This entry discusses an extract from the book Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. In it, Stuart Hall examines stereotyping and how this practice is employed to construct negative representations of people and groups.
We routinely make sense of the world using types – broad categories of things with common characteristics. This allows us to categorise things in a meaningful way, and in turn draw conclusions and extrapolate information about something based on previous experience of things of the same, or similar, type. This is commonly done with people and is not by definition negative. For example, we assign certain traits to roles such as parent, businessperson, pensioner and so on. Stereotypes on the other hand, while classifying people in a similar manner, reduce the person to those simplified and exaggerated characteristics, admit no possibility of change, and insist that these characteristic are natural. Any complexity is ignored and denied, and it is implied that everything that is necessary to know about the person can be known by referring to the traits of the stereotype. In essence a stereotype declares “this is what you are, and this is all you are”.
Stereotyping also deploys a strategy of splitting – where those who do not fit society’s norms are excluded, and their exclusion is copper-fastened by fitting them to a set of stereotypes deemed unacceptable – the ‘Other’. This denies the possibility of any meaningful discourse about them or with them, and ensures their continued exclusion. This proves most effective when gross inequalities of power allow the dominant group to employ the strategy without challenge.
Hall goes on to examine the nature of this power in more detail, describing how it encompasses various forms of symbolic power as well as the more obvious economic and military ones. For example, Edward Said has described in detail how representation of the Orient (Orientalism) and Islam (Covering Islam) constitute a form of mass stereotyping that has aided the West in its exertion of hegemonic control over the East. Theorists such as Gramsci and Foucault have dissected the nature of this power at length and would agree that it involves far more than simple force and coercion, and that representational practices such as stereotyping form a key part of the process too. Interestingly Foucault’s view of how power operates at all levels of society and culture, and radiates around in a complex web of directions, would indicate that stereotyping is at work in many subtle ways, and not just from the dominant group downwards.
Hall develops this theme by looking at how racist stereotypes of black males operate. Historically, white slave masters exerted power by denying black men the attributes of grown-up adults – responsibility, authority, sexuality – and this is nowhere more evident than in the practice of referring to them as ‘boy’. This infantilization was often resisted by black males by adopting a code of overly macho behaviour which in turn fed into white fantasies of the excessive sexual appetites and prowess of black men – the ultimate expression of which being the idea that black men are endowed with overly large sexual organs.
While it may seem that a defense against one stereotype merely ends up reinforcing another one, Hall suggests that what is actually happening is more complex than this. He describes the situation as a stereotypical representation that has both a conscious and an unconscious level. The conscious level – ‘blacks are childlike and are not to be given adult responsibility’ – is a cover-up for the deeper and more troubling unconscious level – ‘blacks are insatiable sexual supermen’. By rebelling against the conscious level, black men are merely reinforcing the deeper stereotype and hence are caught up in Foucault’s circularity of power.
If such stereotypes are based on deeply suppressed fantasies, and such fantasies cannot be openly expressed, how do they find expression? Hall answers this by turning to the notion of fetishism – where an object or thing is employed as a substitute for something else that cannot be openly considered. So, Victorian England could not openly express sexual desire for African women, but instead expressed it by means of supposed scientific contemplation of the anatomy of the so-called Hottentot Venus. In this case, an African woman named Saartjie Baartman was paraded around Europe as an object of curiosity. She was not just subjected to the process of stereotyping but essentially symbolically reduced to a collection of body parts. These body parts served as fetishistic objects standing in for the taboo area of sexual fascination with the ‘Other’.
While reading this piece I was thinking about how the long running Irish satirical character Ross O’Carroll-Kelly fits into this discussion of stereotyping. O’Carroll-Kelly is a fictional character, created by Paul Howard, and features in a long-running newspaper column and a series of books. He is a wealthy, self-obsessed, rugby-loving, and slightly dim, young man, and through the character Howard satirizes the well-off South Dublin suburbs and their social scene. Ross clearly is a stereotype- he reduces wealthy Southside Dubliners to a few essential characteristics and then fixes them. However, the broader issues of exclusion and splitting do not seem to be at work here. Ross comes from an environment that is not excluded and denied participation in mainstream society, and indeed, in spite of his shortcomings, can expect to find a lucrative career and life within it. It then occurred to me however that there is a still a stereotype at work, and while it may not be designed to exclude Ross from mainstream society, it does hold him (and those he represents) up to ridicule within the regime of representation within which the stereotype is operating. This might be a particular demographic of the newspaper’s readership who are happy to scoff at rugby-loving southsiders and are happy to have the stereotypical Ross character confirm and reinforce their preconceptions. It might not make it more difficult for ‘Ross’ to make his way within mainstream society, but it might make it more difficult for him to walk into a pub anywhere outside Dublin 4 and order a pint of Heineken.
A final thought: to what extent do magazines such as National Geographic function as a modern form of the Hottentot Venus?