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.


5 comments on “Writing Out Stereotypes”

  1. Andrew Green says:

    As far as i can see this another whinge from a left wing perspective about things/people etc that i dont like therefore no-one else should like them either.Typical of the left wing nonsense that doesn’t believe that people have a mind of their own and can have opinions of their own .Millions watch Clarkson on tv ,buy his books and many millions more watch Mrs Browns Boys on tv,in the theatre on dvd and i’ll make a prediction here and now that the dvd of the Mrs Brown film will be one of it not the best selling dvds this Christmas.

    This gay man likes Clarkson and Mrs Brown and gets the fact that they both appeal to the widest,most populist end of the spectrum which in the left wing Guardian/Independent world seems to be a BAD THING but i also have the intelligence to realise that in both cases people can take or leave it.Stereotypes are a lazy way of labelling people/countries and there will always be people who hate others based on race/sexuality/religion etc no matter how much people fight to change the status quo.I’ve been on enough marches for equality etc over the last 25 years but again am realist enough to know that it will never be completely erased..

    One of the great things about a city like London is the diversity of the people where you can walk around and feel you are in another country and hear different languages spoken,eat different food,see different cultures minutes from my own front door but in such a place there will be those who dont want that and those who will want to express their views more strongly than others like those parts of london where one particular religion will try and enforce it’s will over the WHOLE of a community.Gay/Straight/Muslim/Jew/Christian wherever your history originates 99 times out of 100 people will get along perfectly well and all opinions will matter and trouble only starts when people start to shout louder that THEIR opinion is the right one.

  2. John Griffin says:

    Cages have been rattled somewhere Mr Fowler. I just hope you don’t end up on UKIP Central’s trolling service.

  3. pheeny says:

    Mr Greens post is rather ironic considering he seems to feel that just because he and others like something that nobody else should critique it (or “whinge” about it to use a more loaded expression.) Surely Mr Fowler has aright to express his own opinion ?

    If nobody had whinged about various popular (at the time) entertainments we would still have dogfighting, bear baiting and public executions, not that Clarkson’s show is comparable to a public execution of course – its not nearly as entertaining..

  4. Helen Martin says:

    Mr Fowler and Mr. Green express two sides of a multi sided topic. This is a pretty open forum and it isn’t a question of being “allowed” to express opinions.
    As for stereotypes, it’s only been in this last two generations that Canada, for example, has gotten rid of its antipathy toward English educated accents. For a very long time that accent was connected with privilege, with patronising attitudes, and with wealth. We were described as “from the colonies” and it was assumed we knew nothing about art, science, or culture in general. That conviction was a stereotype in itself and it was a very good thing when both sides of it died a natural death from exposure. Most stereotypes die under those circumstances and you know a preconception is dieing when someone says that the description is accurate “except for the Joneses/ Lees/ Singhs who are just regular people” or a friend comes back from a trip with the news that most of the people they met were very helpful/friendly/interesting.

  5. admin says:

    I think, Mr Green, you’ve become rather confused in your argument. I’m a fan of multiculturalism because I see it working every day in London, and I don’t think the casual racism of Top Gear (calling Asian men ‘slopes’ etc) helps. Right now we’re heading in the opposite direction, with growing support for UKIP as we start exiting Europe, and this can only do damage.
    As someone who’s been misreported more by the Times than the Mail I’m aware that majority LCD opinion is not always a bad thing, but I agree with Dan that stereotypes take a long time to remove, and our reversing back into the past under the Tories is making matters much worse. Unless you’re happy with a wealth gap that is now wider than it was under the Victorians.

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