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Remaking Stereotypes and Female Characters - Final Web Event

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In my third Web Event, I explored the two opposing methods of fighting patriarchal inequality: fighting to unbind gender from inequality and using the present inequality to justify more immediate, relief-providing policies. I looked at how Heidi Hartmann switched her perspective in her essays arguing for change in the workplace, an end to labor segregation and the wage gap. On the unbinding end, Hartmann explained the connections between capitalism and patriarchy, and then she argued that ending labor segregation would take down an important pillar holding up patriarchy. To reach the end of labor segregation, however, we must fix the societal expectations and assumptions that justify and perpetuate the segregation.

The reason that one gets lost in a tangle of structures that need to be changed, fixed, or removed is that these structures feed off one another. Rather than having one simple cause, “the causes of gender difference and inequality are essentially overdetermined” (Harkness 339). There are multiple origins and sources of fuel for gender inequality, and therefore “we must seek solutions that simultaneously address processes at all levels: from individual to structural” (Harkness 339). Hartmann’s chain of structures to be brought down ends up at changing society overall, unbinding gender from inequality, rationalizing why people turn to policy changes within the patriarchy that provide relief for the current practical, especially economic, problems.

Therefore, the problem with trying to make progress through unbinding is that the process always comes down to changing society itself, an overwhelmingly huge task. But the alternative is working within the patriarchy, and if we work inside the system of gender inequality, we are not moving towards equality. I personally believe in equality for all gender identities, but that has not enabled me to control immediate associations and assumptions relating to gender inequality that I think everyone around me shares, regardless of conscious beliefs. Having to “change society itself” means fixing the root of the powerful beliefs surging through our unconscious minds. Stereotypes are the reason those unconscious beliefs exist, and stereotypes need to be viewed as a tool for change, rather than an unstoppable evil. We have to work within the system of stereotypes, but not within the system of patriarchy. To unbind patriarchy and capitalism, we need to utilize the way stereotypes function and form.

Stereotypes have an extremely negative connotation; stereotyping is discussed in a way that paints it as a bigoted, conscious effort. I remember being taught in fourth grade what a stereotype was, how hurtful they are, and why we should not partake in stereotyping. Stereotyping benefits the people who do it, raising them above the objects of the stereotype. The motivation to stereotype, whether criticized for being immoral or not, is understandable. However, the major, widespread stereotypes are truly widespread, not found just in the people who benefit but everywhere. I am part of a stereotyped group, women, and I feel and observe the effects of the stereotype. But I still find myself applying the stereotype to women around me almost like a reflex. Afterward, I will try to adjust my thoughts to align with my beliefs, but the initial prejudice was still there first. People who are put down, receiving the negative effects, also have those groups and stereotypes in their heads. Stereotypes cannot be entirely conscious; both the oppressors and the oppressed unconsciously apply stereotypes.

The act of categorizing, or forming and then applying a generalization, is unconscious and psychologically is meant to be a helpful process. Stereotypes originate as categories “that we all use…to make sense of the world around us,” but then “become freighted with additional associations, usually negative” (Paul). Stereotypes and negative associations come from “in-group/out-group dynamics”; “while we tend to see members of our own group as individuals, we view those in out-groups as an undifferentiated—stereotyped—mass” (Paul). Viewing other people as a group rather than as individuals, and assigning qualities to that entire group is not something we can push ourselves to stop doing; it is an automatic process that comes with being human.

Not only are categorization and the transition into stereotyping automatic and unconscious, but stereotypes are also self-perpetuating/fulfilling structures in many ways. Without realizing, we sometimes treat members of a category differently based on the category’s stereotype. Then, the members of the stereotyped category behave differently according to how they are treated, fulfilling the stereotype (McGarty 10). Additionally, children learn and absorb stereotypes from society and culture, and then become part of the society that passes the stereotype to the next generation. And lastly, a person can place themselves within a category and then because of the overwhelming stereotype, feel unable to act in a way outside of the stereotype. The stereotypes become “the cultural instructions” for acting on differences, and inequality is the result of those instructions (Ridgeway 112-113).

We inevitably categorize. But, the stereotypes that follow are false associations “to explain why things are the way they are,” and we learn them from our culture when we are very young, under five years old (Paul). A key facet of stereotypes is that they are produced not to be accurate, but useful (McGarty 8). Groups use stereotypes to “denigrate all those who aren’t in [their group]” (Paul). The extreme example of how stereotypes turn individuals into a less-valued (or even valueless) mass is the justification of “large-scale social events” like war and persecution (Haslam 162). In the case of sex, the stereotypes that go along with the categories of male and female, man and woman, “maintain the existing power structure” of the patriarchy (Haslam 177). In the article, “Limiting Inequality Through Interaction: The End(s) of Gender,” Cecilia Ridgeway and Shelley Correll argue that gender is always present in interaction, so we cannot eliminate sex categorization (110-111). Sex categorization is a kind of prerequisite for interaction, something that we automatically do before we can relate ourselves to another (Ridgeway 111). Because gender “is almost always a background identity in interaction,” when a new workplace or other space is created with the development of society, gender is written in to that new space (Ridgeway 112). The categories themselves are useful, but when the stereotypes are added, they change behaviors in a negative way. Even if some people do not support the stereotypes, we all behave based on the assumption that we will be treated according to the stereotypes. The system of assumptions creates a belief in the male over female hierarchy, which “legitimates male domination” (Ridgeway 113).

Categorization and the process by which it turns into stereotyping cannot be eliminated; there is no doorway to unbinding gender from inequality there. What we can change are the qualities assigned to different stereotypes and the negative effects that they have. If stereotypes are essentially made to be useful to the group perpetuating them, then we must use stereotypes to weaken rather than strengthen the patriarchy. The initial stereotypes, according to the “kernel of truth” hypothesis, are “actual differences between groups” that are “accentuated or magnified” (McGarty 10). Stereotypes are “accentuated or magnified” observations, boiled down to a few traits that are inevitably false when projected onto hundreds, thousands, millions, of people, looping around to mold people’s behaviors into reaffirming the false stereotype, becoming the new set of observations.

We can interrupt the spiraling course of stereotypes by refusing to follow the way of life that stereotypes dictate to us, and by therefore providing a positive template for a new association. Although commonly thought of as “the endpoint of social and cognitive processes,” stereotype formation is “fluid and ongoing” (Haslam 184). We can intervene in the “ongoing” stereotype formation and change its direction to be more positive. Viewing stereotypes as a tool for positive change is difficult given their current role in society, but we will not make progress “by denying the positive role that self-empowering stereotypes can play in collective resistance to oppression” (Haslam 185).

This strategy sounds very similar to the one I looked at in my third web event: working within the patriarchy, using the present inequality, to get policy changes, rather than working on erasing the inequality. I denounced this strategy for strengthening the patriarchy by accepting the inequality and introducing laws that use it. Remaking stereotypes (but working within the structure of categories) is different from working within the patriarchy because categories and associated stereotypes are inherently created as part of human psychology. We will be weakening rather than strengthening the negative stereotypes by introducing new ones that will provide better role models. The media is a huge force in perpetuating stereotypes, the “instructions” for how we should live; therefore, it needs to be a major site of new role models for stereotypes.

Ultimately, this strategy works off the motto of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media: “If she can see it, she can be it” ( See Jane is a program that works toward “gender balance and varied portrayals of females and male characters into movies, TV, and other media aimed at children” ( See Jane researches the ratio of female to male characters in children’s media, what occupations the main characters have, and how objectified their bodies are. The organization also speaks to writers and directors to bring attention to the unrealistic and detrimental representation of women and girls in media. One of the most emphasized points in See Jane’s work is that male and female characters should be split equally, half and half to represent the whole world. But just as important as the quantity of female characters is their quality. They need to exist outside of limited stereotypical roles in order to show young girls the broad spectrum of what they can be.

Children learn stereotypes that burrow into their unconscious minds from the media they are presented. A research project by See Jane looking at occupations of male and female characters in twenty-one G-rated movies found that there were only 65 working female characters compared to 268 working male characters (Smith, Occupational Aspirations 1). Additionally, there were no female characters working as executives in business or in medical sciences. The movies that children watch “reinforce that girls have fewer employment options than do boys,” the old stereotype that promotes the labor segregation Heidi Hartmann writes about (Smith, Occupational Aspirations 2). Other research by See Jane looked at how even in children’s television and family films, female characters are sexualized. Around one third of female characters aged 13-39 have exposed skin and are wearing sexy attire in family films (Smith, Gender Roles Table 5). Media aimed at children needs to change how it portrays women so that children do not continue, unconsciously, to enforce those restricting stereotypes.

Currently, female characters are not only outnumbered by male characters, they also are constrained to the same stereotypes that real women are trying to escape. Even efforts at the deceptively named “strong female character” do not succeed at providing the role model and potential for a positive stereotype that we need.  Recently, when I was reading the chapter of the second task of the tournament in the fourth Harry Potter book, I thought about the fact that Fleur Delacour, the only female contestant out of four, is the weak, throwaway contestant. Not only is Fleur’s main characteristic that she can (literally) entrance men with her beauty, she also fails to complete the second task essentially because she is weak: she is attacked by creatures that attack the three other, male, contestants as well. Fleur contrasts conspicuously with Viktor Krum, a male contestant who is athletic and strong. I imagined what I would think of the characterization if the roles of Fleur Delacour and Viktor Krum had been reversed in the tournament. If Krum had been taken down by a creature that the other three contestants had conquered, including the weak Fleur, neither character would have been realistic (Rowling).

When I am in the gender analysis mindset, I find it very easy to criticize the traits of female characters in fiction and how the female characters are used in the plot. However, I realized that when a female character is put in a strong role or a male character is put in a weak role, I view that, somewhat condescendingly, as an obvious attempt to upset the gender status quo. The problem with simply switching a female and a male character is that because their original characterizations are exaggerated stereotypes, the reverse is unrealistic. In fact, the reversal of male and female stereotypes is often used for comedic purposes, like in the video “Reverse Gender Stereotypes at the Gym.”  Of course, the original exaggerated stereotypes are altogether realistic either, but the prevalence of those stereotypes in society means that I don’t read them as unbelievable. Instead, I will either view the characters as cliché or simply accept them as part of the story.

Usually, I don’t stop to think about the choice between female or male for a particular character, like I did with Fleur and Krum. But, when I do, I find that a female character is either easily slotted into a stereotype or two, or she is blatantly breaking out of a stereotype in a manner that does not impress me, because it simply uses a male stereotype instead. A successful escape from a stereotypical female characterization would be one where I do not notice the effort to avoid the stereotype pitfalls. Unfortunately, the popular concept of the “strong female character” does not succeed at this escape; I find it difficult to think of examples of well-characterized females.

Shana Mlawski summed up the issue with today’s strong female characters very powerfully in her article, “Why Strong Female Characters Are Bad,” explaining that, “male writers misunderstood. They thought the feminists meant [Strong Female] Characters. The feminists meant [Strong Characters,] Female.” Mlawski also pins down the formula for today’s [strong female] characters: “young and hot” women who “also have one characteristic that made them more masculine.” Writers took the description “strong” female character in its literal gendered sense: physically strong in the way male characters like Viktor Krum are. These characters are written just as weakly as literally weak female characters like Fleur Delacour. They may be even more detrimental as role models than the weak females, because they have to “play down the qualities that have been traditionally considered feminine” (Chocano). The characters who are labeled strong because they are masculine sustain the hierarchy of male strength over weakness in place, because the only way for a female character to be seen as strong is to become or act more masculine.

Strong female characters are written to be perfect, both physically and mentally, but for a character to be realistic, they need to have flaws. Rosario Dawson explains in a clip from Miss Representation, “you wanna be always portraying women in this really strong and smart and beautiful way and it’s like but that’s not really also true. And to really have true equality, it also means representing the women out there who sometimes aren’t the best, and sometimes do make mistakes.” Writers are afraid that if a female character has flaws, she will be weak, when actually she will be realistic. Realistic characters are strongly written characters, yes characters with flaws, but most importantly, characters that viewers or readers can relate to. If the women and young girls in the audience have female characters that they can relate to, characters that are being promoted to executive positions in the workplace, characters that are not just valued for how they look, and characters that do not follow the normative timeline of needing to get married and have babies by a certain age, then the women and girls watching will be able to believe that those options are open to them too.

If we view stereotypes in a new way, as tools for change rather than blockades against it, then we can work on changing society and unbinding the patriarchy. Gender stereotypes are currently used to maintain the patriarchy; stereotypes in general are “tools that are developed by groups both to represent their members’ shared social reality and to achieve particular objectives within it” (Haslam 161). In the media, from where a majority of our stereotypes are learned, we need to transition from restrictive gender stereotypes created by the group(s) of power in the patriarchy to stereotypes of equality. Completely getting rid of the old stereotypes will not be easy or fast, because “stereotype formation involves the perception or encoding of new information but it also enlists prior knowledge” (McGarty 3). The old stereotypes will linger on behind the new ones. But, positive “new information” can be “encoded” into current stereotypes, moving us away from seeing female and male as the housewife and the breadwinner, the weak and the strong, the subordinate and the dominant.

Realistic, well-written female characters that are equally as abundant as male characters are not a miraculous solution to gender inequality. They are one piece of a large movement that needs to come together to “change society itself.” They will, along with real women refusing to follow the “instructions” of current stereotypes, break the cycle that keeps those current stereotypes in place, and slowly introduce new, positive stereotypes that can be role models that children need. The stereotyping cycle can then work against the patriarchy, as children learn positive stereotypes and have the confidence to be what they can see, becoming part of and expanding the positive stereotypes. Labor segregation by sex is a big part of gender stereotypes, so changing those stereotypes will make it easier for women to envision (and hopefully see in the media) themselves in whatever job they want, not just in a gendered sector of options. Hartmann believed that eliminating labor segregation would have a major impact on the patriarchy, giving women economic independence. However, we need to view the movement to end inequality not as a cause and effect chain with one starting point, but as a wall that needs to be knocked down by many different forces at the same time. Tackling gender stereotypes is just one of those forces.

Works Cited

Chocano, Carina. "Tough, Cold, Terse, Taciturn and Prone to Not Saying Goodbye When They Hang Up the Phone." The New York Times Magazine. N.p., 1 July 2011. Web. 13 Dec. 2013.

Harkness, Sarah K., and Deborah L. Hall. "The Future of the Gender System: An Interventionist Approach." Social Psychology Quarterly 73.4 (2010): 339-40. JSTOR. Web. 12 Dec. 2013.

Haslam, S. A., John C. Turner, Penelope J. Oakes, Katherine J. Reynolds, and Bertjan Doosje. "From Personal Pictures in the Head to Collective Tools in the World: How Shared Stereotypes Allow Groups to Represent and Change Social Reality." Stereotypes as Explanations. Ed. Craig McGarty, Vincent Y. Yzerbyt, and Russell Spears. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002. 157-85. Ebrary. Web. 12 Dec. 2013.

McGarty, Craig, Vincent Y. Yzerbyt, and Russell Spears. "Social, Cultural and Cognitive Factors in Stereotype Formation." Stereotypes as Explanations. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002. 1-15. Ebrary. Web. 12 Dec. 2013.

Mlawski, Shana. "Why Strong Female Characters Are Bad For Women." Overthinking It. N.p., 18 Aug. 2008. Web. 13 Dec. 2013.

Paul, Annie M. "Where Bias Begins: The Truth About Stereotypes." Psychology Today. N.p., 1 May 1998. Web. 13 Dec. 2013. <>.

Ridgeway, Cecilia L., and Shelley J. Correll. "Limiting Inequality through Interaction: The End(s) of Gender." Contemporary Sociology 29.1 (2000): 110-20. JSTOR. Web. 12 Dec. 2013.

Rosario Dawson - Why Women Need to Write and Direct Film. Perf. Rosario Dawson. Miss Representation. The Representation Project, 19 Oct. 2011. Web. 13 Dec. 2013.

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York: Scholastic, 2002. Print.

See Jane. Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, n.d. Web. 15 Dec. 2013. <>.

Smith, Stacy L., Ph.D., Marc Choueiti, and Jessica Stern. Occupational Aspirations: What Are G-rated Films Teaching Children About the World of Work? Key Findings. Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, 2013. Web. 15 Dec. 2013.

Smith, Stacy L., Ph.D., Marc Choueiti, Ashley Prescott, and Katherine Pieper, Ph.D. Gender Roles & Occupations: A Look at Character Attributes and Job-Related Aspirations in Film and Television. Key Findings. Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, 2013. Web. 15 Dec. 2013.