Friday, April 20, 2012

Social Stereotypes in Worldbuilding: A Google+ Hangout Report

This turned out to be a fantastic discussion. I was joined by Janet Harriett, Erin Peterson, David Peterson, Bryan Schmidt, Kyle Aisteach, Elizabeth Arroyo, and Glenda Pfeiffer to talk about social stereotypes.

The reason I decided on this topic was because I'd just the day before had an extensive conversation about social stereotyping with my children, over the Tintin stories by Hergé (which they both love). We're a family which strives for a great deal of social awareness and self-awareness, and the two of them didn't bat an eye when I told them we shouldn't stereotype. But it became more subtle when I started talking about the stereotypes that appear in Tintin and also in Astérix, and how one might look at those and draw the wrong conclusions. I ended up having to explain what caricature was as well, since neither of them had encountered the term. Thus it was that I ended up talking about stereotypes in worldbuilding.

In fact, stereotypes can be exceedingly useful to science fiction and fantasy writers, because we often focus on social issues and, for example, take existing social boundaries and make them more extreme, more codified, in order to bring them to a reader's attention. There are lots of caste systems, downtrodden groups, etc. out there who are helping readers to engage with questions regarding similar groups in the real world. Of course, social structures are quite complex in the real world, more like complex Venn diagrams with subsets and overlaps then discrete and identifiable groups.

Bryan mentioned the idea that people will often criticize others for doing something that they themselves would do, and feel guilty for. In fact, I had just recently encountered a study suggesting that homophobia has a strong basis in the externalization of self-hatred (here). As Jaleh eloquently put it, "we recognize our faults in other people."

At that point we decided to take a look at kinds of social categories. Jaleh mentioned wealth as an important social category. Bryan mentioned tribal divisions in Ghana. Erin talked about how we build narratives to make sense of those elements of our world with which we're less familiar.

Creating generalized categories and assigning things to them is an adaptive trait. To put this in concrete terms, if we saw a lion and weren't able to put it into the larger category of "lion" because it was younger and lacking a large mane, or because it was strangely colored or formed in some way, then we would be killed by it. There is also a social value to rankings and group membership. In this, biology and social structure can be linked, as in Kyle's example where it was found that in Rhesus monkeys, the effectiveness of their immune systems was linked to their social rank. It has been established that humans are able to detect people more genetically distinct from them by their smell. From here it's a surprisingly small leap to the point where we start saying things like, "Rich people are X and poor people are Y."

Erin suggested that social class is one category we feel able to discuss because it doesn't fall under the umbrella of political correctness the way that race and ethnicity do. Social class in America is an interesting topic in fact, because part of American discourse relies on denying its existence - in part because of the early social distancing from England and its class structure. Jaleh mentioned the importance of the idea of the American Dream, in which people can rise above their initial class assignment and become wealthy. Kyle noted that England's social classes are not simply based on wealth, since you can have East End rich cockneys and destitute barons. This brought up the question of Old money and New money. Just because we can attain a level of wealth does not mean we can be accepted into the group of people socially established as the rich. I mentioned Richard Sheridan's play, "The Rivals," which featured the hilariously fascinating character Mrs. Malaprop. She engages in constant malapropisms, which is to say that she tries to imitate the language of the upper classes, but constantly gets it wrong in hilarious ways. She's a pretender.

Pretenders are actually a fascinating topic. These are people outside a group who try to take on the social features of an insider, but are insulted for attempting to do so - a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation. It's not just money that makes a pretender, either. I mentioned that Ashley Judd's recent article on women and beauty features an incisive example of this. Women are divided into beautiful and not beautiful, and everyone should try to be beautiful, but must not seen to be trying too hard. And if a woman like Judd appears to be beautiful beyond the accepted age, then people look for ways to disqualify her beauty, by theorizing that she's cheating in some manner (surgery, etc). So if you aren't beautiful, you're toast. But if you are, chances are you're cheating and you're still toast. And if you are beautiful, that's the only important thing about you... Argh. Ashley Judd says it so much better than I can here, so go and read the article.

We moved at that point into discussing the kinds of ways that social status can get marked. Janet mentioned how it's really important to know which fork to use for what, if you want to prove your social worth. Jaleh talked about who sits above and below the salt cellar at the table. She even showed us a really cool crystal salt cellar from the 1930's. David mentioned an example from the stories of Bertie Wooster where there was incredibly complex consternation about who should sit where at the table. There's always the question of who sits at the head of the table (a very very old question), and even at the Round Table one can still consider who sits at the leader's right, and at his left. Handedness is another feature that has been stereotyped for centuries. Kyle mentioned that in Murder by Death, a rearrangement of the seating of people at the table spares the protagonist from death.

It is extremely common for people to use exclusion as a method to create a sense of inclusion. The examples above merely scratch the surface, and in secondary worlds there are many opportunities to use unusual criteria for inclusion and exclusion. One can always use politeness style (friendly vs. standoffish) as a criterion, but there are many possible variations even in this.

Jaleh recommended Tamora Pierce's Magic Circle books as some with an interesting use of class distinctions. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton is an example of class distinction featured in a classic book.

The role of Bohemians among the upper classes came up as an example of the question of patronage of artists. How accepted would be patronage of artists? Probably more accepted than social association with them.

There is also the question of language distinctions, as in My Fair Lady (mentioned by Jaleh, David and Janet). These have to be treated carefully, especially if you're using existing dialects. The Phantom Menace did some intentional (if clunky and stereotypical) things with dialects, such as giving an Asian-flavored dialect to the Trade Federation, and having the Gungans use a stereotyped Jamaican accent.

Stereotypes are startlingly convenient. Kyle mentioned that they are used extensively in TV and film in situations when the writers don't want something to stick out. A cab driver in a TV show is very likely to be Arab and male because if he weren't, the cab driver character would pop out as unusual and watchers might expect the character to do unexpected things. This is fascinating to me - simultaneously understandable and uncomfortable, because it reveals how audiences expect certain people(s) to be invisible in their places within society.

Lastly we considered the difference between a stereotype and an archetype. Erin suggested that an archetype was the prime exemplar of a category, while a stereotype was applied to every member of the category. Archetypes are the "ideal" members of a category, the way that we might imagine an eagle as the ideal bird. Kyle also said that archetypes are a literary device.

In a secondary world, we can actually teach readers to share the stereotypes possessed by our characters, and this can be a very useful trick in establishing the social model that governs the world. It's important, though, not to overuse them and not to suggest that the character's stereotype is an entirely valid assessment of your world's social order. Much as stereotypes are prevalent yet problematic here, they should be prevalent yet problematic in our secondary worlds, too.


  1. These Google+ hangout chats always sound so fascinating - reading the notes is like having the handout from a fabulous workshop! Are these open to the public? If so, how can one get an invite/announcement that one is coming up?

    1. Terri, I try to announce them here (but don't always remember); I also announce them on Twitter and Facebook. This week's will be Wednesday, April 25th at 11am PDT. We'll be discussing suspension of disbelief and the "show don't tell" of worldbuilding. I hope you can come!

  2. Terri, what you need to do is 1. be on Google+ (easy if you already have gmail or Blogger) 2. put me in your circles and 3. I'll put you in my "writing community" circle, which is the circle I invite to hangouts. Then it's just a matter of going to Google+ at the right time and joining the hangout. I've had occasions when people have had technical trouble getting in, but not too often so far (given the number of hangouts I've had!). It would be great to have you join us!