Ever see the bar scene towards the end of Beverly Hills Cop? Eddie Murphy aka Detective Axel Foley shows the coffee grounds he found in a warehouse to Beverly Hills detectives John Taggart and Billy Rosewood. In the background, a female stripper performs a pole dance to the song Nasty Girl by the group Vanity 6. (Click the link and you can listen to it if you need a refresher or if you’ve never heard it before. Then again, listen to it because it gets the blood pumping and your body moving.)
When it comes to pole dancing, this song title says it all. Seriously, if you asked the average person what words come to mind when you say pole dancing, the list you got would probably look something like this:
down and dirty
bad girl (with all its negative connotations)
and the list goes on (feel free to add more in the comments).
Now take a look at this YouTube clip. It’s a little long at over 6 minutes, but check it out. This is Natasha Wang, this year’s U.S. Pole Dance Champion on The View.
After watching Natasha, what words would you use to describe this pole dance performance? How about some of these:
Gumby (okay, couldn’t resist. Did you see the way she bends?)
The first list plays to stereotype. It’s that first image we identify with and use to make assumptions. In stories, stereotypes can be useful to describe characters with very small roles to play, the harried waitress, the uptight, myopic accountant, or the loud mouth neighbor with the beer gut living next door. We instantly form impressions from this type of quick sketch and move on. After all, these aren’t the main characters and that’s whose actions we want to follow.
Using stereotypes for your main characters is not going to get you that coveted request from an editor or agent–unless you make them work for you.
Think of the conflict you can generate in a romance story in which the hero discovers the heroine is a pole dancer. You can easily imagine what assumptions he’ll make about her. It certainly will put him at a disadvantage when he discovers he’s entirely wrong. Now how far a writer would want to milk that scenario depends on the plot and characters.
Or how about a Cinderella story where instead of the virtuous, downtrodden heroine, we have a not-so-virtuous, downtrodden prostitute. Sound familiar? That little plot twist led to one of the most successful romantic comedies ever in Pretty Woman.
Let’s go back to our Beverly Hills Cop example, a movie that earned the top box office spot for 1984. Here’s a screenplay in which we recognize the stereotypes, laugh at their absurdity and appreciate when they’re turned on their head. Foley, the foul-mouthed black detective from Detroit is the consummate con man. He has no qualms about putting one over his lieutenant, who thinks he’s “deep undercover,” getting the Beverly Hills hotel to rent him a room because he’s supposedly a reporter in town to interview Michael Jackson, or letting the Beverly Hills police commissioner think he’s a West Indies’ psychic. He’s irreverent, brash, and completely out of place in the wealthy Beverly Hills community. He’s also a bulldog with a bone and isn’t above using the prejudices of others to finagle what he needs. And you love him for it.
When stereotypes are overdone and there is nothing new or unique at all about the character, stories whither and die in a pile of discarded manuscripts. But give these same stereotypes a twist, laugh at them, or challenge them and you may have a winner on your hands.