Who Run the World?
Women in the media.
I cannot tell you how many discussions I’ve had about this. How many papers I’ve read or written, how many arguments I’ve had, how many panels or lectures I’ve been to, how many documentaries I’ve seen, and how many times I’ve died a little bit inside when someone tells me that this isn’t an issue or that there are plenty of female characters or “the whole strong female lead thing is really getting old” or “has been overdone.” It’s most depressing when women say this.
So, I’d like to take a moment to discuss some of the issues involved here and why there is a huge discrepancy as to whether or not there is a problem or just what that problem is. If I want to keep this blog post from turning into a 600 page analysis, I fear I won’t be able to get into anywhere the depth I would like. I apologize for this, but I welcome any discussion in the comments and encourage you to seek out more information elsewhere. I’ll be breaking this discussion into sections to better examine the many levels involved with this systemic problem that plagues the publishing, movie, television, and gaming industries.
WHO’S IN THE STORY?
People often argue that there a tons of women in the media. And sure, at first glance it may seem like there are a lot of ladies. However, that’s a bit like when elections declare “Ladies’ Night” because more than one woman was elected. Suddenly it seems like women are everywhere, the glass ceiling has officially been shattered, and we can all move on.
Then you realize that all those women were 5% of the officials elected or 10% or maybe even 15% if you’re lucky. It seems like there are a lot of women because we’re not used to it. They stand out from the sea of men we are accustomed to and so no longer see as the massive number that it is.
For example, Scottish people are almost universally depicted as redheaded, just take a look at Brave or Samurai Jack or anything else about Scotland made outside of Scotland. It’s true that Scotland has the world’s largest population of redheads. Then you consider that this high percentage of gingers only constitutes 13% of the population. That means that 87% of the population does not have red hair. We simply perceive it as more prevalent than it is because it is more than we’re used to. It stands out. The recent documentary, Wonder Women, points out that women comprise 17% of speaking characters in movies.
There’s Katniss, there’s Hermione, there’s the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and sexy ladies on every poster in the theatre. Everywhere, yes? Not when you consider that women are more than half the population. The “strong female lead” has not been over done. It has simply been done. Meanwhile, the strong male lead is not noticed as it’s a given. The female lead still attracts attention, because it deviates from the status quo. It is not ladies’ night when women win elections. In fact, it would not even be ladies’ night if 51% of elections were won by women. It would simply be an accurate reflection of the US population. So, if women are distinctly not a minority, why do movies, books, and games treat them like one?
Many publishers discourage female protagonists, as girls will read about boys but boys will not read about girls. However, is this an actual prejudice held by the reader/viewer or a self-fulfilling prophecy by publishers, production companies, and game designers who do not put the same effort, money, and marketing into books, movies, shows, or games with leading ladies? For more on this, I highly recommend this disturbing indictment of why female protagonists are outright disallowed in games and are downplayed even when they are in them.
WHAT DO THEY DO IN THE STORY?
This brings me to my next point. When there are women, what purpose do they serve? Women in movies, television, and books tend to serve as support. They are the girlfriend, the friend, not the lead. This usually boils down to one of two roles: 1) Woman in the Refrigerator or Disposable Woman, the love interest or other female who dies or is kidnapped to provide a motivation for the main character, or 2) love interest, this is the love interest who appears to make the main character realize how shallow or empty or off-track their life is (see Manic Pixie Dream Girl) and becomes the impetus for change or comes to them for help, whether they need rescuing or help to advance some cause or complete a quest (see Damsel in Distress) and this chosen one is her only hope.
In either case their importance is in relation to the male main character, whether by providing backstory, exposition, plot progression, or sexual tension. These are not inherently problematic. However, when this is the predominant role of women, it becomes a problem. This issue is most obvious because there are fewer female characters in most movies, shows, and books than male characters. Thus cliché roles do not define men the same way as there are simply more options and roles for male characters to fall into (for more on this, please see my previous post There Can Only Be One).
Many recent movies, shows, and books have sought with varied success to subvert these cliché female tropes. However, a subversion still relies on the expectation of the status quo, emphasizing that a woman saving a man or a woman in power or any other deviation is just that: a deviation. It’s something novel, something unusual. As Tina Fey once said, we will have attained equality when we stop having to count how many women have done something and just assume that they can.
Meanwhile, female characters who avoid being simply a love interest often fall into the role of token woman on the team whose personality is “girl”. Just take a look at Wonder Woman, Black Widow, Uhura, or any other lone women filling the role of “secretary” or if they’re very, very lucky “competent female.” She’s as good as the guys, usually better on paper actually, but always seems to need their help. Again, half the population. There should not be one woman in the Avengers. There should not be two women in Starfleet. And those women should occasionally interact with one another about something other than men and shopping.
Then there’s the all-too infuriating fact that just because a woman is the lead or something has an all-female cast does not mean it’s any better. Look at Aladdin. Look at Superman. Look at Batman. Now look at Cinderella, Snow White, the Little Mermaid, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, et al. All too often stories with female main characters have them serve the same function of love interest or Damsel in Distress, now we just get to see them saved from their point of view. Not exactly a victory.
Look at movies with all male casts. Then look at movies with all female casts. Notice how things about women aimed at women are still all about women in relation to men. They talk about men, they look for love, then they go shopping. And talk about men some more. This even happens in children’s programming, when romance and sexual desire are not even large driving forces for the intended audience.
There was a Barbie movie a while back about a Battle of the Bands. While some have raised concerns that women in children’s programming are almost exclusively in entertainment professions, encouraging our daughters to be starlets and aspiring divas rather than engineers, doctors, or lawyers. However, this movie can’t even manage that. Barbie and her friends aren’t even in the Battle of the Bands. Their boyfriends are. We’re not even telling our daughters they can be aspiring musicians, we’re telling them they can date aspiring musicians. Groupie. That’s their role model. And then we scratch our heads and wonder why women don’t venture into male-dominated fields.
And even when there’s a strong, capable female lead who can actually can kick ass and take names, all too often the men around them have to be stupid or helpless, such as Kim Possible’s Ron Stoppable (until he becomes a romantic interest and then suddenly gets competent and starts rescuing Kim). Making men weak in order for women to be strong helps neither gender. Competent females and competent males should both be able to rescue or aid one another with comparable frequency without either of their panties getting in a twist.
Then there’s this. Remember, women can be tortured, they can be kidnapped, they can be raped, they can be killed. They can even help save the day, as long as it isn’t distracting from or threatening to the male characters. And they can be sexy and have sex scenes left and right, just so long as they don’t have any agency in the matter. God forbid a woman own her sexuality and express it on her own terms or take control by making the first move (or all the moves). That would be “awkward”. Let’s just stick to women serving as revenge and fantasy fodder for the men. Then everyone’s happy.
WHO’S TELLING THE STORY?
But there’s chick lit, you say. There’s Buffy! There’s Sara Connor! The sad truth is that most things for women and about women are written by, produced by, directed by, and created by men. Thus, our attempts at women’s stories and women’s perspectives are still through male eyes and male voices. This is not to say that men can’t write women or that women will necessarily be any better at it. A certain Miss Meyer is proof that women can set feminism back all by themselves with their own horrible portrayals of women.
But when virtually all of the decisions in the entertainment industry are made by men, particularly those about what women want and how to market it to them, there is a problem. The #onereasonwhy campaign by women in the gaming industry sought to bring some attention to just how much of a boys’ club the industry is. Then of course, there’s the fact that women can write, film, direct, produce, light, draw, ink, color, and edit stories that aren’t even marketed specifically at women.
After all, the very concepts of chick lit, “girl power episodes”, and “the strong female lead trend” are sexist in and of themselves. There is no men’s lit. There is no episode in every series where we are reminded that men are totally competent and can do stuff too. There is no one complaining about the plethora of strong male leads. There are simply books and movies and shows that happen to feature male main characters or male ensemble casts. There’s no special section in the bookstore for them, because they are a given, they are the norm.
To be honest, I think most things about or for women would be drastically improved by just not telling the people involved that the characters or intended readers/viewers are women. If Batman/Superman: Apocalypse hadn’t told the writers that Supergirl was female, we wouldn’t have had to sit through a shopping montage, after which Superman tells his niece that she now knows everything there is to know about being an earth girl.
For more on women behind the pen and camera, I recommend Wonder Women or the long and sad history of female writers who have de-emphasized, hidden, or outright lied about their gender. This is often thought of an issue from days gone by. Surely the Brontë sisters don’t have to pass themselves off as men anymore? Sadly, this is not a chapter of history we have put behind us. The moustache de plume is still alive and well. Even J. K. Rowling wrote under initials (she has no middle name) rather than Joanne after publishers expressed concern that boys would not read a book written by a woman, let alone with a female lead. By now her gender is widely known and seems not to have hindered her success, but the fact that androgyny was perceived as a good marketing strategy speaks volumes.
WHO HEARS THE STORY?
I have already ranted about gatekeeping in geek/nerd communities in previous posts and many others have written about the matter. We’ve already addressed issues of marketing and men deciding what women want, often while ignoring the input of the actual women in the industry. And, while becoming less prevalent, we still have some persisting ideas about what shows, movies, books, games, and genres women are allowed to or supposed to like and what fandoms are boys’ clubs.
Smart marketers and industries would stop viewing women as some mysterious white whale that eludes them, some sinister other creeping into their territory, or some foreign entity that requires “for her” at the end of every item in order to know how to use it. Women are not a niche market; they’re over half the population. They are people. Write them like people. Direct them like people. Market to them like people. It’s just that simple.