In a comment on Mystic Life’s post dealing with stereotypes quite some time back, I had offered to do a post on the stereotypical ideas I grew up with. And then I got bogged down by so many other things that this kept getting postponed. Well, I could have blamed in on that stereotype - 'a woman's work is never done' but knowing me, you wouldn't believe it, would you?

Many of the stories I heard in my childhood reinforced the belief that suffering was the sure path to glory. They were always about endless trials and tribulations on earth and at the end of it all promise of eternal bliss, stardom or godhood. There was even a time when, as a child, I used to be suspicious of all rich people – if they had so much on this earth they couldn’t be good, could they? Or at least I was sure that they weren’t getting a place in heaven after their good time on earth. Women who were happily married did not get to merit the status of a great woman – you had to suffer like Sita, Draupati, Ahalya, Nalayini, Damayanti, Chandramati. This stereotype was further emphasised in my adolescent years through the films I saw. A good woman always suffered – she was usually married to some good-for-nothing alcoholic and/or wife beater with a good measure of paranoia . And how her patience and perseverance and faith finally help her reform this worthless specimen is the measure of her greatness. If only she had the good sense to send him to rehab, she and the audience could have been saved of a lot of misery. I was rather disappointed to see this same old concept used in some of the TV serials in recent times.

Another fallacy these childhood stories emphasized was the importance of sacrifice and self-abnegation. You needed to forego things, even when they were rightfully yours, to achieve greatness. Ram was great because he did not argue with his father about the stupidity of Kaikeyi’s demands. Lakshman was great because he followed Rama to the forest. Bharath was great because he would not ascend the throne. Bhishma was great because he renounced his claim to the throne and any prospect of marriage so that his father could marry someone he loved. There was this story which was popular in every Tamil household about 40 years ago. It was also popular because it had a funny tagline – ‘amma, amma Kozhakattaikku kannu undodee?’ (Mom, does the sweet dumpling have eyes?) This was about a girl in Cinderella-like situation. Only there was only one step-sister in this case. One day the step-mother, probably in a PMS moment, throws the girl out. And the girl wanders to the forest and finds a cottage where an old lady lives. After the initial introduction, the old lady asks her if she is hungry and what she’d like to eat. The girl settles for left-overs but the old lady protests and makes hot and tasty food for her. Then she asks the young girl where she’d like to sleep and the girl opts for a mat but the lady insists on giving her the softest mattress and pillow. You get the drift, don't you? While the girl always chooses the most austere of the options the lady insists on giving her the finest and the best. The next day she returns home laden with gifts from the old lady and the step mother is pleased. Now the step-sister decides to go and grab her share of goodies too from the old lady. So she goes to the old lady and demands the finest and the best but all she gets is some leftover food and a night on a torn mat . She returns home with a lot of advice and nothing more. Moral of the story, children: “Always set your heart on the basic necessities. You will be rewarded with the best if you are good and if you deserve it” I think this story was single-handedly responsible for creating a generation of children who were afraid to want the best for themselves.

And that brings me to the other stereotype – the wicked stepmother. You saw them everywhere - in fairy tales, in films, in stories. Stepmothers who spent all their time and energy persecuting their step daughters. One of my classmates had a step mother and the other girls spoke in whispers about her. We assumed that the girl was being beaten up everyday and starved and locked in a room. When my aunt died leaving 4 children behind, her husband decided to remarry and brought home an angel. She loved my cousins as her own children and worked really hard to bring them up on her husband’s limited income. She went without so many things but made sure that they didn’t go wanting for tasty food or nice clothes or a good education. But one of her step-daughters never accepted her because as a child she had heard that all step mothers were evil.

Many of the gender stereotypes that I had seen as a child are still around, although many of them are in the process of being thrown out. Ideas like it is not possible for a woman to be happy without a husband and a family or that women are genetically designed to take care of children and the family.('Biologically and temperamentally, I believe women were made to be concerned first and foremost with child care, husband care and home care' - Dr. benjamin Spock)
One of my vivid memories from childhood is hearing an adult dismiss a woman as being unwomanly because she whistled. No she didn’t whistle at anyone – she just whistled a song in the privacy of her bedroom. He happened to be visiting and heard it and that was enough for him to pronounce her ‘unwomanly’ – not un-lady-like but Un-woman-ly!! A ‘good’ woman did not whistle, wear revealing clothes, drink alcoholic beverages or smoke,; She did not swear; she put her needs after everybody else’s. She was seen ( mostly as another man’s shadow) and hardly ever heard to assert herself.

While many of these traditional stereotypes have been left behind by the current generations , there are other stereotypes today on what constitutes being ‘cool’ and ‘uncool’, what is ‘hot’ and what is not and above all, what constitutes physical beauty. In earlier times it was society that had a stake in creating and sustaining stereotypes but today it seems to be a multi-billion dollar industry. And perhaps that is what would make these stereotypes that much harder to reject.
26 Responses
  1. What you say in your last paragraph is so true; My daughter and her friends are continuously bombarded with assorted fashion advice through so called women's magazines; its all about external looks. The stereotype changes every week....all these girls have so much to distract them, and some companies go laughing all the way to the bank. A look at Femina from the 70's and then one from today, will bring home what I mean.....

  2. Hip Grandma Says:

    You took me back in time.I think the stereotypes were meant to offer hope to the battered wives and burdened was like saying 'well, you're facing trying times but this too shall pass.If not during your present lifetime atleast in future ones.And you reservation in heaven has been made.'I know of a good old lady who was upset at her DIL being so good.
    'If only she protested my son - a good for nothing fellow- would've changed.Why does she out up with so much?'she'd say.
    So there were women old enough to be my grandmothers who actually resented stereotypes.

  3. Unknown Says:
    This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Altoid Says:

    Wonderful topic and wonderful write-up, as always. We, Indians, invented gender stereotyping, I am very sure. And role being the supremely sacrificing woman has come to become an expectation in this day and age. But molds are continuously being broken, there's hope me thinks.

    btw, your tag is done :). Have a great weekend Usha


  5. Unknown Says:

    I want to put two fingers in my mouth and let out a piercing wolf whistle just to break the stereotype that middle aged ladies should not whistle ( as if they are on the verge of senile dementia or something).
    I nurture this sterotype of being suspicious about overt piety - are they bribing God because they are up to no good ?

  6. Laksh Says:

    Lovely thought provoking post. Stereotypes only mutate with each generation. Your post is inspiring me to do my take on it.

  7. Anonymous Says:

    I also at some point think of all stepmothers as evil.

    I agree with almost everything.
    As for Dr.Spock's statement, - women DO seem to have an automatic concern for their children and home (I don't know about husbands :) ). I am not sure if it was meant as a stereotype or just an observation.

    I was never the nurturing type till BB came along - but now it's almost instinctive that I worry about BB more than anything else.

  8. WhatsInAName Says:

    Lovely Post, Usha :) How very true too. I have been brought up on these very lines. Not-wishing-for-the-best is not really something which should be passed on to the next generation. Let them dream and achieve :)

  9. Anamika Says:

    You deliberately kept the tone of the last paragraph nonchalant, didnt you? The message pierced right through. Nice post, like always.

  10. Anonymous Says:

    I went along and bought a bunch of fairy tale books for my daughter. I started with Cinderella and Snow White, and I kind of got stuck with both - How do I explain an evil stepmother to my daughter? She's too young to understand the difference between a mother and a step-mother, and the last impression I want to give her is that mothers can be cruel. So I stuck to Goldilocks and the three bears, and shelved the others for now.

  11. Anonymous Says:

    Very good post. If we look at Balachander, Visu movies you can find plenty of such stereotypes. Stories are always about extremes. If the story is about a normal life of a normal human, there is nothing interesting to sell. Movies always have a Good vs Evil (with person or emotions) theme. Considering that, the character of Joker from Batman is a complete deviation from stereotyped villians - Evil with no motive.

  12. Anonymous Says:

    Some of my generation's stereotypes I can think of and that totally put me off:
    a) slim figure + skimpy clothes + bohemian lifestyle = babe!
    b) slightly plump + salwar suit = aunty/behenji!
    c) saree = behenji!
    d) career + ambition + family + constant running around and no time for herself = supermom!

    (I feel sorry for the last ones actually. It's nice to see them or read about them, but it must be tough to be a supermom na?)

    Not to mention the crazy saas-bahu stereotypes on television of course. :D

  13. Swarna Says:

    This was good - 'in a PMS moment!' - I hear this for a whole day every month :) - and I somethimes 'use' that to explain my actions!
    And you are right about the multi-$$$$$$$$$$$ industry-created stereotypes -
    - jewelry is designed for bare bodies,
    - the cosmetics industry wants clients who step off the sets, into the shop, and back again,
    - the luxury goods industry would have your house turned into a showroom...

  14. hijabiamma Says:

    Wow Usha, you really worked hard on this post, and I'm so grateful for it. You really enlightened me on the stereotypes of another culture, and while they are so different, they are just as troubling and upsetting as the current ones or ones of the previous generations that affect us. Thank you so much for this post, and for not being afraid to write about difficult things.

  15. Anonymous Says:

    nice post.. its so true that the stereotypes planted in one's head at a young age can mar the growing up process...

    kanchi sankaracharya once wrote that east is about looking inward and west is about looking outward for happiness .. i dont know if this looking inward orientation is the basis of this stereotype that one has to suffer to attain salvation.. paavam karaikanum, punniyam sekkanum kind of stuff..

  16. Sujatha Says:

    I'm sure that one could arguably find that stereotypes of the kind you describe are control mechanisms to keep women from being too 'demanding'.

    Which brings me to the real point of this comment: You're tagged.
    "Are you a feminist?"

  17. rajk Says:

    "If only she had the good sense to send him to rehab, she and the audience could have been saved of a lot of misery"....
    Hats off to you for your sense of humor once again...
    Yes, a very valid point...I must say the conditioning of girls to put themselves after everyone else is pretty deep-rooted. I, even at this age, often struggle to decide between what is "selfish" and what is "just what I want to do"....

  18. Anonymous Says:

    Nice post. I think the most popular stereotype must be "Rich people being evil". This stereotype is still being perpetuated by some of our movies even today!

  19. Anonymous Says:

    That was a very inspiring post, Ursha -- not only for obvious reasons but also because it makes me want to be a better blogger. Thank you for that!

    My mother, like all people, has a few flaws. And one of those was she raised us up to be almost as self-sacrificing as the "Cinderella" figure in the story. When I found out the world didn't work that way, I was for a while irritated with her. But I have long since corrected that training in myself and it no longer irritates me that mom has some peculiar notions of virtue.

    Yet, the years spent trying to live up to the ideal she held out for us have left me with empathy for people who swallow the myth they should demand less than their due. It's nowadays something of a hobby of mine to encourage such people to shoot for the moon. :)

    Funny how we are always fighting stereotypes, isn't it? As the old ones die, new ones crop up. I think your last paragraph is especially profound. Kids today may be free of some of the old stereotypes, but new ones are being manufactured for them all the time by industries that do not have their best interests at heart.

    One myth that particularly goads me is the current notion that "cool" girls should take a casual, affirmative attitude towards casual sex, and only losers don't.

    I am extremely liberal in some of my views, but that sort of nonsense appalls me precisely because it tries to force on everyone compliance to a single stereotype.

    It leaves no room -- it grants no positive self-image -- to those girls who would betray themselves by adopting a very casual attitude towards something they, by their own nature, take in earnest.

    The girls themselves do not benefit from that stereotype -- the entertainment industry does.
    So, when are we going to do something about such exploitation of children and teens? That's what I wonder.

  20. DotThoughts Says:

    your last para says it all.. however, I think you, ironically too extolled a woman (the step mom to your 4 cousins) who gave up a lot.

  21. Usha Says:

    Ugich: True I do find the majority among the youth becoming fashion victims.

    Hipgran:I agree - it was these people who helped get rid of these stereotypes too. It was a big deal coming from a woman of that generation I suppose.

    altoid:Thanks. And will check out the tag.

    Eve's lungs: Teach me how to do it too - always wanted to.
    Bribing God - hm, interesting thought. Negates the whole concept doesn't it?

    laksh: Please do . I would like to know the POV of a younger person.

    JAM: When you have grown up in an environment where certain beliefs and opinions are held, it is tough not to be affected by them. Somewhere in the subconscious some of them reside.
    I do not believe that women are genetically conditioned to be nurturers - it is social conditioning over generations.

    WIAN: Coming from similar backgrounds, it is but natural you understand what I meant. Yes let us leave the younger gen alone.

    anamika:Well I don't like to be too authoritative about the younger gen and its lifestyle because I really do not know what it is to be in their shoes. It is not easy for them either, I am sure. So How can I sit back and pass my judgements from my comfortable arm chair?

    nrimaami: I heard that they are rewriting some of Enid blyton's stories too?

    Dinesh:Oh yes visu and balachander especially - only difference being visu reinforces them while KB tries to break many.

    Devaki:Thanks for summing it up so neatly. you just need to watch television one day - they are there all the stereotypes - the hep ones ion ads and in music channels, the middle class ones in serials etc...

    Swarna: Come to think of it, a PMS ing woman is also a stereotype right?

    Mystic Life: I enjoyed doing this. Thanks for providing the spark.

    Anon:In the broader sense I agree about our approach to life etc - but it is in the details that they get too painful.

    Sujatha: Will check out the tag soon.

    rajk: I agree, such values are difficult to get rid of.

    RK: I though the stigma about being rich was passe, no?

    Paul: Thank you, this is such a compliment coming from a blogger I admire so much. And thanks for the whole follow-up post. I will share my views a little later in the day on your post.
    Yes there are some bizarre and insane ideas that the younger generation is bombarded with - and It seems to me that the resistance has to come from within. We, as outsiders cannot do much to counter the peer pressure. Looks like they need to go through it and learn their lessons from there.

    Dottie; It is tough to escape the stereotypes one has been brought up on. I was caught there unguarded. proves my point though.

  22. Artnavy Says:

    very well written and u r truly ageless

  23. Anonymous Says:

    Stereotype? I prefer to listen to music on stereo, but then even that's too stereotyped.

    The point is to break them.I can only say doing so it's liberating and fulfilling.

  24. Anonymous Says:

    But then...what am I to say?I'm hiding behind a stereotypical name, no?

  25. Mahadevan Says:

    A stereotype conforms to a set pattern. But you find this specie everywhere and in all ages.

    Playing Golf in the morning, travelling aleast twenty days in a month, talking about Holidays in Miami or Honolulu, going to the Taj or a Sheraton for an occasional brunch, you cay be certain that the guy is CEO or near about in the hierarchy in an Organisation.

    Constantly talking about inclusive growth, denouncing Imperialism, going into raptures over China's economic hegemony or Venezola's defiance, venerating Fidel Castro, it certainly must be a JNU drop out, tracing his days with Sitaram Yechuri.

    Sipping Coffee in Cafe Coffee Day, an MP4 or Ipod for company, Exchanging sweet nothings in ORKUT, we certainly have a BPO boy or girl in our mist.

  26. dipali Says:

    We got conditioned into such strange beliefs- took years to get rid of many of them. This was practically a conversation I was having with my sister the other day!
    I guess we must have generated our own set- hope our kids take'em all with large doses of salt!