An interesting issue has come up in the comments to that 101 101 post, one that I think deserves its own thread to start unpacking its stuff.
What the article talks about is the Actor/Observer bias. We attribute to ourselves that we respond to circumstance, to others that they respond based on their personality. For example, if we’re studying hard we say that’s because we have a test coming up; if we see someone else studying hard we say that’s because ‘they’re studious.’
How this relates to fiction is that we assume male characters respond based on circumstance(like we see ourselves) and we see female characters responding according to their personality. Female characters thus have a sense of ‘other’ that we’re observing as the audience. Male character’s don’t; we, in essence, don their skins.
I believe that’s because, unlike minorities or women, we don’t really have a belief that men have a mystique or otherness about them. They become our proxy into fictionland.
In the words of W.S. Gilbert’s Pirate King: There’s something in that.
I recall as a kid looking at the media images I grew up on and feeling a little let down that I was Normal. (Normal of course meaning straight white cis male.) I didn’t have any kind of cool gimmick like being black or Asian or a girl. The Black One was always really cool and sometimes smart too, and The Asian One (who was still The Oriental One when I was small) always knew kung fu, which was awesome, and The Girl One was always pretty, and being pretty must be fun.
Now, observers will note that that is hella fucked up (i.e. fucked up times 10^27) in its attitudes toward… well, basically everybody. This is absolutely true. Sometimes I look at how I grew up and I’m amazed I’m not even more racist than I am.
At the same time, though, my experience reflects typhonblue’s point that there is a certain hollowness in the concept of Normal, as it exists in our notion of protagonists. I’ve mused before on the phenomenon of Normal People in media and how it excludes everyone but guys who look like me, only usually less bald.
If I follow typhonblue’s theory correctly (and if I’m confused, I’m sure she’ll clarify) a Normal protagonist becomes made up of actions, while lacking any intrinsic qualities. He reacts to situations because of the situations, not because of who he is. In a certain sense, then, there IS no “who he is”. He’s just The Hero, he’s John Everyman, he’s a Normal Guy, as opposed to a person with a personality.
Now, the reflexive shallow response to this is to start listing personality traits of Normal protagonists. James Bond is horny! Marty McFly is cool! Harry Potter is a whiny little shit! But that’s kind of missing the point. Their actions aren’t dictated by their internal qualities, they’re dictated by the circumstances of the story and their reactions to those circumstances.
Seen in this light, the very ubiquity of the Normal protagonist (Which I think we can all agree is offensive and tends to erase other people’s experiences, right?) is itself a form of erasure of the experience of guys who happen to pass, superficially, for Normal. After all, we have internal drives and personality traits. I for one am horny, cool, AND a whiny little shit. So while we see ourselves superficially reflected on the screen in a way others don’t, that very reflection becomes dehumanizing in a very subtle, very odd way.
It’s certainly an interesting way of looking at the problem, and one I think is worth chewing over for a while. What do you think?