Recently on a friends facebook page, they expressed a sentiment basically saying “Why in 2016, are things being made that have all dudes and no women in it?”. It was a good question and it got an interesting response, mostly by their male friends initially and I could break down their responses into several general categories:
- Why are you restricting stories you can tell about men?
- Surely it’s bad to just write in token women?
- I don’t care about who is represented, a good story is just a good story if it’s a bunch of guys only or not.
All of these have some interesting things to unpack, but I want to start by addressing the elephant in the room first. Of all the comments on this particular thread, the most striking was the assumption that writing anything other than a male as the default normal character required special justification. It was interesting how often we see an unstated assumption that the default normal for storytelling is inherently male. Nobody was arguing that stories featuring men are in any way exceptional or including male characters was tokenism. Likewise, why do women need a comprehensive story reason to be included in anything, while male characters got a free pass? Do we make demands that every male character in a story is justified for their position, however major or minor?
It’s important as a writer to consider examining the underlying assumption that all normal characters are inherently male. I could add onto that you’re often going to be looking for white, cisgender and heterosexual as well onto that general inherent assumption. Just look at how recently, a video game included a single minor transgender woman and a subsection of the internet lost its left nut in anger. Alternatively, how two Star Wars movies have dared have a female be the lead protagonist (arguably, Rey is the protagonist of Episode VII) and suddenly there is a great injustice that men aren’t leads in Star Wars anymore. I don’t really need to say much about how reversing the gender of the Ghostbusters caused a not inconsiderable uproar as well.
Yet, when it’s the other way around unless you’re reading blogs or people of a more feminist sort of persuasion, you won’t see a lot of notice that the majority of superhero movies are male. Marvel, for all the good they have done for this genre, still haven’t given Black Widow her own solo movie. Likewise, there is really only the upcoming Ms Marvel movie before we have any woman take the lead in a Marvel property. Otherwise women are certain a part of many other Marvel movies, like the Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy and the upcoming Inhumans, but they’re a minority. There’s two women in the avengers and previously one before that, with one woman being on the Guardians of the Galaxy crew and probably only one, maybe two, women in a cast of many men for the Inhumans. Will most of the same people saying adding women or minority characters need special justification, stop to ask why we need 4 men with 1 women on such teams?
Again the answer to that is no, because men are considered the default in stories considerably often. So when writing anything or just discussing this topic, always think about the underlying assumptions of what you’re supporting when you use arguments like “Women need exceptional reasons to be in X” story. Nobody says that about men in nearly any medium, because stories being about men is considered entirely normal. This overwhelming domination of storytelling and the spaces within them, creates this atmosphere where anything else is entirely out of place. Like a recent point I made elsewhere, when you’re saying that fantasy can completely have dragons in it and yet find a transgender character world breaking, you need to examine your definition of fantasy. As that definition simply sucks and is immensely damaging to good storytelling, because you’re saying actual people don’t deserve a place in your world!
In any event, let me address the three main points that were made above, particularly the first one because it’s the one that makes the assumption above the most. Implying that adding women or minority perspectives would erase the stories of men is rather odd and problematic. For one thing, there is almost an unwritten acknowledgement of being threatened to have women play more of an important role in stories. This is easy to see why, when you realize just how male dominated media is and especially TV series, which have considerable time to build many characters and frequently still have no significant female presence. Or as is often the case with many TV shows, brutally dispatch these female characters in the advancement of a male characters arc at some point. Really, nobody is going to take away stories about men because they will always be made. What might happen is we have more stories where women are a more significant part themselves or be less sideshow disposable characters.
The fact of the matter is, do we really need a movie where the entire cast has to be men to tell stories about, well, men? That seems to be rather bizarre to me and not at all how many relationships work in real life. Women have been and continue to be an extremely important part of my life. Not just my own wife, but the numerous female friends I have made through my life, my associates, my female teachers and similar. The number of women in my life as a man has been considerable and many of them were incredibly informative on my development. Why would representing women like this in a story about a man diminish or decrease the stories about men we could tell? That I don’t get or understand, because women are an important part of many men’s life – not irrelevant side characters.
Is there some kind of fear to write women as important parts of a man’s life? I don’t mean in the being chopped up by a villain into pieces and stuffed in a fridge sort of story either. As teachers, equals, inspirations, partners and friends. How is that not enriching and making stories we can tell about a male character more interesting and nuanced? I acknowledge the more extreme examples that were brought up, such as a particular scenario set in a male prison and the brutality of that existence. On the other hand, I can see plenty of room for inclusion of important female characters, as even the most brutal murderers or horrible people potentially still have mothers, sisters, daughters, friends or even partners who have stuck with them. At what point do women cease to be objectively important to a story?
This really flows into the second point, where it is then implied that adding women into that story about men in a prison (for example), it’s just tokenism. Again, the underlying assumption here is that we can tell any kind of story and men are just accepted as a part of it, but we need special explanation for a woman? Honestly, this argument confuses me the most because I believe it’s rather strange to tell a story that doesn’t have women in it at all (or to keep them as a minority of characters). If in your world of fantasy dragons or superheroic mutants the majority of everyone heroic seems to be male, that would seem to be the strange element. Why do only one in five women seem to become these superheroes compared to men everywhere? Nobody of course really bothers asking that, because again the majority of characters being male is just accepted despite women being 50% (or more) of the overall population.
Including women is tokenism, but there being 5 male characters and no women is considered normal. Just sit down and consider how odd that actually sounds, because that’s how a great deal of movies, comics or games actually work. There is a conversation going on very similar to this, where you have an Asian story like Japanese anime/manga Ghost in the Shell being translated into a live action movie, but with an all white cast. This is again, to do with what studios and creators believe is normal to their audience, so making such a movie with an appropriate Asian cast was practically never considered. Every character got cast with a white actor or actress, even if it made no sense due to the source material. Think of gender in those terms, where people you see every day and interact with constantly in women are a minority in ensemble cast movies because they’re not assumed to be normal. How does that make sense?
It’s the final part though that I found the most galling of the responses, because it demonstrates a general ignorance of how other people view media. Time and time again we’ve seen that representation really does matter. When the only woman on your superhero team is forced into a stereotypical and trope ridden plot line, people tend to get upset because all their expectations are heaped on the one character like them. Likewise while a similar topic but not necessarily gender specific, when you kill off every LGBTQIA character in a story, that too also gets those groups suitably rankled. For men, in which I am certainly included in that basket, it’s easy to forget that media is made for us and with us in mind. Hence why you have an entire all male cast and it doesn’t seem unusual whatsoever, until someone does the same thing with women (or other minority groups).
Women and other minorities feel extremely underrepresented in most media, so when we have these movies with say Rogue One having a female protagonist or Rey just being awesome in Star Wars the Force Awakens, it matters so much to them. They finally have heroes they can picture themselves as, who do awesome things and have meaningful roles in the stories they are a part of. This is something that men are not lacking in, so that’s why those few examples where women are treated so well matter so much. When you consider how many widely acclaimed movies barely feature a single woman at all, like The Revenant, or those with one woman relegated to a sidekick role the whole movie, giving women a prominent voice matters even more.
So please consider when discussing this topic, just how dismissive and insulting it sounds to tell women they’re just token characters in a male story. Ask yourself if making it seem to women like their presence in a story has to be earned and justified to even be there, while men get in the door perfectly fine, is really okay to imply. Finally remember that as men, we have no end of role models and heroic icons who look or sound like us (especially again, if you’re white, heterosexual and cisgender). Consider for a moment that overall, women and it has to be said other minorities like PoC and LGBTQIA groups, don’t have anywhere near that level of representation in media. When they do get good representation, itself a challenge, don’t be surprised why they fight to keep what they gain and ask for more of it.
Nobody is taking the stories of men away by allowing more women and other minorities in. In my opinion, you’re only enriching the storytelling that you can do by having more characters with unique, different and interesting perspectives. As that happens though, try not to imply – as men – that women or other minorities finally being represented is somehow a massive sin against writing or taking away from our stories. That’s nonsense.