascot at my sons' high school is the "Foothiller" who is dressed like a lumberjack. I find it hard to get too excited about him, I admit. We just played a volleyball competition up in Orange County, California and the team was the Tustin Tillers...the mascot was a guy with a plow!

In our area we still have a lot of animal images...wildcats and cougars.

Kathleen Eagle said...

Anonymous, you raise such an important point. Those expectations really hit home with me when we moved off the reservation and my kids attended "mainstream" schools in ND. Teachers expect Indian kids to follow certain patterns, too, but I won't go there now. Suffice it to say that the enemy of my children is my enemy. In my head I try to separate igorance from evil. It's mainly ignorance.

Who's the comedian who says "You can't fix stupid"? I hope he's wrong. I think we can fix ignorance, but not by selling stereotypes.

Thanks for ranting, Anon!

Kathleen Eagle said...

Christie, the University of MN teams are the Gophers! I wonder what the thinking was on that one. WI has the Badgers--now badgers are tough. We were driving out in the country in ND years back and came upon a badger fighting with a rattle snake. We had to stop and watch--it was amazing! But the WI "Bucky Badget" is pretty cute. My friend broke her husband's Bucky doll and threw it away. He was devatated. She's searched everywhere for a replacement, but this was a 30+ yr old version no longer available. She put a watch out on E-Bay, but people just don't auction off their Bucky Badger.

Point being, changing the mascot won't lose a school any support. Sure, a generation of alumni will whine around for a while, and then they'll discover how much their old sweatshirts are worth on E-Bay, and they'll get over it.

JoAnna said...

I agree with helen brenna, sterotyping is something that people do almost everyday.

The key is to become more aware of when you are sterotyping people. Sterotyping is learned and in some cases can be "unlearned" to a degree.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Kathleen, for enduring my rant, and for posting such thought provoking blog.

Helen has a great point about being more aware of unintentional stereotyping.

The best book that I have read about this is Malcom Gladwell's book "Blink" I consider myself a person who tries to see people, not stereotypes, but I took his quiz and learned alot about what social conditioning has done to shape my reactions, and that I need to be very mindful of this.

I think everyone has some underlying prejudices and I know that I try very hard to "unlearn" mine. It is an ongoing process for me.

Kathleen Eagle said...

I absolutely agree that everone has underlying, subconscious prejudices influencing their behavior. I have my father's 4th grade geography book, published in 1924 (the year he was born). It's fascinating. What he learned in school at the age of 9 was that American Indians are a primitive people who lived the same way throughout their history, made no "improvements" on the land, developed nothing, and are so much better off now that they're being cared for by white people. And you can imagine the way Africans are presented in the book. My parents grew up in Virginia, but this was a book that was used in schools all over the country.

A generation later I learned from grade school texts that weren't quite as blatant, largely because they were pretty much all about white people. Progress? Some. By the time I got to high school in the 60's--aka The Age of Enlightenment--teachers were encouraging students to question everything. My US History class used no text book--all source documents--and we debated, discussed, challenged. It was an experimental program from Amherst College, and our teacher was the best. He was no spring chicken, either--a good deal older than my father. I was scared to death of him, but, man, did I learn to think.

Anyway, the "greatest Generation" made advances despite negative social conditioning. The people who used that 1924 text gave us the Civil Rights Act. And I think we Boomers added some to that progress. Can't stop now, though.

People do tend to hang with their "own kind," but the world is getting so much smaller even as the population explodes. We can't afford to be pinheaded about people who look, talk, dress, and worship differently. We really must learn what it means to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. And how long has it been since that exhortation came about?

That said (argh! I'm so sick of "that said" and I just said it!) I'm constantly coming face to face (behind my face, inside my head) with my own biases and struggling to deal with them--asking myself where some response of mine comes from. Do I disapprove of a given behavior because it's harmful or just because it's not the way I do things?

Debra Dixon said...

Kathy-- Fascinating subject.

My husband and I live in the South. Land of the stereotype. Throw a rock, hit a stereotype.

What I've found interesting is that stereotypes eventually have sub-stereotypes because the whole idea of a stereotype, of nice neat uniform characteristics, defies nature.

What did Kinsey's gall wasp research prove? Natural variation. There are no two insects, much less any two people that are alike.

Kathleen Eagle said...

Exactly, Deb. It's a subject close to the writer's consciouness. Just discussed it this week in one of the classes I teach at the Loft. Sterotyping often comes in when we write about people and places we don't know and we don't do our research. One of my favorite MN writers who wrote wonderful books set in this locale did a book set in the South that was, IMO, replete with stereotypes. I remember another wonderful writer who was from the South saying to me privately, "That was the only book of hers I didn't like. What was she thinking?" It's not that we can't get away with it--obviously artists get away with stereotyping because the average person, for various reasons, doesn't call them on it. And so the stereotype is perpetuated. But it's lazy writing at best.

Not that I don't fall prey to taking the easy way out sometimes. We're writing commercial fiction, and we have deadlines and marketing and readers to satisfy. But what do other people think? Do we have a social responsibility as pop fiction writers? Or is this just stuffy Kathy taking herself too seriously? (Because I'm behind on said deadline and I need a serious excuse for blogging rather than working at this very moment.)

Anonymous said...

My self imposed writing assignment of the week--to write a scene where one character gets a rude awakening by assuming something about another character because of stereotying.

Thanks for curing my writer's block, Kathleen!

Kathleen Eagle said...

Hey, glad to help, Anon! Great idea. May I use it as a writing exercise in my class?

Anonymous said...

be my guest!

Anonymous said...

Sterotypes do go both ways. For years, I refused to read Kathleen's books because I figured, with her blond hair, she had to be one more romance author pretending to be vaguely Indian writing "Noble Savage" books. Luckily, someone told me I was wrong. Sorry Kathleen!

blackroze37 -tami said...

ive hear, cant recall from who, but the cave men is suppose to be getting their own series

so right now, still DK
but thought id throw that in :)