The tyranny of stereotype
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 30 August 2008)

So Michelle Obama spends a lifetime forming herself as an original woman, with the special characteristics and quirks that normally distinguish a complete adult. Then she goes to the Democratic convention and demonstrates that she's ordinary.

This is the tyranny of the stereotype in action. Stereotypes strip away uniqueness, among the most precious of human qualities.

It's not that voters want to see themselves mirrored in public figures. Any given voter may well be as remarkable as Ms. Obama. But they still want to see a purely imaginary creature, a person who's universally acceptable, a fantasy of what an average woman might be if she existed. Ms. Obama's chore, when she gave her speech the other night, was not to reveal herself but to reassure voters about their own values. She was there to reassert what the public needs to believe, or thinks it should believe. TV commentators who analyze speeches such as hers judge public figures according to a formula that has already been tested and found acceptable. And they judge themselves in a similar way. Not one of them dares to show more than a flicker of originality. They want to sound shrewd, they want to avoid repeating what someone else has just said, they may hope to insert a slightly fresh thought into the debate. But they never stray far from what everyone else thinks. They are there to say the right thing, which usually means a version of the national consensus. They will not be welcome on television if they are overly original, if they sound odd or weird.

Stereotypes make public figures predictable and therefore comfortable. And there's no question that stereotypes are necessary. (The term comes from the word for printing from a solid plate, something unchangeable once it's formed.)

Subtract stereotypes from ordinary life and the world would be far too confusing. It would be necessary to re-think, several dozen times an hour, our attitudes to everything and everyone around us.

As for fiction, if we eliminated stereotyped characters we would have to do without movies and bring an aura of wisdom with them. We believe in them automatically and barely realize they can be questioned. Walter Lippmann, who was the most admired of American journalists during much of the 20th century, wrote in 1922 in his book Public Opinion that "A stereotype may be so consistently and authoritatively transmitted in each generation from parent to child that it seems almost like a biological fact."

Even in private life our most intimate emotions may be governed by conventions that we have absorbed in the same unconscious way. A recent documentary on NPR's This American Life, called Break-Up, dealt with the aftermath of romance. Ira Glass, the narrator, began by telling his listeners that when a love affair ends you realize that your feelings are a cluster of cliches, which are abbreviated versions of stereotypes. The next voice on the program was a young woman saying that she didn't want the man who had dropped her to call, but she also wanted him to call. She didn't want to take him back, but realized she would if she could. She sounded genuine, laughing at herself while on the point of tears, knowing that all the time she knew she was living an ironbound stereotype but couldn't help herself.

The most powerful stereotypes derive their strength from fear. The late Robert Jacobs, an architect who built hospitals all over this country and the U. S., understood what it was to live with bureaucratic stereotypes. He said that without exception all of his clients wanted their buildings to be original, but nobody wanted to do anything for the first time. What they most passionately desired was to banish their fears of failure. In Denver, Ms. Obama had to eliminate the fear that she might be strange and therefore threatening. She did it, but at what cost to her spirit?

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