Transcending sexist tropes and stereotypes

Gender stereotypes and tropes present the contemporary Western world with a very particular type of conundrum. As feminists have pointed out for decades, the dominant ways in which women are represented in popular culture have a tendency of naturalising certain behaviours, roles and identities as ideally feminine, and demonising others as a deviation from propriety and decorum. For instance, before the second wave of feminism washed through the streets of Western civilisation, good women were represented as serving husbands, tending children and repressing sexual desire.

Our ability to resist, abolish and transcend these modes of categorisation, is however, fundamentally limited by the fact that such categories have a certain social currency that cannot be easily done away with.

For instance, stereotypes and tropes have a symbolic utility, they allow for easy communication of meaning between individuals based in existing and recognisable conventions.

Many roles and tropes derive from biological experience; motherhood and attraction to sexy women (and men) are not simply cultural constructions (though the machinations of culture may certainly over-emphasise these qualities to the detriment of all else).

Moreover, there is a certain pleasure invoked, particularly by more salacious content, which is experienced bodily and emotionally, and cannot be summarily denied because of a cerebral recognition that this content should be experienced as offensive.

These are key oversights in my own discussion of Frozen a few days ago, in which I critiqued the film for reproducing limited male stereotypes even as it subverted the trope of romantic love. While I still hold that the film’s one-dimensional male characters perpetuate negative stereotypes of men, these must also be recognised as providing filmmakers with a certain communicative utility and enabling them to achieve its narrative subversions (namely the triumph of sisterly love displacing Disney’s obsession true love’s first kiss).

This is a key point that pop culture critics tend to overlook when calling on companies to abandon representational conventions, which they deem to be sexist, racist or any other form of –ist (yes Anita Sarkeesian, I am looking at you).

Banishing, regulating, demonising or otherwise censoring cultural tropes and stereotypes is an insidious form of social control that undermines the very freedom of communication that feminists and other such activists apparently pine for. Such actions do not “liberate” the oppressed from harmful expectations, but rather, institutes a different ideological framework that nonetheless reflects the values of a select group of people within broader society.
Moreover, such actions can be seen to compound the problem insofar as it restricts representation and delimits the possible models of gender with which audiences can identify. (For instance, the buxom portrayal of Lara Croft wielding a cache of guns is appealing to some women).

The solution I think is twofold.

First, rather than demanding the cessation of “offensive” representations, the solution is to forgo regulation such that the diversity of experiences, identities and values are allowed to manifest in a magnificent variety of new tropes and stereotypes from which we can all draw.

Second, critique must be balanced with a willingness to create new content thereby challenging the dominance of “offensive” traditions with new possibilities. While the internet is still in its infancy, as a distribution and exhibition platform it is already undermining the dominance of entrenched representational conventions by allowing diverse and ordinary people to share their audiovisual creations.

Ultimately, the proliferation of new tropes and stereotypes offers individuals a myriad of possible identifications without curtailing their ability to freely communicate.


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