To tell a compelling story…

On babbling idiots and other stereotypes

Posted on: March 16, 2011

While waiting for my mother, who was undergoing oral surgery, I spent forty minutes observing the oral surgeon’s office staff working it, if you know what I mean.

The staff, all women in their twenties, and probably all intelligent women under usual circumstances, completely dissolved into four giggling, tittering morons in the presence of a good-looking patient. I sat in the waiting room, hoping the floor would swallow me whole, while the group turned periodontal care into a flirtation. Apparently, the word ‘spit’ is sexy. Who knew?

But I digress. The girls’ antics reminded me of a book I’d just finished in which the heroine couldn’t string together two words in front of her boyfriend’s rockstar dad. This got me thinking… why are women reduced to a bowl of Jello around male coolness? Are we really hard-wired for dumbness or are we just perpetuating the stereotype?

I considered this for a few minutes. Hell, anything to prevent gagging over the floor show. I’m smart. My IQ is higher than my shoe size. I win at Jeopardy often. I have never feigned ignorance of a subject in which I excelled just to please a guy.  While sitting there, patting myself on the back, it dawned on me with all the horror of checking my reflection on a date only to discover I’d spent the whole night with a big ol’ spot of lettuce in my teeth that I’d permitted a character to behave in just this way.

I should be publicly flogged and I hang my head in shame.

The lead character in my current WIP wants desperately to be judged on her aptitude, not her looks. Kind of hard to do when she keeps forgetting how to speak in front of the hero.  Watching the office assistants trip over their own tongues in front of Hot Dental Patient, I vowed to go straight home and revise the entire meet-cute scene.

Phew. That was close.

Where do you find cliches and stereotypes sneaking into your writing? Discuss. I promise not to gag.

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4 Responses to "On babbling idiots and other stereotypes"

I believe it is a combination of being nervous, needing to impress the person and consequently acting unnatural. I think the stereotype that all girls act like bubble-heads around boys has come from these two factors: we’re nervous and don’t know how to act, so we’ll do our best to impress.

In all honestly, changing your entire MSS will actually hinder how accurately you’re portraying a normal person. This is my opinion, and I’m offering it as my own thoughts. I feel that we “think” we are better than the stereotypes. For example, there have been plenty of times I acted myself around an attractive person. There have also been other times where I fit the stereo type of dumb-girl pretty well—and I’m not stupid. So, I think it would be a good idea to use both. There are instances where she feels comfortable and herself in front of the person she cares about, but there should also be other times where she is really impressed by him, and want so badly to impress him back, but is so nervous she really has no idea what to say or do!

Anyway, please let me know what you think.

Always,
Jennifer

Funny how much easier it is to recognize stereotypes when we’re not the one perpetrating them, huh? But you know what? I also think that if you bend over backwards to avoid them at all costs, you can wind up sounding contrived. Above all, you have to be true to who your character IS. 🙂

Jennifer and Linda, you’ve both raised interesting questions: at what point does avoiding stereotypical portrayal start to feel contrived?

For the character in my current WIP, I admit I’m torn. Both approaches could work and still remain “true”. She’s a teen with very little experience with the opposite sex, so that bubble-headed reaction to a hot guy is likely. However, she’s also a model trying very hard to dispel the myth that all she is a pretty face, so NOT acting dumb would also be something she’s likely to do.

I’ve written the scene both ways and am leaning toward the version where she does NOT trip over her tongue around the hero. I also like your suggestion, Jennifer, about using both. I may do that as I revisit later scenes in this MS.

You’ve both given me a lot to consider! Thanks. 🙂

Maybe she can start out babbling like an idiot, and then toward the end of you story, she can talk confidently and intelligently because your character has changed throughout your story. Maybe she feels like a stereotype, and consequently acts like one (and it bugs the heck outta her!) So, through figuring out how to dispel the myth of being just a pretty face (with no brains, I’m guessing), she eventually starts speaking confidently and intelligently, no matter who expects her to act a certain way because of her job.

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