I have a complicated relationship with stories made specifically for girls and women. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Disney Princesses and romantic fairy tales when I was little, and at first I wasn’t ashamed of it. But then when most of the girls my age gravitated towards the tomboy persona, I more or less followed suit to avoid the eye rolls and mockery. I still read Gail Carson Levine books like Ella Enchanted and Two Princesses of Bamarre, but I tried keeping it secret for the sake of fitting in.
This trend of brushing off “girly fiction” followed me into high school and college. When the Twilight saga came out, I read through the books one week and then joined the crowd in bashing them the next. My contempt for chick flicks reached peak levels, and unfortunately this led to me resenting fans of chick flicks that I knew, most of whom were female.
Well, the year is 2020. And while individual critics, storytellers, and consumers have addressed our culture’s gender bias in the entertainment industry, we haven’t yet come together as a society to reckon with our inner preference to stories that cater to men and boys. Though we have more books and movies featuring women as leading characters, our culture still tends to roll eyes and mock stories that some men wouldn’t enjoy as much as women.
I don’t know what it’ll take for us to come together and defeat the Patriarchy once and for all. But if there’s anything we can do to help us come closer to that point, it’s taking the time to reflect on what sexism—particularly in entertainment—has to do with us as individual parts of society. How have we allowed sexism to thrive in storytelling, how does this storytelling affect us in real life, and what can each of us do about it?
With that said, here’s my take.
Backlash of Female Fiction
When thinking of female fiction, what immediately comes to mind is the term “romance.” Stories that focus on women and girls tend to zero in on her falling in love and living happily ever after. This reflects what women have been expected to do for thousands of years: get married, bear children, and serve men. For a really long time, the term “chick flick” was used to refer to romantic comedies and/or flashy, “girl gone wild” movies.
This isn’t the case for all female-centered stories. Particularly in the last decade, we saw a rise of books and movies featuring women trying to make it in their careers or fighting wars or coming to terms with growing up.
Regardless, any story that “feels female” or doesn’t focus on/appeal to men automatically gets a bad rep specifically for that reason. It doesn’t matter if the writing is good or the acting is good or the commentary is thought-provoking. Any story that feels too feminine will have to jump through the fiery flames of bias and sexism in order to be given anything close to a fair shake. Though Disney’s animated movies have more to them than selling female fantasies, even Disney has gone so far as to remake their animated movies in the hopes of appealing to internet hot takes criticizing Disney for the problematic elements of their storytelling.
And that brings us to the hard truth about the “it’s problematic” argument of female entertainment: Whether intentional or not, this argument succeeds only in pitting female storytellers against each other in order to win the approval of male audiences.
Media critic Lindsay Ellis touches on this in her video essay “Dear Stephenie Meyer,” going so far as to compare Meyer’s Twilight to more male-centered movies that receive little to no backlash for their social commentary.
“Imagine the same vitriol being leveled at the equally silly Fast and the Furious franchise,” Ellis says. “Both franchises are dumb cheese, but they are dumb cheese targeting different markets. So why is one dumb cheese the object of so much pearl clutching over who’s a good role model for teenage girls, and the other…you know…it’s fine?”
To answer her question simply: one franchise is marketed to boys and men. The other to girls and women.
Sadly, today we still hold female-led stories to higher standards than those featuring men. In the publishing industry, fantasy and sci-fi books with female protagonists are less likely to sell unless there is at least one male protagonist. Even Harry Potter, a fantasy franchise with a gender neutral audience that is still praised today for its female characters and social justice themes, centers on a straight, cisgender male protagonist. And before the first book launch, publishers told author JK Rowling not to publish using her full name, as they thought it unlikely that boys would be interested in reading Harry Potter if they knew it was written by a woman.
Over in cinema, the most recent female-centered film to be the subject of controversy was MCU’s Captain Marvel, released in 2019. For a long time, critics couldn’t even share a nuanced take on the movie for fear of stirring up internet rage over whether said critic was a feminist or a misogynist. The same thing happened in 2016 when the Ghostbusters reboot starred four women as their protagonists. If you didn’t like these movies, you were a misogynist. If you did like them, you were a snowflake SJW. And the tragic thing is that these online battles accomplished nothing, except to hold these movies to higher standards than that of their male-centered counterparts.
And since we’ve broached the subject of female heroes, we should address the main subject of controversy with female fiction: the female protagonists themselves.
Standards for Female Characters
Women have had high expectations put on them since the dawn of time. Everything from her looks to her behavior to her life choices are subject to severe scrutiny. If she meets or exceeds expectations, she is a crown jewel, a symbol of purity to invoke envy and admiration in all who look to her. If she doesn’t cave to such demands, she is a witch threatening the state of society. She’s either a role model for girls or a nasty bitch.
Though fictional heroines generally have more freedom, they are still expected to fall in line with certain rules. She can be strong and/or smart, but she mustn’t overpower or overshadow her male colleagues. The hotter, the better (unless her appearance is integral to her story arc). She must be a good role model for girls, and she must be appealing to male audiences. And above all, she must never make men feel uncomfortable.
As much as male audiences play a role in criticizing heroines for toeing the line of “unlikeability,” women are also guilty of holding female protagonists up to higher standards. We criticized Katniss Everdeen for years for being manipulative and letting things happen to her, while forgetting that, for her, it makes more sense to survive the Capital’s regime at all costs than it does to be an ethical person. We criticized Cinderella for decades, calling her weak and pathetic without considering the fact that, in every adaptation, she is a survivor of parental abuse. My hands are not clean of this either, and I can’t apologize enough for my previous anti-Cinderella campaign. And to this day, we still mock Bella Swan for being a skin for female readers to put on when they want to take a break from reality.
While male characters rarely face this level of scrutiny, it’s important to note that it does happen. And most of the time, it’s when he isn’t the traditional male hero we’ve come to expect. One example of this is Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Some critics praised Scamander as a more nurturing, empathetic take on masculinity, as well as a much awaited representation of the previously overlooked Hufflepuff House (to quickly fill in non-Potter fans, Hufflepuff is a group of people best characterized by their work ethic, loyalty, and love of doing the right thing for its own sake). But upon the film’s release, many criticized Scamander for being soulless, uncharismatic, even awkward for a male lead (as if soulless, awkward men lacking charisma were never the protagonists of their own stories). The New Republic’s review of the film even went so far as to say that Scamander “is so good-hearted, simple, and nondescript that it’s sort of crazy that he’s going to be the centerpiece of four or five more films.” Meanwhile, MCU heroes like Captain America and The Hulk are praised for their morality and love of doing right by people. But the difference between MCU heroes and Newt Scamander is that MCU heroes are packaged in what we deem traditional images of straight, cisgender masculinity. They punch nazis, they fight first and ask questions later, they fill the role of hero that we instinctively want to see. If Tony Stark or Thor were women, they would not be as beloved as they are today.
How These High Standards Affect Us
It’s easy to dismiss what we see in the media by saying, “it’s not real. It’s fiction. It’s a fantasy we conjured up in our sleep.” But our relationship with the media is more complicated than that. The stories we consume are a reflection of our predecessors’ worldview, and growing up with these stories influence who we are and how we fit into the world. As we get older, we continue the cycle by adding our own stories into the mix and passing them on to the next generation.
And if the world today is any indication, our media reflects some pretty dark views on what society demands of us. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), women are, among other things:
- More likely to be fired or discriminated against when they are pregnant,
- Less likely to receive as many educational opportunities as men,
- More likely to experience physical/sexual violence, and less likely to receive justice for it.
*It’s important to note that these statistics are worse for women of color and LGBTQ communities. They experience sexism and additional discrimination for being black, gay, transgender, etc.
Though men aren’t likely to receive this level of discrimination on the basis of sex or gender, gender inequality affects men too. According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), “the messages boys receive at an early age about what it means to be male are limiting, confining, stereotypical and very powerful, especially because they are not typically articulated as such.” These narrow expectations of masculinity mean that men are less likely to seek professional help for mental health issues, more likely to abuse drugs, and more likely to commit suicide.
For boys, the media’s message is that their humanity doesn’t matter if they don’t fit the image of what men ought to be. And for girls, the message is that their humanity will never matter at all. We receive these messages as kids, we carry them with us into adulthood, and unless we break the cycle we push them onto the next generation.
What Do We Do About It?
By now, you might be thinking, “hold on. Does this mean we shouldn’t criticize chick flicks or female characters at all?” Of course not. Part of giving female stories a chance means pointing out problems and having discussions so that we as storytellers can learn from our mistakes and create better, more meaningful stories. But if we want to balance the scales, then there’s a few things we all need to do, both as consumers and as storytellers.
1. Lay off the hate
If you see problems in female stories, point them out and move on. You don’t need to spend an entire decade ranting about that thing you don’t like and how other people are the Antichrist for liking that thing.
2. Re-examine traditionally male stories
Many books and movies that were once deemed the greatest (Moby Dick, War & Peace, Citizen Kane) received this honor from white male audiences, some before women received the right to vote and long before the #MeToo era. Though many male stories are good and still hold up well today, we tend to be more lenient to them in comparison to female stories. So if we see issues in male stories, we need to point them out and learn from them in order to tell better stories.
3. Keep an open mind
Art is subjective, and what might appeal to one person might not apply to someone else. I’m not a personal fan of Twilight or Captain Marvel, but it’s not the end of the world if other people are. I love Harry Potter and the MCU’s Avengers, but others might not feel the same way and that’s fine.
At the end of the day, female stories and characters have more to offer than we’re often willing to give them credit for. For my part, I will never like Scarlet O’Hara, but upon re-examining Gone With the Wind I better appreciate and understand her motivations. I’ve spent years avoiding movies like Mean Girls and Legally Blonde, but after YouTube channel The Take (formerly known as Screenprism) analyzed these films, I’d like to give them a fair shake. It takes an open mind, a willingness to learn, and a little humility to fully understand and appreciate someone else’s creation.