Hollywood Heroines and the Liberation of Men

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.

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About Noah Brand

Noah Brand is an Editor-at-Large at Good Men Project, and possibly also a cartoon character from the 1930s. His life, when it is written, will read better than it lived. He is usually found in Portland, Oregon, directly underneath a very nice hat.

Comments

  1. On the other hand, not having to be excruciatingly self-conscious about one’s gender identity really is rather awesome. Most of us really don’t want to have to bother about our gender identities that much and would prefer to get on with our lives without constantly having to be reminded about our gender. We want it to blend into the background of our existence and not frequently to remind us of its presence. We want our gender to be like a shoe that just fits, where we don’t feel it biting into our ankles, slipping on surfaces, or fitting too loosely on our feet.

    Such a strong and untroubled gender identity can be empowering as we don’t have to waste thought on the subject. The fact that we expend so much more thought on male identity nowadays is not that good a sign. When your gender identity feels comfortable and pleasantly fits into society you are not defined so much by your gender, but are primarily thought of as an individual person with unique potentials and abilities. People do not just treat you as a member of a class and you do not generally think of yourself that way. While you may relate in a particular way to other people of your sex, there is no need for solidarity. You don’t have to be identified with their successes or failures: you stand and fall on your own feet.

    There are few things more tragic than people who come to define themselves so overwhelmingly in terms of their gender or sexuality because that aspect of their identity has proved so problematic and consequently determinative for their understanding of everything that they are. The ideal is a situation where our identities are rich and variegated, with numerous facets, with no fixation upon just one. Experiencing your gender as normal is a great help towards this ideal. Being a man subtly shapes everything that I do and am in various ways, but it is only one such factor, and most of the time I can be quite forgetful of it.

    So many books are written about women as a gender because gender is a problem for women. Progress from my perspective is more a matter of preventing gender from being such a problem for women, not making it a problem for men too. This isn’t to deny the value of thinking about what it means to be a man – especially a good one – but to point out that such conversation is becoming a necessity because male gender identities are starting to bite into our heels in a way that they didn’t before. I want to work towards the situation where such conversations are a luxury for the curious and inquisitive, rather than a tragic necessity for people who aren’t quite such how to feel comfortable in their own skins and the places that society carves out for them.

    • See, I think that gender (racial, sexual orientation, etc.) identities have never fitted many people that well. It’s just that historically, there wasn’t very much any individual could do about that. They wore the shoes they were given, even if they fitted horrendously, and either wore thicker socks, or grew calluses, or shut up and dealt with the pain.

      These days we’re learning that we can tailor the shoes we have. Don’t like this pair? That’s fine! There are many other options! In fact, why don’t you design your own pair? Does that fit better? Great!

      I don’t think a person should have to accept the place society “carves out for them”. They should carve out their own place! Why should any individual let their lives be determined and dominated by societal expectations?

      As far as people who define themselves through struggle, don’t we all? Any person who overcomes great struggle and difficulty to affect profound personal change is going to bear that badge with pride. And that’s fine, why shouldn’t they? I mean, if that’s all they talk about, some might find them boring conversationalists, but that’s true of anyone who only talks about their One Big Thing.

      Finally, I just want to point out that part of the reason “the shoe fit” for men was because of our male privilege! For most of western history, men have gotten to decide what shoes get made. We had the power to determine our role. No wonder it was comfortable! Now, however, women speak up, and say “These shoes fit me horribly and also I really hate the color. I’m getting new ones.” This has lead to a bunch of men deciding that, you know what, they’ve always hated their footwear too. So they’re changing it as well. Or actually, they’re over here on the GMP, talking about the shortcomings of their outdated footwear, discussing where previous products pinched, or lacked support. Here, men can testdrive some new shoes. The GMP is basically the Zappos of masculinity.

      The fact that people are talking about gender doesn’t mean that it consumes them, it just means right now that’s what they are thinking about. Just like any community, people come and go. As individuals find a comfortable gender identity, they move on to other stuff. It fades comfortably into the background as the latest crisis takes our attention.

  2. John Anderson says:

    I think feminists try really hard to equate what is good for women as being necessarily good for men. What’s good for women is good for women. What’s good for men is good for men. What’s good for one gender is usually good for everyone, but not necessarily true. In this case, I’m wondering what changed.

    Just off the top of my head I remember, The Lucille Ball Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, That Girl, Lavern and Shirley, Golden Girls, Charlie’s Angels, Wonder Woman (who almost always had to save Steve Trevor), I dream of Genie, Bewitched, Who’s the Boss (a guy working as a domestic for a high profile female) . I could probably keep going, but I’m getting tired and don’t even know if I’ve spelled them all correctly.

    I think the unconventional female character has been with us for a while. That is the nature of fiction to experience something that isn’t normal. I’m not sure if any of the female lead characters were any less complex than their male supporting characters. I think each generation likes to think they invented something so Katniss is so kick ass as if Ripley never existed. That’s why kids could say with a straight face that they invented homeboy, when that phrase was shorthand for hometown boy and was popular with soldiers in World War II. Homie is probably short hand for home boy that was coined in modern times.

    • Ok but that’s not the point that Noah’s making I think.

      It’s not that strong female leads NEVER existed, it’s that they’re shifting towards the norm. Like, instead of a show where the gimmick is a strong lead, we have shows with a strong female lead, and separately, a gimmick. Instead of fiction defined by an unconventional female character, the WHOLE convention of fiction is beginning (just beginning) to shift, so that those nuances that used to define a woman as “unconventional” (strong, deep, intelligent, talks about things other then men) now just make her par for the course.

      That said, I think you might have a point about re-inventing the wheel. Maybe, instead of “creating” strong female characters, we’re just no longer surprised when they show up in our literature. Maybe we’re just more willing, across the board, to consume a narrative that’s really been present for quite some time.

  3. Interestingly, biologically, female is the default state. Unless the gene(s?) on the Y-chromosome express correctly at around the 7 week mark of gestation, you get a baby that is viewed as a female. Science doesn’t seem to have found genes for being female. Perhaps Adam was made from Eve’s DNA!

  4. Noah: You have created a HUGE Fallacy here by saying that since theren’t aren’t many books on gender in the bookstore that men are the default, the normal. Actually there is a more likely reason , No one gives a shit about men, not enough to write about them. They aren’t the normal, they simply don’t exist.

    If you doubt this, have a look at the work of NGO in the area of sexual exploitation, human trafficking etc. They don’t talk about boys/men, is this because men are the normal victims NO , it is because men are not a concern.

  5. “And how many did you see that had a character whose entire narrative role could be described as The Guy?”

    More than you’d think. I used to love the show Facts Of Life, and the role of George Clooney could definitely be described as Token Guy. And while there are many supporting male characters in most Disney princess movies, the various “guys” (ie romantic objects) were totally interchangeable.

    • I mean, sure, there are examples. After all, Hollywood has no compunction to strip away character development and reduce anyone to a “token”.

      But I hardly think this constitutes an overwhelming trend. For example, I assume you’re talking about the Disney “Princess” Movies (Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, etc.) where the guys were interchangeable. And, well, yeah, that’s certainly true. Of course, first of all it’s a childrens movie about the princess, so that kinda makes sense. Second, in almost every case, the woman are all still “rescued” by the admittedly one dimensional “hero”. They were still “the girl”. Third, those movies constitute a minor, nearly trivial percentage of Disney’s catalog, and many of it’s other movies directly feed into the standard “hero saves day, gets girl” plot.

      I guess what I’m trying to say is yes, there are examples of The Guy. But compared to the ubiquitousness of The Girl, they barely register.

  6. Jyeah I’ll have to take a pass on this one. Hollywood has always been intrested in the financial power of women, it was up to female writes to create profitable escapist fantasies like twilight and the hunger games. It took just as long for comicbook adaptations to hit their stride. No one kowtowed to feminist. Hollywood executives just followed the free market.

    …and I’m not even going to mention how much feminist hate the Twilight series or the up coming 5O Shades of gray movies.

  7. 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.

    This is a point that a lot of guys have made before (including myself). And frankly mention of that has been met with either dead silence or redirective whining that men are the default. When this “male is default” business is pointed out as part of how the suffering of men goes unexamined all that is given in return is claims of male privilege.

    This is why when talking about the suffering of men there is a rush to pin the tail on some other, any other, characteristic other than gender that is the cause. For example the denial and mistreatment of male dv/abuse/rape victims apparently has nothing to do with their gender it’s only because they are victims (meanwhile when it comes to women who suffer dv/abuse/rape gender is the first thing pointed out).

    • JahBless101 says:

      I agree with Danny in that gender relations are so strained that whenever one tries to discuss a men’s issue, the other side (which are NOT feminists, they are misandrists) engage in a battle over who has more privilege, who has it worse, and why one side should just shut up.

      I sincerely believe that society benefits from good men, but the most vocal corners of the internet seem to think that men only benefit, and we hoard our opportunity and riches like misers. On the contrary, Women will stand to benefit greatly if college opportunities for men improve, if incarceration rates for men decrease, if fathers rights are given equal priority to mother’s rights. Similarly, there has been a lot of polarizing discussion about the Mancession, and how the recession has been a win for feminists or women. These negative attitudes are wrong. I really doubt that the wives and daughters of unemployed men feel that they are big winners of these economic times!

      I wish there was a more inclusive group and vocabulary for these discussions. It always seems like it’s MRAs vs. Jezebel and I feel stranded in the middle (similar to how I feel in the political landscape these days). Legitimate question: Why do we still use a term shrouded in gender to discuss these issues? Its interesting that one of the early goals of feminism was to strip gender from words for occupations like policeman or mailman, yet we still persist in using a term like “Feminism”-with controversial connotations and meanings–to describe equal rights for both sexes. I bet there’d be more enlightening discourse if we moved in a more inclusive direction and focused on the solutions, and not the problems.

      • I agree with Danny in that gender relations are so strained that whenever one tries to discuss a men’s issue, the other side (which are NOT feminists, they are misandrists) engage in a battle over who has more privilege, who has it worse, and why one side should just shut up.
        And I think this comes back to haunt us when there are posts where the subject is about women and some angry guys come along and redirect it and make it about men. Sure it would be nice to pretend that such anger was completely unprovoked (yes sometimes it is but not always) but its a lashing out response to being put under that exact same treatment.

    • John Anderson says:

      “This is why when talking about the suffering of men there is a rush to pin the tail on some other, any other, characteristic other than gender”

      I’ve witnessed it pinned on gender before, but not the man’s gender. I’ve heard people explain men’s disadvantages in terms of misogyny and that I think is much worse as women essentially try to co-opt male suffering. When only women are disadvantaged, discriminated against, or suffering, there is no need to address the plight of men.

      • Yes, good catch.

        That should have been.

        “This is why when talking about the suffering of men there is a rush to pin the tail on some other, any other, characteristic other than being of male gender”

        This would explain how I’ve seen homophobia towards men explained as being misogyny because it attacks men for engaging in something that is generally associated with being a woman (romantic/sexual attraction to men) while homophobia towards woman is misogyny because it attacks women for not engaging in something that is generally associated with being a woman (romantic/sexual attraction to men).

        Reducing the things that harm men to collateral damage. Collateral damage done by a system that is supposedly designed to hold women back (meaning that any men that get held back, while it sucks for them, is really just a side effect).

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