The Honorary Male

[Originally posted at SF Novelists.]


A few months back, I talked about how some writers feel that in order for their female characters to be strong, they have to weaken and/or feminize the men. In some ways, what I’m going to talk about this month is the corollary to that trope: the notion for a woman to be strong, she must be de-feminized. In other words, she has to be like a man.

This is something of an old-school pattern. Many statues of the Egyptian pharaoh Hatshepsut show her in the regalia of a male pharaoh, complete with false beard and masculine clothing. Queen Elizabeth I of England characterized herself in masculine terms, on occasions it suited her political purpose. When power traditionally belongs to men, there is no model for how to possess it as a woman; and one of the ways women have gotten around this obstacle is to symbolically present themselves as male. For a more recent example, look at Albanian sworn virgins, who live a permanently transgendered life in order to gain access to masculine privileges.

In fiction, it takes a slightly different form. I keep thinking about the line from one of C.S. Lewis’ less-well-known Narnia books, The Horse and His Boy, where Lucy is described as being “as good as a man, or at any rate as good as a boy.” That is the standard by which female characters are frequently measured, in Narnia or elsewhere — in which case it makes sense that the “girlier” or more feminine a character is, the weaker and less worthy she is assumed to be. (Just look at what happens with Susan in that series.) The best a female can aspire to is honorary status as a male, in the eyes of those around her.

This is most common in the case of warfare, which is a traditionally masculine activity. Vasquez (from the movie Aliens) may have been adopted by lesbians as a dyke icon, reading queerness into the text, but her presentation in the film is pretty thoroughly as “one of the guys,” i.e. an honorary male. She has short hair, she does pull-ups to show off her upper body muscle, she carries one of the two biggest guns in the entire film (which doesn’t even pretend not to be a phallic symbol). She’s tough as nails and as far from girly as you can get. Or take Demi Moore’s character in G.I. Jane, who shaves her head and tells a male character to “suck my dick.” Some of it is simple logic: if I were a soldier, I’d hack my hair off, too. The last thing you want is for that to get in your eyes at a crucial moment. And empathy — a traditionally feminine attribute — isn’t often desirable in a soldier. Tough as nails is pretty much a job requirement.

But contrast this with Zoe in the TV show Firefly. Gina Torres is a thoroughly feminine-looking woman, with breasts and hips and long hair; the costuming doesn’t try to masculinize her. She’s happily married, rather than being an untouchable virgin. And she’s eager for what many consider the most fundamentally female thing a woman can do: she wants to have a baby. Love, family, children: Zoe doesn’t have to abandon those things in order to kick ass. She’s strong as a woman, rather than as an imitation man.

What it boils down to is this: as long as you equate traditionally masculine characteristics with strength, and traditionally feminine characteristics with weakness, the only way to make a woman strong is to make her like a man. While that may be a bare step above the alternative (no strong women at all, just Manly Men saving Damsels in Distress from their inherent frailty), it’s not much progress at all. Far better to question the base assumptions: are empathy and family and all those “feminine” things really weakness, or can they be seen as strength? And who says we have to class them as feminine, anyway, and things like logic or ruthlessness as masculine? Break down the binary, and look for alternatives.

These days, I don’t see nearly as many honorary males in the stories I read or watch. I think we’ve replaced it with a different trope, problematic in its own way — but that’s a post for next month. In the meanwhile, I’ll repeat a line I’ve used before, from The History Boys: “These aren’t women, they’re men with tits. And the tits look like they’ve been put on with an ice-cream scoop.” The closer that line comes to being true, the more likely it is you’re looking at an honorary male. Society doesn’t always provide women with another option, but fiction can, and should.