One challenge that actors face is the risk of being typecast, especially if they are successful in a certain sort of role. I’m sure you can think of lots of actors who play more or less the same character in all of their films. On the one hand, being typecast means the actor does get roles, because there’s an assumption that actor will be right for the role. On the other hand, typecasting limits actors on many levels, so a lot of actors don’t want to be typecast.
We also see typecasting in crime fiction. And, as limiting as it can sometimes be for a character, it also has certain advantages, especially if one’s a sleuth who wants to put people off their guards and at ease. When sleuths can turn typecasting on its head, they often find ways to get information that might not otherwise be accessible.
For instance, in more than one of his cases, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is typecast as a ‘typical’ Frenchman (although, of course, we all know that he is Belgian!). In fact, in Dead Man’s Folly, Inspector Bland describes Poirot as a,
‘Kind of music hall parody of a Frenchman…’
Bland, of course, knows that Poirot is no parody. In fact, far from dismissing Poirot, Bland benefits from his input. Poirot fans know that he cultivates that image, and he doesn’t mind if people typecast him, because it means they say things to him that they might not otherwise be willing to say.
Earl Der Biggers is perhaps best known for his novels about Charlie Chan, the Chinese-American police detective. In part, Der Biggers created Chan as an alternative to the then-prevailing view of the Chinese as evil and untrustworthy. And in some senses, Chan is not a ‘typecast’ Chinese person. And yet, in recent years, some critics have questioned this. For example, especially in the films, Chan doesn’t speak fluent, idiomatic English. And in other ways, too, some argue that he behaves as a typecast Chinese person. Perhaps that’s up to the individual’s point of view, but it shows that typecasting can change over time as our attitudes do.
Barbara Neely’s Blanche White is a professional housekeeper who gets drawn into mysteries. She’s Black, and in the homes where she works, she’s often typecast as ‘just the help.’ People expect her to behave in certain ways, stay in the background, and even speak in certain ways. But there’s a lot more to Blanche than that. Still, she sometimes finds that the roles she’s typecast in are expedient for finding out what she wants to know. If she spoke and behaved in ways that were different to the ways she’s typecast, it’s likely that people wouldn’t be willing to let down their guards when she’s around. So, she finds that image as useful as it is galling to her.
There’s also Paul Thomas’ Tito Ihaka. He’s an Auckland police detective. He’s also Māori. While he doesn’t keep all of the traditional Māori ways, he does respect them, and he’s proud of his background. It does mean, though, that people sometimes typecast him as a ‘typical’ Māori (whatever that really even is). He makes a sort of bitter joke about it in Death on Demand. In one scene, he’s in a bar when a young woman shows some interest in him. It’s not long before he sees that her interest is largely because he’s Indigenous, and therefore, exotic. He plays into that typecasting, too, although he’s aware that, in its way, that typecasting is insulting.
Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Myrtle Clover is a retired teacher in her eighties. She lives in Bradley, North Carolina – the sort of small town where everyone knows everyone. There are plenty of people in town (including Myrtle’s son, the local police chief) who have typecast Myrtle. Since she’s an older lady, they assume she should be playing Bingo, joining the local church’s ladies’ group, and doing crossword puzzles. But that’s not how Myrtle thinks. She’s most definitely not ready to be ‘put out to pasture’ yet, and she understandably resents it when other people (especially her son) try to push her aside. She has a lively mind, an instinctive curiosity, and the ability to put the pieces of a puzzle together. The last thing she wants is to spend her days sitting idly in a rocking chair. So, typecasting or no, she asks questions and investigates when there’s a murder. She knows very well, too, the roles that she’s expected to play, and sometimes uses it to her advantage (‘Oh, don’t mind me. I’m just a busybody old lady with nothing better to do than gossip…’).
People are often typecast because it’s easy, quick, and convenient to do that. But the reality is that we’re more complex than it seems on the surface. And it’s interesting to see how crime-fictional sleuths handle the situation (and actually make use of it) when they are typecast.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Taproot’s Myself.