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Dear People of the Web,

What is the difference between a stereotype and an archetype?  Are these things distinct or only separated by degrees?  If they're distinct, how so?  If they're gradient, at what point does each become the other?


( 16 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 9th, 2009 02:32 pm (UTC)
A stereotype is an archetype with bad breath and hardening of the arteries.

Okay, more seriously. An archetype is the start of something. A stereotype is where an archetype ends up if it's handled badly.
Jul. 10th, 2009 03:38 am (UTC)
How is it you mean "an archetype is the start of something?" What is an archetype, specifically, in your mind? If it's the start, does that mean the "something" must inevitably be elaborated and extrapolated from an archetype into something more complex? Is the archetype a key ingredient for a narrative admixture?
Jul. 10th, 2009 04:03 am (UTC)
For me, an archetype is a starting point -- if someone says "the warrior archetype", that brings to mind a bunch of ingredients that are usually shaped into a more sharply-defined whole. Carries a sword, kicks ass, doesn't leave his men behind, etc.

That whole bag o' ingredients is raw material. When it's unified through a personality and a point of view, and put into the context of a story and a setting, then it moves part archetype and becomes a full-blown character.

When you skip a step and just borrow, wholesale, the way those pieces aggregate from another place without thinking about why they were fit together that way and what the consequences of those combinations are, that's a stereotype, a cliché. They're dead ends, because they're not being invested with the same kind of thought and imagination and care anymore -- they're just being used to fill in a blank, mindlessly.

One archetype I think we're seeing more of these days is the Strong Woman -- someone who uses masculine strength in the service of feminine goals (e.g., protection of innocents/offspring). Ellen Ripley (as per the first two "Alien" movies) is most everyone's favorite example of this; she avoids being a cliché because she's got the right mixture of all the pieces, and they're reflected in the story being told, too.

But then you have a movie like "Doomsday" -- which I confess I enjoyed in a totally mindless way, even when the Strong Woman character, Eden Sinclair, was a stereotype. She was more Tough Chick than anything else, and the only really feminine side of her personality (she wants to find out what happened to Mom) is really not used for much more than to give her a token reason to throw herself into trouble as the movie supplies it. It's not really organically connected to anything, from what I saw.

There's others we could look at, but that one came to mind most readily since it was still fresh.
Jul. 11th, 2009 07:11 am (UTC)
It seems like what you're saying is that an archetype is a mixture of basic ideas which composite to form a broader but familiar idea. Carrying a sword, caring for compatriots, and getting into scuffles could be the component ideas of the warrior idea, which is familiar enough to be considered an archetype. You view the archetype as a starting point from which a character can be built, adding personal motivations and putting them into a specific context to see how those things aggregate. So an archetype itself is not a person or a character, but it can be used as a kind of template from which to create.

From your "strong woman" and "tough chick" examples, it looks like you're arguing that an archetype can be used both to develop a valuable character but can also become a stereotype. Is the essential difference, then, the addition of personality and context? Does an archetype automatically become a stereotype without those things, or is there something else which causes an archetype to "devolve" into a stereotype? Does the archetype have to match an existing stereotype, or can the archetype, with time, create a stereotype through characters that lack other components?

There's another question that arises here. You say that full-blown characters are developed from the unification of the archetype through personality and context. Can a personality not itself become an archetype? Consider the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator assessment. Do those sixteen personality types not represent personality archetypes? Could the process you describe not be considered a process of merging together a combination of, for instance, occupational, personality, plot, and setting archetypes? Or is that using the word too broadly?
Jul. 11th, 2009 03:02 pm (UTC)
"Is the essential difference, then, the addition of personality and context?"

That to me is a big part of it, yes. The archetypes are supplied by the world around you and the society you live in, and typically have a larger-than-life stature. I suspect that's because they're derived from the aggregate of our feelings about many such people. So it's cyclical, I guess: archetype leads to character, which can in time lead to a new archetype. (Time in this case being a very, very long stretch of time -- not a couple of TV seasons.)

That leads to the 2nd question. In time a personality can become an archetype, I would think -- but it would seem that the process is a little like the creation of a fossil. The end result is a greatly simplified version of the original, a new starting point, but with a lot of things condensed or thrown out.

I'm not sure the MBTI is a good point of reference here, as I don't consider the MBTI to be a useful diagnostic tool for anything. I've seen it most widely used not by psychologists, but in the HR departments in businesses, where it's used in roughly the same pseudoscientific fashion as devices like the polygraph. Its conceits about personality are way too glib and formulaic for me, and its assessments are less like archetypes to me and more like the scattergun assessments in a horoscope. I left astrology behind a while back when I realized I'd done my chart for the wrong month of the year and still had people eagerly correlating things in it to personality traits I had.
Jul. 11th, 2009 09:29 pm (UTC)
I agree that the Myers-Briggs personality model is outdated and inaccurate; it simply provides an easy, well known example of personalities as archetypes. Ever since people started discussing personalities as a part of psychology, they've discussed personality types, and that remains true today. Diagnostic criteria for various personality disorders involves a series of traits, most of which are prominently exhibited in given subjects; in that way personality disorders could be said to represent personality archetypes. That isn't to say personality archetypes are necessarily restricted to disorders.

Taking disorders into consideration, however, it should be noted that most people with personality disorders do not prominently exhibit every trait of the disorder; there is variety. Assuming a person with a certain personality disorder has a particular trait of that disorder, especially assuming it's a prominent trait, without direct evidence would seem to fall into the category of stereotyping. So perhaps the difference between an archetype and a stereotype is (a) that a stereotype is used as a form of discrimination and (b) that an archetype is more flexible?
Jul. 11th, 2009 10:09 pm (UTC)
The word "discrimination" is typically used in a negative context. Most of the time it's used to refer to something unwarranted -- is that what you mean? (I'll get an answer to that before I go on, it's kind of pivotal.)
Aug. 1st, 2009 08:02 am (UTC)
Well, I suppose that's more or less accurate. As I understand it, the basic definition of discrimination is to make a distinction between things. The connotation of discrimination as I've used it here is that the distinction is made without a grounding in evidence; an inaccurate association between traits is made, and then that series of traits is applied to an individual, regardless of whether all those traits apply. If some traits or even one trait applies, then there is an assumption that more or all of the associated traits apply. That's the sort of discrimination I mean.
Aug. 4th, 2009 05:10 pm (UTC)
Yes, I thought it would be useful to ask if that was the definition being used here. Sometimes being discriminatory just means you're choosing one thing over another because it's a good idea.

So back to the original conceit: "perhaps the difference between an archetype and a stereotype is (a) that a stereotype is used as a form of discrimination and (b) that an archetype is more flexible?" To that I would say, yes -- I don't know if the primary function of a stereotype is to be used as a discriminatory tool (i.e., is that WHY it comes into existence?) but that's certainly one of the things it can be put to use for.
Aug. 5th, 2009 01:56 am (UTC)
I don't think in general that stereotypes represent deliberate discrimination, in this sense of the word, though I do think they at least represent a subconscious need for discrimination, in the sense without connotations. I think stereotypes fill a need people have to categorize or compartmentalize things; to know them, regardless of that knowledge's veracity; and to differentiate, no matter how superficial the differences. The rest is simple apophenia; it's so easy for the brain to create associations and patterns where in reality there are none, or where the connections are terribly flimsy.
Aug. 5th, 2009 02:31 am (UTC)
Right. People need the world to make sense to them in some way. By default that sense is patterns we cobble together through whatever's bopping around in our brain, and it takes some training (from the look of it) for those patterns to be a bit more disciplined -- to have them actually make sense objectively, too.

What role do archetypes play in that, though? Are they something that we get as a kind of default and have to make the best of, you think?
Aug. 27th, 2009 08:07 am (UTC)
That's what I'm trying to understand. I think one of the issues at hand is the multiple definitions and connotations for both words, archetype and stereotype, and that there is no clear way to sort either word without first choosing a specific set of definitions and connotations (or the lack thereof). The problem there is we'd automatically be limiting ourselves and ignoring a lot of fuel for discussion. I'm thinking I'll put together a new entry to continue this thread with some more thoughts.
Jul. 9th, 2009 05:53 pm (UTC)
An archetype is a divine manifestation of an aspect of the collective unconscious. Examples are: Mother, Father, Son, Daughter, Virgin, Wife.

A stereotype is a characterization (usually negative) of a group of people based on traits observed in some memebers of that group. Examples are racist depictions of blacks as criminals and sexist depictions of women as stupid.
Jul. 10th, 2009 03:47 am (UTC)
What is a divine manifestation, and how does it represent the collective unconscious? Is the unconscious divine, or is the process of its manifestation what's sometimes divine? Are all archetypes representations of people's relations with one another, as with the examples you provide? What aspects of the collective unconscious are divine or can manifest in a divine fashion?

Can stereotypes also apply to archetypes? What traits does the Virgin archetype have, for example, and how many of them might be considered stereotypical? Is there just one Virgin archetype or many, and might it or they be malleable? Could any of those archetypes you mentioned be considered sexist? Or are you saying that archetypes and stereotypes are distinct, having no overlap?
Jul. 10th, 2009 01:45 pm (UTC)
An archetype (or even prototype though that carries a more experimental or unfinished connotation) is an original upon which all copies are based. A stereotype is a mental construct. I suppose I'd say an archetype is something real that exists now or did once in the past while a stereotype exists only in the mind.

The Model T Ford is the archetype of all modern cars since they are mostly based on its design.

The stereotypical Jewish person (just to pick a random group) is an amalgamation of characteristics about all jewish people based on things people have heard from others or seen for themselves. "This one jewish guy I know was cheap, they all must be." or "That girl is cheap because she's Jewish." These characteristics may or may not be based in reality and the logic behind them is sometimes faulty. For example; I'm black and love fried chicken but I don't like grape soda and am not particularly fond of menthol. Of course there are lots of non black people who love fried chicken and grape soda. And conversely there are lots of black people who don't like fried chicken. So the stereotype can't apply to everyone in the group.

Can a stereotype apply to an archetype? I would imagine not. An archetype is singular and original. Because a stereotype is based on information gathered from various items or people in a group, until there are multiple instances to gather information from, one can't create a stereotype. I can imagine a stereotypical "old timey car" with big spoked wheels, but I'm not specifically thinking of the Model T Ford, I'm thinking of all cars built in the 1920's and 1930's.

Hope that was helpful
Jul. 11th, 2009 07:34 am (UTC)
You seem to be suggesting that an archetype only exists if there's a real-life sample of a given unit or individual that matches certain characteristics, past or present. How does that match with, for instance, the Jungian concept of archetypes as dynamic, organic, emergent representations of the collective unconscious? Does an archetype only exist if there is or was an original to represent it, or can it develop without an original?

Consider the plot of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, specifically the first season and the plot of The Laughing Man. In the end, we discover that the Laughing Man was a social phenomena perpetuated by thousands, perhaps millions of people without ever being a real individual; it was an icon of an idea and a copy without an original. The laughing man notion itself is a literary concept that stems at least as far as Victor Hugo's L'Homme qui rit, and it's difficult to verify whether Ursus was the original laughing man, a derivative from an earlier work, or a composite of previous characters and ideas that was essentially a series of copies that also established something relatively new. It is clear that this character type has been copied many times since, whether or not Victor Hugo's was original or there even was an original at all.

On the same token, is a stereotype always an amalgamation, or might there be cases where the stereotype actually fits a unique individual which than became an icon for all people of a broader character, no matter how inaccurate? Or if there are cases of individuals that match a given stereotype, is it always a case of an individual conforming to that stereotype, even when there was no single, originating individual on whom the stereotype was based?
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