Well, only one more day to go. Over here, several time zones away from where Harold Camping is campaigning, no one has said a thing about the Rapture. I’m sure if the local press got wind of it, they’d love it, but the news is full of Strauss-Kahn’s arrest and the odd Schadenfreude of watching a French politician go down in flames.

Add a few headlines about Obama’s efforts to negotiate peace in the Middle East, and that’s enough of the US in the papers. We don’t need to mention a bunch of fringe lunatics putting up billboards about the end of the world. (Come Sunday, they might be thinking they should have warned us…)

The Swiss go on eating Rostis and chocolate and dipping day-old bread into oozing pots of cheese fondue, occasionally heading down into their fallout shelters for another bottle of Chasselas or Pinot noir, which they deftly open with their ever-handy Swiss army knives, accordions playing cheerily in the background.

When they’re not conducting secret bank deals involving covert Carribean cash transfers, that is. Or cleaning their ovens with toothbrushes. Or hiking up an Alp behind a herd of fat cows whose bells ding and dong sweetly into the picture-postcard valley far below.

Last week at a meeting of my writing group, the subject of stereotypes came up. We exchanged stories of how irritated we get when writers fall back on them to describe people. An enigmatic smile? Sure. Asian. Tight-lipped? German, possibly Swiss-German. Outspoken, brash, in-your-face? American. Arrogant, elegant, sexist? A la francaise. All quite true, to some extent, as cultural norms. But for individuals?

The consensus was that using stereotypes is just lazy writing. It’s too easy.  By giving your character an enigmatic smile, you don’t give him depth and personality, you pin him into an Asian straightjacket. He’ll be lucky to crawl out of it as an individual by the end of the book. It’s much better to actually describe the smile, physically. Does it involve eyebrow movement? Both sides of the mouth or just one? What’s going on in the eyes? Is it a smile that says, “You dumb westerner, I could kill you with one karate chop but I’ll smile like this instead and you’ll think I’m deep.” Or one that says “reminds me of that joke about the Belgian back at the office…” If he’s enigmatic, fine. But how? Speaks in partial sentences? Looks in both directions before telling you to zip your fly?

Stereotypes can be deadly. Just think of how Hitler used them to his twisted ends. They beckon — such a handy way to make sense of complicated individuals! Like mindless moths, we tend towards the simple, the easily recognizable, confusing the artificial light for the real thing. They’re tempting to try to live up to, as well. But, really, it’s not the myriad ways we reflect one another’s cultural compulsions that is interesting; it’s the magnificent ways in which we differ.

In writing, stereotypes can be detected by how natives react. Hackles rise. Heads shake, mouths tighten. A general sense of dismissal can be read in the bearing of the shoulders and upper body. From alert interest, the reader who feels himself being stereotyped moves from disappointment to polite embarrassment to outright scorn.

My hackles sure rose when I saw this:

Why Women Aren’t Funny 

I read on, mouth tightening. The general thesis of Christopher Hitchens’ Vanity Fair article (which is not available in VF’s archives but I found it on this blog) is that being funny is the only thing men are good at, as opposed to women, who are good at a lot of things and in particular are able to have babies. And that’s not a laughing matter. There is a lot of truth to this.

Humor, if we are to be serious about it, arises from the ineluctable fact that we are all born into a losing struggle. Those who risk agony and death to bring children into this fiasco simply can’t afford to be too frivolous. (And there just aren’t that many episiotomy jokes, even in the male repertoire.) I am certain that this is also partly why, in all cultures, it is females who are the rank-and-file mainstay of religion, which in turn is the official enemy of all humor.

He also mentions some sad truths about how unappreciative men are of women’s attempts at humor.

Precisely because humor is a sign of intelligence (and many women believe, or were taught by their mothers, that they become threatening to men if they appear too bright), it could be that in some way men do not want women to be funny. They want them as an audience, not as rivals.

I learned this the hard way, spending three years of high school attempting to attract the attention of a group of boys I thought were cute by being funny. It didn’t work. In fact, they categorically shunned me. Not only was I taller than they were, but I was trying to be funny? There must be something wrong with me. Here they were, trying like hell to impress the cute girls, and I was crazy enough to want to one-up them and make them all look like dorks? I didn’t know how fragile the male ego was, back then.

I’m not going to snip any more bits of the article, in case Righthaven has bought Vanity Fair’s suing rights. (that’s another story). But despite its excessively provocative title, I think it’s a very good article. Edgy. On the edge of not being funny, but still funny. He’s good. But stereotypes are dangerous ground, and it’s probably best for most of us to avoid that minefield completely.

The day after my writing group met, I was walking along the lake. A little boy, about six or seven, whizzed past me on his bike, aiming for the puddles along the side of the path, a huge, wide stripe of mud running up the back of his shirt. In Switzerland! The thought of it! A minute later his little sister rode by, much more slowly. She had a pink helmet, a pink bike, white shoes and pants. But she, too, was systematically going through each and every puddle, weaving with the masterful lack of control of the four-year-old. She didn’t have a muddy track up her back, but her dad watched from his roller blades as she followed in her brother’s wake, setting her foot down into the mud from time to time. All three of them were having a marvelous time. It made my day.

One thought on “Typical

  1. oh how I love this blog. I can remember as an adolescent first trying to be a typical American (when I lived there) and then a typical Swiss (when I moved here) – I so badly wanted to fit in and be stereotyped! But, darn it, systematically my own personality kept popping up and that was that. By the way, the toothbrush also works wonders for cleaning the fridge.

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