Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Female-Centered Stories and Some Thoughts on Man Pain

My husband and I went to a drive-in movie a couple of weeks ago. I hadn't been to one since I was a teenager, and there's a six screen complex not too far from where we live. They show double features of recently released movies and are much cheaper than normal theaters. The main challenge lies in going on an "off night" when there won't be a long line of cars waiting to get in before sunset.

It was a blast (it helps that we went in my new Toyota mini-SUV, which is pretty comfortable). We saw The Secret Life of Pets (which was fun and cute) and the new Ghostbusters Movie. In spite of the lukewarm reviews and my misgivings about remakes, it was an enjoyable movie that made me laugh. It actually wasn't a straight-up remake of the original, but a new story with four characters who didn't feel like female versions of the original cast. The main flaws were that the pace actually might have been a bit too fast in places, with less time for character development. There were a number of cameos and Easter eggs from the original movie that I enjoyed, but they probably would be over the head of younger viewers who haven't seen the original several times over the years. Also, they had an amusingly inaccurate portrayal of what it's like to be faculty trying (and failing) to get tenure at a major research university (female profs wearing spiked heels and having to clean out your desk the day the bomb is dropped instead of finishing out the academic year and fading away over the summer. Right), but movies usually mess up the details of academic life.

I'll admit, most of the reason I decided I wanted to see it was the rancor and derision some have expressed over the notion of making an action movie, especially a remake of one where the original all-male cast went unremarked, with a female cast. Remakes of beloved classics are always controversial, but I don't think for a second that it would have gotten anything like the same amount of negative press if it had been made with a cast of four contemporary male comedians, or (as is more usual today) with a central cast of, say, three men and one token woman (who would, of course, be billed below the guys in the credits).

Stories with male-heavy casts still seem to be regarded as normal and expected. No one's thought to have an agenda or accused of trying to "prove a point" when they write such stories. But have a movie that's mostly about women, and there has to be a reason (and if it's not about something where the characters have to be female and the target audience is female only) then the reason has to be that evil of evils, Political Correctness!

And while remakes always get more scrutiny, I'm guessing that any movie, especially comedies and action movies (where the cast doesn't have to be female) with an all-female cast will have more than its fair share of detractors, not to mention out right haters.

It's a bit like people who insist that a character in a book or movie shouldn't be black, or gay, transgendered, or differently abled, unless the plot requires them to be one of those things specifically. Yet male, white, straight, cis-gendered, or able bodied characters don't need to be justified. Such characters are supposed to be the "everyman" with whom any reader or viewer will relate.

So male-focused narratives still seem to be our default norm. Male actors still get the overwhelming majority of speaking roles in movies, and far more movies have male "lead" characters than female. Male characters even talk more in movies with female leads. Most films flunk the Bechdel Test (this is the test that asks whether a movie has at least two named female characters and whether they have at least one conversation with one another about something that isn't a man). It's much harder to get an accurate count for novels in different genres, but aside from genres aimed specifically at female readers, like Romance and Women's Fiction (the fact that books by and about women and their concerns gets its own "special interest" label kind of says it all, actually), I'm guessing a similar bias exists in most genres of published fiction that aren't aimed at a specific gender.

Men and their relationships, problems and concerns are Important and Interesting to everyone. Women are often presented as plot devices that advance the story of a male character, not as important agents in their own right. And the frustrating thing is, the more we see this presented as the default norm, the more invisible it becomes to us, and the more we notice (and sometimes resent) movies that step outside of this comfort zone.

This is a topic I've run across on a couple of blogs lately, re the topic of the plot element that's come to be called "man pain" or "mangst."

I grew up before the internet, so it was much harder to find people with whom to discuss concepts like the Double Standard, let alone have glib phrases like Women in Refrigerators. This doesn't mean these plot devices didn't exist or people didn't recognize them as problematic at times.

I first became aware of this phenomenon during my childhood (I'm old. Shut up), when we used to watch a show called the Six Million Dollar Man. It was about a former astronaut who had almost died and was rebuilt as a cyborg and had all these superpowers used to fight crime for a fictitious branch of the US government. There was a special multi-part episode called "The Bionic Woman," where the love of the protagonist's life (who had somehow never been mentioned in the plot before this episode) surfaced, and they were about to get married when she suffered a deadly parachuting accident (she was a Strong Female Action Girl type). He got his supervisors to use their technology to save her and make her a superpowered bionic woman, but alas, she rejected her bionics and died. He suffered horribly while this was happening, and the last scene was of him kissing her cold, dead face with a single manly tear sliding down his cheek.

I was so mad. There was this great woman character with superpowers, a rarity in the 70s, and they killed her off because they couldn't possibly detract from the male protagonist's importance by having him be married and sharing the limelight.

Evidently, my feelings weren't alone, because the producers brought the Bionic Woman back to life (she was really in a coma, see) and gave her her own show, but with a convenient case of Amnesia so she was no longer involved with the Bionic Man character. Her show had a successful run. As for the Bionic Man's man pain? It was conveniently dropped and forgotten when it was no longer relevant to his arc.

Unfortunately, I've run across this kind of thing over and over in the decades since, and most of the time the writers in question don't bring the female "plot device" back for a book, movie, or TV series of her own :(

In the defense of the creators of the Six Million Dollar Man and Bionic Woman shows, the 70s were a different time. The modern incarnation of the women's movement (or "Women's Liberation" as it was called back then), was younger and pretty controversial in many circles, but there seemed to be at least some interest in expanding viewerships by showing women in new and different roles in books, movies, and television with shows like Charlie's Angels and Wonder Woman (and of course, they tried to avoid alienating male viewers by having the female characters be very attractive and most often sexily clad) but many of the old prejudices and assumptions about gender still went unexamined. As they do today.

I wish the whole man pain thing would, if not die in a proverbial fire, at least be rarer, or examined with a more critical eye. I'd love to see more books, for instance, where a male character gets into one of those "her suffering is all about me" jags and be brought up short by the woman in question (or at least have someone ask him, "Are you so hung up on this because you're sad for her and miss her, or is it mostly because you're experiencing tedious masculine guilt because her death symbolizes your own personal failure?")

Men are cool. Men are important. Their relationships and feelings are interesting. They are half the human race, after all. But there is no shortage of stories about them. It would be nice to see more books, movies and TV shows where they share the limelight, or maybe even take on the support roles for a change.

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