Communicated stereotypes take many forms. Though I don’t often speak about nonverbal stereotypes, these absolutely exist. For example, three friends go to a Chinese restaurant and the two white friends get forks while the Asian friend is given chopsticks by the waiter. Additionally, silence or what is not said can also communicate stereotypes. This is particularly detrimental in high stakes situations like job interviews. The following article on the site Teaching Tolerance discusses how stereotypes can be communicated as part of institutional racism. Some of the examples highlight the more subtle forms that communicated stereotypes can take. Read the article here.
Today’s guest blog is reposted from Natasha Shapiro’s blog Art Therapy and Related Topics. Natasha is an art therapist and occasionally provides The Communicated Stereotype with insights into related topics. Today’s post deals with stereotypes related to those who die young. Natasha’s stream of consciousness style provides the opportunity to reflect on all the interconnections of the stereotypes about those who die young and how their death is contrasted to those who are still alive. Spoiler Alert: It’s not very flattering for the living.
Maybe this is offensive, but I don’t like it when people say “She was too good for this world.” After a young or not old person dies.
This is an odd stereotype. It sets up a dichotomy between “Angel People” who are seen as more pure and idealized for traits like kindness and sensitivity and even “living life to the fullest.” The song “Only the Good Die Young” is ironically about loss if virginity, not loss of life but he does imply that society views that by dying young, even a virgin, a person remains pure in some way. I’m not sure at what age you have to give up on this idea…
In some cases the person’s life is frozen. S/he doesn’t get more time on earth to make more mistakes, be mediocre, not special, flawed, etc. If you die young there are recognitions of the amazing things you would have done. Luckily all these people are very dead and can avoid feeling pressured to live up to an unrealistic ideal of a human.
Because it is so awful when a young person dies at the beginning of their journey on life’s road, people comfort themselves with the idea that the person was not only too good for this world but “not of this world”. It can become almost an explanation as to why the person died, which does not really make any sense.
This idealization also separates the rest of us average humans from the really superhuman almost Buddha like humans. What does it mean to be alive and just trucking along and then when dead described in this manner? What if this person had continued living? Would s/he suddenly join the rest of us humans?
In addition when a person struggled with mental illness and related issues, they are struggling mightily just to exist in this world. That doesn’t mean they are too good for this world but that their painful inner world and difficulties with the outside world can collapse on the person.
I know of many long lived people who are pretty “good ” and have made good use of their time on earth to make the world a better place. Unfortunately if your life gets cut off too early you don’t get more chances to use your goodness.
So perhaps a loss of a good and caring person is indeed a loss for the world, but most of all that person’s loss of being cheated out of many of life’s joys. This is not the same as being “different”, not of this world, ethereal, etc.
For today’s Media Monday consider the anti-helicopter parenting argument expressed in a blog that went viral. Check out the male stereotypes communicated to make her point. Is there a better way she could make her points that doesn’t stereotype boys and leaves some room for girls to engage in these behaviors too? You decide.
I want to introduce you to a concept I coined in my book, The Communicated Stereotype: From Celebrity Vilification to Everyday Talk. The term is ‘celebrity vilification.’ What is currently going on with Alec Baldwin in the media is an example of this concept. Celebrity vilification is the process by which ire and punishment is doled out to celebrities for their communication of stereotypes.
The Process of Celebrity Vilification
In each case of celebrity vilification, a well known celebrity at the top of their profession communicates a stereotype. The celebrity’s stereotyping incident is made public and in most of the cases the celebrity apologizes in public and humiliating ways. The celebrity defends himself or herself on the grounds of some personal misconduct. At times other celebrities and friends even come to the defense of the celebrity who is now vilified in the media as a racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, or misogynist. However, no matter who the celebrity is or how much credibility, as in Don Imus‘ case 30 years and Michael Richards on one of the top shows paid over 1 million an episode, the proselytizing is not enough.
Media is Skeptical of Apology
Instead the media and public appear to want more as if extracting water from a stone. The apology, statements intended to clear their names, personal affirmations that they are not racist, sexist, antisemitic, homophobic, and so forth such as with Richards and Imus, and colleagues who come to their defense such as with Mel Gibson are insufficient to clear their names. Whoopie Goldberg preferred to call Mel Gibson a “bonehead” on national television rather than having him perceived as a racist. Still, this was not sufficient. One commenter in the Richards case, for example, said “I find his “apology” more irritating than the actual outburst” (Anonymous, November 20, 2006).
Celebrity is Punished
Regardless of apologies to various constituents presumably affected by the comments, the celebrity is persecuted resulting in ruined careers among other penalties. With the exception of Don Imus, these celebrities are hard-pressed to recover from this vilification depending on the severity of the stereotype communicated, the number of times the celebrity has made similar messages, and the extent of his or her apologia.
Celebrity Becomes Representative of the Ills of Society
When a celebrity is vilified in the media for communicating a stereotype, the celebrity is no longer viewed as an individual but as a representative of the ills of society. John Rocker was condemned by the anti-defamation league, who released a statement that Rocker’s comments “should be swiftly and strongly condemned. . . they have no place in our beloved national pastime” (Anti Defamation League). The firing of Don Imus was viewed by Jesse Jackson as a “victory for public decency” according to a CBS news online report.
Sharpton demonstrated how the focus is not on the particular celebrity but on that person as a representation of the bad behavior, “It’s not about taking Imus down” according to Sharpton, “It’s about lifting decency up.” Sharpton also said that Imus’ behavior could “set a precedent.” In this way, the celebrity is sacrificed via his career being ended or at least substantially displaced for the greater good. When a celebrity is vilified the issue is bigger than any single celebrity vilified in the media. The vilification of stereotypers as evidenced in the examples above serves as deterrent to stereotyping. When non-celebrities view the consequences that celebrities receive they are warned not to stereotype.
The Public Scapegoats the Celebrity
At the heart of celebrity vilification is a scapegoating process. Surprisingly, celebrity vilification has little to do with whether the celebrity stereotypers actually view the group they stereotype negatively since this can never be known because we can’t go inside their heads to know with 100% certainty their views. After all, studies by, for example, Sherif and associates (e.g., Sherif, Harvey, White, Hood, & Sherif, 1961/1988) demonstrate that people who previously held no ill will against others will begin to when put into a situation in which they benefit from doing so in that moment. This research has been used to explain the atrocities of Nazi Germany in which seemingly unprejudiced Germans took part in heinous acts against Jews and other groups. Despite not being able to know whether a stereotyper is indeed prejudiced, it is nonetheless to the public’s benefit to view the communication of a stereotype by celebrities as reflective of innermost racial hatred, homophobia, anti-Semitism, sexism, misogyny, and prejudice rather than as simply a mistake.
Social identity theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1979) argues that people gain a positive view of themselves if they have a positive view of the groups they belong to. Often this is accomplished through viewing the groups they don’t belong to in a negative way to provide a contrast. Non-celebrities get to vilify the celebrity for communicating the stereotype. In doing so they get to view themselves as people who would never say something ‘like that.’ In other words they get to view themselves as better, more sophisticated, more politically correct, and nicer than the celebrities. Celebrity vilification allows people to contrast the ‘us’ from the ‘them’. None of ‘us’ would communicate in such a heinous way like ‘they’ do. The only problem is… we do. We do communicate stereotypes. We do all the time. But, because we scapegoat celebrities, we get to pretend like we don’t. Celebrity vilification allows us to ignore all the stereotypes we communicate on a regular basis. Remember the last time you said “men/women are like that” or “you know how they are”? Those were stereotypes! You just didn’t notice it because you were too busy vilifying the new celebrity d’jour for communicating them.
Another example of celebrity vilification has occurred. Check out Alec Baldwin’s latest rant. By calling this a case of celebrity vilification I don’t mean to say that Alec Baldwin isn’t homophobic. How would I know? I couldn’t. I do mean to say though that he is making poor communication choices. If you hear his response to the accusations that’s how he pleads his case.
As reported by TMZ on November 14, 2013,
“Up Late” has been on a two-week hiatus, following Baldwin’s suspension from the network in the wake of video footage of the actor allegedly shouting homophobic slurs to a paparazzo earlier in November. Baldwin has said he did not realize his first statement was a slur and has vowed to choose his words more carefully; he denied saying the second one.
“I did not intend to hurt or offend anyone with my choice of words, but clearly I have — and for that I am deeply sorry,” Baldwin said in a statement when his show was suspended. “Words are important. I understand that and will choose mine with great care going forward.”
In an earlier tirade shouted to photographers, Baldwin made other homophobic slurs. According to TMZ on June 28, 2013,
Here’s what Baldwin had to say:
“The idea of me calling this guy a ‘queen’ and that being something that people thought is homophobic … a queen to me has a different meaning. It’s somebody who’s just above. It doesn’t have any necessarily sexual connotations. To me a queen … I know women that act queeny, I know men that are straight that act queeny, and I know gay men that act queeny. It doesn’t have to be a definite sexual connotation, or a homophobic connotation. To me those are people who think the rules don’t apply to them.”
There are two sayings that perfectly capture the point I am trying to make in this blog. The first is “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” For those who are not fond of quotes from scripture try, “The pot calling the kettle black.” The point is essentially the same in both quotes. If you want to vilify celebrities like Alec Baldwin for communicating a stereotype by accusing him of being homophobic, first look to your own behavior. When was the last time you said “gay” in a pejorative way? Do you consider yourself homophobic?
Sherif, M., Harvey, O. J., Jack White, B., Hood, W. R., & Sherif, C. W. (1961/1988). Intergroup conflict and cooperation: The Robbers Cave experiment. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.
Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1986). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. In S. Worchel & W. G. Austin (Eds.), Psychology of intergroup relations (pp. 2-24). Chicago: Nelson-Hall.
I’m married. What’s more, I’ve been with my partner for 21 years. More surprising, I’ve only just turned 40. I’ll take it up a notch and tell you, I’m actually happily married. Oh, yeah, and I forgot to mention we have two young kids.
So what’s our secret? We often joke that we should write a book but the conversation always ends the same. It would be a very short book. One page. It would say only this:
Don’t be mean to each other.
Sound too simple to be true? I don’t think so. After all, think of all the relationships you know that are on the rocks, involved affairs, mental or physical abuse, and are on there way toward divorce. There’s a point where the people in the relationship went from having difficulties to being mean to each other. Only you might not have found out about it until they had already gotten to the mean part.
I’m not sure where that leap happens where there are difficulties that convert into two people who were once in love being mean but I think the problem that causes this leap has something to do with stereotypes of marriage.
I’ve written about stereotypes of men, women, various sexual orientations, races, ethnicities, and so forth. I’ve talked about how the media provides us with images about these cultural groups that we internalize to believe they are true. Heck, my guest blogger wrote about this topic on Wednesday!! Well, marriage is no different. We think marriage is supposed t be this idealistic relationship where no one ever fights, we are always happy, and our partner can read our minds and finish our sentences. In this ideal marriage we share everything in common and always want the same things. When the deliriously happy couple has children then their happiness is further multiplied at the joy each baby brings.
My marriage hasn’t been like that. I’ve had at least four traumatic things happen that have each taken over a year to really full get over. In some cases longer. That’s only four things and I count myself lucky because all my family is relatively healthy and I live a relatively privileged life. But that’s already 20% of my relationship that I would say wasn’t all that swell. It was never bad, but it was definitely not sunshine, rainbows, and butterflies. Add in the great things that happened that were also extremely difficult. I have two children! My son spent there and a half years not sleeping well. I need you to read that again. I said 3 1/2 years! After both children I breastfed for nearly a year for each. That’s a year of my life that I had to explain to my husband that my first priority was feeding our child and his first priority was making sure I was eating. I didn’t have the energy to do both. I tell those about to have a second child that they have no idea how much free time they have with one child until it’s too late and they have two. I can’t imagine what three is like to balance.
Marriage is nothing like how it is in the media.
Listen, I admit. I have had an advantage in my relationship. My parents were divorced when I was young. My husband’s parents too. So we got to see that we don’t have to be married. There’s no one forcing us to be married. We are under no obligation. We have no ideal or dream to live up to. Our lives will go on if we are not married.
Heck, I never even pictured myself in a wedding dress – not even once – before I got engaged.
So once I got married I didn’t have unrealistic expectations and I didn’t take it for granted. Instead, I am still continually appreciative that I am married because I know at any time I could not be. In the meantime, I am sincerely happy that I have someone to share my life with today, and tomorrow, and the next day, and as long as we are both happy sharing our lives together but with no guarantee that it will be longer than that.
The one rule I follow is that I should not be mean to him. When I was younger, I had a few boyfriends I cheated on. I remember talking to my (now husband then) boyfriend about these relationships and providing all the many reasons I cheated and why it was justified this way or that way. He didn’t buy it. It was simple for him. I either cheated or I didn’t. The excuses didn’t matter. I was shocked. It was so simple. I internalized that conversation and translated it slightly over time to be the one simple piece of advice I follow in my relationship. Don’t be mean. He follows this advice too.
In every single decision you make in your relationship you are either mean or not mean. There are no excuses. We don’t let our kids get away with being mean. We don’t let ourselves get away with it either. We don’t curse at each other. We don’t insult each other. We apologize when we hurt each others’ feelings unintentionally. We go out of our way to avoid doing things the other would be unhappy about. When we find out we’ve done something to upset the other we try very hard not to engage in that behavior again. Basically, in a nutshell, we’re just not mean.
It’s mean to know what you are doing is going to bother someone and do it anyway.
It’s mean to do something you know someone would feel hurt by and do it anyway.
It’s mean to make someone sad and not care that you were the cause of it as you are doing it.
It’s mean to omit the truth (aka lie) so that you can do what you want without consequences.
It’s mean to blame someone else for doing x that you didn’t like and then use it as a reason to do y that they won’t like.
It’s mean…. well you get the idea.
The problem is that the stereotypes of marriage from the media make us think that we are owed some ideal marital bliss (that doesn’t actually exist). When we don’t get that, we act out (like children). I was asked recently by someone who was trying to decide whether to continue to do something mean to his partner whether my husband and I laughed at the same jokes. Because, you see, he had found that in someone outside his marriage and according to the media stereotypes of marriage these commonalities are what marriage is all about. Laughing at the same jokes.
I’ve asked several happily married couples I know if the one partner laughs at the same jokes as the other partner. I get the same answer I give. “No.” but I say more than just “No.” I say ” No. And who cares about that.”
Marriage is so much more than that. And it is nothing like it is on tv. It’s much much better.
So think about all the things that are leading the people you know, if not yourself, to have a rocky relationship. Are they being mean to each other? Well. Our advice after 20 years being happily married is that they stop being mean. It is that simple.
In “Creative” Kids Activities Collections, Heterosexuality is the Only Option
Guest Blog by Emily Brooks, Journalist, Brooklyn, NY, www.emilybrooks.com
Activity and doodle books claim to offer “creative” opportunities for school-aged kids to draw and color. It’s no surprise that their artistic prompts in these separate pink-and-blue books are chock full of gender stereotypes. But harmful stereotypes about sexual orientation and relationships are also hidden within their pages.
Drawn Apart: Illustrating Differences
What do girls and boys look like according to activity and doodle books? According to The Big Book of Just for Girls (2012), girls are probably blonde. About eighty percent of the nearly 150 girls illustrating the book were white. One was Native American (and yes, she was wearing a feather headdress). Most strikingly, girls are… women. Fully one-third of the images featured unrealistic skinny and curvy young adults representing “girls”.
And boys? According to The Big Book of Just for Boys(2012), boys are ninety percent white. Boys are goofy and stupid-looking slackers: two-thirds of illustrations presented boys as caricatures, with crossed eyes, huge noses, head size taking up half or more of the body, tongues sticking out, and fifty teeth. It’s a denigrating image.
Why categorize girls as Barbies and boys as brainless blobs? I think it makes it easier to show the difference between boys and girls when most females have breasts, hips, and tight, stylish get-ups. After all, little girls and little boys don’t look all that different… but the gender-split market wouldn’t exist without accentuated differences.
The Big Book of Just for (Straight) Girls
What makes the ideal female reader of Just for Girls a real girl, you ask? In the end, it’s not about liking pink or puppies or parties or being pretty and popular, but instead about liking boys. Heterosexuality is the only option. “Your best friend has a crush—on the same guy you do!” is a common situation that Just for Girls thinks elementary school students must handle right to avoid being labeled “rough around the edges.” The “How Do You Act Around Your Secret Crush?” quiz has a promising start, using “they” and “their” to refer to the crush-in-question. After the language slipped back into male pronouns, I realized the word choice was sloppy grammar, not gender-nonconformity friendliness. If your secret crush doesn’t notice that you like him, it’s definitely your fault, first grade girl! “Try opening up a little around him,” advises Just for Girls. “Throw a compliment to him now and again, and with time, he’ll know you’re into him.” Or maybe the girl got it right: “You’re direct with your flirting—there’s no way he couldn’t know. You should just come clean and see if he feels the same” (101). There’s nothing cooler than heterosexual dating at the end of kindergarten, after all.
One writing prompt asks girls “Which celebrity crush makes you swoon—be it on the movie screen, on stage, or somewhere in between? It’s time to spill the beans on which hottie makes you blush.” A little queer kid who had a crush on Pippi Longstocking or thought Shane was the shit after stealing the remote and discovering re-runs of “The L Word” could comfortably participate. But the authors quickly assert heteronormativity by referring to “leading men” and “stud muffins.” The little girl who likes other girls may be uninterested in writing about which television actors she’d rather “cast as your boyfriend”, and she may not agree with the generalization, “Guys who play in a band are always so good looking!” (44).
The Just for Girls horoscope profiles further drive home the message that heterosexual relationships are inevitable. The authors make female relationships revolve around attraction to males. “Miss Libra” is informed, “You love surrounding yourself with beautiful things (including boys!)” (160), while Scorpios “like to be alone” yet “almost always have a boyfriend.” The key advice? “Just don’t let him see your moody side!” (162).
Girls have the special privilege of being socialized toward a fairytale wedding since toddlerhood. Just for Girls provides activities about “Wedding Bliss”; even though same-sex marriage is increasingly becoming visible (and legal) in the U.S., the idea of “one man and one woman” is often ingrained in childhood representations of marriage, devaluing queer and alternative relationship structures. The “Wedding Dress Styles” word search exemplifies marriage as a little girl’s prime ambition by asserting, “The most important dress you put on is your wedding dress” (123). But these traditional wedding activities devalue and disregard alternative relationship structures, from queerness to polyamory.
Real Boys Aren’t Girly
The Big Book of Just for Boys includes no weddings, no advice about getting girlfriends, no activities centering about crushes on girls. At this stage, boys don’t have to “like-like” girls… as long as they don’t like girly stuff. There is an absence of girls in the book as a whole (in drawings) and only one mention of the word “pink.” For girls, heterosexuality is enforced by what the book includes; for boys, heterosexuality is about what’s not a part of the book. During elementary school, girls tend to be looked at suspiciously for their lack of interest in boys, while boys are looked at suspiciously based on gender expression that bucks the strictly stereotypical norm.
Gender identity and sexuality are totally intertwined in the public imagination, so things like valuing sports over studies still protects boys against taunts of “sissy” or “gay”. In Just for Boys, there are no fun cooking activities, no information on how to volunteer in the community or paint your nails for a reason! None of the boys’ book activities are allowed to suggest any sort of so-called “feminine” activities or attributes. Part of staying safely “boy” is by affirming that boys are separate from and better than girls.
Designing Differences through Doodles
Doodling books look all fun-and-games on the covers, but there’s serious gender messaging going on inside. Gender-specific doodle books not only assume what girls or boys are interested in, but they position the so-called “opposite sex” in strategic ways.
The companion books Pocket Doodles for Girls by Anita Wood and Pocket Doodles for Boys by Chris Sabatino (2010) illustrate cultural assumptions that the “same” sex is for platonic friendship, and the “opposite” sex is for love. Pocket Doodles for Girls offers drawing prompts like “BFF! Draw her.” Later, a crush-themed flower doodle activity starts out saying, “He loves me, he loves me not.” A writing activity in the doodle book called “Born to Rule!” asks girls to fill in sentences like, “My prince’s name would be …” and “My prince would have to do this to win my love forever.” Girls don’t have an option to marry a princess and live happily ever after with her, or fall in love with someone who is gender-nonconforming, in this stereotyped heterosexualized doodle-world. Another doodle page asks girls to “Create the perfect guy from boys at your school. He has ____ hair, _____ eyes, _____ lips, and _____ skin.”
Boys can’t be friends; they are simply objects to look at and date and eventually marry. More activities include drawing your boyfriend as a zoo animal and describing him in one word. Not only does this presume that a young child will be dating, but it also assumes that every girl is straight. Pocket Doodles for Girls takes the heterosexual narrative farther than just weddings: “When I grow up, how many kids do I want? Doodle their names here.” The question, in the context of the crush, love, boyfriend, and wedding activities, takes on greater weight. What stakes does a doodling book have in little girls growing up, marrying a man, and having children?
While the nonstop romance of Pocket Doodles for Girls gets on my nerves, I’m sad that Pocket Doodles for Boys includes zero drawing prompts about affection. The girls get to doodle hearts for those they love, but at least according to the doodle book, boys don’t experience love for others. There are no relationships, no crushes, no future children, and notably, very few girls in the boys’ doodle books. Little boys’ friends apparently all use male pronouns, as do superheroes and aliens.
Like femininity and signifiers of gay identity, females have no place in the manly world of boy doodles. The few female characters that appear in Pocket Doodles for Boys are odd and distorted. There’s a lunch lady, a “friendly mermaid” with prominent boobs, the tooth fairy captured in a jar, audience members, and a scared girl watching the boy artist “doing a crazy dive into the pool!” There’s also Billy Booger’s sister “Snotty Sally”, a librarian that the boy must turn into a clown, Medusa the “monster with snakes for hair”, and “Dummy Dot” who “ate clay” so her limbs are “like putty.” The most frightening female doodle in the boys’ drawing book is under “Wicked Makeover”, a bombshell with the instructions “Turn this beauty queen into a scary witch!”
The books don’t accommodate alternative families. Pocket Doodles for Girls offers two activities in which girls can describe or draw animal representations of “Mom” and “Dad”. Each book offers mom a cameo: Pocket Doodles for Girls offers a friendly picture of a girl kissing her mother on the cheek with the captioning, “Thanks, Mom! Write her a letter.” Pocket Doodles for Boys offers, instead, “You’ve made your mom a hat out of toilet paper. Draw it!”
Finally, the doodle books position males and females as enemies. Girls get to “Draw a sign to hang on your bedroom door” that says “Girls Rule, Boys _____.” Another page, covered in leaves, says, “No Boys Allowed! Draw some plans for the ultimate treehouse here.” Pocket Doodles for Boys incites their young male intended audience to “Draw the cooties on this girl!”, showing a picture of a smiling longer-haired child wearing a ruffled shirt. The page is emblazoned with “CAUTION” in caps-lock block lettering.
Coloring Outside the Lines
Not only do conventional drawing activity books form unhealthy relationships between girls and boys as a whole. They also have no space for gender-nonconforming children, for children who will grow up to be queer, for children with alternative families, or simply for those kids who don’t accept stereotypes as reality.
It’s clear that within the pages of the activity books are layers of stereotypes. Not only are these words sexist, but also they are implicitly homophobic and transphobic. I suspect that so much of children’s literature and activities uphold gender, sexual, and relationship stereotypes because the adults making the books still believe the ludicrous idea that exposing children to differences might turn them different.
If your kids insist on the ultra-gendered doodle books, open the dialogue with them about what they notice, agree, and disagree with in the pages. For our gender and sexuality-diverse young people, I recommend Jacinta Bunnell’s coloring books Girls Will Be Boys Will Be Girls Will Be…(2004) and Sometimes the Spoon Runs Away with Another Spoon (2010). They celebrate gender-nonconformity and queerness, empowering children with messages like “Sugar and spice/ And all things nice,/ That’s what little boys are made of” and “Sometimes the princess is saved by the girl next door.” These books encourage coloring outside the lines, because Jacinta created them just to help kids learn to be themselves. Now that’s some creative conditioning that I can live with.
Difference is not something visual. At least it’s not only visual. It is behavioral more broadly as well. How someone talks, walks, stands as well as what they wear and what their skin and hair color are can all indicate difference. So I wanted to share a story to expose what difference looks like.
It’s been a few weeks since it happened at a restaurant in Florida. Ironically, the restaurant was in one of the most inclusive restaurants I have ever seen. When my family and I walked in we saw people from every race, age, ability, and class. The restaurant was packed.
It started when I went to the counter and ask for a cappuccino. The cashier apologized that she couldn’t give me one. I wondered why considering that various types of coffee were advertised on their menu and it was a cafe-type restaurant. I assumed the espresso machine must have been broken. Nope. Instead they ran out of their homemade almond milk. The conversation went something like this:
Me: I’ll take a cappuccino.
Her: I’m so sorry. We can’t. We ran out of our home made almond milk.
Me: Oh. Don’t you have just regular milk somewhere?
Her: Oh my no. Of course not.
That’s right. Vegan restaurant. No animal products. Ooops. The look on her face was priceless. It was as if I had asked her to urinate on the counter-top in front of me. This was understandable of course because what I had said was so repulsive to her. How could I think such a thing? Milk…in coffee!!! Clearly I was very different from this cashier.
So then I went to get my dessert from their refrigerator case. I’m not usually a fan of a vegan diet so I hedged my bets and although it was only me, my husband, and our two kids I bought six desserts. Seemed like an easy choice for me. I knew I would at least like one of them and I would get to try a few different ones since I wasn’t that familiar with Vegan food. In my mind I was having a Vegan dessert tasting menu. No one said anything when I went to the counter but I was getting some strange looks…from the patrons!!! The looks were of confusion especially when I mentioned the order was to stay. Why would a family of four need six desserts to stay? I only processed this on a very small level. I knew I was being looked at strangely but didn’t really grasp why. Yet, the looks telling me I was different were enough to make me account for my behavior as a violation of some norm I didn’t know existed. The conversation went something like this.
Cashier; Do you need a bag.
Me: No. They’re all to stay.
Patrons: (looks of confusion)
Me: I guess I must be hungry, huh?
Right. Vegan. I wasn’t fully aware of what ‘vegan’ meant as a lifestyle. Turns out that veganiam (not veganism as I thought) and even vegetarianism involve “protecting the environment and helping animals that are treated inhumanely [as well as] conserv[ing] natural resources.” Gluttany is kind of counter to the whole conservation thing. Oops. Two strikes. I’m not feeling really welcome in this restaurant.
So we eat. Everyone in the restaurant seems to be enjoying themselves. I didn’t love any of the desserts but my husband and I managed to get through one completely. The kids ate their ice creams about half way each. That left three desserts. One I didn’t like at all and knew I wouldn’t eat. The other two I thought I would take home and maybe munch on but more than likely throw out later. We get ready to leave and I can’t seem to find a garbage can to get rid of the big pile of garbage we have. So I go to the counter holding the two half eaten ice creams in my hands and ask her for a garbage. She says she can take them. Then the conversation went something like this.
Her: Oh. They’re not done.
Me: No. They ate about half though.
Her: Do you need a cover for them.
Me: No, they’re done with them.
Her: Won’t they eat them later?
Me: No, they’re going to go to bed soon.
Her: Oh. But that’s such a waste. Maybe you will eat them?
Me: We don’t really like ice cream.
Her: But maybe your children will have them tomorrow?
Me: Well, we’re staying in a hotel so we don’t have a freezer in our room.
Her: Oh. I’m so sorry to hear that. Well. (Deep Deep Sigh). Ok then.
The way she walked away was priceless too. It was as if I just told her that my pet had died. She was so very dejected. She walked so slowly away from me as if every step was an effort. Right. conservation. Oh, and that’s what those looks were for earlier. Ooooh. I didn’t bother giving her the other dessert to throw out that I knew I wouldn’t eat. I didn’t want to be on the other end of the glares I would no doubt get from everyone in the restaurant for doing that. For throwing out an almost uneaten dessert I would have no doubt been treated like a criminal by the cashier as if I had killed an animal with my bare hands for fun. I think I need to leave the restaurant now.
When I teach my class on stereotypes, I always have my students engage in an activity in which they place themselves in a situation where they are different. Some want to force the ‘difference’ by wearing things they wouldn’t normally wear or acting in ways they wouldn’t normally act. I don’t let them do this. If they did, they would just end up being dismissive of the results. They’d say it wasn’t a ‘true’ test anyway because they were faking the ‘difference.’
Instead, students have to just be themselves but in a situation in which the cultural identity they belong to is not the dominant one in that setting. Students wear their cross necklaces into synagogues, Yankees hats goes into a Red Socks bars (if they are over 21), and sweat pants (if that’s what they normally wear) into Barney’s (and their reputation has not been stellar on this front recently). I require this activity because I want my students to know what difference looks like, especially when they don’t expect it.
Now, I didn’t tell you my ‘non-vegan tale’ to get your sympathy. On the contrary, many of you may think my gluttony deserved what it got and worse.
Instead I told the tale because I want to expose you to what many people experience every day because of their age, race, gender, and so forth. Until you experience difference when you least expect it, you don’t really know what difference looks like.
Many parents hold as a mantra the idea that “boys will be boys.” The saying has been around a long time. Although I couldn’t pin down the exact etymology I was able to go back nearly 100 years to when Will Rogers was in a movie of that title in 1921.
Even those seeking to learn English are introduced to the idea that boys will be boys as a way to understand American phrases and cultural norms.
Here’s the problem though. The “boys will be boys” myth contaminates our relationships with the boys in our lives. I’ll give you an example.
This weekend I was at a food related fundraising event for my children’s school selling some crafts. The boys and girls loved one craft in particular. It was a purple flower pot. The children can put it together themselves and use it as a photo clip. There were, however, four crafts the children could choose from. There was the purple flower craft kit, a moss colored grapevine frame craft kit, and two other crafts in primary colors.
The interesting part was what happened when boys wanted to buy the purple flower pot and girls wanted to buy the moss grapevine frame.
The problem with the “boys will be boys” myth is that we let it infiltrate our behavior in ways we are not at all aware of. There was one boy in particular where this dynamic stood out. The boy wanted the purple flower pot. The father urged him to consider the other ones. The boy pressed the issue. The father persuaded further. The father won out and the child actually bought all of the other three options, but not the purple flower pot even though that was the one the child originally wanted. My friend and I saw the same persuasion techniques for some of the girls who wanted the moss colored grapevine frame but who were dissuaded by their parents.
In some ways the situation is very simple. The child expressed a desire. The parent requested the child to consider another option. Research shows that people need to provide a reason when making a request if they want to increase their chances of success. But the parents didn’t have to. The parents didn’t have to say anything explicit about gender. They didn’t mention anything about color. Indeed they didn’t have to provide any reason for their request. Their coercion was based entirely on their authority in the family. The conversation often went like this:
child: I want this one.
adult: Why not this one instead?
child: No. I want this one.
adult: I think you should get this one.
adult: This is the one you should get.
child: (purchases the one requested by the adult)
So parents -along with the media, educational institutions, and so forth- help to socialize girls into stereotypically girl-like behavior and boys into stereotypically boy-like behavior. This isn’t necessarily at the conscious level on the part of adults. We just engage in these behaviors without realizing that the stereotypes affect how we respond to our children. It’s the same process that made me constantly refer to my daughter’s participation on the “softball team” this past summer and then have to correct myself to say “baseball team.” I was accidentally socializing her to understand that softball is a ‘girl’s sport’ and baseball a ‘boy’s sport’.
So, boy and girl stereotypes affect our behavior as parents in ways we don’t realize. Although my example of choosing one craft or the next may seem negligible, this socialization process actually does matter.
Let’s revisit that example. The little boy persisted. Every chance he got he came to visit that purple flower craft he couldn’t buy but wanted. Eventually he pushed the issue and through his own determination he eventually came proudly back to purchase it.
So that little incident wherein he was coerced to buy the other craft didn’t go unnoticed by the boy. He obviously thought about it. He pondered it. He must have wondered how he hadn’t ended up with the one he wanted. He had to have plotted a plan to get the one he wanted. Luckily, he persevered with the help of his family’s open mindedness and love for him. Unfortunately, when it comes to violating gender norms against a parent’s preferences most kids probably don’t persevere. That’s because gender stereotypes guide our behavior as parents in such subtle ways that it is difficult for parents to be aware of, let alone resist, enacting this socialization process. In our minds- even if hidden deeply- is the gender norm that purple flowers are for girls and moss colored items are for boys.
If you see your little boy as aggressive because he is naturally supposed to be that way according to the “boys will be boys” stereotype then believe it or not you might discipline him less than you would a girl engaging in the same behavior. Echoing a research study I read years ago that always stuck with me Kathryn Scantlebury from Education.com notes:
Teachers’ gender bias towards students can also extend to their response to students who challenge their authority. Such risk-taking behavior in boys is expected and at times praised, but assertiveness in girls is viewed negatively and labeled unfeminine… (Renold, 2006).
Teacher student relationships aside, family relationships are where the more important contamination can occur.
The premisses of the “boys will be boys” stereotypes suggest that boys seek independence more than dependence, feel more anger than sadness or fear, and respond to physical affection and dialogue less than girls. If you don’t believe that these stereotypes affect a parent’s behavior read a recent study about this yourself. One of the more fascinating studies that I have read that has stuck with me throughout my career found that people interpreted an infant’s cries as anger when they were told the infant was male and interpreted them as fear when they were told the infant was female.
This may seem innocent enough, but these distinctions affect behavior. The participants in the study who thought the infant was a boy expressed that the child needed to be left alone to get over being angry. The participants who thought the infant was a girl said the infant needed a hug because she was scared.
Listen, a hug is a powerful thing. It’s the hug that a child doesn’t receive that can mean the difference between good behavior and bad behavior being reinforced. And, unfortunately, I know first hand that it’s not as simple as using hugs as positive reinforcement for good behavior and withholding them when there is bad behavior regardless of gender. Consider my example below.
My son didn’t respond to time outs. He didn’t respond to toys or dessert being taken away as punishment. He didn’t even respond when in a moment of my own anger and frustration I threw out one of his toys as a punishment after repeatedly warning him I would do it. None of this worked. You know what worked? You guessed it. Hugs.
After a lot of trial and error we figured out that my son could accept any punishment we gave him, could take the consequences of his actions and move on with his life pretty quickly as long as the punishment was given to him while he sat on one of his parent’s laps and the discussion ended with a hug. All the anger he demonstrated when he was throwing tantrums melted away. The big fights disappeared. Our relationship got better. He became a better person. I did too.
It was only by seeing through the stereotype that we were able to understand him as a child not as a boy. We stopped assuming that his tantrums meant that he was angry and needed his space because “boys will be boys.” Instead we learned that his tantrums meant he wanted love and affection because he was sad that he was not getting what he wanted and scared that he was getting punished.
So the next time you think or say that “boys will be boys” remember that these stereotypes contaminate relationships with children. Instead of having “boys will be boys” as a mantra, try “kids will be kids.”
We communicate stereotypes all the time. Even the most self-righteous politically correct liberal do-gooder still slips and uses stereotypes. Folks I speak with love catching me communicating a stereotype. I am sure it’s as fulfilling as a whack a mole game, finally catching that mosquito that’s been harassing you, or watching your 105lb friend gain wait from a pregnancy. My point is, we all stereotype. Today, though, I learned that some of us don’t.
My daughter, son, and I were chatting with the local UPS employee, a regular in our building over the last ten years. We were discussing that my son had no jacket and must not have been cold while my daughter was wearing two layers of jackets and must have been cold. Seems like a logical conclusion.
Then, the UPS employee made a leap from logical to stereotypical. He said, “That’s the way it is, right? Women are always cold and men are not.”
Well my little Mini Stereotype Guru didn’t miss a beat. Quick as possible she contradicted the stereotype. This is impressive considering that most adults might not have even registered the stereotype let alone identified it as inaccurate, chosen to contradict it, thought of an example at all, and opted to communicate the example.
Well, my little Mini Stereotype Guru did just fine. She said, “Well, my grandma is always hot and she’s a girl so that’s not true.”
Adults like to simplify things for kids. But communicating stereotypes because they think it will be easier for a child to understand underestimates the power of a child’s mind to process information. There are children my daughter’s age of 6 years old who speak three languages. With this kind of brain power of course she can handle understanding that stereotypes are inaccurate because people are complicated and can’t be reduced to a binary.
People communicate stereotypes all the time. Even the Stereotype Guru slips every once in a while. Not kids though. They can see through stereotypes… at least until their parents have trained them to do otherwise.
So I won a raffle today. A decent sized one. $200. I knew I had a good chance of winning. Do you want to know my secret? It’s the same reason that I tend to be memorable to people, have an edge with children, network well, and get away with saying things other people wouldn’t dare say.
I stand out in a crowd.
Ok. To be truthful that’s just a metaphor. I couldn’t stand out in a crowd if I tried. I’m just under 5’3″ (meaning I’m 5′ 2-1/2″). I’m fairly tiny at 105 pounds. And don’t wear particularly zany, luxurious, or eye catching clothes. My winter wardrobe, for example, is all solid color cotton long sleeve shirts either v-neck or crew. Barely a bright color in the bunch. I could blend right in pretty much anywhere and just fade into a crowd.
Yet, I stand out.
That’s because I’m acutely aware of how people categorize me upon seeing me. I did recently publish a book on stereotypes after all. I also realize that beyond the stereotypes, people have expectations of me even after they’ve known me for a while. Whether stereotypes or other kinds of expectations, it is helpful to stand out from these categorizations in order to get people’s attention, to persuade them to listen to you, and so forth.
Don’t give me too much credit here. This idea is not my original idea. There is a theory that explains this idea called expectancy violations theory. This theory argues that “If an act is unexpected and is assigned favorable interpretation, and it is evaluated positively, it will produce more favorable outcomes than an expected act with the same interpretation and evaluation.” In other words, you’ll get more credit for a positive and favorable behavior if it stands out than if it was expected.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not as Machiavellian as I sound. I don’t try to stand out because I read this theory and decided to give it a try. I have always been this way. It’s likely why my first boyfriend was 21 when I was 13 (no surprise it didn’t last) and my second was 18 when I was 14 (ditto). It’s likely why I am lucky enough to have multiple wonderful business partners in various ventures. It’s likely why I still surprise my husband enough to stay with me after 20 years. I’ve always stood out and I hope I always will.
So how did stereotypes and categorization help me win a raffle? Well, understanding it helps me fight against it. This all started when I took some advise a few years ago and it has worked out for me 75% of the time. I won three out of the last four raffles that required me to fold up a piece of paper and throw it into a bucket filled with other pieces of paper. My secret? I stand out…even in paper form.
I always fold my paper different than how everyone else does. I look in the bucket and if most are just folded over once, I fold mine twice. If they are mostly folded twice, as was the case at this Saturday’s raffle, I fold it over a third time. Why, because those slips of paper are just like people when it comes to categorization. A crowd.
We’re all looking for someone or something that stands out. The person who puts his or her hand in the bucket is no different. When he or she feels around through all those papers that are the same it is like a crowd of papers. That person is waiting for one paper to stand out.
I won a huge gift basket with gourmet goodies in 2005. I won a gift card to a nearby bookstore a couple of years later. And now in my biggest score yet, I won a $200 credit towards Kids Club. (Ironic given my recent Kids Club diatribe).
So now you know my secret. I wish you the best of luck in your future raffles.
No need to thank me when you win but do come back and post a comment to this post to let me know my advice worked for you.