Archetype or Stereotype?

Archetype or Stereotype?

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

Hysteria.  If ever there was a word calculated to raise feminist hackles, this was probably it.  It literally means something like “disturbance of the uterus,” and it used to be a specifically gendered medical diagnosis.  These days it has two quite distinct senses.  “Hysterically funny” is an altogether value-neutral term (as far as I can tell) that just means “very funny.”   To be hysterical in the other sense – crying, wailing, gnashing your teeth, acting like Glenn Beck on a bad day – is still coded as feminine.  Sure, men can be described as hysterical.  I mean, look at Glenn Beck, right?  But  it inevitably implies that they are being womanish:  that letting one’s emotions slip like this is some kind of unforgivable masculine lèse majesté.  So when we say that the Cassandra character is defined by her hysterical response, well, things start getting uncomfortable.  And this brings up another important point.  If you go to the TV Trope page for Cassandra — don’t actually go to TV Tropes, because you won’t be back for hours, but if you did, you could scroll through dozens and dozens of examples of people who are never believed even though they really shouldn’t be… almost none of whom really feel like the character Cassandra, because they’re missing that crucial element of hysteria.  Like take Mulder from the X-Files.  Every episode starts out with him saying something like, “Huh, I wonder if this is a freaky chicken-worshiping death cult of shapeshifters?”  To which Sculley and Skinner and the rest react by rolling their eyes and yawning theatrically.  And every episode ends, mutatis mutandis, with the reveal of a freaky chicken-worshiping death cult of shapeshifters.   But does Mulder feel like Cassandra?  Or act like Cassandra?  Not hardly.  You know who does fit, though, is Dib from Invader Zim, who gets to be appropriately hysterical not because he’s female but because he’s a child.  Maybe we can refine our definition of the type a little.  A Cassandra, remember, predicts doom, is doubted, is treated as one insane, and then dies from the thing she tried to warn people about.   Mulder does all of this except the dying part, which is always a little bit optional, depending on the specific audience it’s aimed at.  What separates him from the original, then, is that when they treat her like a crazy person, she’s also acting like a crazy person.  And Mulder does not do this.  He’s got crazy beliefs, yeah, but he’s not muttering them on the subway to anyone who will listen.  He speaks clearly and grooms himself.  He acts — his manner, at least, is that of a normal, productive member of society.  Which due to the already-discussed coded nature of hysteria means, like a real man.

Archetypes then, are not completely neutral.  But there are still positive potentials to the Cassandra type.  Since she’s marked as “not-male,” the fact that the men in her life tend to doom themselves by not taking her seriously could be seen as a feminist critique – maybe even as a valorization of the hysterical, “womanly” worldview that she’s supposed to represent.  On the other hand, you can have a character like Sarah Connor in Terminator 2, who, if you reduce out her Mama Bear characteristics, is basically a Cassandra who eventually gets fed up with waiting for people to start paying attention to her, and starts, you know, setting the Trojan Horse on fire.  Even so, the archetype engages with gender:  it is emphatically not just a doomed fortune-teller character that happens to be female by accident.  Even if you were to just make your Cassandra character a guy – although this is the move I’d suggest making, if you wanted to avoid the slightest hint of bad ideology – he would still engage with notions of what men are supposed to be like, and would require careful handling.

Whether there’s some kind of moral calculus involved with using or even deriving pleasure from characters that play into this kind of archetype, seems to me to be a very open question.  The danger is that, through constant repetition, the archetype can become a part of what our conception of a particular minority group is supposed to be like – essentially, the archetype devolves into stereotype, and stereotypes have real-world consequences.    On the other hand, we might be able to sidestep this problem just by reading the text with sufficient care.  If we’re aware of the ways that a Cassandra character plays on an essentialized concept of femininity, aren’t we less likely to read that portrayal back into our own notion of the feminine?  Maybe we can enjoy and deploy these troubling figures with impunity, as long as we keep our eyes fully open at all times.

But then again, being aware isn’t necessarily the same as being safe. You can ask Cassandra about that.

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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