January 05, 2015

Stereotypical stereotypes

The Utah Education Network carries international programming from MHZ Networks like Detective Montalbano, about a police inspector in Sicily. I confess to being endlessly amused at how Italian it is. That plus the joy of watching Luca Zingaretti (as Salvo Montalbano) being one cool Italian dude.

Luca Zingaretti and David Suchet (as Hercule Poirot) would appear to occupy opposite ends of the television detective spectrum. Though perhaps they are so far apart they end up standing back-to-back: the Northern European and Southern European versions of the same character.

By the same token, Donnie Wahlberg as the quintessential New York cop in Blue Bloods is a big part of the draw for me. His performance does raise the curious linguistic question of where he picked up his particular New York accent and mannerisms, since nobody else in the family seems to share them.

But why overthink it? It makes for another fun--and dare I say, informative--stereotype. Stereotypes are not only useful but necessary, it not being possible to personally familiarize ourselves with all 7 billion people on the planet. Or everybody in our town. Or even everybody on our street.

As G. K. Chesterton puts it,

[W]hat is the good of telling a man (or a philosopher) that he has every liberty except the liberty to make generalizations? Making generalizations is what makes him a man.

You'll get much closer to the "human" by latching onto a handful of rough generalizations about Japanese, Koreans, and Chinese, for example, than politely designating all billion-plus of them as undifferentiated "Asians."

Besides, in order to play against a stereotype, there has to be a stereotype there to start with, the same way a musician riffs on an old melody without straying unrecognizably from it. It is much easier for our finite human minds to start with the known and move to the unknown than to invent it.

A stereotype creates a firm foothold in a truly diverse world (as opposed to the monochromatic politically correct kind). A better stereotype gets you far closer to the truth than none. And attempts to rid the world of them will only produce a precipitous decline in the number of true Scotsmen.

Not a true Scotsman, but a great stereotype.

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# posted by Blogger Katherine Woodbury
1/07/2015 9:37 AM   
I think this is one of those storytelling devices that gets criticized by "literary" types when it is "low" writing but applauded by them when it is "high."

The "low" writer uses stereotypes and cliches.

The "high" writer employs "motifs," "classic imagery" and "archetypes."

Eh--potato, potatoh: same difference. And an absolutely necessary part of any writer's toolbox. Maybe Tony Stark can "run before he walks." For everyone else, learning the forms before breaking them is exactly right!
# posted by Blogger Eugene
1/07/2015 11:03 AM   
I think otherwise talented writers can become self-conscious about repeating themselves. They realize they're doing the "same only different," and worried about not being sufficiently "original," run off into the tall weeds and get lost. Person of Interest has been headed in that direction for the past two seasons, and I have to wonder if Nolan will be able to return to the tried and true formula he started with. After all, most times "the road less traveled by" wasn't for good reasons.