27 September 2007

does gender distibution matter?

This is something I've wanted to write about for a while, but never got around to. But this morning Greg and I were having a conversation about the sci-fi and fantasy genres, and I remarked that the lack of female characters in the genre makes it less welcoming to women. And Greg ... doesn't see that. I have a hard time articulating this sort of thing, but I'm going to give it a try.

I was telling him about James dictating a Star Wars game for himself, me, Evan, Neighbor Girl and Neighbor Girl's mother. James was Anakin Skywalker, Evan was Luke Skywalker, Neighbor Girl was Princess Leia, Neighbor Girl's mother was Padme Amidala, and I was Shmi. (Do you know who that is? Anakin's mother.) I realized as he was assigning parts that he'd gone through almost every female Star Wars character I know. (I can think of one other -- Mon Mothma -- but if you haven't spent hours reading through Star Wars books with your obsessive sons, you probably don't know who she is, because she doesn't play a very important role and is never mentioned by name as far as I know.)

I'm talking strictly movies here -- which is what the general population is familiar with -- even though I'm vaguely aware that Star Wars books and games introduce a lot of other female characters. The movies have, essentially, three important female characters (and calling Shmi important is kind of a stretch). For Neighbor Girl to play a cool Star Wars woman, she can be Leia or Padme. But my boys? They can be Luke, Anakin, Han Solo, Chewbacca, Obi Wan, Darth Vader, the Emperor, Mace Windu, Yoda, Qui-Gon Jinn, Boba Fett, Lando... and that's just off the top of my head.

The same goes for Lord of the Rings, the other big fantasy series of recent years. Obviously you can find fantasy with female lead characters if you're looking for it (Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy comes to mind) but the works in that genre -- both in movies and books -- which become popular in the larger culture, which trancsend the genre to become universally well-known, are dominated by male characters.

Greg (along with a lot of other people) doesn't think that's a big deal. He pointed out the important role Eowyn played in Lord of the Rings as an example -- but she's still a bit player who just happens to perform a crucial role. And she's one of three notable women in the entire series. And the thing that it's hard to get across to a man, who has grown up watching men dominate society, in both the real world and fiction, is that this disparity matters. The numbers matter. The stereotypes matter. The lack of representation matters. It matters to see a world not populated by people like you. If little girls can't find role models in a genre, it will not appeal to them as much as a genre that does have those role models.

I could probably go on and on about this (and I probably will return to this topic again), but luckily for you I've got other demands on my time. But I do have one item to leave you with before I wrap up this post. Actress Geena Davis has founded an organization called See Jane, which aims to promote the need for equal gender representation in kids' entertainment. You can watch Geena give a phenomenal speech here (sorry, couldn't get the embedding to work), or if you don't have 20 minutes to watch the video (though I'd really recommend that you do, if you have the time), you can read a short article at Ms. Magazine about her ogranization. Their research came up with some surprising statistics about gender distribution in kids' media, and I think you'll find, if you start keeping count, the same imbalance often holds true for adult entertainment as well (unless you're watching something specifically designated as a chick flick or something similar).

As Davis says in the Ms. article, “If your movie gets labeled a chick flick it’s the kiss of death. What if that has something to do with having seen the exact same gender disparity from minute one, from the very first cartoons and programs you see — couldn’t that possibly affect the way we grow up feeling?” I'd go a step further and say, how can it possibly not affect the way our culture views gender? How can it not affect the way little girls see themselves, or the way boys see girls, to see boys at the center of every story, and girls in the supporting roles? The message sinks in so gradually and so insidiouly that most people don't realize it, and eventually don't even think it matters that much.


kim said...

I think it's telling that a movie with women and their concerns as the central part of the movie is a chick flick, while movies with men and their concerns as the focus are just movies - maleness as important is the norm of our entertainment (and other systems).

I suppose you could ask Greg if he likes to watch Sex and the City or read Jane Austen novels. And then you could ask how men would feel if 95% of the television or movies available had the same gender breakdowns as those two examples. How would they feel imagining themselves in those roles, when there is only one main male character that people remember by name (Mr. Big or Mr. Darcy) and only the die-hard fans know who the other peripheral male characters are. And if he hasn't watched SATC or read Austen, ask why - is it because topics and issues that are primarily about the opposite gender aren't always that relevant to our lives? And yet because of the limited selection in our culture, women make men's stories and topics relevant to our lives while men have the luxury of ignoring or dismissing women's voices and stories.

Having only read LOTR as an adult (with a more critical eye than I would've had as a kid or teenager), I've always liked it but felt a lot less affection or passion for it than most. It's always struck me as a book written for 12 year old boys - for that supposedly golden age of growing up, before discovering girls or any world beyond their group of buddies. It reminded me of Stand By Me and lots of other entertainment in that genre, which is all nice and enjoyable but not really universal in the life situations it depicts.

kim said...

p.s. You need to make James read The Little House books. And you need to read books about Madeleine or Angelina Ballerina, or by picture book authors like Cornelia Funke or Kevin Henkes, to Evan.

Heidi said...

Kim, it's funny that you bring up Jane Austen. I read recently that in 2008 PBS' Masterpiece Theatre (one of my favorite shows) will be airing adaptations of all of Jane Austen's novels. Believe it or not, Greg appeared less than enthusiastic when I asked him to watch them with me. Jane Austen is widely regarded as one of the best English language authors of the 19th century, if not of all time. Yet how many men are interested in reading her books?

I remember that there was a lot of surprise (from the media) that The Devil Wears Prada was really successful at the box office, because the industry is always making movies with that 18-35-year-old male in mind and this was a "chick flick" (oh, how I hate that label, along with "chick lit") that rivaled "normal movies" in popularity (or at least in earnings). I think it's a pretty common belief that girls will watch/read "boy" things, but not vice versa, even when there's evidence to the contrary.

Also -- as soon as James has a concept of history, we're reading the Little House books. And we have read a few Cornelia Funke and Kevin Henkes, but no Madeleine or Angelina. Thanks for the recommendations.

Sara Korol said...

Hey Heidi! I'd like to put in my two cents on this, albeit a bit after the fact. I may have brought this up with you this past spring, but it all started when I discovered that my boyfriend, who reads ALL THE TIME, and considers himself rather well-read, couldn't name a single book written by a female author or with a female lead that he had EVER read off the top of his head. Ever. I was furious. About twenty four hours later he lamely came up with Atlas Shrugged which I said barely counted since it was more like Ayn Rand's philosophical manifesto than anything approaching a novel that had a real female lead with real female thoughts and feelings. (mind you I really liked Atlas Shrugged). But I became increasingly despairing at the realization that I didn't think twice about putting myself in the shoes of a male lead in a novel, because after all, girls are brought up to understand that the male experience is the general experience. Is the default. If a book is written from a female point of view, men automatically recoil for the most part.

I made Phil read a Margaret Atwood- the blind Assassin, and he liked it. And that brings the grand total to two.

Melissa said...

Very well written.
The comments already published say it so well, I have little to add.
I hope that one day the male and female experience can be equally valued, appreciated and represented. Maybe one day the two can be equal players in the human experience.

Sara- The Blind Assassin was magical. It's part of my pipedream list of male reading, (which includes the Ciderhouse Rules).

Topper said...

I'm a fairly average guy(I think) but I think I more or less agree with this post.

I have read a Jane Austen novel. I read Northanger Abbey, although the only reason I read it was I was reading to to my girlfriend, who can read herself but I enjoy reading to her and she enjoys being read to. It started when I introduced her to Lord of the Rings books and we've struggled ever since to find anything we both enjoy quite so much. I made her watch all the Star Wars movies as well, except Phantom Menace I'm not that cruel and she quite enjoyed them also although not anything like as much as LOTR.

We certainly discussed the gender breakdown in Lord of the Rings a few times. Before I start on that I can say I quite enjoyed Northanger Abbey, it was funny and I thought quite insightful. I'm no literary critic but I enjoyed it, but I can see why the average male wouldn't take to it. Most women can't stand action flicks whether this is due to innate differences or upbringing I couldn't say.

Action movies for example are mostly awful things that are at best watchable if you turn your brain off, however not always I watched Kiss Kiss Bang Bang the other day and I loved it, but I know my girlfriend would hate it.

I've always defended the female roles in Lord of the Rings based on the context. I know it is a fantasy world but it's based on real life to a certain degree and you weren't likely to find female equivelents of Aragorn, Boromir and Faramir etc running around battling Orcs. I think it's a good thing that there is even one. Although you could argue that she is only interested in such things whens she is depressed and near suicidal and once she has the love of a good man off she runs to go and fulfil a more stereotypical female role?

Surely the problem goes beyond just representation in fiction and kids entertainment. It's how we bring up the different genders, girls getting bought dolls and told to play mommy and little boys getting toy guns and more encouraged at sports. Obviosuly generalising but I running on here, I shall sum by saying I think your basic point is pretty valid.

p.s. I only found this blog because you listed in your profile a love of Graphic Novels: Sandman and when I clicked on that in my own profile you were only one to have listed it in the same manner. Out of interest what do you reckon to gender roles and so forth in that series? I've read somewhere that the author definately tried to write alternately what he considered male and female stories throughout the series.

Anonymous said...

Heidi - I agree -
WAY too few strong female characters in movies and books!
And my boys should know better!!

Have you read Twilight?
A fairly new, fun, light read - an adolescent vampire novel with a good, strong female lead and supporting roles - the first book is about 50/50 male/female.

The thing that makes this book (series actually) interesting is that it is set in Forks (the end of the world to all who are not from Washington state...