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Hortense Powdermaker

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I did not make that name up, although I sort of wish I had.  It’s a wonderful name.  It ought to be the name of a major-secondary character in a fair play mystery set in a small midwestern town.  It ought to be something.

And, in fact, it is something.  It’s the name of a very real person, one of the early cohort of female anthropologists who rose to prominence between the two world wars.  She even has her own Wikipedia entry, here:


There are pictures, so that you can see what she looks like.  From the description, she was a very intelligent and professionally accomplished woman. 

I have no idea what the body of her work was like.  There is an excerpt from one of those books–or maybe an article on the same subject–in the Mass Culture anthology I’ve been reading, and it’s as clueless and heavy handed as the other pieces I described here yesterday.  The subject there is Hollywood, and how human relations in the movie making industry resemble totalitarianism.

Or something.

It’s that kind of thing.

But that’s not what I want to talk about here.  What I want to talk about is this:

Whatever else Hortense Powdermaker is or was, what she represents is a stereotype.

We have gotten to a place where stereotypes are automatically assumed to be “bad,” and, I think, to be false.  The badness of stereotypes consists of two things.

First is the fact that a stereotype automatically treats groups of people AS groups, and not as individuals.  We don’t respond to Dr. Mary Smith, an individual who is also an anthropologist.  We instead respond to The Female Anthropologist, who is a type with a set of predetermined characteristics.  This is very bad for Mary Smith, who may not run true to type at all.  It may even be bad for anthropology.

The second part, however, is the tacit assumption that stereotypes aren’t true to anybody’s type–that there are not, actually, any examples of the group in real life who fit the stereotype. 

Stereotypes, rather than being collective responses to something real in the environment, are instead supposed to be exercises of power by a dominant group over the subgroups beneath it.

The stereotype of the homely, humorless, culturally clueless Female Social Scientist, therefore, is supposed to have arisen not because there were a number of prominent female social scientists who fit the description, but because the culture wanted to discourage women from moving away from their primary roles as wives and mothers.  The culture therefore threw up a thoroughly unattractive alternative to wife and mother status, and let the girls form their own conclusions about who they wanted to be.

I learned this definition and analysis of stereotypes early, and I still tend to think there is a lot of truth in it. 

I do know that treating people as stereotypes in most situations–when they’re you’re students, say, or your employees, or candidates for new friends when you move into a new situation–hampers efforts to get to know them, and to get them to produce their best work, and to know what kind of work they might be able to do to be useful.  It hampers the enterprise, in fact, and so stereotyping tends to be a bad thing on a practical level.

It is because I believe these things that I am always brought up short by the emergence into my consciousnes of somebody like Hortense Powdermaker. 

Because whatever wonderful qualities she may have had as a human being, alone and at home with family and friends, in her public life it seems she’d been shipped from Central Casting. 

If the pictures are anything to go on, she was a homely woman very uncomfortable in her body, awkward and stiff, with little of the grace of femininity.

If the article is anything to go by, “humorless” and “clueless” are exactly the right adjectives for her habits of mind.

Even her decision to study Hollywood as an anthropoligist studies primitive cultures–her other area of academic interest was “rural poor Negroes”–fits the stereotype.

I never know what to do with things like this when I stumble across them–when there appears, in my classroom, a student whose behavior could have been directed by D.W. Griffith; when I click through to Judge Judy and find that the defendant is a perky little blonde idiot who giggles at everything and bats her eyes at the baliff.

I also know, of course, that we have not given up our stereotypes and probably couldn’t if we wanted to.  It’s just that, in situations where we believe them to be true, or think them to be useful, we call them something else. 

“That’s their culture,” we say.  or “that’s their work style.” 

And it’s always better to work with their culture or their work style or their learning mode than it is to work against it.

In some cases, we’ve traded one stereotype for another, and then pretended we haven’t.

It would be more than your life is worth to write a character for modern television that was in the tradition of Jack Benny’s Rochester, for instance, or shucking and mumbling and shuffling with his hands in his pockets and his eyes rolling around in his head.

It would be money in the bank to write a psychopathic black criminal who rapes and dismembers his victims, or black drug dealer who’d just as soon have you shot as look at you, or a pimp with a hat made of feathers and a black limousine.

I’m not sure that that’s progress.

With women, I think the issue has been, for me, that the original stereotype was not only untrue, but untrue on any level–untrue even when it appeared to be true.

When I saw women acting like the blonde idiot, I assumed that this was a mask adopted for specific instrumental purposes.  She was acting like that because she wanted to catch a husband who would support her.  It was all an act, a false facade, and underneath she was nothing like that at all.

There is even a standardized trope, in the culture, that played to just that assumption–the character in the movie or the television series who, when you peel off her facade, turns out to be a rip-snorting heroine of the martial arts or the smartest girl in the room about whatever we’re talking about.

Think Legally Blonde.

Obviously, real people are not stereotypes.  There is always much more in the life and times of any individual human being than a stereotype can cover. 

Most of us, though, do not deal with most individuals in their completeness, and couldn’t if we wanted to. 

And in fiction, most of us not only want, but need, the shorthand that stereotypes provide.

We just don’t call them stereotypes, because stereotypes are bad.

Written by janeh

May 9th, 2012 at 9:04 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Hortense Powdermaker'

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  1. I think I always knew stereotypes could be positive as well as negative. That probably made it difficult for me to understand at first why it was considered increasingly terrible to have stereotypes, and it took me a while to understand that it is unfair to consider an individual as merely a representative of a group.


    9 May 12 at 3:51 pm

  2. I don’t understand the phrase “the culture wanted to discourage women from moving away from their primary roles as wives and mothers.”

    That sounds as if “the culture” is a thinking being making a deliberate decision. But, to me, culture is just a word indicating the behavior of a group. A word can’t make decisions and there was certainly no deliberate collective decision to discourage women from moving away from their primary role.


    9 May 12 at 6:12 pm

  3. Well, we could call them “gestalts” or “cultural norms” if stereotypes is a bad word now–but I don’t see how you can operate in a modern society without them. Every day, we make fleeting contact with strangers. We need favors we aren’t owed. We need to start a conversation without offending someone. We need to make quick decisions about bending or enforcing rules based on grossly insufficient information. We do it based on generalizations. Pulled over by a rural southern sherriff? Mention being a Lee Descendant. (Yes, I’ve seen it on a business card.) Stopped by Campus Police at Howard? Probably best try something else.

    My parents never used the word “stereotype” that I remember. But Dad told me that when he ran a tire store in (English-descended) Anderson, Indiana, you ran ads on Friday morning, because people got paid Friday afternoon, and they went out and spent the money. When he moved to (largely German-descended) Fort Wayne, Indiana, there were lines Friday afternoon outside the banks where people were deposting paychecks, and a different strategy was called for. And in a German-descended town, city ordnances were plentiful, and strictly enforced. He felt that if you acted as though people were pretty much the same everywhere, you weren’t going to make it in retail.

    The difficulty comes two ways: first, when you have enough information on an individual and don’t use it, sticking to the handy generalization, and second when you start stacking up “exceptions” without having a lot of cases in which the rule holds. But moving forward without adequate information is a human and necessary thing.

    As for Hortense Powdermaker, a good fair play is possible, but surely she really belongs in a paperback cozy?


    9 May 12 at 6:29 pm

  4. Just an odd thought. Does parents teaching their children about “stranger danger” count as stereotyping?

    If so, its an example of Robert’s comment about operating in a modern society.


    9 May 12 at 11:34 pm

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