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Social stereotypes. June 23, 2005

Posted by Winter in gender stereotyping.

This my first post and my first attempt at blogging, so I’m quite excited. I was going to write about men and feminism, or rather feminist men, or pro-feminist men or what ever you want to call them. But when I sat down to write this I realised that to tackle that issue I want to go away and do a little research to do the issue justice. Yesterday I replied to a few comments made in response to our very first post on this site. Brad and Razorblade, I’m sorry if I caused any offence, which was not my intention. But the exchange did get me thinking about a subject that I have been researching for the last couple of months in a more applied way. On that note, I’ve decided to talk about something I already know a little about, the use of social stereotypes.

I’ve always thought it was helpful to define these things so, when I say stereotype I mean a widely shared set of beliefs about a group of people which are generally over simplistic, over generalised and often negative. People, all people, form stereotypes as they pass through life, by soaking up information in the environment and making associations in their grey matter between objects, people, events feelings and the information provided by other people (Bare with me there will be a point to all this I promise). As this process begins very early on in life, complex webs of associations are formed, and these associations are rarely under conscious control. People, faced with so much information, and in the process of trying to make sense of the world find it particularly useful to slot people, like objects or animals, into categories. As people experience the same characteristics in connection with another certain types of people over and over in life, be it in person or via the media, they become automatically linked in the complex webs of information in brain. When people experience other people in the world, the rest of the things associates with that person or type of person become activated in the brain like a constellation of stars shining in the night sky. The more a person experiences the same characteristics as applied to the same group of people, the stronger the links in the web become. This works in the opposite direction, so the more experiences have with groups of people that do not fit into their preset ideas, the weaker those links become. (At least according to current theory)

This is where it gets interesting. The activation of stereotypes is automatic, and although the content of those stereotypes differs from person to person depending on their experiences in life, the activation of them happens for everyone. When you see a fat person is your first thought ‘lazy,’ or ‘comfort eater’? When you first hear the word ‘feminist’ is your first thought ‘vegan carpet-munching man-hater’? When you think ‘man’ is your first thought ‘aggressive predatory potential rapist’? Well probably not the later two but the point is that everybody thinks in terms of stereotypes because it is and automatic and easy way to organise our thoughts about the world. Even the least prejudice among our number will make use of this organising system. What is more, it is possible that the associations we have do not represent what we actually believe. If we are constantly bombarded by the media with images that are gross over simplifications, if every time we hear about a black man, it is in connection with gun crime. If all we are told is that thin is good, fat is bad, that women are weak and men are aggressive rapists, it is not unreasonable to at least consider the possibility that the connections within out neural networks will come to represent this, even if it is not what we actually believe.

The question in my mind then, is not how do you stop people using stereotypes? Because, on a very basic level, I don’t think you can. The questions in my mind are how we alter the way people use information available to them from all sources. Does the fact that we have these automatic responses justify their use as a primary source of information when making our way through the world? Or does knowing that we have these automatic responses that are not with in conscious control just make us lazy when we fail to think things through? Does knowing how our brain works on a basic level arm us with defences against using flippant stereotypes and brash generalisations? If we know that our first response to something is possibly automatic, like Pavlov’s dogs salivating to the tone of a bell, does that not give us a responsibility to think carefully about why that response has come to us, and indeed if it is what we actually believe?

One of the aims of Mind the Gap is to challenge stereotypes and critique patriarchy. This does not mean that we are in any way anti men, although we are anti-misogyny. The patriarchal systems in place are detrimental to the majority of people but that is another topic of conversation. Another of our aims is to explore all kinds of feminism, and to get to know the people who support diversity and diverse ways of thinking. We look forwards to all the possible questions and all the possible solutions.




1. Winter - June 23, 2005

Hey, very interesting post. I always knew you were interested in stereotypes and now I can see why. I think the 1980s media backlash did an excellent job of stereotyping feminism. How to combat this is an open question for feminists. I’ll try and get the point about challenging stereotypes into our manifesto.

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