Chatterbox: Stereotypes and Labels in Reading

January 29, 2015 by Jeann @ Happy Indulgence | Books, Chatterbox, Features

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Since reading All the Bright Places, I’ve been thinking a lot about labels and stereopes, and how it relates to reading.

In American YA, we always see the stereotypes that most of us can’t relate to, such as jocks, cheerleaders, nerds, band geeks and popular mean girls. Stereotype too much, and we can’t relate and write off these characters as flat and one-dimensional. As readers, being able to connect to the characters is a huge factor in determining the enjoyment of a book, and most of us enjoy multi-layered, rich characters.

In All the Bright Places, we saw Theodore Finch struggling against the labels that people wanted to place upon him. Delinquent. Depressed and suicidal. Loner. None of these accurately described Finch at all, and he made me think a lot about how this reflects our attitude in society. How often are we quick to judge others we don’t know, suppressing them into neat boxes in our mind? I don’t know how many times I’ve gotten to know someone and thought back to my initial impression of them. Often, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I studied a Psychology subject at uni, which taught me that we automatically do this in order to process the masses amount of information. Everyone is unique, but subcultures and stereotypes exist to help us form an identity and express ourselves. This internal processing mechanism helps us decide who we are able to relate to or who we wouldn’t want to associate ourselves with. But by doing so, we box ourselves into the mindset of not being able to experience rich and diverse worlds, from people of all ages and walks of life. Isn’t that what life is about, experiencing all life, cultures and people it has to offer? If only as a society, we better represented individualism and people being different, because that’s the honest way to go.

It’s evident that we’re calling out for diversity in literature, including YA. The #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign is almost a year old, and we’re slowly seeing more of this happening. But there couldn’t be enough, we’re still seeing those stereotypes repeated, and more and more, my patience wanes with encountering them time and time again.

How about labels and stereotypes when talking about the books themselves? We need to know what genres the books are, the topics they cover, and what the characters are like, in order to determine whether we’ll enjoy them. Even doing this is rather difficult these days, with so much genre blending and books covering a myriad of characters and topics. But then we get the problem of categorising a book in a box, only to pick it up, read it and discover something totally different. Are you disappointed that you expected a contemporary, but it was filled with paranormal elements? Did you enjoy the unexpected surprise, or was the twist not to your liking?

Whether it’s characters, events, book genres or people in society, the message is evident: stereotypes and labeling inhibit us from enjoying life in it’s fullest form.

How do stereotypes and labels affect your reading?

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Jeann is an Aussie blogger, gamer, reader who loves to read, write, fangirl, geek out and eat food. You can find me glued to one of my many mobile devices 24/7, or fangirling over the latest YA book, TV show, movie or game. Chat with me on Twitter @happyindulgence

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57 responses to “Chatterbox: Stereotypes and Labels in Reading

  1. I don't usually like stereotypes since it automatically causes me to assume something about them, occasionally I do pick up a bad boy romance because they're cute sometimes 🙂 I really like it when people are completely opposite of what I would expect though. Great post Jeann <33
    My recent post Throne of Glass ♥ Sarah J. Maas |

  2. Jaz

    Oh wow Jeann this post is so relevant. What I liked about All the Bright Places was the secondary characters didn't it into a stereotype, but yes everybody was always labelling Finch. And in his circumstance, that labelling had such detrimental effects – his ex-friend labelled him a "freak" which led Finch to retreat into himself. He was made to believe that it was wrong to be who he is. And I think that's the thing with society – different = unknown. We don't like the unknown, so we label, we try to fit things into a mold so we can understand it and it fits into our little organised worlds. And that's no good because not even twins are the same. I think our generation has been doing a good job at attempting to remove stigmas and labelling and opening our minds. I try to be open minded and not label/judge. This goes with books too – even though I might "label" a book as fantasy I know it has elements of a lot of things. I love genre mixing a le The Bone Season which, because it was done so well, is a beautiful amalgamation of genres that have blended perfectly!
    I've been participating in the diverse books campaign too and am aiming to read more diverse books this year!

    • I know, Finch's character really made me think about this a lot, and you are so right about how society tries to break down the fear of the unknown. I just hope moving forward that it's something a lot more people will be more open-minded to. I'm still not comfortable with picking up a book and discovering that it fits under another genre though, it often throws me off too much, although having said that I loved the Bone Season!

  3. Especially in YA, I think it's just easier to stick a label on a character, so that the author doesn't feel the need to develop the character in depth, even more so with those background characters. I think it gives you a clearer picture, which I could be partly our fault as readers as well. We recognise these characters and the same books with the same character types seem to sell off the shelves. The diverse books callout is an awesome initiative. It shows authors that we need more from our characters, but sadly it also seems that these 'diverse' characters are now just thrown into storylines with no real purpose as well. If only there were a balance of the REAL world we live in.

    Great discussion Jeann, it's one that'll be ongoing especially in YA for the next few years I suspect.
    My recent post Hubby's Review: Golden Son by Pierce Brown

    • Yeah, I just don't like those convenient ways to explain characters, especially if they are just going to be cardboard cutouts. I can't wait to see what the next few years will bring to YA!

  4. rabbitearsblog

    I so agree with this! I never do like it when people stereotype other people based on what they do instead of getting to know that person on a personal level and books definitely don't seem to escape this problem also as I see it happen so many times in many books that I've read.
    My recent post The Sunday Post Meme (17)

    • Exactly, I think if books could show us the problem with stereotyping, then it's something we would be more aware of you know?

  5. Hahaha that psych fact! I learned that in one of my classes too! Honestly, I feel like some books suffer from not describing their characters fully, and I'm not talking about just personality and development, but also appearances. Whenever someone is introduced to me that's just a name, I usually just insert some *generic character* in my mind, and that kind of causes me to not become fully attached to said character. So yeah. I don't know if this made any sense, but we need diverse characters. (And less red heads, even though I'm red headed myself)
    My recent post Stacking the Shelves #20

  6. Faye M.

    I love this post! I hate it when in books, especially contemporary ones or those in high school settings, that we keep seeing the same kind of character time and time again. We all want diversity in our books, and it's really high time we see that. Why do football players have to be "assholes" all the time in books? Why do cheerleaders have to be "bitchy"? Why do the smart people have to be "introverts"? When in real life there are so many kinds of people and are not restricted to such labels. It's time to change and I think that change starts with the books or media… this kind of thinking continues to permeate because the materials we consume still keep portraying the same cardboard cut-outs over and over again!
    My recent post ARC Video Review: Half the World by Joe Abercrombie

    • I knowwww, why are all those characters flat and one-dimensional without much thought given to them? It definitely is time to change, because I get so frustrated at those types!

  7. I feel like the whole US stereotyping really confuses me. I mean, is that really how things are in the US? Because high school in Australia wasn't like that at ALL. I kind of wish I could go to an American high school for a couple of weeks or something to see if things are really like that.

    I don't actually mind stereotyping too much in books, as long as they're not ridiculously sterotyped! But you know, the basic this guy's a nerd, that girl's a cheerleader stuff is fine, as long as the characters are also further developed from that baseline and don't have every single characteristic of the archetype.
    My recent post Read ALL THE BOOKS Update: January

    • I totally agree Nara, I think a lot of US people feel the same way though so it just shows that while there are some subcultures like cheerleaders and jocks, we don't all fit neatly into those categories.

  8. You're so right Jeann! Stereotypes really limit the reading experience. The fact that some/most characters are reduce to one word is just an insult to the human being. We're complex creatures. And it's horrible to see that these characters don't get a chance to be more than a one dimensional card board cut out, if you get what I mean? And we, ourselves, can be made to look rather ignorant in that instance, as readers. Suddenly we're judging and we're building opinions based on preconceptions when we actually have no idea of what experiences that said characters have had in their lives (granted, they are characters BUT STILL). Very insightful discussion, Jeann. I loved it! x
    My recent post The Bone Season #2: The Mime Order by Samantha Shannon

  9. Stereotypes are seemingly impossible to get away from, right? I think if I pick up a story because it promises me a contemporary romance, I might be a very unhappy reader if it has paranormal elements. Don't get me wrong, I love paranormal stories, but I pick up books based on my mood – and if I'm in mood for contemporary romance, paranormal isn't going to cut it.
    Have a fantastic Friday, Jeann.
    My recent post Cover Reveal: Lion’s Share – Rachel Vincent

  10. I suppose stereotypes are useful in some ways, if only so they can be smashed to pieces. You're right, too many stereotypes and you alienate readers and characters definitely seem one dimensional if they're a walking, talking cliche.

    Books with complicated characters are definitely the ones I find most satisfying, especially when they break a few moulds in the process!
    My recent post Book Review: Light of Lorelei by Jen Minkman

  11. I really like this post! 😀 Very well-articulated and I found myself nodding many times. I tend to get annoyed by seeing stereotype characters in books, unless those characters undergo some development and they want to challenge the stereotypes placed on them by the other characters in the book.

    • Thank you Ana, I always find stereotypical characters who experience a major change interesting. Like at least there was a reason for it you know?

  12. Zoe

    I completely agree Jeann. Stereotyping characters makes them less layered and therefore less easy to relate to; which ultimitely makes our emotional connection to them less prominent. Thanks for sharing Jeann, and thanks for sharing! <3
    My recent post Inherit Midnight

  13. Braine-Talk Supe

    It helps in a way that it's easier for me to pick books I'll probably enjoy. I hate it when books are misrepresented though like your example, it says it's contemporary only to find out there's paranormal elements involved. I'm a mood reader so there are times where I want to read something specific so if I feel "duped", I lash out and rate it low LOL. I hate false marketing.
    My recent post Quick Hits: How to Handle a Heartbreaker by Marie Harte &amp; A Single Kiss by Grace Burrowes

    • Yeah, it really pulls me out of the zone when there's an unexpected element to the book, and I just can't do magical realism. Lol false marketing is a good word for it

  14. Sometimes, stereotypes can be true in real life, but the important thing is not to make stereotypes the ONLY thing that defines someone. I may fit into certain stereotypes, but they don't COMPLETELY define me. I love reading about characters who are like that because it adds a deeper level to a story.

    Oh yes, Theodore Finch's character was so not stereotypical even though he was trying to fight against stereotypes. I thought he was going to be mopey and sad, but he was actually really full of energy.
    My recent post Rating Books is Quite the Struggle

    • I totally agree, we do use it in real life but after getting to know someone we realise it's only the tip of the iceberg. I did like Finch's character because he went against the grain, and not just for the sake of it.

  15. Lisa @ Lost in Lit

    Well said, my friend. Well said. I have to say I honestly do look at labels before reading a book, and I know that's probably not good. I actually hate how people say they won't read something just because it's marked as NA. So what?! That just means the characters are of college age. Why should that prevent anyone from reading a book?! But at the same time, I have trouble with science fiction, so if I see something labeled as such, I will probably run far, and fast. Maybe that's not smart of me, and something I need to work on a bit more.

    Great post, you've definitely got my mind juices flowing this morning. LOL 🙂
    My recent post Waiting on Wednesday: Love Fortunes and Other Disasters by Kimberly Karalius & When I’m Gone by Abbi Glines

    • Thanks Lisa, some people do need the labels so they know what to expect, but others love to go in with no expectations.

  16. I've always struggled with American YA because it focusing a lot of the different stereotypes, like the jocks and cheerleaders and we have none of that here in the UK. I think the stereotypes we have are mainly 'Sporty, 'Popular Girls', 'Less Popular Sporty' and 'Weird' and they I can relate to, but anything else is weird for me. I'm also with you on the whole book subjects thing – I know that with Made For You, I wasn't prepared for the magical realism part of it, the whole seeing their deaths, it threw me a little, but it didn't hinder it on an enjoyment level for me personally, like with Belzhar, it was something unexpected, but it worked for me, where-as there's been others that just have not, like The Future of Us and such, it's a strange and weird thing, and we do need more diversity, but it needs to feel natural, because it is, it should just be there, not focused on. Fantastic post Jeann, I'll be linking it on Sunday for sure! 🙂
    My recent post Book Review – Captive

    • I know, we don't have those in Australia as well so they are hard to relate to. I'm not the biggest fan of adding in unexpected elements because it throws me off a bit too much for my enjoyment. THanks so much Amanda!

  17. booksbonesbuffy

    Really interesting that you studied stereotypes in school. So there IS a reason they are everywhere! I think they are hard to avoid but I am seeing more and more authors steering away from them, which is a great thing. Also, as an American it's interesting to hear what readers in other countries think of our stereotypes. We feel pretty much the same way, LOL!
    My recent post Mind Meld @ SF Signal: All About That Backlist!

    • Thanks Tammy, it makes it interesting isn't it, and we appreciate unique characters a lot more. LOL good to hear it's not just us not being able to relate!

  18. Eugenia

    Fantastic discussion Jeann! I think that the more we read, the more we see the 'stereotypes' come up if they appear in a certain book. It makes it all the more refreshing to come across something original that has unique characters who refuse to or simply can't be categorised in one way.

  19. With the books labels thing, I couldn't agree more. That's why I always get a bit iffy when Raven Boys is first marketed as a romance rather than fantasy. Even the first line is about Blue and her true love and it's like . . . that's not what the story is about, really. Maggie actually wrote a good post on the marketing around YA, which I found interesting: http://maggie-stiefvater.tumblr.com/post/10830692

    With labels on people . . . that's not something I come across a lot in the UK. It's there, but not as prevalent as it seems to be in the US. Also, in the UK I find even if people are 'labelled' as something . . . it's not really offensive? Like, nobody cares. They'll say 'oh that person is a goth' for instance, but it won't make a difference and won't segregate them. People tend to embrace the various labels and take an interest in how different everyone is. Lots of people will label themselves in various different way, just as a way of identifying their interests and such. It seems in American books, labels are always used as an insult.

    • I know, I hate it when it's marketed falsely and we go in expecting something and getting something else! I'm definitely going to read that link, thanks for it. Loved the perspective from the UK, I think Australian attitudes are a combination of both UK and American, so it's interesting to see the differences.

  20. TRUE! I don't really like labels…I've always struggled to fit myself into a label so….I think they're faulty. XD I'm glad the cry for diverse books is slooooowly snowballing into action, but AGREED. Whenever I pick up a book that falls back into the old patterns I mentally scream. It's sad, I think, that in this day and age, we are all still clinging so hard to our little boxes and stereotypes and labels.

  21. Wonderful post, Jeann! People are so incredibly complex, but it's easier to slap general labels on them until we get to know them better. Sometimes those labels are accurate, but only touch the surface. And sometimes people play into the stereotype they've been labeled.

    There were definitely groups when I went to high school 17 years ago – jocks, cowboys, gangsters, skaters, etc. And I know there are at my son's school now. They all have their own areas to congregate. Kind of like in the movie Clueless. So I don't mind it too much in my books, but prefer for the characters to break the mold.
    My recent post Heir of Fire by Sarah J. Maas

    • Thanks Christy, you're totally right about touching the surface. It's so interesting how American high school seems to have those stereotypes, because I haven't experienced it in Australia.

  22. I hate the whole jock=mean, cheerleader=vapid thing. So annoying. Which is why Aussie YA is automatically more awesome 😉

    But this is exactly why I'm doing a research project on diversity in teen books for school – because like it or not, books do NOT exist in a vacuum, and they're a constant reminder of the world we live in. Books are the best ways of understanding others I know of.
    My recent post My last post on The Loony Teen Writer

  23. I think stereotypes in some ways ARE good because (I study this in media) we as readers don't want the backstory of EVERY. SINGLE. CHARACTER. in the novel. So it's good if the author has described them as the bad boy or the goodie two shoes or the shy girl because it gives them reader expectations as to their character and can therefore expect them to act in certain ways, which also helps build the character in the reader's mind. Not that diversity is bad. In fact it's very good, because then those stereotypical characters that we meet at the start can grow and go on an emotional journey as well as a physical one and the audience gets to watch a change from something solid and expected through that of a stereotype to the emotional growth of the character and interrelationships between other characters and reactions to events.
    Oh wow I sound like I just wrote my media exam I am truly sorry! Anyway, great post to think about!
    My recent post theravenboys:bookboyfriends replied to your post:aren’t we all thankful such a wonderful person…

    • I loved your perspective Renee, it definitely means they are there for a reason and does help us decide on a character. I just wish they had more depth than that too!

  24. thebigfatf

    VERY true! There are a lot of books which rely on the stereotypes in school in order for their main character to stand out. My school certainly doesn't have the cheerleader, popular girl, nerd stereotypes. We are all so diverse that we aren't categorized into one. I have been to two schools and I haven't seen any of those archetypes played anywhere. I guess it's all thanks to Mean Girls. "On Wednesdays, we wear pink."