At what point does a convenient shorthand evocation – either visual or verbal – turn into an idiotic cliche that reveals the writer or artist as a lazy hack?
When I say so, of course.
Exhibit 1: The use by cartoonists, greeting-card illustrators, and the kind of people who draw clip art of a black beret as signifier for “artist.” I mean, I’m sure there are artists who’ve worn black berets…but the black beret as visual image has come so much to mean “I am the sort of person who pronounces the word ‘artist’ with a long e accented on the second syllable” that I have a hard time imagining anyone who’s not utterly clueless actually wearing one. Unless they are, of course, an arteest. Or the kind of person who’ll end up in jail after saying to the Homeland Security folks at LAX, “so, like, if I made a joke about a bomb in my suitcase would you have to arrest me?”
Exhibit 2: “Patchouli” as the universally accepted scent of hippies. (Insert “body odor” joke here – and it’ll be Exhibit 3.) I honestly have no idea what patchouli actually smells like – although I suspect I actually have inhaled its odors. (At this point yellojkt may well point out that since I already blah-blah’d about shopping at a food co-op, I’ve outed myself as at least part-hippie anyway. I’ll have to cut off the soles of my shoes, climb a tree, and learn to play the flute next.) But was it really so all-pervasive, so exemplary to the exclusion of all other scents, that years later it should be the all-purpose device to connote hippiedom? I mean pity those other scents, they get no respect, do they – it’s all patchouli this, patchouli that.
I remember when I was kid, wondering why no circus I’d ever gone to had a fat lady, the supposedly popular name “Sam” was used by no one I knew, and no one I knew had a dog called “Spot.” Funny the way these sorts of labels persist.