A stereotype is a distorted and often exaggerated depiction of some aspect of reality. As such, stereotypes are potentially very dangerous because they can influence our thoughts, feelings and actions in misleading ways. Confusing an oversimplified and distorted picture of something with the complex, multi-level reality it actually represents is clearly not a wise step to take.
So far, so straightforward, but what is often not realised is that (i) stereotypes are far more prevalent than people generally realise; and (ii) they work both ways – that is, we can both stereotype others and be stereotyped by others. Let’s consider each of these in turn.
The mass media are very important influences in modern society, often having a profound and far-reaching impact on how we perceive reality. We tend to become so used to the media that we rarely realise what effect they are having on us. When those influences are rooted in stereotypes, we can find ourselves in difficulties, relying on someone else’s definition of reality. This is often a definition that reflects certain people’s power interests and the discriminatory assumptions that uphold them. For example, there is a stereotype that presents unemployed people as ‘scroungers’ unwilling to work, rather than as people denied work by an economic system that prioritises profits over human needs. This is not to say that such ‘scroungers’ do not exist, but rather that it is dangerous to do what stereotypes generally do, which is to take one aspect of reality and present it as the whole picture.
Despite so often being inaccurate and misleading, stereotypes are none the less very powerful in their influence. Consider, for example, the common (stereotypical) assumption that women talk more than men do. Compare that assumption with what the research on the subject tells us and a very different picture emerges.
Stereotypes feature regularly in advertisements (spotting stereotypes in ads can be both fun and enlightening), television programmes (think about how police work tends to be portrayed in crime dramas, for example – do you think police work is really like that?) and in news reporting (indeed, especially in news reporting). Stereotypes are, sadly, all around us, and we are oblivious much of the time to the effect they are having on us.
We should also be wary of the oft-quoted idea that there is an element of truth in all stereotypes (as if to suggest that they are not so far from reality after all). Some – but certainly not all – stereotypes are an exaggeration of reality and do therefore contain an element of truth, but they are still distortions and therefore potentially dangerous things to base our ideas or actions on.
So, clearly, we should be very careful not to rely on stereotypes (which basically means unlearning much of what we have been taught by the media), but we also need to be wary of the danger of being stereotyped ourselves. Some people have said to me words to the effect of: ‘If other people choose to stereotype me, that is a sign of their ignorance and is their problem not mine; I am not going to change my behaviour because of them’. While I can fully understand the feelings behind this view, it is still one that can lead to significant problems. If we are subject to a certain stereotype and our behaviour reinforces that stereotype in the minds of others, we could lose out significantly because of this. For example, we could fail to get a job we really wanted because we reinforced rather than challenged a stereotype. Yes, I agree that it should not be this way, but it would be naïve not to recognise that it is this way.