Women’s roles in movies are getting more diverse and interesting. This is good news for men.
A.O. Scott has a lovely new piece up over at the New York Times magazine, in which he discusses the rise of a greater range of roles for women in modern Hollywood movies. It’s well worth a read, but there’s one line that stood out, that resonated all too well for me as a sometime screenwriter, a fallible feminist, and a full-time man:
The stated desire for more, better or different kinds of movie representation, like other forms of feminist advocacy, is often met with defensiveness, or heard as special pleading. Girls like action movies, too, so what’s the problem? Women talk about men all the time, don’t they? Lighten up! I promise I will, but not before noting a deep and ancient bias that underlies the way we talk about movies, and what we see in them — namely the assumption that stories about men are large, important and universal, while stories about women are particular, local and trivial.
That gets to the heart of the matter, the heart that’s never discussed. Being male is default, is normal. Being female is different, special, Other. To this day, you will see people in the entertainment industry say things like “It’s the universal fantasy: everyone wants to be the hero, save the day, get the girl.” and they don’t even see anything weird about that.
A quick word for those not yet persuaded of this thesis: how many entertainments did you see as a child that had a character whose entire narrative role could be described as The Girl? And how many did you see that had a character whose entire narrative role could be described as The Guy? Right, see, that’s what I’m talking about. Male characters, even corny ones, have traits, have personalities, at the very least they have gimmicks. He’s the smart one, he’s the tough one, he’s the funny one, he’s the leader, and her? She’s the girl, that’s her gimmick.
Feminists have quite rightly called bullshit on this habit vociferously over the years, and gradually won the fight against things like using “man” and “mankind” when you mean “humanity”. The fight in fiction has been tougher, but as Scott points out, progress is being made. More and more, female characters are as richly-written, complex, diverse, and interesting as male characters.
This is really, really good news for men.
I mean, on one level it’s good for everyone because it means we all get more diverse and interesting fiction. I will take that win. But when I say it’s good for men, I mean men as a gender. Because men as a gender isn’t something people talk about well, particularly in fiction.
Don’t believe me? Again, quick field test. Head to the Gender Studies section of your local library or bookshop and tally up how many books about women you see vs. books about men. Right, again, that’s what I’m talking about. Women have a gender, men just… are. Default. Normal.
The problem is that to be normal is to be unexamined. What’s normal is, almost by definition, taken for granted. Because being male is still subconsciously considered “universal”, we assume we all know what it means. That’s where we get those embarrassingly stereotypical images of men, the horny, half-civilized troglodytes that are the lazy shorthand for men as a gender. That’s what happens when things go unexamined.
So yes, let us have an end to the idea of men as the default normal gender. Let us instead discover male characters the way we’re now discovering female characters: via an emergence from outdated clichés and a rise of greater depth, diversity, and nuance. That’s a win for men, for women, and for moviegoers. You go save a seat, I’ll get the popcorn.