The Danger of StereotypesJune 29, 2015
I recently finished a book that had me fuming. Not in the good, “oh my god, I can’t believe the author did this to my emotions!” kind of way, but in the way that leaves you ranting. I won’t tell you what the book is, because, as a published author myself, I feel bad putting out bad press about someone else’s book, especially since reviews are so subjective, but I will happily tell you in great detail the issues I had with it.
I went into the book judging it by its cover. It was pink, and girly, and had a wonderful title that had me expecting a funny and sexy roller coaster of high heels and romantic misunderstandings. Instead, I dove straight into a drama about the breakup of a marriage that was fueled almost entirely by stereotypes. Let me name a few:
1) The husband was cheating with the wife’s assistant.
2) The assistant was a decade younger than the wife, shallow, and only in it for the money.
3) Everyone who had ever cheated in their life was a bad person.
4) The Good Guy Romantic Lead loved animals, his parents, his grandparents, his son, and his family’s business.
5) The women in skirts were devils, the women in jeans were heroes.
You get the idea.
First of all, I absolutely cannot stand being told which characters I’m supposed to like and dislike. I appreciate the filter that all POV characters give to a story, but when a character’s portrayal is so completely one-sided that there’s no room to understand him or her and his or her intentions, that’s when a book starts to lose me. No in one is entirely unsympathetic. No one.
The cheating trope is an interesting one, and one that literature can’t get enough of. It’s a deep betrayal of trust and, much like a murder, starts long before the action itself. It’s a result of feeling unfulfilled in a relationship while also being unwilling to leave. The questions that surround the transition from “in love” to “looking elsewhere” fascinates me, which is why I get so frustrated when the reason for someone straying is simply because he’s a Cheating Bastard. But that’s what happened in this book.
The second stereotype that had me ranting (ask my husband – he heard a lot about this) was the Bad Girl. We hear that Romantic Lead’s ex-wife started causing problems the night she wanted to go to a Halloween party in a revealing costume. From there, she “descended” into drinking, flirting, cheating, leaving, getting tattoos and piercings, and, of course, being a bad mother. Oh that poor, poor husband.
Wait. Just. One. Minute.
Let’s back up to that Halloween party and look at things a little more realistically. This wanton woman made her own costume. When she danced out to show her husband, excited and proud of her accomplishment, his response was, “Where’s the rest of it?” We are supposed to perhaps feel a little chagrined at this, but the husband is traditional, and he simply hadn’t known what hit him. His response is surely no basis for the start of an affair. The author, in her heavy-handed judgment of the-ex wife’s sexuality, doesn’t leave us any room to think that maybe this woman felt trapped by the expectations her husband put on her. Maybe she was looking forward to looking beautiful – even sexy! – for her husband and the rest of the people at the party. Maybe the man she left him for connected with her because he understood that she could dress like Princess Jasmine on Halloween and still be a full, strong, worthwhile human being. Just a thought. But of course, no, because that man ended up being a lying debt-builder who left her broke and forced to crawl back to her husband, begging for a place to stay. He refuses.
Everyone loves a villain. Every story needs conflict. All of this is true. But now let’s talk about how harmful stereotypes can be.
First of all, cheaters are human. I know it’s hard to believe, but it’s actually possible to want someone besides your partner and still have something to offer the world. Gasp! Yes, the act of cheating is a painful, destructive, and selfish one, but it does not make or break the humanity of the people committing the act. As writers, we have a responsibility to understand the personhood of all our human characters. If you’re going to make them just a plain Bad Person, you had better have a very good reason, and that reason can’t be “because they cheated”.
Now, I’m not saying that your protagonist has to understand this. It is a monumentally difficult thing to accept that the person you put in a place of honor decided that he or she liked someone else better. It can be dangerous to your heart to realize that they are not a bad person. They are a human person who was drawn to someone who wasn’t you. It is much, much easier to write them off as a terrible person who wasn’t worth your time. Your characters may do this. You, the author, may not.
You may also not write off a woman’s entire worth as a human and as a wife/mother/partner/friend because of a desire to be sexual. Next time you’re writing an unstable female character try this: try to communicate her instability without putting an emphasis on her short skirt, and without shaming her for wanting a man (or men!), and without her using her body solely for fulfillment of her evil schemes. Go inside her head. Figure out why she thinks she’s the heroine of her story. Because I guarantee you, she is. And I bet a lot of people would read that book.
Alright, this was kind of a long one, but this rant has been building for awhile. Tell me some of your favorite books that break cheating/sexuality stereotypes, because I need some right now.
Love to all,