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Sexism In Movies And Popular Culture


I’m getting really into feminism these days. For instance, a while back I added the video series Feminist Frequency to my Links & Blogroll page. I really recommend that site, especially to people who are just beginning to get into feminist discourse; it’s an extremely down-to-Earth and accessible explanation of feminist issues in popular culture.

If you explore a bit into feminist issues in popular culture, you might learn that for every three male characters in movies, there is one female character. And in crowd scenes, only 17% on average of the anonymous crowd is made up of women; ridiculous if you consider that women are slightly over 50% of our population.*

*Here’s the source. I know it’s not the original study but I thought I’d be transparent with where I get my stats from.

There are all sorts of other criticisms you could make about movies. Women are very rarely characters which have any agency in the plot; the story could usually unfold in exactly the same way without them. (With the exception of the romantic subplot).

Or I could mention the “Bechdel test”, which is commonly cited as a test for women’s representation in movies. In short, a movie passes this test if two female characters talk to each other even once about something other than a man. Only around half of movies tested pass the test, and I believe that figure goes much further down if you focus on the most popular blockbuster movies (though I don’t know a statistic for that).

In what seems a contradiction of these things, quite often popular movies portray “strong women” in an effort to make some concessions to women’s empowerment. But this can be just as problematic as having women being weak. The “strong woman” trope suggests that women are normally not strong – or else why would we have to make such a big deal about it? What’s more, while the women may be strong – or at least beat up some bad guys, which I believe is a very one-dimensional understanding of what constitutes real strength – they usually do not have any influence over the actual plot. With one exception of course: the romantic subplot.

What’s more, you find that they normally are not complex, interesting characters. Men can be flawed, multi-faceted, quirky; weak in some ways and strong in others. On the other hand, women in these sorts of movies are just strong, and asides from that, they have no real depth, humanity or consequence. Oh, and they are busty, skimpily clad and heterosexual, of course.

I said something to my friends once, about a series which rarely, in 500 episodes, ever passed the Bechdel test. I said: “You could summarise this as: Men doing stuff.”

I thought about it a bit more, and realised that most popular culture can be summarised that way.

The Effect Of Sexism In Popular Culture

The effect of all of this is that as I grew up, I learned quite effectively that women did not have agency. They were not movers and shakers; they were not what made the world go round. Men did all the important stuff; men were the main characters, women were the sidekicks and supporting cast.

I should add at this point that I wasn’t always Sophia: I’m a male-to-female transsexual. I was raised male.

During the time I lived as male, it wasn’t too much of a problem to see women as secondary characters. It just seemed to be the way the world worked, and as the benefitting party in this imbalance, I didn’t feel to worried about it. In fact, I think I never really questioned it.

However, as I came to see myself as a woman, this began to become a real conflict in me. I knew I was not a secondary character. It’s my frikkin’ life after all – in own my life, I’m the main character, that’s how it is!

But then I saw myself as a woman, and in trying to completely assume that identity, I began to feel pressure to see myself as secondary.

I believe the main effect of this was that it was actually hard for me to completely accept that I was a woman. To start with, I had excessive doubt about my transgenderism, and later on, I just kind of forgot about my gender a lot, staying in old mental patterns a lot of the time and not entirely absorbing my new identity.

These conflicts only really resolved themselves to any great extent as I came to have a new understanding of what women were. I don’t mean just a mental understanding – I mean also a feeling-understanding, something that goes beyond surface thoughts. I had to reprogram my subconscious brain.


Women-Affirming Popular Culture

I found it helpful to watch the few items of popular culture which were genuinely women-affirming.

My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic was amazing for me. This series is a children’s show that has enough depth to engage adults too, especially those who love glitter and cute things. :)

MLP:FIM flips things on their head by having basically no important male characters. This might seem reverse-sexist to some, but in my opinion the imbalance serves to balance out years of  male-centrist conditioning, and is hardly going to be enough to implant some kind of female-centrism in my subconscious.

What I love about MLP:FIM is that the female cast is diverse and interesting and the spotlight is put onto their quirks and interests, not their womanhood. No one makes a big deal about the fact that a character is female. This is in contrast to many movies, where it is painfully obvious that the producers very deliberately made a character a woman, emphasising her female traits while not giving her any real character besides that.

Another series I’ve been enjoying a lot has been Avatar: The Legend Of Korra. This is another series that is supposedly aimed at children, but honestly, what is with this divide between what’s for children and what’s for adults anyway?

In this series, the main character, Korra, is female. Asides from her, I do think there are more important male characters than female characters, but the ratio is still pretty good, and light-years ahead of most series.

Korra is everything that the standard movie “strong woman” is not. Korra is strong – immensely strong; but she is also multi-faceted, having weaknesses and flaws as well as deep compassion and other admirable traits. She’s the focus of the series, and a man is not.

What’s more, she’s a hero. While I don’t think every series or movie has to be about combat or hollywood-style heroics, it was pretty revolutionary to me to see a woman placed into that role, an archetype which, historically, has been almost by definition reserved for men.

Recently, I watched the climax of the second season of The Legend Of Korra. Korra was having a cataclysmic battle with the main foe of the plotline. And I had a weird moment as I watched it, and thought, a woman is doing these things. 

But that was so good, because I need to be able to fit a woman into the hero archetype in my head. Among other things, I believe that I (as well as others) have a hero in me, and I need to be able to reconcile that with my womanhood. If I can’t, I will always be stunted as a person.

That, or I will not be able to entirely accept my gender identity; an option that is open to me as a transsexual who was raised as a man. But that is not a desireable outcome for me either. I have to rewire my brain and learn a new way of seeing women if I am ever going to have a complete, unfractured personality, with access to all the possibilities for what a human can be.

We Need To Change What Movies Are About

I’d like to add something to this piece. I think there is a lot to be said for pointing out the gender imbalance in movies. I believe that we do need to correct that imbalance. But I also think that things will always be imbalanced to some extent if we don’t change what our movies are about.

It’s a fact: most popular, blockbuster movies nowadays are about war, or at least combat.

Films that are about war are just likely to feature more men than women. This is, in part, because it’s not realistic to feature a random slice of the military and have it all be women. In this day and age, the military is still dominated by men. And if you set your movie in the past, then you can’t have any female combatants at all.

And even outside of the military, if you focus on war or fighting, women are at a disadvantage. This is because women are, at least currently, less likely to be involved in these activities – making it seem a bit more forced to add a woman into the fray, which in turn makes it harder to avoid tokenism and the “strong woman” trope.

Reasons Why Women Are Less Involved In Fighting

I believe there are reasons why women are in general less involved in war or fighting. Asides from cultural reasons, they are also just at a disadvantage in combat as a whole. They are smaller in general, and weaker in general. The strength difference is not just because of their size; I can tell you first hand that estrogen makes your muscles weaker. Every trans person I know who has taken hormones, be they estrogen or testosterone, has reported a marked difference in strength.

Because of my experience with hormones again, I do believe that men are at least somewhat more predisposed towards athletics and sparring-type activities. It’s a bit harder to quantify, but a lot of trans people report when switching hormones that we have a change in our need to engage in these sorts of things. I know my former interest in martial arts has gone down, though I can’t tell exactly how much of that is to do with hormones and how much is to do with my change of identity.

By the way, note I’m not saying all men like sparring and no women do; I find this a common way my ideas get twisted by people who are overly attached to the “blank slate” theory of gender. I merely state that hormones and our innate gendered natures affect the likelihood of us having certain traits or others. You can read more about this perspective here: The Differences Between Genders.

Movies That Are Not About Combat

All in all, women are less likely to be in a war or combat situation. And that means movies that are about those things are less likely to have good gender representation, at least not without forcing things a bit.

This could be used as an argument for why movies are not sexist after all – it’s just normal for there to be less woman in these situations!

But I think it’s sexist that movies focus so much on activities that are dominated by men in the first place.

I believe that you don’t need to have a battle for a movie to be interesting. You can have interpersonal conflict in other ways; or the driving force of the movie can be found in other things than interpersonal conflict.

I liked very much the movie Salmon Fishing In The Yemen for this reason. The movie involved some interpersonal conflict, but was most of all about a man trying to achieve his crazy dream, and what had to happen to make it so. (And yes, it was very much a movie about men doing stuff. But the content of the movie was about something other than conflict, which is why I found it interesting to mention).

Or consider The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button. It was about a man (yes… a man) who had a very unusual life: he was born old and became younger as time went on. It wasn’t about him fighting enemies. It was about him living his life, about him discovering himself, and about his relationships to people.

Neither of these movies really pass the Bechdel test*. But I provide them as proof that movies don’t have to be about conflict.

*The second is dubious.

Now, My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic for me epitomises this fact. (It’s not a movie, but you get what I mean). As well as having great female representation, it almost always has plots which are not about conflict. The plots are many and varied, but usually involve characters learning about themselves, growing as people*, and exploring their friendships with each other. It really strikes me how often the plots are just basically nice, without needing anyone to be horrible to anyone else for them to be compelling. And compelling they are.

*Well, as ponies…

What We Can Do To Change Sexism In Popular Culture

In summary, I believe that much of popular culture can be made less sexist by having a better gender balance — but it can also be improved by focusing less often and less intensely on male-dominated things (basically, combat). This would go some way to reducing the extent to which male-associated things are considered more important, and female-associated things less important. This would, in turn, help us to understand that women and men are both equally important.

I believe that attempts to make women more important in certain male-dominated things — violent movies and perhaps some other fields too — may be misguided. I believe it is sexist to tell women that they need to be like men in order to be seen as important. I believe that real equality will be when our culture holds male-associated things and female-associated things in equal esteem, and flaunts both.

We need to change the popular culture we make. I believe we need both more feminist men creating popular culture – as with the creators of The Legend of Korra – and more women creating popular culture – as with My Little Pony. We also need more women and feminist men as publishers, editors, and other contributors to all levels of the creation process. It’s a systemic problem we’re facing, and it comes down to the fact that men, male values, and male-associated things, dominate our society.

I hope one day to contribute a little to popular culture with my own written fiction. My first attempt at fiction which I made at 17 years old – which I think I may publish for free soon – probably didn’t pass the Bechdel test, or just barely. In future, though, I might like to have another go, and make something very queer- and women-positive.

If you feel drawn to contributing to popular culture, perhaps you, too, are among the ones who will create new, more balanced stories for the next generations to learn from. But if you don’t feel drawn to that, then you can contribute in other ways.

For one thing, you can “vote with your dollars” (or euros) by focusing on consuming popular culture which has good female representation. (That will also help deprogram your mind from male-dominated culture).

For another thing: as I mentioned, this is a structural problem – so anything you can do to empower women and remove imbalance in our society could ultimately help.

And finally, you can start with yourself. If you are a woman, you can learn to take yourself more seriously, to shed your cultural programming, and become that important, influential part of society which some men don’t want you to be. If you are a man, you can shed your programming too, and learn to support the women in your life and not need them to be unimportant for you to feel important.

It’s a long process we’re all going through. As I’ve said before, we’ve had hundreds of thousands of years of patriarchy, and only about a hundred years with an effective feminist movement. It will take a long time before we shed all of the subconscious, cultural and insiduously structural remains of the old oppression. I’m giving it another thousand years at least.

But we can get started now.


 

Related

Why Feminism (Still) Matters

How To Be A Man (Or A Woman)

We Must Empower Femininity, Not Just Womanhood

 

{ 3 comments… add one }

  • Ewa December 23, 2013, 2:03 pm

    one of rare Women-Affirming films: Green Fried Tomatoes. Almost 23 years old now and still one my firm favourites.

  • FIFM January 6, 2014, 12:27 am

    A few words on My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.

    The MLP franchise was rebooted / commissioned by Hasbro in order to sell more toys. The fact that it happened to become a fantastic show is somewhat of a happy accident for Hasbro. They were really lucky to pick Lauren Faust for create / redesign / produce it. I agree that is great, but it wasn’t planned to be, and it wasn’t commissoned with a feminist or equalist agenda.

    > MLP:FIM flips things on their head by having basically no important male characters. This might seem
    > reverse-sexist to some, but in my opinion the imbalance serves to balance out years of male-centrist
    > conditioning, and is hardly going to be enough to implant some kind of female-centrism in my
    > subconscious.

    It is problematic if you look at the intended target audience. If girls aged 6-9 are fed a media diet consisting of My Little Pony, Barbie and Tinkerbell, it in no way prepares them to see the personality before the gender.

    Incidentally, while the main characters were always supposed to be female, Lauren Faust was aiming for a healthier female-male ratio, but was told be Hasbro to lay off most of the male side cast.

    > My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic […] almost always has plots which are not about conflict. […] the plots are just basically nice

    You make it sound like it is a show where everybody sits around and eats cupcakes together. You make it sound like *shudders* a box of “Lego Friendship”.

    This is not true – every single episode is about conflict, just not necessarily about *external* conflict. And conflicts are resolved, just not necessarily in physical, violent ways. Some plots are classic adventures, but most are about conflicts that directly result from miscommunication, and are suitably resolved by better communication. It shows that feelings are valid and ought to be taken seriously, and that everything is worth talking about; a valuable lesson for girls and maybe even moreso for boys (following the whole “man up” discussion). Conflicts nonetheless.

    Sincerely,
    a Brony.

  • Albalida January 24, 2014, 10:27 am

    It was a review of Avatar: The Last Airbender on Shakesville that got me to notice the feminist angle. While they did do a major gaffe with the Order of the White Lotus (what, did Pakku found the fraternity?) I actually like that most of the things they’d done right by feminism wasn’t self-consciously so. Compared to, say, Joss Whedon, media god of all Strong Female Characters, who started Buffy out with “wouldn’t it be cool if…?” and pretty much ended the season with “oh gods how do i kyriarchy it is so difficult–add more women of color! Goddess-worshiping Wiccans! Make ‘it’s about power’ a catchphrase! Am I doing this right yet???” and even then there were still problematic aspects.

    Have you seen ABC’s Once Upon A Time? It’s about Disney princesses in the real world, like if the film Enchanted were a television series and the romantic subplots were displaced by how-adults-can-come-to-get-over-childhood-abuse-and-neglect subplots. The creators said that they just weren’t interested in writing damsels in distress, and while there remains a lot of subconscious sexism to be analyzed and unpacked in the first and best season, the subversions of multiple tropes are pretty cool.

    I also enjoy Rantasmo on YouTube, who comments on gender issues in mainstream culture.

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