Media Gender Roles: WTF?

There’s an interesting disconnect in perceptions of how men are presented on TV. Feminists look at TV and see that the heroes and most of the other characters are overwhelmingly men, and say “That’s misogynist!” Sensitive men look at TV and see that the defining qualities of maleness are crudeness, stupidity, and irresponsibility, and say “That’s misandrist!” And what’s really fucked up is that both are true.

The key is that there are three genders on TV. There used to be two: Normal People and Women. Now there are three: Normal People, Women, and Men. Of course, all Normal People are still male.

The fact that “normal” means “male” is extremely well-established, but I recognize that it may come as news to some. So, briefly, Simone De Beauvoir pinned the problem down, and it is still the default in media today. (If you only read one of these links, make it that one.) It holds up under large numbers and it’s not just in movies. Think about how when you see a TV show with a bunch of different characters, it’s easy to tell who the central protagonist or the leader is: look for the handsome white guy. You’ll be right almost every time. Or, even simpler, ask yourself why, out of the many rats with speaking parts in Ratatouille, not one was female. Then ask yourself why you didn’t even notice that until it was pointed out. Hint: it’s the same reason that, as a child, you didn’t notice that there were no girl Muppets on Sesame Street.

Okay, we done debating male-is-default-normal? Good. Moving on.

Characters labeled Normal People are your heroes, your detectives and space adventurers and doctors and whatnot. They usually have a female counterpart, the lady-detective or girl-space-adventurer or chick-doctor, but that’s understood to be a special subset. Those characters are labeled as Women, and therefore not Normal People. Of course, decades of feminism have made some progress in the characterization of Women, so that female characters have several different types of characters labeled Woman to choose from.

Characters labeled Man, however, have two choices. You can be a dumb, smelly, irresponsible, knuckle-dragging fuckup with no interests other than beer, sports, and tits, or (and this is what blows my mind) you can be mocked for not being that. That’s it, those are the options. Sucks, don’t it?

Astute readers will notice a contradiction here: aren’t all those Normal Person doctors and detectives and space adventurers also men? Well, yes, of course they are, but they’re not Men. They’re Normal People, and the fact that they’re male only comes up occasionally, in which case they pass through Man characterization for a moment. I’ll illustrate this with a scene from the hit show Space Doctor Detectives:

Sergeant Doctor Captain: Look out, team, the serial killer has infected our technosystems with cancer!

Dr. Black: Damn, yo!

Lt. Woman: Cancer?

Sergeant Doctor Captain: (grimly) Space cancer.

Lt. Woman: *sob* My mother was serial-killed by space cancer! That’s why I became a Space Doctor Detective!

Dr. Black: I did it to get out of the ghetto, G!

Sergeant Doctor Captain: I just… hate space, and all its criminal diseases.

Lt. Woman: Oh, Sergeant Doctor Captain, you’re so manly!

Sergeant Doctor Captain: Well, I am only a man after all! Grunt fart sports boobies fried food! Pardon me while I scratch myself indelicately and fail to comprehend something obvious! Fart!

Lt. Woman: Oh, you men, I swear!

Sergeant Doctor Captain: Now, quickly, activate the Medical Police Laser! We’re going to laser the technosystems!

Lt. Woman: Which technosystems?

Sergeant Doctor Captain: (grimly) All of them.

You’ve seen that scene a thousand times, and so have I. Smart, capable, badass heroes turn into idiot sitcom husbands for thirty seconds, just because the writer was momentarily reminded of their maleness. There’s also usually an eyeroll by the female characters at how gross and stupid men are, right before they go back to trying to land their man.

So those are the three genders of TV and most movies: Normal People, who are heroes and leaders, Women, who are various types of Woman-creature, and Men, who are repulsive adolescent pigs. Let’s take a moment to look at how this plays out for viewers.

Female viewers, give up on being the leader and try to get a man. They’re smelly and disgusting and you shouldn’t much like them, but you’re scum unless you have one. We have provided some manless Woman characters as examples, and you will note that they are unhappy and widely disliked.

Male viewers, at all costs, do not mature beyond the age of 12. You are not supposed to, and we will mock the shit out of you if you attempt to grow up. Responsibility, courtesy, and human decency are unmasculine, and so for some reason is healthy food.

Gender-atypical viewers, fuck off. You don’t exist.

Normal Person viewers, I’m not sure you exist either. Most everyone watching is going to fall into one of those other three categories, and absorb the relevant messages to whatever extent they’re going to. In theory, one could see the Normal Person characters as aspirational figures, people that every straight white cisgendered able-bodied neurotypical American middle-class educated male might one day hope to become. I’m not sure how much water this theory holds; even those of us in that narrow minority don’t generally become crimefighting medical prodigies with lasers. (Dammit.) After all, even if we did, we’d still be immature, smelly, and stupid by virtue of being male, we’re assured.

Incidentally, I note that this model is reflected in another sexist contradiction in the real world, where women are going to college in greater numbers than men, but high governmental and business positions are still overwhelmingly male. Young men absorb the idea that they’re not supposed to study or think about stuff, and everyone absorbs the idea that white guys are supposed to be the leaders. Nobody thinks about it, any more than the screenwriters question it when they’re banging out this week’s episode under deadline; we’re just dimly aware that this is how things are, or how they’re supposed to be, or… something.

In short, this tri-gendered system based on unexamined assumptions is incredibly toxic. It’s toxic on every level, it’s toxic from every angle, it’s toxic to every person. I think just typing about it gave my fingers cancer.

Space cancer.

[Edited to fix a broken link.]

About noahbrand

Noah Brand is a mysterious figure with a very nice hat.
This entry was posted in gender identity, noseriouslywhatabouttehmenz, relationships, sexism, the media and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

66 Responses to Media Gender Roles: WTF?

  1. Laura says:

    I’ve seen trigender before in discussions elsewhere: men, hot young chicks, and other.

    But I hear you. One year when our daughter was in high school we set about exposing her to science fiction movies, because we thought it was important for her cultural enrichment. We watched two movies a week, one old and one new. I told her there would always be a babe, and there always is, but her favorite movie turned out to be “The Andromeda Strain” because the babe in it is a middle-aged woman, not particularly attractive, and in the story because she’s a biologist, not somebody’s daughter or girlfriend. …My daughter majored in biology. Wouldn’t rule out TAS being a factor.

    Which makes this: “Young men absorb the idea that they’re not supposed to study or think about stuff, and everyone absorbs the idea that white guys are supposed to be the leaders.” all the more horrifying.

  2. First of all: congratulations. You’ve actually changed a mind today.
    No, seriously. I have been adamantly against the thought that “male” was normal. Although I believe it is more nuanced than “male is normal,” you’ve brought me over to your side on that issue. (Smurfs and Dogs helped, too.)

    Secondly: Damn good post.

  3. Emmeline says:

    This is why I love the new My Little Pony show so much. I could fangirl for ages about this awesomeness so I’ll keep it short: the female characters are awesome and are allowed to have loads of slapstick, the baby dragon male is adorable and snarky and not an idiot, there’s even a pony who’s a shout-out to the tenth doctor in Doctor Who, yay!

    And then I’m sad that a kid’s program has better characters than most film and television, woe.

  4. ballgame says:

    Too funny. Well done, noahbrand.

    Now I’ve got to start watching Space Doctor Detectives. I wonder if it’s on Hulu …

  5. noahbrand says:

    @EasilyEnthused: I’d say the congratulations are due to you, for having the intellectual courage to change your mind. It’s more than a lot of folks can manage, and lord knows I’ve struggled with it myself.

    @Emmeline: Avatar: The Last Airbender is also incredibly good about gender roles, and startlingly good with disabled characters as well. I’ve been saying for a while that my role models for a life cycle are Sokka, Iroh, and Bumi, as they’re such good examples of how to be an awesome young man, an awesome middle-aged man, and an awesome old man.

  6. Paul says:

    Emmeline: ”

    “And then I’m sad that a kid’s program has better characters than most film and television, woe.”

    Think of it this way, if this is what kids grow up seeing, they will then continue to write such shows when they are adults.

  7. Emmeline says:

    @Noah I really need to watch Avatar it seems, both because I’ve heard great things about Azula (I do love psychopathic female characters) and to get that horrific live-action movie out of my head.

  8. typhonblue says:

    I would say the distinction between ‘normal person’ and ‘man’ comes when we focus on the male character’s actions versus his passive qualities.

    When a male character is active, he’s admirable, but all of his passive innate qualities are repulsive. His only acceptable passive reactions are to hate himself for failing to be appropriately active.

    In that sense ‘normal people’ appear male but never are actually male as no actual male–who is necessarily passively defined by his maleness–can be a ‘normal person’–as ‘normal people’ are solely defined by their action.

    ‘Normal people’ are heroic mimes or cyphers for the audience who don’t want to be distracted by positive passive attributes that they might not possess.

    ‘Normal people’ also creates an impossible ideal to live up to for men, to be defined completely and entirely by their actions.

    Also, I lol’d. Space cancer.

  9. noahbrand says:

    @typhonblue: That’s a very interesting take. So you see Man-designation as arising from intrinsic qualities, the nature of the character’s existence, whereas Normal-Person-designation is assigned by virtue of the character being the active protagonist?

  10. Shora says:

    I never saw the live action, but I’m gonna go ahead and ditto that Avatar is a great show with some really awesome characters. You should watch it.

    “I’ve seen trigender before in discussions elsewhere: men, hot young chicks, and other.”

    Silly, all Women ARE Hot Young Chicks. the REAL women, anyway.

  11. elementary_watson says:

    Hmm, I remember being involved in a discussion about women’s portrayal in media, and somehow one point that was touched was that “writing a female character who could just as well be a male character” (aka “women as men with tits) is not a good thing to do. I disagreed; the majority of male characters in the media are not defined by their maleness, but rather have their gender because of the default setting. A minor side character who just does her job, has no sexual tension with the protagonist (who, we will assume, is a man) and doesn’t casually bring up her shoes/makeup/menstruation cycle would do more to normalize and de-otherize women in fiction than an emphatically female main character, IMO.

    Another great work of fiction playfully conscious about gender in media is Lemony Snicket’s A Series Of Unfortunate Events. Protagonists are a ca. 14 years old girl, her ca. 13 years old brother and their baby sister. The brother is very much into reading, while the oldest sister is into inventing stuff; the youngest sister is into biting things. I recommend it.

  12. typhonblue says:

    @ Noah

    “That’s a very interesting take. So you see Man-designation as arising from intrinsic qualities, the nature of the character’s existence, whereas Normal-Person-designation is assigned by virtue of the character being the active protagonist?”

    I see it as part of the active-passive dichotomy. A man is a man when he acts; he ceases to be a man when he is acted upon.

    One could argue that since maleness is, itself, a passive quality, a true man has zero maleness. Or his maleness is seen as unrelentingly negative since it’s a passive quality that he possesses. It’s what’s left over when he fails to be a man. When a man is male, he has failed utterly and abjectly.

    Ultimately since no human male on earth can excise all of his passive qualities–including his very maleness–or be a complete agent in every situation–every human being has vulnerabilities–there are no actual men at all. Just males–whose maleness is seen as vile–striving towards the goal of being a man and having varying degrees of success while never achieving it.

    Also explains why males on the top of this man-pyramid scheme relentlessly treat males on the bottom as utter garbage. And why males are compelled to achieve at the expense of their health, time with family, and every possible measure of human happiness (aside from possessing money and status, which really aren’t good measures of human happiness.)

    Those on the top of the pyramid are the most motivated by the perceived inferiority and worthlessness of innate maleness(passivity). Thus they have the least actual sympathy for those they share maleness with.

  13. elementary_watson says:

    @Shora: There’s a quote in Last Action Hero, where the boy protagonist who has been magically sucked into a movie wants to convince Schwarzenegger’s character that he’s living in an action film, pointing out: “Where are the ordinary, everyday women? They don’t exist because this is a movie!” Answer by Schwarzenegger: “No, this is California.”

  14. aliarasthedaydreamer says:

    @Emmeline: Oh god, if you’ve seen the live action, go watch the cartoon *now*. It’s so much better.

  15. chickref says:

    I highly approve of this post.

    And then there are the “non-gendered” children’s shows where the main character is always male, because apparently boys cannot relate to girls. Only shows marketed specifically at girls (my little pony would be one) have female main characters.

  16. Emmeline says:

    @Chickref *popping in again* The new MLP has a frigging huge male fanbase. Some will make it all about themselves (like “ragh, I’m manly I shouldn’t be watching this”) or try to excuse it by calling it a “moe show”, but you’ve got to give Lauren Faust (the creator, her husband did the Powerpuff Girls) a round of applause.

    *pops out*

  17. marc2020 says:

    Fantastic article you know with all the fail gender wise on tv and in film I keep hoping that video games will finally step in and be narrative media’s saving grace.

    Unfortunately since the drive in gaming is to make it as much like film has humanly possible even with the way gender is perceived this is looking less and less likely. The protagonists of most AAA releases are predominantly white, heterosexual and male.

    Even when you do get a character that breaks this mould like Alyx Vance from Half Life 2 they are usually relegated to NPC who helps the white, heterosexual, male protagonist you can’t actually take control of them.

  18. ozymandias42 says:

    Seconding the Series of Unfortunate Events rec. That’s a great book series.

    I particularly recommend Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. Not only does it have Sophie, a brilliantly human female protagonist who spends most of the book aged about eighty, but it also has Howl, who’s vain and arrogant and thoughtless and kind and one of the best non-stereotypical men I have ever had the pleasure of reading about.

  19. Cheradenine says:

    Why haven’t you pitched Space Doctor Detectives to the networks already?! I’m sure there’s a slot for it on FX.


    because apparently boys cannot relate to girls

    This sexist assumption (which I’m sure you’re quoting rather than believing yourself) really, really annoys me.


    Unfortunately since the drive in gaming is to make it as much like film has humanly possible even with the way gender is perceived this is looking less and less likely.

    You’re half right: it is to do with making things more like film, but not (directly) related to gender. It’s about the drive towards film levels of realism raising the costs of production from hundreds of thousands of dollars, to tends of millions — and so stuff like alternate animations, skeleton rigs etc get cut. When rigs were simpler and you could get away with a single skeletal base and animation set for male and female characters, it was pretty common to give the player a choice. (Also, when voice-acting was less common, it was easier to switch out alternate dialogue, and of course there was the ever-popular “you never see the player’s character or hear them speak so you can project your own image and gender onto them” option.)

    Even so… you mention Alyx Vance from Half-Life 2, but you didn’t mention Portal/Portal 2 (from the same company, Valve), with a female lead character and main antagonist…

    @the thread in general:
    I think it’s actually more important to call out the successes than the losses. Too often, I get into arguments with people about gender in culture, and they list examples of sexist media they’ve seen, and I list a bunch of examples of media with really great gender representations, and they either stare blankly at me because they’ve never heard of them, or they’ve heard of them but never found the motivation to see them, or they actually argue that they “don’t count” because they’re not “mainstream enough” while completely missing the point that the only real voice you have in media is your choice of what to consume or avoid. If you want to see media with better gender representations — then when you find some, support the hell out of it! If you spent all your money on cinema tickets for sexist films and never go to see the good stuff, you’re voting with your wallet for more bad gender representations!

    In that light, I think we should call out good examples on a regular basis. Maybe even build up a “link library” of them.

    So, talking of space, Joss Whedon has always struck me as being popular precisely because, in a completely appealing and non-confrontational way, he mixes up stereotypical and non-stereotypical characters, and bits and pieces of both — in other words, a rich set of realistic characters, some of whom are going to conform to stereotype (either due to cultural pressure or random chance) and some who aren’t. For instance, in Firefly, Mal might wander between Normal Person and Male Stereotype (although I’d argue he’s more complex than that), and Inara might mostly inhabit Female Stereotype (but again…), and Jayne (despite the name) is very much inhabiting the Male Stereotype… but Simon, Kaylee, Zoe, Wash, Shepherd Book, and River are all interestingly subversive to varying degrees.

  20. marc2020 says:

    Even so… you mention Alyx Vance from Half-Life 2, but you didn’t mention Portal/Portal 2 (from the same company, Valve), with a female lead character and main antagonist…

    Oh damn I completely forgot about the portal games sorry good call.

  21. Eagle33 says:

    I can’t help but look at what you guys are talking about and be a little dismayed because I come from a different direction than what is usually presented.

    I’ve posted on this topic before but it bears repeating:

    One of the things that triggers me as a survivor of serious abuse from girls and women in addition to boys and men is stories with a main female protagonist at the forefront. Because whenever there’s one like it, it inevitably follows that the male supporting characters are going to be knocked down a dimension or two (ie, dumbed down) so as not to overshadow that character; made into bungling oafs, idiots, or with brains below average intelligence.

    One of Pixar’s upcoming 2012 films is called “Brave”. When I read the media championing the fact that it featured their ” First female lead”, I cringed. Several knots tightened in my stomach because I dreaded, based on experience with stories of such kind, where “First female lead” was going.

    Needless to say my suspicions were confirmed when I read that the male supporting characters are going to be serving as comic relife.

    It broke my heart that Pixar would scubbomb to this narrative. You guys talk all the time about “Male the default equals badness” but you haven’t considered the other side which I’ve experienced and has made me upset to the point where I’m sweating beneath my nerves whenever I hear a story has a “Female Protagonist”. It hasn’t made my recovery process any easier, that’s for sure.

    One experience in particular still hurts me the more I think about it: Reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go”. In the opening chapter, the “Female Lead” and her friends know the supporting male character “Tommy” is short-tempered. So they laugh at and mock Tommy after he reacts harshly to being picked last by the boys on the team as they’re observing from their dorm window.

    But what set me off the most was this response from one of the female characters:

    “I suppose it’s a bit cruel”, Ruth said, “The way they always work him up like that. But it’s his own fault. If he learnt to keep his cool, they’d leave him alone.”

    After reading that passage, I wanted all those female characters to die in a napalm fire! Seriously, I wanted them all to suffer badly for what they were doing to Tommy. They were just like those girls who made fun of me in high school with the boys.

    Thank goodness they start treating him better as the story goes on. Otherwise, I would’ve thrown the book into the trash.

    This is what I experience: Having to hold my breath everytime a story stars a “Lead female portagonist” because there’s always the male characters who suffer from it. Or worse, the female characters gleefully abusing and mocking the male ones.

    The only stories I’ve like so far are “The Hunger Games” trilogy of books. Sure, there’s a “Female Lead” but all the male characters actually have dimensions to them and aren’t drawn as pathetic morons who couldn’t lead their way out of a paper bag.

    As far as the videogames Portal and Portal 2 are concerned, they’re my favorites. However, predicatbly, the second game adhered to the narrative of “Female lead better, male support are morons”. Because the villain in the second one has a male voice and eventually turns evil at mid-point. I still enjoy it, but again, have to hold my breath whenever I reach the point they show him to be an absolute moron.

    Sorry if I sound harsh, but all this talk about “Default male equals bad” makes me feel left out.

  22. aliarasthedaydreamer says:

    @Eagle: First off, I am really sorry that happened to you.

    Do male comic-relief characters bother you if they’re one of many men in a given story? I’m just curious, partly as a writer who would like to avoid alienating any of her audience.

  23. Eagle33 says:

    I don’t mind comic relife characters that happen to be male.

    What I take issue with is if that’s all there is to their character. And they’re the ONLY male characters in a given story. I also object to male characters who are nothing but villains in a story

    If you’re going to write a story where a female is the lead and the male characters aren’t, don’t sacrifice their dimensions. And for heaven’s sake, if you’re going to have the female lead or any female characters bash them or make jokes about them, let the male supporting characters have a chance to shine so the female lead and her cohorts may eat their words. I would go so far as to have the male supporting characters stand up for themselves and call the females out on their shit! It wouldn’t hurt also to have a male supporting character to compliment the female lead. You don’t have to make them fall in love or anything, just treat them with equal respect in the story.

    I’m talking about variety and multi-dimensionality. Feminists complain about female characters lacking dimensions. I think it’s time the same be done for male characters.

  24. typhonblue says:

    @ Cheradenine

    “If you want to see media with better gender representations…”

    Make it. 😀 That’s what I’m doing.

  25. Danny says:

    Eagle:It broke my heart that Pixar would scubbomb to this narrative. You guys talk all the time about “Male the default equals badness” but you haven’t considered the other side which I’ve experienced and has made me upset to the point where I’m sweating beneath my nerves whenever I hear a story has a “Female Protagonist”. It hasn’t made my recovery process any easier, that’s for sure.

    Reminds me of Xander from Buffy. Other than maybe Giles Xander was the lead male character of the show. And he was also the comic relief. If you look back the series for the vast majority of the series he was only the center of attention when he was screwing something up or treating someone bad. Even an early episode by the name of “The Zeppo” that was supposed to be about how Xander is more important than everyone thinks (he single-handedly prevents a gang of zombies from blowing up the school) he is still made fun of and ignored by the other main characters.

    And as Eagle points out most of the people who go on and on about how great of a female lead Buffy was and how important the show was and talking about how she’s reverses the “silly blonde that always gets killed in the horror movies” trope don’t seem to notice that Whedon pretty much just swapped genders. Instead of the blonde girl lead being treated like a prop to be saved by the lead guy Joss just swapped it so that the lead guy is a prop that needs to be saved by the lead woman.

    Just bear in mind when you write your characters that people notice the lead characters and how they are portrayed in regards to their demographics. As Xander pretty much meant that young males are stupid and useless and the horror movie trope that Whedon was fighting against meant that young blonde girls were stupid and useless its worth being mindful of your audience thinking you are writing up characters and passing them off as representations of their entire demographic.

  26. Pablo says:

    Regarding “Avatar: The Last Airbender”, I just wanted to clarify that it’s the TV series people are praising, the movie (“The Last Airbender”) was absolutely horrible in pretty much every way, not least politically. And just in case anyone was really confused, “Avatar” also refers to yet another movie (with blue aliens), which is not related at all.

  27. ozymandias42 says:

    I think that “strong female characters” is a bit of a misnomer. What’s really important, in my opinion, is human characters, both male and female– not stereotypes or simplistic inversions of stereotypes. A “you go girl!” character who’s never weak and has no flaws is just as bad as a simpering sex-object with no agency of her own.

  28. Brian says:

    @Ozy: That reminds me of this article.

  29. Eagle33 says:

    Which is my point, Ozymandias42.

    The minute “Strong Female characters” are touted in a story, I’m close to running for the hills because it’s always of the “Grrl Power” variety of empowerment where girls rule and “Boys are stupid, Throw Rocks At Them”.

    Don’t get me started on that episode of Glee where Madonna’s music was featured. The way all the male characters were treated made me stop watching Glee from then on. The makers and creators sold out and forgot what the show was about in the first place: Outcasts fighting back against the hierchy. Last time I checked, the male characters were outcasts as well. For what happened to them in that episode illustrated just how hypocritical people could be.

    Or, as George Orwell put it in Animal Farm:

    “All animals are equal. Some are just more equal than others.”

  30. Eagle33 says:

    Sorry, Brian. But I thought we were beyond terms like “Male Gaze” and “Patriarchy” to which this article and its commentary employs?

    Plus, I don’t see the writer mentioning how male characters get the shaft in movies with “Strong Female Characters”. Forgive me if I call this tripe “Same shit, different writer”.

  31. Brian says:

    Eagle I have to say I’ve never noticed the thing you’re talking about.

    Not that it necessarily doesn’t exist but only that I certainly haven’t seen it. I’ve only seen or even heard about a small handful of works with female lead characters. Buffy I’ll grant you, Portal (1) can’t have fit since it didn’t have any male characters in it at all, and besides those two I can’t think of any work with a scripted-in* female protagonist.

    Oh, and in FFX Tidus was really more of an Ishmael for Yuna than the real main character, at least for the first 2/3rds of the game. But that barely counts.

    *:I say scripted because I’ve seen plenty of video games that allow you to choose your character’s gender, which is certainly an improvement when the plot is flexible enough to allow it. But I don’t think it really counts for these purposes, because it by definition doesn’t affect the plot.

  32. Brian says:

    Oh and to respond to what you actually said, don’t criticize the words the writer uses. “Male Gaze” and “partriarchy” both refer to real things even if they are jargon terms that are often misunderstood.

  33. Eagle33 says:

    I just provided an example, Brian, from “Never Let Me Go” where the female characters poke fun at Tommy and treat his situation of being picked last for the team as a joke.

    Danny provided Xander from Buffy The Vampire Slayer series as another example and Giles.

    In the videogame, Portal 2, the supporting Male Character is a moron who turns evil then gets his comuppance. Apart from the original founder of Apareture Science, he’s the only male supporting character.

    And as far as the words the author uses, they’re terms that are MISUSED, not misunderstood. So I have every right to criticize them. There was a whole thread devoted to the criticism of the term “Patriarchy” a while ago. Did you miss that?

    I need to take a breath because the more I talk about this, the more I have to bite my lip because it’s pretty triggering.

  34. Brian says:

    Not trying to pressure you or anything, so sorry if I’ve done anything like that.

    But two things:

    1) I haven’t played Portal 2, so please no spoilers.
    2) Two examples (not gonna count Portal 2 since you’re apparently objecting to one male character, not all the male characters) is not a trend.

  35. Eagle33 says:

    Okay, I get it Brian. My experiences are an anomoly. Not important.

    Even if it ‘s not a trend, I don’t care. Because this effects me.

    You have no idea what I go through when it comes to an issue like this. How I have to practically prevent myself from feeling so alone and suicidal when it comes to stories with a “Lead female protagonist”, how I have to swallow all the pain that happened to me every single time those stories have male characters that are treated like garbage or depicted as only villains so as not overshadow the female lead. How I have to fight hard to get myself out of these negative loops after prolonged exposure to stories like this. Mainly because I have to remember my love for stories and not to suppress it.

    Everytime, I feel myself back on the school grounds getting my pants yanked to my ankles by mobs of girls and boys. The evil grin that my former computer class crush displayed with rankor as her boyfriend threatened to beat me up if I ever spoke to her again and her sneering laughter after forcing me to participate in a game of “Show me your underwear”, me fighting her off. It’s burned in me.

    Those caregivers at the hospital who yelled me at me, berated me for not getting activites done properly. When I was only a little boy, for christ sakes!

    All of it fueled by these “Grrl Power” stories.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I need a break. Hopefully I won’t slit my throat tonight.

    But remember this: My experiences count, trend or not. And if it takes a hoarse throat and a battered spirit to power this message, I’ll do it.

  36. Eagle33 says:

    Edit: Female caregivers, I might add.

  37. typhonblue says:

    I’d like to see people create a story in which strong female characters are paired with equally vulnerable (not weak, vulnerable) male characters without their vulnerabilities being mocked. Hell, make it so the strong female characters feel compelled to protect the male character’s vulnerabilities _without thinking any less of them for it_.

    Instead what I usually see is ‘strong’ female characters–who are strong because they resemble men–paired with weak male characters who are actively mocked for being weak–because they resemble women. This is a change that is no change at all.

  38. Brian says:

    “Okay, I get it Brian. My experiences are an anomoly. Not important. ”

    Not saying that. I’d apologize, but this is so far from anything I’ve actually said I don’t think I have anything to apologize for. I’m not saying and I haven’t said anything about you or what you’ve experienced.

    I realize this gets you really emotional, but please don’t take anyone criticizing you for any reason as a criticism of your entire life experience. It’s not helping you and it’s not fair to me.

    (And also please don’t kill yourself.)

  39. Eagle33 says:

    No, Doctormindbeam, I’m not going to commit suicide.

    However, the feelings are too strong that don’t rule out suicidal thoughts.

    I’ll see if I can get through the night unscathed at the moment.

    But let me tell you, I don’t think anyone truly understands what it’s like to see your situation devalued: Hardly any articles on girls bullying boys save for one outdated study, all this “Grrl power” crap disguised as empowering stories supposedly meant for all audiences (yeah right, as if treating the male characters like buffoons is supposed to be empowering), all these women and girls allowed to get away with misandric hatred against men and boys, being told your experiences are nothing compared to the “norm” of boys bullying girls and boys. Meanwhile, you’re standing in the shadows as the normal narratives like “Male default bad” are constantly rammed home.

    When you’re just one lone voice, you tend to lose faith in the world.

    I just need to get through this night now. I’ll be back when I feel better.

    At least somebody leave me with some acknowledgement that there’s a place for me in this cruel world. I’ll sleep better at night, thank you.

  40. typhonblue says:

    Grrl power is not power when it involves hurting another person.

    I wish media would stop making this shit.

    And if anyone really thinks it’s not a trend look at this:

    To get back on track a bit a strong male character (or role model) would model realistic agency, not the unobtainable hyper-potency of the average action blockbuster hero.

  41. ballgame says:

    I’d like to see people create a story in which strong female characters are paired with equally vulnerable (not weak, vulnerable) male characters without their vulnerabilities being mocked. Hell, make it so the strong female characters feel compelled to protect the male character’s vulnerabilities _without thinking any less of them for it_.

    I haven’t seen it, but this review of Splinter made it look very promising, typhonblue.

  42. elementary_watson says:

    @DMB: The other side, IIRC, was worried that those characters wouldn’t reflect female experiences if their gender wasn’t part of their characterization. FTR, I understand wanting to see more “women as (authentic) *women*”in movies, but I think seeing more “women as normal *people*” is important, too, and more effective at breaking the mould for female characters as it yet is.

    (The original argument was that by the other side, “women as men with tits isn’t helping”; I argued that it does.)

  43. Brian says:

    @watson: Well, women as Men as differentiated from Normal People with tits isn’t helping; it makes the stereotypes less tidy but without any real benefit to anyone.

    Women as normal people helps quite a bit. Actually, I’d argue that’s exactly what we’re going for, and anyone who calls women-as-normal-people “men with tits” is so very deep in the men-are-default thing they don’t realize that what most men on most TV shows do is totally gender neutral. There’s no reason Kirk or Spock or McCoy couldn’t have been female. Obviously there’s no reason Uhura couldn’t have been, because she was.

    And as long as I’m on Star Trek, I notice that TNG got a little better and a little worse about this at the same time. On TOS, the only major female character was Uhura (though there was Yeoman Rand as a total stereotype in the background), but Uhura was a great example of a strong female character in the good sense. On TNG there were two major female characters, but they were always a bit stereotypical.

  44. chickref says:

    Good, positive media… Juno!

    She was a woman with agency, the main male character was a bit of a dweeb – but he was the one to stand up and point out to Juno how her behaviour was affecting people, and he got the girl in the end. Dad was a good dad – loved his daughter and came up with the right words at the right time.

    Bonus point – Stepmother as human being – did parenting, was obviously on Juno’s side, even though the kid could be a right sarcastic brat.

  45. elementary_watson says:

    @Brian:I really had trouble parsing your first sentence, but now I get that you’re completely agreeing with me? That saying “if her femaleness isn’t relevant, she might as well be a man and therefore really is a man” is the exact thinking that must be challenged?

  46. Brian says:

    More or less?

    A woman portrayed as the masculine stereotype doesn’t help, it just switches the stereotypes. But a woman portrayed as a normal person is really the point.

  47. Eagle – I know exactly where you’re coming from. Please be patient with us (us, as a movement). We have a lot of work to do to not only the damage that media gender roles caused women in the first place – but then the writing hackery that thought they could fix the problem.

    Brian, I think you get it. You know what we should be aiming for here – but I also don’t think you realize the damage that was done to some men when the first “attempt” failed.

    Have you ever fixed body damage on a car? There is most definitely a right way and a wrong way. Let’s say Bill brings his car home and his wife sees that there’s a big dent in a door panel. Bill, rather than looking at the whole picture, figures his wife is most angry about the “dent,” so he fills it in with filler. He shows his wife: “Look Honey! The dent is gone!” And she replies: “But the filler is all uneven! You need to sand it down.” So Bill brings the car into his garage, sands it down, makes a MASSIVE mess and inhales lots of the dust. He shows his wife. “Look Honey, all smooth!” She replies: “Yes, it’s smooth, but the color doesn’t even match! You need to paint it.” … What Bill should’ve done is pulled the dent out in the first place – by trying to cover up the real problem (bent sheet metal), he created more of a mess than he needed to.

    That’s what writers have been doing since the turn of the century in pop fiction. They panicked when they realized they weren’t writing any “Strong Women” into their stories – but they didn’t have any clue how to make a “woman” “strong.” Because “women” are weak by definition. It’s like trying to make a wicker chair out of steel, right?
    So they made a wicker chair out of wicker stronger than steel – and completely missed the point.
    They made female roles that defined their “strength” relative to their ability to dominate men. And that “strong female” role has been proliferating for at LEAST the past 20 years. And the effect has been worse than if they’d just left it alone – because they’ve created a mentality of women who believe they can only be strong by dominating men.
    And folks like Eagle are the victim of that dangerous mental breeding ground. Cut him some slack.

    I hope, as a mediator of sorts, you both can see the common ground at each others feet.

  48. Clarence says:

    For good female and male characters, I recommend the Harry Potter books.
    Maybe one isn’t into magic and elves and good and evil and all that, but they have some of the best characterizations of all types of men and women, girls and boys I’ve ever seen in any kind of popular work. Some women are rather “feminine” but strong when their family is threatened. Some are brilliant. Some are brilliant and courageous and can take charge from time to time. Some are shy. Some are evil, some are good. And the same with the men and boys.

  49. Helen_Damnation says:

    Eagle33, I’m very sorry ti hear about your experiences and how badly they’ve affected you. However, as much as I sympathise and as much as I agree about how problematic “strong female characters” can be – can be – for both genders, there is a difference between saying “Let’s discuss the problematic treatment of male characters and what it means for men IRL” and “Let’s not discuss the problematic treatment of female characters and what it means for women,” and you appear to be saying the latter. I hope that isn’t what you intended.

    As for stories with a strong (but nuanced) female main protagonists accompanied by male characters who are their equals, on the understanding that you are under no obligation to read something which may prove triggery to you or even something you just don’t want to read, may I recommend the Women of the Otherworld series, especially the Paige and Lucas ones and the Jaime Vegas ones (the Elena ones less so, Clay being a bit… uh), as well as Polar City Blues by Kathrine Kerr (although it’s been a while since I read it, and my perceptions, being based on vague memories from when I was younger and stupider, may not be entirely trustworthy, so if it may trigger you it’s probably best not to risk it). For TV there’s Fringe; Olivia shares joint lead with Peter, and both are complex characters. For movies there’s Terminator; Sarah Conner is the most believable person I have ever seen in any kind of fiction ever, which outweighs the “She’s only important because of her son” thing for me, and Kyle is no slouch. The Sarah Conner Chronicles fit too. For female characters who are female just because, there’s the agent in the Nicholas Cage movie Next. I remember being very surprised at how little attention was paid to her being a woman.

  50. typhonblue says:

    @ doctormindbeam

    “That was excellently said. I’ve often found it problematic the way that “strength” is thought of as arriving solely (or primarily, or even at all) via “dominance of others,” ”

    When creators create ‘strong female characters’ defined by their dominance of men (often uncritical dominance) it’s really about men’s strength, not women’s strength.

    It’s about seeing men punished for not holding up to the ideals of manhood. Women’s strength is thus an instrument for saying something about men.

  51. noahbrand says:

    I think there’s an interesting distinction to be made here, between two different concepts of what “strong character” means. One meaning is “a character that exhibits strength” and then we get into these interesting debates about what strength is. The other meaning of “strong character” that I often see, though, essentially means “strongly written”. This meaning refers to a character that’s important to the story, a character with an inner life and some really good character moments, a character that actors will get excited about playing.

    Too often, people attempting to write “strong female characters” produce things like this, or all those early-90s female characters whose writers seemed to think “strong” meant “rude and reflexively hostile”. For a contrast, look at Kira in the early seasons of Deep Space Nine vs. Ivanova over on Babylon 5. Same era, same genre, two characters with basically the same job. But where Kira was written as rude and reflexively hostile, and therefore supposedly strong, Ivanova was strongly written. She was highly professional although frequently exasperated with her job, often conflicted about where her duty lay, she had a very good romantic plotline with another woman, and a pretty good flirtation plotline with a guy, and dealt with all of this through her actual character traits: restrained professionalism laced with a certain dry wit.

    In other words, a character that is weak and vacillating and unsure can still be a very strong character (i.e. Hamlet) and a character that is very dominating and powerful can still be a very weak character (i.e. Senator Palpatine… did he even have a motivation?). The confusion of this seeming paradox only gets works when applied to those strange, mysterious alien beings known as Females.

  52. Josh says:

    I feel compelled to defend Buffy. Or, more accurately, defend Xander, who was not merely a bumbling sidekick, but was a genuine, complex and interesting character in his own right.

    And aside from Xander, there were several men who were Buffy’s equal in badassery throughout the series. Angel, Spike, and Riley (though that character was admittedly kind of a twit) were all decent characters who rivaled Buffy’s combat abilities as well as her leadership skills. Yes they tended to get relegated to the side-kick role, because, well, it’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, not “A badass guy, and Buffy, too”. I don’t think Buffy dominated the men, but neither did she allow them to dominate her.

  53. Eagle33 says:

    Helen: “Eagle33, I’m very sorry ti hear about your experiences and how badly they’ve affected you. However, as much as I sympathise and as much as I agree about how problematic “strong female characters” can be – can be – for both genders, there is a difference between saying “Let’s discuss the problematic treatment of male characters and what it means for men IRL” and “Let’s not discuss the problematic treatment of female characters and what it means for women,” and you appear to be saying the latter. I hope that isn’t what you intended.”

    I’m a little better than last night, thank goodness. So there will be a little more coherance to my ramblings.

    Helen, I don’t have a problem with “Strong Female Characters”. What is a problem, for me, is when they’re strong at the expense of the supporting male character/s. Worse is when they berate or mock the supporting male characters with no consequence given towards their slander and even actions. I’ve experienced too many stories where the “Strong Female Character” narrative slid into misandric territory. That, coupled with my serious experiences at the hands of those inhuman girls and women as a child and teenager, has given me caution the next time a story touts the “Strong Female Character” attraction or “Strong Female Lead” ever again.

    I can check out your suggested reading material. But if I encounter one hint of the Strong Female Character narrative going into “Let’s bash the men” territory, forget it.

    As far as “the problematic treatment female characters and what it means for women”, I’ve been inaudated with that message too often while shouting in the wind about the problematic treatment of male characters. I want BOTH issues discussed. But I get to points at times (not often, mind you) that if nobody’s going to discuss BOTH issues and instead just focus on the “Problematic female characters and what it means for women” then I don’t want to hear about the latter.

    No one is more important than the other. Unfortunatly, society deems otherwise!

  54. Danny says:

    And aside from Xander, there were several men who were Buffy’s equal in badassery throughout the series. Angel, Spike, and Riley (though that character was admittedly kind of a twit) were all decent characters who rivaled Buffy’s combat abilities as well as her leadership skills. Yes they tended to get relegated to the side-kick role, because, well, it’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, not “A badass guy, and Buffy, too”. I don’t think Buffy dominated the men, but neither did she allow them to dominate her.
    My problem with the way Xander was written out was the fact that the only time he was ever the center of attention was when he screwed something up. As for those other three gentlemen. Even for as badass as they were they pretty much lined up to prove that “Buffy don’t need no man to be whole”.

    Angel left for LA because of the slayer/vampire “forbidden love” angle. Riley was written out as if he wanted to “tame” Buffy. And Spike, damn. It would seem that Spike was good enough for a fight and the occasional romp but anything more than that and he wasn’t good enough (I remember he actually calling him “a thing” at one point).

  55. Clarence says:


    Alas, Palpatine does have a strong character but only if you read the Star Wars expanded Universe. The movies give a vague idea that he’s all about the acquisition of power, and that he has a fear of death and that’s about it. Oh , he’s clever – if you carefully watch the last prequel you will note that not once does he lie to Luke. He sometimes lies by omission, but often he knows just when to use the absolute truth to work his evil. So clever..but no real motivations. Palapatine is much more interesting in “Dark Empire”.

  56. Clarence says:


    I wish there was an editing function. I meant to say, lie to Anakin. I’m a bit of a Star Wars geek, but even so, I admit the second 3 movies mostly sucked.

  57. elementary_watson says:

    @noahbrand: Well, Kira in DS9 has a backstory as a member of the Resistance against Cardassian occupation of her home planet, so there is an actual reason for her hostility. What’s more, DS9 had Dax, who was a very strong female character without the need to be domineering. (Yeah, she had been a man before she became female, but still, in the series, Dax was a woman.)

  58. Helen_Damnation says:

    @Eagle33: I’m glad you’re feeling better.

    I do know the sort of narrative you’re talking about. It’s depressingly prevelent.

  59. Eagle33 says:

    Doctormindbeam: “Unfortunately, in order to accomplish the third point there, particularly with female characters, writers have seemed to lean on making them domineering.”

    Not to mention that the male characters are never granted the three components of multi-dimensional characters you speak of.

    Instead, they’re shunted into these categories:

    -Ignorant Buffoon

    -Clumsy Idiot


    -Strong but still subject to derision from the female lead and not allowed to answer back for himself.

    In family films, for example, who gets blamed the most for the child character’s sadness? That’s right, the father. In other arenas too, the father is always blamed for everything or made out to be so thick as to not notice the troubled state the child is in. Some were even made the villain all the time, always the antihesis to everything.

    In “The Time Travelers”, for example, the beginning had the father blamed for Peter’s misery, for not being there and always having to work.. It is only until later in the book that there is acknowledgement that Peter’s mother, also working really long hours and never there either, is also to blame as well. But still, the author had to “Blame Dad” first just like every story geared towards a youth audience.

    Or you get family films where the child character is part of a single mother household with no male role model around. Again, a cliche to the point of nauseum.

    Even film critic Gene Siskel, of Siskel & Ebert, was getting tired of the trend in family films where the father is always the bad guy and I applauded him for pointint it out.,

  60. Eagle33 says:

    Okay, how is my previous comment Moderation Material? I never insulted anyone nor violated the rules. Just pointed something out.

  61. aliarasthedaydreamer says:

    @Eagle33: Moderation means that the system decided it wanted to give us the comment to look at before it posted it. It’s an entirely computerized thing — smart computer, but still, not a human. It then flags the author of the article to let them know there’s something waiting, and chucks the comment in a special area on our dashboard. If your comment is in moderation, it will be approved (or deleted) as soon as we see it — which, if it’s the middle of the night, might be a while.

  62. Eagle33 says:

    It’s okay.

    The comments approved. Thank you.

  63. Josh says:

    Angel wasn’t just written off, he was launched into his own show. He got to be more than just a token “forbidden” love interest. And he chose to end that relationship, not her.

    Riley I’m conflicted about because it seems like he would have been perfect (though personally I never liked that character), and I think that relationship was more about Buffy’s issues than his. I think in a lot of ways she screwed that up way worse than he did (not that he didn’t help, but still).

    Finally, I think the Spike thing cuts both way, really. Sure by the end of the 7th season it was believable that he did love her, but that was a nasty abusive relationship on both sides (as evidenced by the fact that they couldn’t get intimate without kicking the crap out of eachother) from the beginning. I think if anything Buffy’s relationships proved not that “Buffy don’t need no man”, so much as Joss Whedon is evil and never wants Buffy to be happy. I’m kidding! Sort of. I just think that after the on/off/on/off thing with Angel, the writers decided that relationship drama makes for good ratings, but Buffy in a relationship opens a whole can of worms that they just didn’t wanna deal with.

  64. Emmeline says:

    I used to love Buffy with all my heart, but then Season Seven happened (my fan-self hated 5 and 6 too, but that’s for a forum, not here). The slayer’s power lay in rape and that was a bad thing, but of course it was totally okay for Willow to inject girls all around the world with it.

  65. AnonymousDog says:

    Not sure how this relates, but I’ve been noticing for over a decade now, that TV actors portraying bit part judges are almost always women or a member of some racial minority

  66. beth says:

    Ugh, Star Trek, you did this. Each series has token female characters: the drab one and the hot one in the cat suit. Enterprise was the worst for this. I did think the the catsuit characters were very interesting in their own rights, but their main purpose does seem to be ‘attractive’ and ‘wearing a cat suit’.

    Deep Space Nine was better because the female characters were allowed to have sexual agency but were not sexualised, and were generally well rounded and interesting characters. I love Dax. But still, female main characters are still in the minority.

    I do think Joss Whedon intends very much to write feminist characters, but he does seem to fail a bit from time to time. I have noticed that his post-Buffy series all have a “helpless, abused young woman who also has ninja powers”, namely Sierra and River. He appears to have developed this fetish whilst he was writing Fred.

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