I was having a discussion about visual media from the 80s and 90s. I said I had gotten tired of watching “Boys’ stories”. My friend said the gender equivalent of “I don’t think in terms of race” . He asserts that it didn’t (doesn’t) matter to him who is the protagonist of the story, a hero is a hero. so I pointed out that its easy to feel that way when 90% of your heroes are easy to imagine yourself as because they are your gender with your stereotyped gender traits. Labyrinth was brought up. I love Labyrinth but its only barely a heroine’s tale. She still is sexualized and tempted by romance LIKE THEY ALWAYS DO TO GIRLS. The same goes for Legend. It was a lovely story but who was the hero? and what did the female do? I know this is hard to understand for most males but, it gets tiresome never being shown a heroine you can aspire to.
A good heroine story? The Rats of NIMH. Alice in Wonderland (any version). Totoro. Kiki. Actually any female from Miyazaki. Sorsha of Willow. Then when you go look at Sci-Fi there are a few good heroines there. Alien franchise. Terminator franchise. Hardware. Those are stories of females with fortitude and determination and overcoming obstacles without romance or girly fluff getting in the way. They aren’t just pursued throughout the film (shrieking the whole way) and manage to somehow survive, they are proactive and they WIN.
But you notice something? They are highly fantastical females in highly fantastical settings. Any gritty, realistic, heroines set in modern times? No, all the female protagonists in 80s and 90s movies were either romance-fodder or they were complete fantasy creations. Because if a woman is going to kick some ass (whether literally or figuratively) she can’t possibly have any connection to the reality WE live in, amirite?
Why is it SO very unrealistic that there would be a female heroine? Even if the story does not require physical altercation, they still couldn’t have a female hero. Why?
I do think things are changing, albeit slowly, but I do still tsk-tsk at the amount of fantasy inherent in the idea of a woman being the main character without a man to play off of romantically. Heaven forfend we have a female coming-of-age story that doesn’t center around romance. The only one I recall was Old Enough.
Does it truly not matter what gender is used to tell the story? I think it does. For one, as I said, its part of having privilege that you don’t notice how prevalent your story is. Boys stories and girls stories are different. Whether its a construct of gender expectations imposed by society or whether its intrinsic doesn’t matter when you are telling the story. What matters is how the protagonist grapples with the expectations and how they emerge from teh conflict. Do boys and girls tackle problems differently? For the most part, yes, they do. But even that doens’t matter, because the important part is how the individual handles the situation. What gender you are does have an effect on your life, whether its in the outright rejection of societal expectations or whether its meek submission, the point is the expectations are different from each other. If I, as a female, want to reject the notion of giving birth and raising a child the pushback from taht choice will be very different in strength and scope than if a male wants to make the same rejection of familial expectations. If I, as a female, want to reject the notion of being able to beat someone up should I be accosted, I doubt that’d even be a story. It wouldn’t “sit” with most audiences. If I wanted to learn to sew and cook how would that be a different story than if a boy wanted to learn to sew and cook? Not even in the expectations of whether they should do so, but in how that will be played out. You know its true.
Just as ignoring race is a naive and privileged way of avoiding the dialogue that needs to happen, pretending that female representation in common media doesn’t matter is to ignore the very real experiential differences each gender goes through. And we are talking about the commonality along with the individual – which is what pop media gives us – not the aberrant. Nowadays, the story of a woman choosing to go to medical school could easily be exactly the same as a man choosing to go to medical school the different gendered experience no longer exists. That’s an accepted commonality among people. What’s left to tell is the individual story only.
But let’s not pretend everything in life is accepted as common to both genders. If you give a little boy a pink stuffed animal you will still incur the raised eyebrows of many segments of the population (including the boy himself) and that would be the least of the reactions. Coming-of-age, heroism and fighting against a systemic problem are all experienced differently by males and females. This cannot be denied. And I believe this is precisely why we have changed so slowly in pop media when it comes to using female heroes. It is a systemic symptom. Males comprise the majority of the providers of pop content and therefore are uninterested in producing female-influenced narratives.
But think about this simple fact: females do find interest in male-influenced narratives yet males are not interested in female-influenced narratives unless it is framed around a male’s experience or it is fantastical (even then).
What do we have to do to change that?