Thursday, April 5, 2018

Clichés and Stereotypes in Art

Usually clichés and stereotypes are considered bad. They can even deprive an artwork of its artistic value. But what are they actually and are they really as bad as many people think?

Both clichés and stereotypes put our world in order, categorizing everything and everyone.

When I first started writing I unknowingly used many clichés and stereotypes. That's actually part of what defines a beginner: Someone who is yet inexperienced doesn't know what has already been there and may fall for some false beliefs.

The next stage of my development was avoiding clichés and stereotype at all cost and praising works by others that did it as well, regardless of their actual artistic value.

Now I believe that clichés and stereotypes are neither good nor bad. They're merely tools and it's up to the artist to decide how to use them (no matter if it's about writing, painting, music or even game design).

So ... What are they and how to use them? Here are my two cents on the topic.

Clichés and Stereotypes: Short Definition

Etymologically, both terms have their origin in the French language and refer to printing and thus to copying and mass-production. Which is actually what both terms are still all about.

In modern use, a cliché means something hackneyed, something worn-out, something overused. Depending on your art genre, a cliché can be anything: A story starting with a flashback - that's clichéd. As are photos of sunsets. As are certain poses in paintings. As are guns and zombies in video games. A cliché can be anything used too often.

A stereotype, on the other hand, is more about belief. It's an image many people have about another group of people or about a certain thing. This image can be true as well as false. In my experience, it's usually both: Something at the very core may be true, but the rest is often an exaggerated generalization.

Clichés and Stereotypes Are a Shortcut to Information

The most important thing about clichés and stereotypes is that we need them. They create shortcuts when thinking and learning, they help us to react faster to different situations, and, in extreme cases, they save our lives.

Animals (and the primate species called "human" as well) evaluate all the good and bad things happening to them and others. This is called "learning". If you've seen a deadly trap in action once and survived, you'll do your best to avoid such traps in future. If you find a place with easy access to food, you'll go there again. And if you find a similar place, you'll expect to find easy access to food there as well.

Now a real-life example: We used to have a dog. When walking her we often met a group of elderly ladies with rollators and they gave her treats. So our dog learned:
Elderly person with a rollator = treat = "I run towards every person with a rollator, wag my tail and beg for treats."

As you can imagine, not every rollator user, and least of everyone us, was happy about this behaviour. Now imagine a whole society of dogs, not just only one individual, who tell stories and create all kinds of art about humans with rollators giving treats to dogs. After some time they won't even need to describe the situation anymore. When a dog says to another something like: "I met a human with a rollator the other day", the other dog will automatically assume that the first dog also got a treat.

How Can Clichés and Stereotypes Be Used?

Both clichés and stereotypes are like labels categorizing everything and everyone we see and putting our world in order. And they're everywhere. Both are something that is used by many people at once. They're part of a culture. They're something we expect without thinking, so it saves us time to think about other things.

So what clichés and stereotypes enable us to do is to understand something immediately. When encountering a zombie in a video game nobody has to explain us that we have to shoot it, ideally in the head. And the creators of the game have more space to introduce the player to other and more important information.

But since clichés and stereotypes quickly become boring, just like anything gets boring once you had too much of it, inverting them often feels like a fresh, original idea. Just think of a game where you meet zombies, start shooting them and realize too late that they're friendly and you weren't supposed to harm them. This has the potential for a strong message to question one's beliefs, doesn't it?

Clichés and Stereotypes as a Tool

This was only a quick overview over what clichés and stereotypes are and what they can do. But I hope I could grasp the essence:

Clichés and stereotypes are important for our understanding of the world. Even when they are not true. As artists, we can either back them up or invert them. Both approaches are very legitimate, depending on the context in which you are using them. Personally I think that as long as you don't use them to harm anyone (through racism, sexism etc.) they are merely a tool you can use in any way you see fit.

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