Emasculation Not Required

[Originally posted at SF Novelists.]


It used to be that women in stories were incompetent. Their only jobs were to a) look pretty and b) make the hero look good. (Even the villainesses.) They got in trouble so the hero could rescue them; they asked dumb questions so the hero could demonstrate his knowledge; they stood around spectating so the hero could have an audience for his great deeds. Which of course made men feel good about themselves, as they projected themselves into the hero’s place.

But it didn’t make women feel so good. They had a choice between a) identifying with the villainess — who loses, b) identifying with the heroine — who “wins” by being the real protagonist’s prize, or c) identifying with the hero — who they could never be. And so, as women asserted themselves more as part of the audience, writers began trying to give them something to admire.

Unfortunately, too many of those writers treat the problem as a zero-sum game.

According to this way of thinking, the only way to make women more awesome is to make men less so. There’s a horrific pattern running through our culture right now, of the immature, uncivilized schlub of a man paired with a no-nonsense alpha bitch of a woman. The problems with that are twofold: first, this is often presented for comedic effect (haha, isn’t it funny to reverse reality this way, making women the effective ones), and second, the tail of that idea often curves back around, like a scorpion’s stinger, and fills the audience with poison. Lots of men don’t enjoy seeing themselves as caricatures of uselessness — why should they? And since the narrative insists this is how women become strong — by cutting inferior men off at the knees — the female characters become their own kind of caricature: strident, controlling shrews with no humanity or nuance, who make men’s lives a misery.

Until, of course, the moment of reversal at the end of the story, when the hero usually manages to reassert himself in some fashion, taking the pants back from the woman who’s stolen them all movie long.

I say movie because again, I think this is more of a film thing than a book one, though it shows up in both media. (Also in comics, video games, and every other narrative form we’ve got.) Romantic comedies are particularly venomous in this respect — not all of them, but the cheap, disposable films like The Ugly Truth that depend on horrific stereotypes for their supposed humor. The war of the sexes has become bitter indeed, Hollywood tells us. And it’s because women are no longer satisfied with their traditional victory, being overmastered by and awarded to the man who controls the story. These days, we want to cut his balls off.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. One of the things that pleased me about Mr. and Mrs. Smith was that, while it went for a few of the expected cheap shots, ultimately it didn’t structure itself as zero-sum: she didn’t win by his losing, and he didn’t win by her losing. They both won, and they did so without either of them losing their strength. I vividly recall the moment in the narrative where I assumed, bone-deep, that Brad Pitt’s character was about to reclaim his primacy by busting out as the Manly Man over Angelina Jolie’s suitably Weak Woman, and it didn’t happen. I just about melted with glee.

We have models for this kind of story. It’s called the buddy movie. Not “a hero and his sidekick,” but two characters working side-by-side, each doing their part, without it coming at the expense of their partner. So why this conviction that men and women can’t be buddies? I don’t mean “friends without any romantic complication,” though I’d certainly like to see more of that, too. I mean equals. Two people who strengthen each other, rather than weaken. The closest we ever seem to come is the Mulder and Scully clones populating TV, the mystical touchy-feely men paired with hard-bitten rational women. But since we equate mysticism and emotion with the lesser status of femininity — and since these are generally spec-fic shows, where the supernatural really is real — then the balance must be restored by having the man be almost invariably right, in the face of his partner’s close-minded doubt. Only then is he a man again. The good writers can make it work, having both characters provide real value to the process, but in the bad cases it’s more of the same: the women are a drag on the men, holding them back and making them less, until the woman is proven wrong and the status quo returns.

It isn’t a zero-sum game. Strong women do not have to come at the cost of emasculated men. And men don’t have to hate women for taking away something that used to be theirs. As they tried to teach us in kindergarten, we can share. And you know, it’s a happier world when we do.