Grooving to the stereotypes: A "Contractual Obligation" piece, part VII

The final entry in my “contractual obligation” pieces comes from Vanshalar, who wanted an exploration into… well, I’m not quite certain, but here’s what he wrote:

If I could have a topic it would probably be something about people who do nontraditional things, since I’m an Asian guy who does gymnastics and was a cheerleader and stuff, and would rather watch a figure skating competition than a slam dunk competition, and I’ve had people ask me if I were gay before (I’m not), so why are some things associated with gays, especially when we’re all supposed to be lovey-dovey accepting of everyone and not judge them by their hobbies and all that?

I’ve interpreted that into a discussion of how certain things get associated with stereotypes, and why.

To use Vanshalar’s specific example, how did certain traits become associated with homosexuality, and why do they persist? I can think of numerous reasons.

1) Men and women tend to think differently. (Big news flash there!) To grotesquely simplify, most men think in “binary,” while women are more “analog.” To men, things are or are not. They are true or false. And one is either gay or straight.

2) People are lazy. They like stereotypes. And a long time ago some people decided certain traits were “masculine” and “feminine.” That was extended in the entertainment media, and soon became part of the collective subconscious of our culture. Some time ago sports became the “boy” thing, while cheerleading was the “girl” thing.

Overcoming these stereotypes has been a tremendous challenge — look at the struggle female athletes have had to overcome over the decades. And it continues to this day — the most popular tennis players are the pretty ones (Anna Kournikova, or however it’s spelled) who never win tournaments, but hardly anyone puts up posters of the Williams sisters.

3) Stereotypes have endurance. Once something becomes affiliated with a certain stereotype, it tends to “stick,” and it takes a hell of a lot to pry off the lingering “curse” of the stereotype. Back in the 70’s, for example, certain men’s names were often used as shorthand for nerds, gays, and other looked-down-upon groups. There was a “Gay Bruce” doll (mentioned at least in one movie,) “Arnold” made everyone think of either Gary Coleman or Arnold Horshack, and “Sylvester” was strictly for drag queens. Then came along Bruce Springsteen, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Sylvester Stallone, and those names quickly became shorthand for manly men, oozing testosterone and aggressive, heterosexual masculinity. Rudolf Nureyev and Michael Flatley have done their bit to take dancing away from the gay stereotypes, but it still has a long way to go.

So, Vanshalar, I agree — stereotyping based on hobbies and interests is lazy and stupid. But sometimes lazy and stupid has remarkable staying power, and lives on far longer than it has any right to.

Just look at Massachusetts politics for as many examples as you like.

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Reconciling the Religious Right with the South Park Republicans: A contractual obligation piece, part VI

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  1. B. Minich, PI May 12, 2005
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