Presented at NEA, November 2003

Please imagine that instead of meeting me for the first time with me in front of a group and you in a room of your peers-- each of you meet me alone. I extend my hand and say “Who are you?” Think quickly about your answer. Now, I ask, “who were you in high school?” I am guessing that your first answer was your name. Your second answer wasn’t. It was a category or a definition. “I was the class clown, a cheerleader, a nerd, the shyest kid in school.”

Okay, fine, I hear a bit of mental rumbling. Let’s meet again. “Who are you?” You give me a name. And I say “and who are you now? “ Face it you’d hesitate. Think I was most arrogant, or if you are the generous type maybe think I was asking what you do for a living. As adults we tend to define ourselves by our work and our accomplishments. But, I’m guessing no one in the audience mentally answered the question “who were you in high school” with, “I was a student.”

School—that odd little mecca where children are categorized by administrators, teachers and fellow students, put into niches, slots and pigeonholes, tagged, labeled and branded. It happens, it’s real, it’s there yet every critic, reviewer, pundit, writing teacher and editor says—ignore it. Say no to stereotypes.

But what exactly is a stereotype? Linda Seger, author of Creating Unforgettable Characters, defines a stereotype as the continual portrayal of a group of people with the same narrow set of characteristics. Is that sounding like the school setting I just described? And it doesn’t persist because of teacher and administrators. Kids want the safety of being a “type.”

I will interject that Ms.Seger differentiates between character types and stereotypes. It gets tricky. If I as a white woman writes about a drunken alcoholic Native father that beats his children I am stereotyping because I am writing about a culture that if different from my own. But if I write about an alcoholic white father that beats his children I am character typing because obviously I know that all white fathers are not alcoholics and do not all beat their children. Where does one draw the line? If I am not the child of an alcoholic how do I know that not all alcoholics do not beat their children, etc. Yet often reviews or critiques refer to what some may think as character types as stereotypes-- so for our purposes I am using the narrow set of characteristics definition for stereotypes.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. I don’t want anyone listening to think I’m going to hitch the mule and run it out to the North 40 and say that stereotyping is necessary all the time. It isn’t. And some stereotyping is certainly hurtful and should be avoided. Some stereotyping is the result of lazy writing and it’s flat and dull. I’m not advocating an overthrow of reason. I am advocating a look at stereotyping in YA literature as a necessary balancing act.

To give you an example of using stereotype in an effective manner, let’s take you away from YA fiction. I want to direct you to another medium so we can clear away some of the other YA related issues and look at stereotyping only. I hope many of you saw the movie with Jack Nicolson, Helen Hunt and Greg Kinear—AS GOOD AS IT GETS. Terrific movie, Jack and Helen shouldn’t have gotten Oscars and Greg Kinear was robbed, but that’s just me. I digress. In the movie, Jack Nicholson is compulsive-obsessive, has a fear of commitment, is homophobic and has a laundry list of other problems in addition to which he’s just plain cranky.

The homophobic part is the issue I’ll address. His neighbor is played by Greg Kinear. Jack’s character hates Greg’s character and his little dog too, merely because Greg’s character is gay. And now I get to my point. The brilliant thing about this movie is that it chose to present Greg’s character as the totally stereotypical gay male. An artist, or course, effeminate, oh my yes, practically limp wristed, soft voiced, soft eyed, timid, he even has a prissy little yappy dog. He has sex with strangers right in the apartment next to Jack’s. And Greg Kinear plays him just like the stereotype that Jack’s character sees. He doesn’t “queen” him up to make him funny, he doesn’t butch him up, he doesn’t give him anything to make him anything but what the homophobe or the unenlightened views a gay to be. And that doesn’t change throughout the movie.

Why is this brilliant? Because Jack’s character learns to accept him. In my opinion it is much easier to accept something if it is not what you feared or expected. But if it is exactly what you feared or expected and you learn to accept it anyway—that’s real growth.

I fear that if we never show a character as stereotypical, at least at first, we create an unintentional bias. Sure, every person is an individual. But, frankly folks, it takes time to find the individual in some people. Stereotypes come about for a reason. In any population mix there will be those that come very close to the stereotype and those that do not. I can tell you, it will take you a lot of alone time with me to find your way past the brash, plump old lady. In fact, I’m not sure there is much more. You may only find out that I’m always on time. That’s it. The usual stuff you expect of a grandmother type, brash old fat lady except, she’s punctual. With some people there’s just less than meets the eye.

Just like Jack finds out that Greg in the movie is a nice person, one that can be a comfort to him in his loneliness—it doesn’t make Greg any less gay, effeminate, or artistic. It doesn’t mean he won’t have sex with strangers again. It doesn’t mean he’ll get a pit bull or a rotweiller. The only thing that changes about Greg’s character is Jack’s acceptance of him. His willingness to first tolerate his presence and then to listen. If in insisting that our fiction characters are ALWAYS stereotype free—aren’t we leading kids to expect that to gain understanding and acceptance one must be in some way exceptional? One must have that certain something that sets them apart? Most of the time teens feel invisible? that they have nothing that makes them stand out. If they aren’t actively trying to hide in the crowd they are feeling swallowed by it.

Or even worse, in never showing a stereotype are we telling our teen that to offer understanding or acceptance the recipient has to earn it by being in some way extraordinary?

I offer an example of a writer that has handled this idea extremely well. ALT ED, a novel by Catherine Atkins is, an example of how to use stereotype to stunning effectiveness. The novel is all about kids that come from different backgrounds, different layers of the social strata, most of them hating one another or at the very least distrusting or dismissing each other. Most reach a separate peace. The brilliance is not unlike the movie AS GOOD AS IT GETS. The acceptance doesn’t come from finding the unusual in each other, it’s finding that the “type” they fear or hate or dismiss can be seen, heard, and learned from. (Dangling preposition and all.)

Susan is the fat girl. She has always been quiet and mousy, but one moment of anger lands her in group therapy.

Brendan is the class gay.

Tracee the girl that has it all. Popular, pretty, does no wrong, cheerleader.

Randy the football god.

Kale, the red necked persecutor of Brendan. Loud, proud and slightly dumb.

Amber, the school slut and prone to kick the butt of anyone who crosses her.

Now, you ask why does Gail think this book is brilliant. We’ve seen these characters before. We’ll see them again. They are in every high school.

YES! They are in every high school. I seriously have taught each and every one of these kids or a variation almost every year I stood in front of a classroom. There’s not a teen reader that won’t instantly substitute a more familiar name for Susan, Brendan, Tracee, Randy, Kale and Amber

The story is Susan’s and the growth is primarily hers. The others change to lesser degrees. But, none of them become anyone else. Randy will still define himself with football, at least in high school, Kale might mellow, but he’ll still be the truck driving red neck, Brendan will still be gay and still be persecuted by those that don’t understand him, Tracee will still be sweet and good and only slight less naïve, Amber will still be a warrior, but they have learned to say of each other “Maybe cheerleaders don’t need to be locked in a dungeon until they are 40, football players might have IQ’s larger than their shoe size, even warriors can bleed and they are just what I thought they would be—air headed, arrogant, stupid—but they hurt when they’re hit just like me and I like Tracee, and Randy and well, Kale—I gotta think on that a little more.”

Catherine Atkins started her novel with characters that were real for her teen readers. And she went from there. But she never made them into something so unusual, with growth and change so profound that it stretched out of the boundaries of teen reality. The more original a character, the more a teen reader can’t relate. The idea is to use the stereotype and delve into it, just as we learn about a friend. Spending time with a person is what makes him or her interesting.

It’s a capricious thing writing for young adults. We’re writing for teens. But before it gets to a teen, it has to be read and accepted by adults. And then adults review the book and without good reviews, an adult librarian or teacher isn’t going to make it available for the teen to read. How hard is that? And I agree that literature should not only entertain but also have merit, to edify and extend. The book, the librarian and the teacher are the instruments, the conduits to opening minds to bigger, more enriching worlds. I don’t mean that we as authors should write to the lowest common denominator or that teachers and librarians should chose books to recommend and discuss on that basis.

But especially in a school setting, the stereotype should not be dismissed out of hand. Teen lives are lived in constrained circles. Their primary need after air, food and clothing, appears to be social survival. And according to some, if social survival can’t be had, all the other things are superfluous. “If I’m not invited to Jeninifer’s party, I have no need for air!” Social status and a mirror, what else is there?

In all serious, the human need to define oneself is strong. Adults define themselves, as I said before by work, accomplishments, and the most confident of us just by saying---I’m just me.

How do kids define themselves. Believe me, the last way they want to define themselves is by their parents. “I am Ted, son of Robert and Jane.” Oh yes, that’s gonna happen. Rarely by school accomplishment. “I am Ted, maker of a 92 in Algebra.” Again, not happening. But, a familiar and accepted type? I’m Ted—big bad jock. I’m Jennifer, cheerleader. I’m Joe leader of the rednecks. I’m Ringo, stoner. I’m Chad, nerd and whipping boy. Even if it’s a bad place, there’s safety in belonging to a tribe—as Art Slade called them in his book TRIBES. It didn’t matter if you were in the Jock Tribe or the Busybody Tribe or the Logo Tribe, or the Digerati Tribe, or the Lipstick/Hairspray Tribe or the Born Again Tribe--your type told you how to you should dress, act, where to sit at lunch, where to stand in the hall between classes, how loud to talk, to whom to talk. Kids want and need those stereotypes—if they don’t have them-there are no rules—no blueprint for who to be, how to act—who they are. And they want to read about kids just like themselves. And if all the main characters are true originals—then their question might be “where are those people hiding in my school?”

In my novel Shattering Glass, I deliberately went for stereotypical characters. Coop, the slightly dumb jock, Ronna, the popular homecoming princess, Bob, the shallow, but good looking, babe magnet, the hopeless dweeb, Simon Glass. I wanted the four boys that are involved with Simon’s murder to seem like any high school boy in any southern small town high school. Interchangeable. The idea being--that with someone to manipulate them and with no one to stop the forward motion—even ordinary kids will do the unthinkable. That’s what the book is about. It wasn’t about Rob finding the only three boys in the world that could be manipulated. It was that anyone could be. And I needed stereotypical kids or characters to produce this effect.

When Shattering Glass came out I heard from lots of friends. Friends from high school, friends from a school where I taught in Lake Jackson, and friends from Angleton where I taught last and for the most years. And in every case the person calling told me they knew EXACTLY upon whom I had based each character. The high school friends had their character list based on our class mates from 1965, my friends from Lake Jackson had their list from people in that town and, of course I had numerous character lists from different years that I taught in Angleton ending thirty years later. And nothing I can say or do can change the certainty of the list makers. I tell them “There is no Rob, I made him up. Nope, no Young either. I did know a guy in college named Young, that’s all. Nope, no Simon. Nope, I swear, I remember that guy but that’s not him. Not at all. He was really poor and he was skinny, remember? And he wasn’t smart at all. Okay, you still think it’s him. What can I say?

Believe me, that fact that I didn’t make these characters so totally detailed and fleshed out, so minute in flaw and fallacies makes the reader fill in what they want to see. And that makes the character more real that I ever could. There must be the balance of giving just enough and not too little.

A wonderful example of using stereotype is in the great novel by Laurie Halse Andersen, SPEAK. Remember, the Martha’s? The Martha’s were that groups of girls who always baked the cookies and the cupcakes for the bake sales, who painted the posters, made the prom decorations. I laughed and groaned in recognition of the Martha’s. There have been Martha’s in schools before there was a Martha. Back in my day we called them the Becky Home Eccy’s. There they were, in the sixties there were showing off those cupcakes, advertising their housewifely skills so each could marry early and then retire. Andersen doesn’t spend much time developing the Martha’s. She leaves them at the stereotype level. And that’s perfect. Development would interfere with Melinda’s story. But the Martha’s are vital to Melinda. They aren’t there for comic relief.
There are there to show the accepted social response to Melinda’s situation. The Martha’s wouldn’t report a male attacker. The Martha’s accept the idea of the alpha male. An alpha male would only mate with a female in heat, so obviously Melinda is at fault.

To take a Martha out of her narrow confines would cloud the issue. Martha is accepted societal thinking. Melinda, the individual, needs the Martha’s, the “type”, as contrast and conflict.

So, what am I saying here? It’s that stereotypes are not always a bad thing if they are used with purpose. It’s like a watercolor. If someone frames a piece of white paper and calls it snowstorm—that’s a lazy artist. If someone creates a flat character because they don’t take the time to know his or her character—that’s bad writing. But if the watercolorist saves the whites to provide greater contrast for the darks-that’s art. Using a stereotype purposefully, with balance in mind is, in this author’s mind, much the same artistic choice.