Writing Out Stereotypes
The other day my Italian barista in London made an old joke about the lack of Indian football teams (‘If someone tells them to take a corner they open a shop on it’) and as I walked away I thought, ‘That was a bit dodgy’. Although you could argue that it was in praise of Indian enterprise, or that it’s not true anymore as most of our local shops are Turkish or Kurdish.
While I was discussing the idea of caricatures and stereotypes in the coffee shop, a dozen Japanese tourists passed in matching white shirts and sun-hats with huge cameras hanging around their necks. In central London, where people born locally are in the minority, you quickly learn to change the way you think about stereotypes, because although you do get to see visually stereotypical people, they’re instantly more complex when you meet them.
We all have a few of these beliefs somewhere, and they stay with us a long time. We are required to change with the world, and some don’t keep up – which is how Jeremy Clarkson gets away with stereotyping and insulting again and again on national TV. What’s worse is that he has the PM’s ear.
Gary Oldman just found himself in hot water for telling people to calm down over Mel Gibson’s racial slurs, and rightly had to apologise. Gibson was not just stereotyping but causing offence. Oldman is an actor in the public eye and needs to be aware of the effect of his words.
But of course there are also some national characteristics that stick because they’re partly true; Latin countries love football, Londoners are absurdly polite, Germans are industrious and so on.
If you want to discover stereotypes, listen to someone talk about their own countrymen; it’s a salutary experience. An African friend of mine describes her countrymen as lazy and corrupt; but she can do that if she wants. In my ‘Invisible Ink’ column I frequently come across English writers from the 1920s and 1930s who use appalling caricatures of ‘funny foreigners’. The Bulldog Drummond stories were riddled with racism and anti-Semitism. At one point Drummond disguised himself as ‘a nasty-looking little Jew’ and had trouble blacking up for a disguise because ‘every nigger smells’.
These ingrained stereotypes had a complex background. Jingoism did not end with the loss of empire. Post-empire writers knew no better, and it wasn’t a social taboo to be offensive about caricaturing foreignness. Prejudice does not end with better education (look at MPs) but with legislation.
Much deep-rooted prejudice has resulted from years of war propaganda, and in a world where international travel was restricted to the rich, people from other countries were still commented on and ridiculed.
I was always shocked by the way I was perceived by Americans when I lived there; I’d get ‘You’re from Jolly Old England’, and jokes about fog, bad teeth and bad food, ideas better suited to the early-to-mid 20th century. (Incidentally, the OECD’s report on the state of dental hygiene in developed countries recently concluded that the British have the best teeth in the world, with an average of just 0.6 of tooth decay per person). I understand where all this came from – books and movies and fathers who were stationed overseas in the war, but the ideas were long out of date.
One of the best ways to counteract stereotypes is to listen to the extremely varied stories of overseas visitors. I spoke to an old Sri Lankan guy who appraises antiques in Switzerland and a Spaniard who teaches English in Poland – nothing is quite as it seems in an economically mobile world, so no assumptions can be made – which rather strands UKIP without a political platform (assuming they ever had one).
The Reagan/Thatcher years and the rise of the Me Generation saw a startling return of bigotry. I remember watching Andrew Dice Clay’s stand-up about ‘urine-coloured people’ and being horrified, not with a leftie-liberal sensibility but because it was simply undignified and wrong.
For a while in books, films and plays there were no bad black people (one thinks of the hilarious ‘Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?’, which now looks like a parody of hand-wringing white liberalism) while gay people continued to be represented as pink-wearing wrist-flappers (they still are on the execrable ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’, a show that has set Ireland back 30 years in the entertainment stakes). Meanwhile, in London’s Whitechapel this week two gay men were beaten up by Bengali teens – eternal vigilance is required.
There may be openly gay Olympians and gay marriage (again, legislative enshrinement makes the difference) but the marginalised carry on as they always did. As writers we best to stick to reflecting truths. Once we go down the route of muddling opinion with factual evidence, we lose our skills – just look at Fox News.