Does Stereotypical Behavior Promote Stereotypes?

February 26th, 2012 | Categories: Stereotypes in General

I do not often discuss the concept of power on my blog. Instead, my focus is on communicated stereotypes in all variety of contexts reflecting all variety of cultural groups. I view communicated stereotypes as instances in which people implicitly or explicitly send the message that a certain group of people acts a specific way. I tend not to get too caught up in issues of power.

In and of itself, acting in a specific way that is described by a stereotype is not actually an instance of communicating a stereotype. So if someone is gay and acts effeminate that person is not communicating a stereotype. Instead, that person is acting in a way they prefer to act that happens to coincide with the stereotype. Other times, people act in stereotype consistent ways knowingly. For example, when relevant to class discussion, I sometimes ask my female students whether they have ever used their menstrual cycle as an excuse to not have to do something, even when they didn’t actually have any problematic symptoms or even when they did not have their period at all. Many said that they do. So it seems acting in a stereotypical way is simply a matter of personality, preference, and choice. Acting in a stereotypical way, then, neither communicates a stereotype nor is it about the power dynamics involved in stereotyping. But…

Every once in a while I wonder whether acting in a gendered way promotes stereotypes. I have an argument in my head that goes something like this:

1st Me: So if stereotypes are bad, then acting in a stereotypical way probably promotes stereotypes. So people should fight stereotypes by not acting in ways that are consistent with stereotypes of their cultural groups. For example, Lesbian’s should avoid short “boy” haircuts.

2nd Me: But the way people act is part of who they are. It’s their preference. People have a right to be themselves. I have a short “boy” haircut because I want to. That’s my choice.

1st Me: Even if behaving in a stereotypical way means that a person is inadvertently hurting themselves by promoting stereotypes against their group? If you are Italian and you don’t want people to stereotype you as being connected to the mafia, then you probably should not talk about The Sopranos all the time. It’s simple.

2nd Me: But why should a person have to change who they are to accommodate your stereotypes of them? Isn’t that just giving in to the dominant group, the group that is already the cause of so much of their hardship. Some Mexicans immigrants do live in close quarters with large extended families and that fits one stereotype of Mexicans immigrants, but should they stop doing that just to fight against stereotypes? That doesn’t seem right especially when you consider that prejudice against Mexicans stereotyped as illegal aliens may be a root cause of the financial hardship some Mexican immigrants experience.

1st Me: Here’s a simple example. Research shows that women use less personal physical space than men. This is important because use and control over space suggests the amount of power a person has. (Consider that the big boss is the one in the corner office, with the windows, views of the skyline, and the great big room.) So I taught this in class one semester and students didn’t believe me. Conveniently, there was a male student in my class in the front of the room where there was more space occupying five seats. One for his butt and one for each of his legs which were spread in front of him in a relaxed pose. On either side of him there was one chair for his bag and another for his coat. I noted to the class how much space he was taking up and how no one else in the class was utilizing this much space (there were three men and 20 women in the class). I noted also one woman in the back of the room where there was much less space (though there were empty seats around her). She sat throughout the class with her coat on, legs together, and her bag on her lap under her notebook looking from my angle incredibly uncomfortable. If research shows women use less space and if less space is interpreted as having less power and if women are stereotyped as weak, then women should just take up more space! If you don’t want to promote stereotypes, then stop behaving in stereotypical ways.

2nd Me: You stop oversimplifying things! Here’s why stereotypical behavior does not promote stereotypes: 1) I’m only one person and one person acting in a stereotypical way does not communicate a stereotype. 2) I’m a person who felt like behaving in this way at this moment in this place and I have a right to do so. 3) I am not responsible for your stereotypes of me. 4) I can’t/won’t live my life trying to prove you wrong. 5) Sometimes I don’t have a choice. Sometimes circumstances are such that I have to fit the stereotype.

Ultimately, though this intrapersonal dialogue can continue for a while, I conclude that it’s a catch 22. My own stereotypical behavior promotes and gives power to stereotypes and those who use them against me. But changing how I behave to avoid stereotypical behavior requires me to give my power away anyway by allowing those who stereotype me to cause me to change the way I behave.

Although I don’t often discuss power on my blog, the answer to the question, “Does stereotypical behavior promote stereotypes?” is simple. Yes, but avoiding stereotypical behavior isn’t any better.

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  1. YF
    February 28th, 2012 at 00:01

    This led me to think whether all lady-first and lady-helping manners/behaviors, such as offering to take off a lady’s jacket or pulling out a lady’s chair at a dinner table, are stereotypical, and whether they promote stereotypes.

  2. YF
    February 28th, 2012 at 00:10

    Sometimes the stereotyped have advantages as well (or in a more accurate way, take advantage of the stereotypes). As you mentioned, most women have used their periods as excuses to avoid doing things they do not like. Some women love the fact that men (e.g,, boss, dad, police) treat them nicer when they are at fault. Even though poor people are burdened with stereotypes, some of them actually “try” to be poorer so that they could fit in the standards for government relief.

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