Stereotype - Role in Art and Culture

Role in Art and Culture

Stereotypes are common in various cultural media, where they take the form of dramatic stock characters. These characters are found in the works of playwright Bertold Brecht, Dario Fo, and Jacques Lecoq, who characterize their actors as stereotypes for theatrical effect. In commedia dell'arte this is similarly common. The instantly recognizable nature of stereotypes mean that they are effective in advertising and situation comedy. These stereotypes change, and in modern times only a few of the stereotyped characters shown in John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress would be recognizable.

Media stereotypes of women first emerged in the early 20th century. Various stereotypic depictions or "types" of women appeared in magazines, including Victorian ideals of femininity, the New Woman, the Gibson Girl, the Femme fatale, and the Flapper. More recently, artists such as Anne Taintor and Matthew Weiner (the producer of Mad Men) have used vintage images or ideas to insert their own commentary of stereotypes for specific eras. Weiner's character Peggy Olson continually battles gender stereotypes throughout the series, excelling in a workplace dominated by men.

Some contemporary studies indicate that racial, ethnic and cultural stereotypes are still widespread in Hollywood blockbuster movies. Portrayals of Latin Americans in film and print media are restricted to a narrow set of characters. Latin Americans are largely depicted as sexualized figures such as the Latino macho or the Latina vixen, gang members, (illegal) immigrants, or entertainers. By comparison, they are rarely portrayed as working professionals, business leaders or politicians.

In literature and art, stereotypes are clichéd or predictable characters or situations. Throughout history, storytellers have drawn from stereotypical characters and situations, in order to connect the audience with new tales immediately. Sometimes such stereotypes can be sophisticated, such as Shakespeare's Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. Arguably a stereotype that becomes complex and sophisticated ceases to be a stereotype per se by its unique characterization. Thus while Shylock remains politically unstable in being a stereotypical Jew, the subject of prejudicial derision in Shakespeare's era, his many other detailed features raise him above a simple stereotype and into a unique character, worthy of modern performance. Simply because one feature of a character can be categorized as being typical does not make the entire character a stereotype.

Despite their proximity in etymological roots, cliché and stereotype are not used synonymously in cultural spheres. For example a cliché is a high criticism in narratology where genre and categorization automatically associates a story within its recognizable group. Labeling a situation or character in a story as typical suggests it is fitting for its genre or category. Whereas declaring that a storyteller has relied on cliché is to pejoratively observe a simplicity and lack of originality in the tale. To criticize Ian Fleming for a stereotypically unlikely escape for James Bond would be understood by the reader or listener, but it would be more appropriately criticized as a cliché in that it is overused and reproduced. Narrative genre relies heavily on typical features to remain recognizable and generate meaning in the reader/viewer.

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