Monday, May 05, 2008

It started as a really long email to Jonathan that he told me he thinks I should post...

So I am a feminist. That’s right, I kind of believe in gender equality. I believe that our public policies should be sensitive to both the ways we discriminate by treating men and women differently (banning women from going topless but not men), as well as the ways we discriminate by treating men and women the same (banning both sexes from exposing their breasts in public, thereby discriminating against the gender that breastfeeds).

Recently, I have been thinking about a particular gender issue, that frankly I feel is not discussed, but which I think is extremely problematic. I’m not sure what to call it, but if I had to write a journal article about it, I might call it the essentialism of being a woman and the non-essentialism of being a man.

It starts with a simple question: why do female-centred movies suck?

They suck, they really do suck. I know not all women agree with me on this, but I am largely uninspired and under-whelmed by the ‘chick flick’. The less male actors in the film, the worse the chick flick gets. A frenzy of make-up and outfits, catfights and giggles and hope, hope, hope, that the man will love, love, love her. Lame, lame, lame.

So, why do female-centred movies suck? Even if they don’t suck (to the women who like them), at least then, why do women, like me, enjoy male-centred movies but men, like Jonathan, dislike female-centred movies? Why?

While you think about it, another question:

Why are women so staggeringly sidelined in movies?

If you are really honest with yourself, you will agree with me that in general, women are cast in films for only two reasons: 1) the movie needs some one-dimensional eye-candy OR 2) the plot involves the ‘female’ plotline of dating, pregnancy or princesses (because, you know, all issues involving real women can fall into the categories of courting, making babies, or beauty).

Men do not fit so easily into any box, of course. In movies, they are way funnier (imagine a plot in which two competing female skaters are paired together to win a figure skating championship ... and try not to imagine the women as essentially 'womanesque' and the movie not as a chick flick) and have much bigger problems than women (saving the world mostly, but also, running the country and making money).

Today, I have put my finger on an answer, or perhaps better phrased, a theory.

The Genderlessness of Men

I submit that in popular culture, men enjoy a sense of 'genderlessness' while women are defined by their femaleness only: that aspect of being a woman that is exclusive to women. Consider that movies with a mostly male cast are for the masses, male and female (Dodgeball, No Country for Old Men, The Usual Suspects, 40-Year Old Virgin) but movies with a mostly female cast are for women only. Name one female-cast movie that you've seen and that you’ve liked, as a man. I can list 10 movies (with all male casts) that I liked, as a woman.

So what gives?

The societal rule seems to be this: Where it can be either a man or woman, make it a man. Where a man won't do, only then, make it a woman. Only then.

As a result, our understanding of women (based on popular culture) has become overly feminized. The parts of us that we women hold common with men has been obscured because we are only portrayed in our role as deviating from men; we are only cast in a movie when a man won't do (i.e. the character is pregnant). As a result, it appears that women are breast feeders and pregnant mothers, sisters, girlfriends, and wives of other (more main) characters. It appears that women care only about their hair and nails, the attraction of males, being a bride, having children, being sexy. Since these are all roles that men can’t play, they are saved for women in movies. What is problematic is not that women play these roles but rather, that they ONLY play these roles. The aspects of being a woman that women could share with men (going away to college, working at the quickie-mart, busting out of jail) disappears, because men always play the uni-sex role, plus male-only roles as well. Hence, there is a much higher demand for male actors, and most movies feature male characters.

My argument is that this overly ‘feminizes’ women. As a result, men appear generic, associated with those human characteristics common to both men and women, plus male-exclusive characteristics, while women become a niche of only those human characteristics that men don't encompass. And, as a result, it's no surprise that women watch male-lead movies (as women can identify with the uni-sex qualities of the men playing those roles) but men don't watch female-lead movies (as women are never cast in uni-sex roles, so there is nothing for men to identify with).

I also don't think this is just a 'movie' thing. And it is not a small issue either. Viewing women as essentially female (lipstick, breasts, hips), and viewing men (or males) as essentially standard and normal is extremely problematic for women (without them even knowing it). An extreme of this is animated characters: a male skunk always looks like the animal it is based on but a female skunk has to be differentiated from the 'males' through long eye-lashes, red cheeks, a pink bow, sometimes, yes, even breasts and hips under a dress. Women are and have always been a 'deviation' from standard, from normal. A male washroom sign has a person on it. A female washroom sign has a person wearing a skirt on it. Deviation, again.

The implication is a distortion and exclusion of women (from popular culture) that women themselves are not even aware of. No one notices nor cares when all the South Park characters are male, when all, ALL animated movies feature non-human males in lead roles - the Lion King, the Jungle Book, Land Before Time, Finding Nemo, Toy Story...when all the characters on The Simpson's that don't require a particular gender are male, leaving all female characters to be 'sisters and wives of so-and-so...' save for a school teacher and a few female classmates. No one seems to care about women's lack of exposure in movies, and the particularly 'female' roles they play when they ARE in movies, even though women (in real life) participate in both female and unisex activities.

And it's hard to lament the lack of (good) movies with women in them, that men want to watch, because that reality has never existed. I really wonder what the world would be like, how people would view and feel about women, and how public policies would manifest differently, if women were not just this niche category of deviations (menstruation, child birth, sisters) from regular humans (men) that need to be accommodated but remain largely fringe in pop culture.