July is Disability Pride Month. Even though I don’t like social media and try to stay off it as much as humanly possible because I find it extremely draining, there are tweets by some of my favorite authors that get me pondering and eating. In this particular case, I’ll be talking about stereotypes and how we could be trying to eradicate someone’s lived experience.
I’ve thought about stereotypes and the dismantling of stereotypes before, but this tweet is a unique perspective and, honestly, the reason this post exists.
I often worry as we race to dismantle stereotypes that we’re flattening representation and denying people who fit into and are comforted by stereotypes the opportunity to exist. Stereotypes can be abused, but that doesn’t mean they’re not accurate for some people.
That tweet belongs to Shaun David Hutchinson. I encourage you to buy all of his books because, not only is he a genuinely nice person, but his books have elements I enjoy. They are character driven. They are never difficult to read.
Some of my favorite books of his are We Are the Ants, The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza, and The State of Us. The only book that didn’t resonate for me was The Past and Other Things That Should Stay Buried but that’s for personal reasons.
I’ve pondered about what makes a stereotype harmful in books. A stereotype is a trait, or set of traits, applied to an entire group. For example, all Blind people rock. All Disabled people drool. Those are taking characteristics of a few people and then applying them to an entire group. That’s stereotyping in a nutshell. They can come in positive and negative forms. For example, all POC are extremely religious, and All Asians are academically gifted are positive stereotypes, but they are still stereotypes, projecting ideas into our heads that everybody that’s in that group embodies the stereotype. Stereotyping erases individuality.
Recently though, I’ve been thinking about characters in books. In particular, visually impaired characters and their agency. Time and time again, readers will tell authors that this character or that character is a stereotype and is bad by default because they do one stereotypical thing. I think there’s an angle many readers haven’t considered before. I feel if we get rid of all stereotypes, we’d be erasing someone’s authentic identity.
There are people in the world that do embody traits that could be stereotypes but they don’t feel like they are a stereotype. They still have agency and individuality and wish to see themselves in books without feeling as if their experiences are diminished or dismissed.
While not visually impaired characters, Good Kings Bad Kings, DB 77648, has characters that could be easily classified as the angry Disabled character or even the inspirational character. Even though many characters in that book may come across as if they are cliches to some people, there are people in real life that exist that are angry at the system and are a powerful activist of color. There are Disabled people that are extremely optimistic to the point of embodying inspiration porn. Does that mean they are living stereotypes that shouldn’t exist in books, or do they qualify as individual people that deserve to be represented as well?
A fellow visually impaired author I’ve been thinking about quite often is the author of RUN. Kody Keplinger. I hear her books criticized a lot by Blind and visually impaired people offline. They all tell me that she just perpetuates stereotypes and nothing else, but I disagree. I have trouble understanding where she’s painting the entire visually impaired community as one way or the other without agency. Her books featuring visually impaired characters all have to deal with that one characters experience. And, again, there are Blind and visually impaired people living all around us that are ashamed of their Disability, or angered by it without the knowledge to cope, as with the protagonist in Lila and Hadley.
People are very complex creatures. we’re not a binary. Many of us are comfortable in our own skin, even if we embody some, or all, stereotypes. There’s a mad dash to automatically classify a character as poor representation if they have a stereotypical trait even if that character has agency and contributes meaningfully to the book.
By automatically dismissing characters because they are comfortable in their seemingly stereotypical skin, I feel we’re boxing people into representations we want them to become without letting them be who they are. Characters with their own life.
I often think a lot about agency and representation. Obviously, stereotypes harm groups of people and even entire communities regularly. Repeated exposure to poorly executed stereotypes can, in fact, cause us to judge real people before seeing their whole being. I do think, though, that we shouldn’t dismiss characters if they don’t immediately fall into our perfect idea of what a character should be. Character agency is all about seeing characters as just that. Characters, with their own flaws, quirks, strengths, weaknesses, and yes, even cliché behaviors.