On actively and passively breaking stereotypes

There is one line in the fifth episode of Westworld that I still find infinitely interesting. One line that made me pause the episode. A line from one of the female characters in the series, Dolores: “I imagined a story where I didn’t have to be the damsel”.


The damsel (in distress) is a classic theme in movies, literature and video games. ‘The damsel’ mostly is a beautiful woman that’s trapped and needs a man to save her. Think snow-white needing a prince to kiss her etc. With Dolores’ line she flips the story the people of Westworld had in store for her. She isn’t the female stereotype anymore. But did this sentence really need to be uttered? Do stereotypes need to be broken this way? Dolores after all, showed us she wasn’t the damsel anymore by actively saving herself and the man that was supposed to save her. Did explicitly telling us which stereotype they were breaking, add any value?

The reasons we break stereotypes like these are pretty clear: they don’t fit in the modern view of the world and the people in them, both during and after all kinds of feminist waves. You can even see that in the Prince, cookies commercial:
“Princess, I’m here to save you!”.
– “Don’t bother prince, I can do it myself.”

The way we break stereotypes is much more interesting. Take the movie adaption, The Legend of Tarzan for example.
**Mild spoiler alert**
At a certain point Jane is kidnapped and her hostage-taker says: “I need you to scream for me.” She replies: “Like a damsel?”
Now this is a entirely different situation from Westworld. Jane really needs saving by Tarzan, she really is a damsel in distress. She refuses to scream like one but still is. She doesn’t change the story or break any stereotype. But by commenting on it, it does give that illusion.

In Westworld they actively referenced the stereotype they were breaking whilst breaking it. But there are other ways of doing this. Take The Flash, a series that is breaking stereotypes as well, except they do it in such a subtle and passive way you don’t recognize them as a stereotype unless you really search for them. Stereotypes around women in science and interracial couples.

Breaking stereotypes in a passive way, makes them unrecognizable, ‘normal’ if you will. They’re fully integrated in the story, which in turn will make them fully integrated in our society as well. The moment you don’t look up from, for example, interracial couples the stereotype is truly broken. And constantly referring to the stereotype your breaking, whilst breaking it (a more active approach), keeps it alive in some sense.

Breaking stereotypes in real-life

How can stereotypes be broken best in real-life? Movements that strive to break stereotypes can’t create a society where those stereotypes no longer ‘apply’. They call for change and a better world but the associations that are being made won’t just disappear. They have become a part of our perception of the world, conscious or not.

So let’s say the phase of acknowledgement and recognition is over and the phase of change is here. If we want to effectively break a stereotype our perception of the world needs to change. When does this happen best, by actively breaking a stereotype or passively?

You can choose for an active approach because you want to make your watchers, listeners or followers aware of the fact that you have a different vision on society and the people in it. In other words, it can work a statement. But we’re past the phase of acknowledgement, so what else is it good for? You can win people’s support with it. Which, granted, begins to sound a bit sketchy. Would that even matter? If people do something good, do the intentions matter?
In this case I think they do, because breaking stereotypes with commercial or political intentions in mind won’t get us further than the first phase of breaking a stereotype, acknowledgement and recognition. Simply, because it doesn’t have to.

On the other hand, we have the passive approach. Complete passivity soon begins to feel like denying the existence of a stereotype. It can feel like it’s ignored. Which puts us back at the first phase of acknowledgement and recognition. A balance between the active and passive approach is probably best. What that balance is, is naturally the next question.

In Westworld’s case the viewers are made aware that is a series, in which females are no longer damsels in distress. Which adds to the story. Dolores is actively rebelling against the story-line the people of Westworld had in store for her. With such an active rebellion, actively breaking a stereotype makes sense.