Earlier this morning, I had the pleasure of reading a post by Usha on her blog Agelessbonding that was typical of her in being a stimulating work of literature. Usha is one of those many people on the net who makes you wish we all lived within walking distance of each other, just so you could drop by now and then for a cup and an exchange of views. Friday, she wrote an elegant post about stereotypes that I responded to at such great length she surely by now suspects I have attempted to write a Russian novel in her comments section. But I couldn’t help it. Her post was inspiring.
So what does she say? Well, I will briefly outline that here. She approaches the subject by discussing a few of the stereotypes she grew up with. Specifically, the notion “suffering is the sure path to glory”; the notion extreme “sacrifice and self-abnegation” are our path in life to all we want; and the notion stepmothers are always wicked. She then concludes with the remarkable observation that, while those old stereotypes largely arose from the people or the folk themselves, today’s newer stereotypes are just as likely to be the intentionally exploitative creations of one or another huge dollar industry.
That observation set me back me with its implications. No one is really pushing the notion that all stepmothers are wicked these days, but billions of dollars are thrown into promoting contemporary stereotypes — such as the surprisingly ugly notion there is only one standard — perfect and eternal — for female beauty. We might as individuals rail against such BS. We might point out — as one of the commentators on this blog did yesterday — that, “Women are fascinating creatures no matter what age.” But how are we really to succeed in a media war where the other side shows up with billions of dollars to spend on advertising their exploitative fashion dogma?
Of course, stereotypes sometimes serve an useful purpose. The stereotype that political extremists are crazy crackpots might not be perfectly true, but it is certainly true enough about those extremists who happen to be Right-Wing or Left-Wing authoritarians. And the stereotype that they are crazy crackpots is a much easier thing to communicate to someone than the seven distinct ways in which authoritarians are extraordinarily poor and unrealistic thinkers. But the moral of both the stereotype and the reality are the same: Only a fool would trust an authoritarian with power.
Yet the fact some stereotypes can serve a useful purpose doesn’t ameliorate those many stereotypes that are obnoxiously dangerous. For instance, the pernicious stereotype that 50-something men who hang out with much younger women only do so to get them naked is an especially disgusting example of a completely silly stereotype. The truth is, we 50-something men want our much younger friends to engage in the political process and vote — preferably while naked. But I raised a more important example of an obnoxiously dangerous stereotype on Usha’s blog this morning.
One stereotype that particularly goads me is the heavily promoted notion that “cool kids affirm casual sex while losers don’t”. I am extremely liberal in some of my sexual views, but that sort of nonsense appalls me precisely because it tries to emotionally blackmail every kid into compliance with it. That is, it leaves no room — it grants no positive self-image — to those many kids who would actually betray themselves by adopting a casual attitude towards something they naturally take in earnest. Instead, it labels them “losers”.
The notion those kids are losers is rampant in popular culture these days. It is false. It is dangerous. And it is heavily promoted by the entertainment industries.
Some of the most vital things a teenager can do is figure out, as much as possible at those ages, what their values are, where their strengths and weakness lie, and how they can be true to themselves in a socially responsible manner. Those are vital things for a teenager to undertake. And they simply do not need billions of dollars poured into confusing them about their values, their strengths and weaknesses, and what it means to live authentically. Even if those billions are not intentionally targeted at confusing them on precisely those existential points, existential confusion is the inevitable result of selling anyone on the notion they should fit some procrustean bed of what a “cool kid” is.
Sadly, I agree with Usha that, while “In earlier times it was society that had a stake in creating and sustaining stereotypes…today it seems to be a multi-billion dollar industry. And perhaps that is what…make[s] these [new] stereotypes that much harder to reject.” For, really, how much can we do to counter the greedy, exploitative corporate stereotyping that is going on all around us? Over the entire course of our lives, our voices are unlikely to reach even a fraction of the people just one MTV video reaches with a single airing. What’s the solution, then?