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Stereotypes in the Poem on the Subway and the Film Slumdog Millionaire

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Georg Christoph Lichtenberg once said, “I cannot say whether things will get better if we change; what I can say is that they must change if they are to get better.” Stereotypes are all around us. No matter a person’s age, gender, race, or religion, the ability to stereotype others or be stereotyped will always affect us. This can cause detrimental effects in society, including an increase in microaggression. The poem On The Subway written by Sharon Olds displays societal differences between white women and black men, showing stereotypes in physical strength and race. The societal differences between poor and rich people in the movie Slumdog Millionaire relates to stereotypes surrounding intelligence. These stereotypes can lead to an oppressive imbalance of power depending on a person’s societal or physical privileges.

Historically, gender has been subjected to constant stereotypes. The poem On The Subway written by Sharon Olds shares the experiences that a white woman faces in the presence of a black man. There is uncertainty regarding their power dynamic caused by the stereotypes that are ingrained into society. The writer expresses this concern thinking, “There is / no way to know how easy this / white skin makes my life, this / life he could take so easily and / break across his knee like a stick the way his / own back is being broken” (Olds 26). As the woman on the subway keeps thinking about how unsafe she feels, she realizes that the man feels the same way. I occasionally feel the same absence of power in the presence of a man, like the woman feels in the presence of a black man. I can remember countless times where the catcalls and conversations I have received from a man in the streets have put me in a place where I feel powerless. No matter how prepared I thought I was, actually being in these situations is always terrifying. Now that I have experienced catcallers/random men wanting to approach me, I am now completely closed off. While reflecting on this poem, I have realized that not all men can have bad intentions, like the one on the subway. It makes me wonder if I am promoting the stereotypes surrounding men by protecting myself from them. I also question if I should give up my safety to see the good in men whom I don’t know. I think there is a balance between naivety and pessimism which, after reading this poem, I can start to search for. My thoughts stem from the sexist stereotypes surrounding men that I recognize. In the poem, the woman’s thoughts stem from racist and classist in addition to sexist stereotypes. Another text I have explored, Slumdog Millionaire, deals with classist stereotypes.

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When a person is poor, they are automatically assumed to be uneducated which Jamal Malik combats. He is from the slums of Mumbai, India and competes on a game show where he wins 20 million rupees. He then must prove his innocence in winning. When the police inspectors were interrogating Jamal, they asked him why he knew the answer to a question. Jamal answers, ‘I wake up every morning wishing I didn’t know the answer to that question. If it wasn’t for Rama and Allah, I’d still have a mother.’ (Jamal). The magnitude of this scene shows that even though Jamal is not as educated as some people may think, his unfortunate experiences give him a different type of education, but is just powerful, proven by his results. As stereotypes affect all of us, I have witnessed many people in my life, including friends and family members who feel unintelligent because they do not thrive in school environments. However, these types of people are the smartest people I know when it comes to real-life scenarios. By watching the movie Slumdog Millionaire, I have realized that neither street smart or book smart is superior. It is what you do with this intelligence that makes a person smart, giving them power. The stereotype that poor people or unfit students can’t be smart, displays the invalid importance that we place on just marks.

To conclude, societal and physical stereotypes can create an oppressive imbalance of power, which can greatly influence our lives. Firstly, Sharon Olds showcases the stereotypes surrounding white women and black men in her poem, On The Subway. Secondly, the movie Slumdog Millionaire reveals the stereotypes that poor and rich people face. Stereotypes are a common factor that influences everyone’s lives. It is only when we recognize their effects that we will be able to make a change.

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