Archetype or Stereotype?

Archetype or Stereotype?

Is there a point where you can’t just say “Come on, guys, it’s intertextual!”

So the other day I was revisiting an old unfinished creative project of mine Fenzel’s and mine [Edit 11/13/2010 — sorry!], and I decided just for fun to run one of the female characters through Mlawski’s patriarchy-detecto-bot 5000 over there.  I scored… poorly.  There’s no need to go into specifics, but basically I fridged the poor gal:  when she gets killed about 30 minutes into the drama, it’s definitely meant as a “this s___ just got real” moment, and it definitely colors the actions of her main-character love interest from that point on.  Fridge stuffing is arguably the worst kind of sloppy female-character writing:  while you can argue back and forth about many of the nodes on Mlawski’s chart, this one is well-nigh inexcusable.  At its best, it means that the writer thought the female character was expendable, and often points to much darker currents.  So I was pretty disappointed with myself for having done it.  Am I really that much of a jerk? I asked myself.  What was I  THINKING?

Then I remembered exactly what I had been thinking.  The character doesn’t just die. She realizes that a catastrophe is coming, tries to warn everyone, is ignored, and then dies.  In short, she’s a Cassandra archetype.  I think I even considered calling her “Cassie” at one point.  (I thought better of it though.  Attention writers!  Do not do that kind of thing.  It is not clever.)  And so for a moment I thought my PC street-cred was in the clear.  Aligning a character with an archetype is not always a good idea, exactly, but it has its uses.  It can add depth and resonance to a story that otherwise would feel flat.  It’s a particularly useful way – I believe – to beef up side characters who otherwise just don’t get enough screen time (or page time, etc.) to be fleshed out in any kind of meaningful detail:  a sufficiently literate audience will recognize the mythic undertones of the situation and project motivations, significance, and emotions onto the character that are not supported by the text itself.   If I’d invented this character out of the whole cloth, we might have something to talk about.  But I can’t be accused of sexism just because I draw on a broadly internalized aspect of our cultural heritage, can I?

Wait, can I?

Let’s backtrack.  Before Cassandra was an archetype, she was a character, and can therefore be judged by the standards of other fictional characters.  We can even run her through Mlawski’s chart.

1)  Can she carry her own story?

A tricky question.  Cassandra received the gift of prophecy from Apollo, who was making a pass at her.  When she turned him down, he placed a curse on her, decreeing that no one would ever believe her predictions.  A princess of Troy, she predicts at her brother Paris’ birth that he will cause the destruction of the city, but to no real effect:  Priam and Hecuba try to kill the infant, but it doesn’t take, cursed babies in Greek mythology being functionally unkillable.  Cassandra then suffers all the way through the siege.  At the end, she warns the Trojans that the horse is full of Greeks, again to no effect, as everyone’s too jazzed about the war being over to pay attention to little miss doom-and-gloom.  She lives through the sack, but not for long:  taken as concubine/spoil-of-war by Agamemnon, she travels with him on his return to Argos, where they are both killed by his scheming ex-wife Clytemnestra.  She warns everyone about this too, of course, but to even less effect.  By this point, depending on the version you read, she either 1) has been driven mad by the impotence of her prophetic gifts, or 2) is frankly pleased as punch that Agamemnon is going to get his, and sees her own fate as a negligible consequence.

There’s plenty to hang a story on, there, and even a recognizable narrative arc.  So she definitely can carry a story. But in the sources that come down to us, she doesn’t.   You can read all the sections that feature her on your lunch break.  Whether and how much that matters is a complicated question that I’d like to punt for the time being, so we’ll pick it up again later.

2) Is she three-dimensional?

Maybe not in any one single account.  But if we judge these in the aggregate – which we need to do, if we’re going to make a decision about Cassandra the archetype as opposed to the specific Cassandra that appears in The Trojan Women – we get a figure that’s quite recognizably human.  Almost surprisingly so, given the genre.

3)  Does she represent an idea?

Yes… now.  But probably not then.  Really to answer the question we’d have to know a lot more about storytelling prior to Greek antiquity than we actually do, but it from what I can tell it seems like the idea postdates and is defined by the character.  This is what makes her an archetype:  the oldest, fullest, and original expression of a powerful idea that becomes a stereotype later on.

4)  Does she have any flaws?

She certainly does, and pay attention to this because it becomes important later.  Cassandra can’t convince anyone of the doom she sees, per the curse, and that’s not her fault.  But she never tries to do anything about it herself. Why didn’t she just whomp her baby brother in the head with a rock?  Why didn’t she set the flipping horse on fire as soon as it was brought into the city?  By the time the blade is poised above her own neck, she’s a prisoner of war – and borderline insane – and as such no longer has any practical solutions, which just makes it all the more chilling.

5)  Does she die before the third act?

Not in the least.  She dies, sure, but pretty close to the end.  Unless your main character is Orestes, in which case yeah, she kind of does, but honestly who cares about Orestes? At any rate, she certainly isn’t fridge-stuffed.  The point of fridge-stuffing is that the woman’s death is there to provide character development for the people who loved her, and by the time Cassandra dies everyone who ever loved her has been dead for months.  (She got a pretty raw deal, come to think of it.)

So under that rubric, Cassandra, or a Cassandra-type can be a strong female character.  Throughout, here, I’ve been giving her the benefit of the doubt by culling from various sources, etc. etc.  But then, that’s precisely what an archetype is, isn’t it?  When I say “a Cassandra character,” I don’t mean “a character based on Cassandra’s one-paragraph silent cameo in the Aeneid,” I mean a character based on a sort of notional Ur-Cassandra that represents the all the possibilities inherent in the character.  And although making all of your female characters Cassandra types is not going to make you a better writer, I don’t think it’s possible for an individual character to fail Mlawski’s test purely by virtue (uh… by vice?) of relying on this archetype, since the archetype itself does pass.

But notice that I chose my words very carefully there.  The archetype passes Mlawski’s test.  This doesn’t mean it’s feminist, just that it has the potential to be well written.

What makes a Cassandra type?  Here are the plot points that need to come up.

1) Cassandra must have a vision of future doom.  This needn’t be supernatural, she just needs to know that everything’s eff’ed.

2) No one can believe her — or at least no one who matters.  Instead, they act like she’s crazy.

3) Most typically, she doesn’t get to survive the catastrophe she predicts.

Now, how many of you would say that Jeff Goldblum’s mathematician character in Jurassic Park is a Cassandra figure?  Show of hands?  It doesn’t quite fit.  And yet he fits the description above perfectly, especially in the book version where he ends up dying from a Tyrannosaurus inflicted leg wound.  So there’s something missing from the character sketch we’ve developed so far.  Not a what, but a how, a manner of being and behaving.  Ian Malcolm (the Goldblum character) is suave and charming.  He’s thoroughly rational.  When the chips are down, he’s more relaxed about getting bit by a T-Rex than is frankly plausible.  Cassandra, on the other hand, is hysterical.  The defining attribute of the Cassandra archetype is not what happens to her. It is hysteria.

17 Comments on “Archetype or Stereotype?”

  1. m chan #

    great piece, which i’m sure will spark some great conversation. but before we get into that, can i just point out how awesome that “arch vs stereo” image is?


    • stokes OTI Staff #

      Aww, thanks. You can also think of it as a “arch (logical disjunction) stereo” image, if you want.


      • inmate #

        ‘v’ is also the mathematical symbol for a logical ‘or,’ which is true when one of the statements is true or they are both true.

        Essentially, your graphic states that something is an archetype, a stereotype, or an archetype and a stereotype.


        • stokes OTI Staff #

          Just so! My point is that they are not mutually exclusive.


  2. marie #

    I have to say that I think the question of archetype vs. stereotypeis kind of the same. We can’t forget that them old greeks who wrote the illiad and odyssey (forgive me if I get the source wrong) were possibly the worst misogynists in Europe to date. A woman was actually seen as hysterical, and thus Cassandra became hysterical after that mold. If you see this from a historical/sociological gender perspective, you have to keep in mind that this wasn’t high culture to begin with. What is iconic and classic is a matter of choice, not a matter of qualities inherent in the works themselves, as much as we want to believe it. Thus, what is it that separates the archetype from the stereotype? Probably status, at least I can’t see any other practical differences to it.

    Compare for example the use of another trope, the Deparaved Homosexual, with describing a character abiding by that trope as a Dorian Grey archetype. It’s the same basic charactaritsicts, possibly with a slight difference in storytelling, depending on what you take form either category. But the end result in the viewer’s eye is mostly detemined with how well he is treated by the author, and how well the author sells the story to begin with. In the same way, Cassandra could be seen as nothing more than the old story of an hysterical woman being treated as a child, admittedly with a new spin.


    • stokes OTI Staff #

      Fair enough. Definitely what matters most is how the author treats it.

      I didn’t mean to suggest that Cassandra should get a pass because the character is from classical antiquity, although I see how it could come off that way… Before I ran out of time, I was planning to add a whole section about whether the John Henry archetype could be seen as racist. It’s not like the old songs/folktales/etc. about John Henry are bad. He’s obviously a positive figure, he tends to inspire solidarity, and he fits into a general mold of American folk hero that is not racially marked (Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill). One would like to be able to tell John Henry’s story, or variants on it… it says interesting things about labor relations, about the march of technology, etc. But if you said to yourself, “Hey, I’m going to invent a team of superheroes that are all clearly based on figures from folklore,” then John Henry could be a problem. Because your African-American team member — assuming you only have one — is going to be a huge guy with rippling muscles and a sledgehammer, who tries to solve problems with muscle and heart rather than by using his mind. And even though he’s obviously a superhero like everyone else in your book, he’s still subliminally coded as a blue-collar laborer.

      The Marvel Comics character Steel, who is based on John Henry, tries to get around this by making him a brilliant scientist who also runs around with a big ol’ hammer. But I haven’t read enough of those books to know how successful they are.


      • Valatan #

        Did you see the movie where Steel is played by Shaq? It co-stars Richard Roundtree, so the complicated race thing gets to do a full circle.


  3. The Gneech #

    Nice post. The question now is … will you revise your character? ;)

    -The Gneech


    • stokes OTI Staff #

      I’m thinking about it! If I ever go back to that project, I’d definitely revise her some. But whether I’d drastically rewrite her (or just remove her, or make her a guy), I’m less sure… I do feel that the archetype can be used well if you’re careful about it, but I definitely wasn’t being careful enough.


  4. Jon Eric #

    Well done, Stokes. It’s always pleasant to see an attempt to engage with feminist philosophy from someone who doesn’t already eat, drink, and breathe feminism. A fresh set of eyes lets you engage more freshly with the ideas, and better phrase them for a lay audience. This was highly accessible and well-thought-out.


  5. David Strugar #

    Stokes–regarding Ian Malcolm’s character, I recall that in the novel he actually degenerates into morphine-induced rantings before he dies. Of course, it being a novel, his rants are fraught with insightful meaning rather than nonsense, but still, it resembles Cassandra’s hysteria.
    Enjoyable post. I have a group of friends among whom the phrase “crazy uterus” has been a long-running inside joke.


  6. Lisa #

    From a storytelling perspective, I feel a strong urge to argue that fridge-stuffing can have a place. Not just with female characters, of course, and it has more of an impact if the character is better-developed before they die, but having someone get killed early on can set the tone of the story.

    Think about it from the Star Trek red-shirt perspective. Red-shirts are there to die to prove the situation is dangerous. They never really have any other role. We might have one episode that focuses on a sub-set of non-killed red-shirts, but we never see the actors/characters again, most likely. If your female characters are all red-shirts, then you could have a serious problem on your hands. :)

    So, while the Cassandra discussion was quite interesting, from a story-telling perspective, if you need to have her die there, the question could be considered also from a perspective of “So what about other women in the story?” Are there any? Do they get further along the flow-chart?

    If not, look back at your character. Does that character have to be a woman? Could it be a guy, whether romantically or just best-friend kind of thing? Or, what if you swapped genders on your characters? What if the boyfriend ends up in the fridge?

    Knowing that you have the issue, you could always lampshade it, too. (TV Tropes alert. Danger! Danger! Do not go!) There could be some serious dramatic tension knowing that she’s doomed earlier than she does. (Which may be hard if she’s a prophetess, of course!)

    I love this website. :D


  7. glockblob #

    I had a similar experience. I realized that I was taking my only main female character and letting her get kidnapped and threatened with death just because it was a way to move the plot along. I had just been reading the Women in Refrigerators list, and I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise– it was kind of chilling (puns!) to realize I was had completely not noticed doing something I had just been tut-tutting other writers for doing. Of course, not every female character HAS to pass the test (I’m reminded of the in-book communist revolution mentioned in Lost in a Good Book where every character demanded equal standing in the narrative). But in that case, it was very much a wake up call. And resulted in a much better story, once I caught it and started to actually do some creative thinking instead of following the cultural ruts in the road.


  8. Simber #

    I’m ever so late to this party, but though I like the overthinking, I think there’s another way to look at Cassandra’s hysteria. I think your third defining plot point for Cassandra stories should be reformulated as something like: ‘3) She suffers greatly as a consequence of the foreseen catastrophe’. And this is not optional, and that’s why Mulder and many of the other Cassandra’s mentioned at TVTropes don’t fit the mould: there’s nothing on the line for them. Now if I knew that my city would be destroyed and all my loved ones would die and I could do nothing about it, and everybody treated me like I was crazy, I suppose I would get a little hysterical. Couldn’t that little psychological recognition dampen the need for feminist exegesis?

    BTW, Greek society was pretty misogynist but interestingly women were given a voice in the tragedies (which were most definately high culture), mostly in roles where their imposed passivity leads to their suffering. I think the proto-humanist Euripides would read your last few paragraphs with consent.


    • stokes OTI Staff #

      I’m pretty sure the suffering actually is optional, and I’d point again to Dib from Invader Zim. Yes, I suppose Dib would suffer, along with the rest of the world, if any of Zim’s schemes were actually successful. But Zim is a failure, so Dib is safe.

      I do agree with your broader point. While it is possible to use Cassandra to say something like “Women* are always flying off the handle, amirite, guys? It’s probably because of their crazy female uterus vapors,” it’s actually easier to use Cassandra to say something like “Women are always flying off the handle, but if men could take their heads out of their own asses for half a second and listen to them, then they would fly off the handle too, because, hey, s___ is f___’d.

      And I’m right with you on Euripides. I also like the end of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon where Cassandra has a whole big speech that’s like, “Hey, Apollo: thanks for nothing, douchebag.”

      But even this doesn’t put us in the clear. (Not that anything ever will – that’s just part of the modern condition, and nothing to worry about. We just keep trying.) If a Cassandra figure is used to justify “feminine hysteria” as a rational response to patriarchal douchebaggery, this still normalizes the idea that women are flighty, emotional, delicate, “intuitive,” and – not least – passive. Woman-as-mineshaft-canary is a step up from woman-as-porcelain-doll, to be sure. Hey, she’s animate! That ain’t nothing. But it ain’t enough, either.

      * Women… or really, disenfranchised group X, because again, look at Dib. Even Ian Malcolm is an intellectual — a privileged group in almost every context, but obviously disenfranchised vis a vis the plutocrat John Hammond. Still, it’s usually women.


  9. fenzel #

    Hey Stokes,

    Just saw this article, and there’s one really key piece of information you left out of it.

    Like, something really important.

    Like, somebody who worked with you on this specific project for more than a year and who spent a whole lot of time working on the Cassandra character.


    Unless – did you work on a different project with a Cassandra character in it?

    If it’s the project I’m thinking about, I guess this is a nice thought exercise, but there’s a lot about the project you’re leaving out (that I don’t expect you to talk about) that kind of makes this whole discussion irrelevant.

    But mostly I’m just sad.


    • stokes OTI Staff #

      Aaahhh! FULL DISCLOSURE: the project in question was as much Fenzel’s as it was mine, if not more. Fenzel, I didn’t mean to write you out of history or anything, I was just talking about the thing in the most general terms possible because the details weren’t relevant to the point I was trying to make. Still, it was a crummy thing to do, and I’m sorry for it. And I’ve changed the opening of the post to reflect this.


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