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  • Typecasting: On the Arts and Sciences of Human Inequality
  • Janice Kelly
Typecasting: On the Arts and Sciences of Human Inequality. By Elizabeth Ewen and Stuart Ewen (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2006. 560pp. $34.95).

Ewen and Ewen begin their fascinating exploration of stereotyping in Western culture by pointing out that "the link between media and stereotype" is embedded in the origin of the word (3). In 1794, the French printer Fermin Didot gave the name "stereotype" to an innovative printing process in which pages of handset type were transformed into papier mache molds. In "cookie cutter" fashion, the molds were used to generate duplicate plates, enabling the production of multiple copies and eliminating the need to set individual pieces of type for each printing press. How convenient to have access to a simple form (and a rigid one, in the case of a metal plate) that could do away with the bother of having to pay attention to individual details! In fact, the prefix stereos is rooted in the Greek meaning "solid, hard, or fixed," which aptly describes the intractability of stereotypical beliefs.

Just how firmly fixed or entrenched are the stereotypes that perpetuate inequality is illustrated by the juxtaposition of discredited theories of "inferior races" and "criminal physiognomy" with recent examples of curiously similar sentiments. Jerry Falwell implicated everyone from "pagans," to gays and lesbians, to the ACLU for the attacks of September 11, 2001. George W. Bush declared that the war in Iraq was justified as a moral campaign against "an enemy that has no conscience," and furthermore, were "the exact opposite of Americans" (490). The statement was rampant with "we" and "they." Whereas we value life and human dignity and freedom, they value nothing but hate. Ewen and Ewen astutely note that George Combe and Samuel Morton used a similar rationale to justify the extermination of American Indians, and in the recent past, William Westmoreland applied the same perspective to the Vietnam War. Less bloodthirsty but equally insidious, in the summer of 2005, Harvard president Lawrence Summers proposed that the underrepresentation of women in the sciences and mathematics might be due to "issues of intrinsic aptitude" (357). One might find solace observing that Jerry Falwell does not have widespread credibility, the majority of Americans oppose the Iraq war, and former president Summers was forced to resign from his post. Nevertheless, the book makes it clear that such statements are part of a long legacy of "typecasting."

Typecasting begins with the premise that, "Within recent history, the media's capacity to spawn mass impressions instantaneously has been a pivotal factor in the dissemination of stereotypes" (3). Within this realization is the irony that the technological advances that ostensibly have the power to bring people together have even greater power to sustain the simplistic dualities that underlie stereotyping. In short, the rapid transmission of information means the rapid transmission of stereotypical imagery.

From this perspective, it is not surprising that the first application of the term "stereotype" to the social and cultural milieu took place during the Jazz Age [End Page 435] when radio, film, and telephones were symbols of increasing prosperity and sophistication. As portrayed by the Ewens, it was the respected journalist Walter Lippmann, who recognized that the complexity of the modern world was too daunting for the "public mind" to process without some type of device to simplify it. In his 1922 study, Public Opinion, Lippmann asserted that:

[T[he real environment is altogether too big, too complex, and too fleeting for direct acquaintance. We are not equipped to deal with so much subtlety, so much variety, so many permutations and combinations. And although we have to act in that environment, we have to reconstruct it on a simpler model before we can manage with it. To traverse the world men must have maps of the world.


One could point out the inherent stereotype in the use of the word "men." Lippmann wrote in an era when the "New Woman" had just earned the right to vote and was flaunting her independence by "bobbing" her hair, discarding corsets in favor of short dresses or trousers, and becoming a presence in public arenas...


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pp. 435-439
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