"Supposedly, girls will watch so-called boy’s content, with male leads and action-packed adventures, but boys won’t watch girls’ shows, starring girl protagonists and girl-friendly story lines."
That quote comes from Libby Copeland at Slate.com where she discusses the prevailing theory behind a lot of our favorite media: that there's no point in making action movies about female heroes because boys and men won't go see them. Why alienate half your audience?
Though there's not really any data to back up the claim, plenty of producers and show runners and marketers and merchandisers have been working under this assumption for decades. And it shows. The proportion of films that are about men is far greater than those that are about women. Check out this info graphic from the New York Film Academy, which illustrates how disproportionate womens' film roles have been in recent years:
And superhero movies are no exception.
We had a great conversation two weeks ago when we found out that Ike Perlmutter was no longer going to be the head of the Marvel films. His comments about female-led superhero films (which were part of the Sony leak) revealed that the studio had zero interest in pursuing films about female heroes. The examples he gave seem very flimsy after examination (Elektra, which was barely any better than the Daredevil film it was attached to, and Supergirl, which was DECADES ago), but he's not alone in expressing the sentiment.
What are female fans to do?
Right now it seems like our options are to not watch any movies ever (sounds a bit dull), or see them, without seeing ourselves in them. However, female fans have found a third option. We've found a way to relate to the characters we see. Instead of rejecting characters based on their masculinity, we discover subtext and alternative readings of the comics and films that offer an alternative reading of masculinity*.
*For the purposes of this meta, I'm adhering to the assumption of a gender dichotomy that producers are working under.
We take characters and make them ours.
This is something transformative fans have been doing for decades. We refuse to accept the intentions of the creators. Since most films and tv shows are designed by committee, anything taboo or subversive is often hidden under layers of surface palpability, if it's even there at all. So female fans have trained themselves to see beyond what we are given, listening with incredulity to what we are told. While most superhero films seem to laud masculinity and traditionally masculine traits, we can decide otherwise. Captain America doesn't have to be a masculine hero just because he's been presented that way. We can choose to read him as feminine.
"... But performative masculinity has a tension to it that performative femininity does not, because performing itself is seen as innately unmasculine. You cannot learn to be a real man, you are or you are not. You can’t make one or learn to be one. Because our story about masculinity is that it just is. It is an ur state of being. The most natural way for a human to be. Steve Rogers came out of a bottle. And Steve Rogers’s weapon is a shield. Steve does not attack, he defends. Steve Rogers is the only Avenger who does not thrust forward with a phallic weapon. From Loki’s staff to Clint’s arrows, Black Widow (who pairs so well with Steve because she is a phallic woman) has guns, Tony essentially is a giant penis (sorry, friends, that’s all I see), and of course no one would even pretend that Thor’s hammer isn’t Thor’s penis. But Steve has a shield. And a shield isn’t particularly feminine. It is not a cup or a sheath or a hole. It is just anti-phallic. And that is Steve. the non-phallic man. Because you can’t make a man in a machine. Only a strange kind of monster."
While it's extremely unlikely that any of this was planned by the creators of the character, Steve Rogers as a literary figure can be read this way. And it's readings like this that have begun to resonate with the female audience. Because the stories we are told lack satisfying female narratives, we revise them to become narratives that represent our experiences and identities.
What does a "satisfying female narrative" even look like?
At this point these stories feel so rare, it's easy to miss them when they happen. Often because they are so uncommon, they must be carefully crafted to have the widest appeal. Tony Stark is allowed to be reckless and selfish, Steve Rogers is allowed to be stubborn and single-minded. But female characters don't have the privilege of being flawed. Because there are so few of them, they must be all things to all people, because we don't know when we'll get the next opportunity to explore a character like her.
"Screw writing “strong” women. Write interesting women. Write well-rounded women. Write complicated women. Write a woman who kicks ass, write a woman who cowers in a corner. Write a woman who’s desperate for a husband. Write a woman who doesn’t need a man. Write women who cry, women who rant, women who are shy, women who don’t take no shit, women who need validation and women who don’t care what anybody thinks. THEY ARE ALL OKAY, and all those things could exist in THE SAME WOMAN. Women shouldn’t be valued because we are strong, or kick-ass, but because we are people. So don’t focus on writing characters who are strong. Write characters who are people."
Because there are so few female characters that are allowed to be flawed (like Peggy Carter, above, who is both brave and afraid, proud and sneaky, powerful and powerless), fans create our own version of a "female" narrative, one that does not rely on characters being presented as feminine. We create fanworks where we depict male characters as damsels in distress, as fallen women, deceitful enchantresses, blushing virgins, and coerced brides. And through our narratives we reveal these archetypes for what they are: incomplete.
Male characters carry female experiences.
When Steve Rogers feels vulnerable, it doesn't sound like a commentary on the male experience. When Tony Stark is assaulted, it doesn't seem like a divine punishment. Male characters are allowed to be individuals while female characters have to be universal. Even amazing characters like Peggy Carter are seen as women first, person second. Fortunately, the showrunners used her experiences as a platform to tear apart this tradition. But that is one show among many, and she is one hero among a sea of white men named Chris. When fans apply 'feminine' experiences to 'male' characters, we are in a way humanizing ourselves. Because male characters get to be human. And we are human, too.
We don't passively absorb, we create.
This process of re-shaping and re-imaginging a story is the essence of transformative fanworks. While films are still being produced in a way that encourages passive acceptance, female fans consume and then they respond. Via critique, fanfiction, and fanart. And we're not just pulling ideas out of nowhere. We're often responding to something tangible within the original work. Something that we've been told to accept without reservation.
"Thor and Loki’s respective appearances immediately set them up on opposite sides of the divide. Thor is a golden, muscular hero, a soldier, while Loki is a pasty, lanky master of deception, manipulation, words, and magic, all of which have traditionally been considered women’s weapons. There is this classic dichotomy in traditional mythology where men use (righteous) force while women use (evil) trickery and sorcery. In fact, Loki’s whole character arc stems from resentment that he can never rule Asgard because of an accident of birth – remember he spits at his father: ‘No matter how much you claim to love me, you could never have a woman Frost Giant sitting on the throne of Asgard.’ . When women defend and even side with villains, people tend to explain it away as a female character flaw: women are either deluded enough to think they can ‘fix’ these characters or worse, they’re just masochists who love ‘bad boys’. What they forget is that women in both history and fiction have always been set up as the evil ‘Other’. Even if they’re not conscious of it, I think women instinctively understand which side of the yin/yang dichotomy they’re on. Women might love Thor, but they can’t really identify with him because he is a manifestation of divine, socially-sanctioned, male-coded power in a world where female power is typically seen as illegitimate or evil. But if you give your story’s antagonist ‘feminine’ traits in order to immediately distinguish him as the evil Other (and don’t even get me started on queercoding), then yeah, no shit, women are going to identify with that."
Whether this subtext was intentional or not, fans are responding. Not only are they seeing the films, but they're making their own fanworks dedicated to the characters. This means that female fans are creating a vast portfolio of tangible appreciation for the original work.
The original media is speaking to us in code
And while some people might not be aware of that code on a conscious level, we're responding anyway. And not only are fans responding, but we're transcending the original message. There are fanworks that subvert tropes, and fanworks that surpass them. Fanworks that don't fit within a genre because they adhere to none of the common tropes or accepted character arcs we know. Which means it's not just archetypes we're subverting, we're creating an entirely new genre of work, one that recognizes and celebrates the humanity of every individual. We recognize (on both a conscious and subconscious level) the language creators are using to speak to us, and we are responding with one of our own.
*Male and female. I don't believe that there's any essential difference between these two genders. The only difference is the way we are forced to interact with the world. People assigned male at birth are given a set of behaviors deemed appropriate for them (coded "masculine") while people assigned female at birth are given a different set of behaviors (coded "feminine"). Basically, "boys" are trained to be boys and "girls" are trained to be girls. And it's determined based on an arbitrary set of rules that has no bearing on our internal lives. But since that's the world we've been given to live in, we need to tear it apart before we can build something better.
Is this an ideal situation? Of course not.
It is, however, proof that fans can transcend gender presentation to find their own narratives reflected in the characters that they care about. Why is there this assumption that boys and men are incapable of doing the same? When have they been given the opportunity to try?