Monday, May 30, 2011

Stereotypes Inc.

Lately, I’ve been getting the feeling that I know a lot more people than I actually do. Except that most of them are semi-fictional. It’s got more to do with my interpretation of these people than the reality of it. One or more characters in the new age Indian novels I read, protagonists in the latest Hindi movies I watch, contestants in reality shows on MTV I’m hooked to, a handful of Indian celebs, you get the drift.

I wouldn’t say we’re a nation full of stereotypes. Or maybe we are as much as any other nation is. US media has blatantly drawn from these formulas as is often visible in roles our peeps play in television series and movies. Series like ‘Outsourced’ are huge beneficiaries of these formulas. It’s trickled down to people too. I often overhear conversations like ‘we need to hire more Indians to fix our technology issues’ (and I can’t decide if it’s because we’re more do-ers than visionaries). Or joke after joke on Americans speaking with an Indian call center employee with a thick accent and a totally non-believable American name. We don’t thrive on pseudo-names and identities, do we?

It isn’t just the US media. Certain stereotypes projected by Indian mass media have been in existence for a while now. The girl who wears short skirts invariably flirts/is stupid/pouts and can’t ever be a scientist. The coder dude at a software firm is often boring/gullible/loser and can’t ever smell good. The annoying boss is always ugly/bald/paunchy and can’t ever dance well. The god-fearing roommate in dorms is often a wimp/poor conversationalist/broke and can’t ever be trained in martial arts. The pushy punju aunty lives so she can get people married/be materialistic/perpetually silence her husband and can’t ever be skinny.

Newbies break free from age old moulds and chose new paths but soon form a cluster of people who fit the new formula and before you know it, stereotypes have evolved. The photographer dude is always the urban alpha male with an enviable lifestyle. The radio jockey girl is cheery and animated. The girl working in a creative field in urban areas essentially over-indulges in smoking and alcohol. When a married man cheats, the girlfriend is invariably shallow, sexy and materialistic. The guitarist dude who’s into alternative rock is in all probability a rebel with long hair. Young journalists are habitually obsessive compulsive critics of everything.

Stereotypes are important in fiction and cinema for characters that are so familiar, the need to describe them is not felt for the reader/movie-goer to understand the type. I’d think that the time to use stereotypes is when a person makes a very brief appearance and you want to quickly convey exactly what this character is like without having the time to fully develop it. The time to avoid stereotypes is . . . well, all the rest of the time. Stereotypes are often a sign of uninspired, unimaginative or lazy writing. Agree?

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