A couple of recent articles on tor.com got me thinking again about stereotypes, their uses and pitfalls in popular culture.
In the first article, G Willow Wilson discussed shifting portrayals of orcs, from mindless villains to something more sympathetic and nuanced. Having a variety of interpretations of this classic race enriches fantasy, giving us interesting variations on a theme. It means that I can’t just read the word ‘orc’ and assume that’s a straight-forward villain. This means I’ll put more thought into my reading experience. It also means the author can’t just write ‘orc’ and expect me to have a complete picture – this may slow their story down a little, but will also force them to think these creatures through in more depth, or even to think up a more original race.
As the article highlights, this isn’t just about culture. Though I’m sure it wasn’t Tolkien’s conscious intention, his ugly, villainous orcs coming out of the east tapped into some pretty nasty prejudices of his era. By featuring in such a widely successful series of books they could help to reinforce those associations in people’s minds, and so have a social effect.
The second article, by Emily Asher-Perrin, is about a construction toy aimed at girls. This is all about the social implications of culture, trying to break through gender stereotypes in toy design to break down gender divisions in society. It also shows how, while playing with culture can have social implications, playing with social implications can enliven culture. In looking for a way to get girls into engineering, Debra Sterling has created a toy that combines story telling with construction to create something novel. That’s cool in itself. I like books, I like building, I’m excited to see the two together.
When we set out to be subversive in our culture, to undermine stereotypes or challenge assumptions, we risk becoming preachy. These are serious subjects, but treating them absolutely seriously risks putting people off. And worse, it’s no fun. As the comments on Wilson’s article show, this can create quite a backlash. But tackling stereotypes can be fun, it can create novelty. Instead of a pamphlet on social division it can be a gentleman orc or a princess with a spanner.
Can you think of examples where popular culture, and particularly geek culture, has challenged stereotypes in a fun way? Post them in the comments below. I’m always interested in more ammunition for my view that serious issues don’t have to mean serious faces.