3 years ago5,000+ Views

And it will stay that way until we speak up.

If you've watched any contemporary tv show or movie, you've probably been exposed to the Smurfette principle. You might not have noticed it: that's by design. We're not meant to notice the fact that there are so few female characters present on screen. We're meant to accept this as the norm without giving any consideration as to why. Why would we care? We're supposed to be distracted by the plot, or the special effects, or the edgy new take on the genre.

It's the background noise of my entire life.

It's not something I do intentionally. It's that for me, it's impossible not to notice. I'm not sure why anymore. Is it something I learned to do, or something innate? Is it because I'm a writer? Is it fatigue? Am I just THAT tired of seeing the same characters and stories over and over and over again?
... Does it really matter?

I'm no mathematician, but those numbers seem off to me.

It's not that I'm incapable of relating to male characters. Of course I can. The message that I'm receiving whenever I try to watch something is insidious. It's that women only exist in relation to men. They exist to support men, never to challenge them. Occasionally, they exist to tempt men away from their duties (only to be punished for it later).
"Contemporary shows are either essentially all-male, like "Garfield," or are organized on what I call the Smurfette principle: a group of male buddies will be accented by a lone female, stereotypically defined... The message is clear. Boys are the norm, girls the variation; boys are central, girls peripheral; boys are individuals, girls types. Boys define the group, its story and its code of values. Girls exist only in relation to boys." -Katha Pollitt
And how does it feel, when that's the message you're hearing over and over and OVER again? When you're a little girl, and you can be the damsel in distress or the evil seductress? I'll tell you how it felt for me: IT SUCKED. It meant every time my friends and I wanted to play pretend, all the girls had to fight over the ONE female character in the show we were into, while the boys had their pick. It meant that for Halloween, there were barely any costumes for me to wear. And it meant that whenever I wanted to learn something about the world, or be included in a conversation, I had to absorb the same toxic message over and over and over again: girls don't matter, girls aren't important, girls don't deserve to be the center of the story.

And I wasn't the only one.

My teachers, my classmates, even my parents were learning the same shitty lesson. There are studies that say teachers call on boys far more often than girls, and that attitude trickles down to the students. There are more studies that indicate girls are more likely to have chores than boys, and that was absolutely true when I was growing up. My brother was a year younger than me, but he wasn't expected to do chores (dishes, take out the garbage, take in groceries, yard work) until he was in his late teens. I started when I was still in elementary school. Why was he allowed to do what he wanted to do when I had to do something boring? Why were his wants seen are more valid than mine? No, movies and tv shows didn't cause these deeply personal experiences. If anything, I see them as a symptom of a greater issue: we don't value women.

There's the obligatory 'I don't hate men' that has to come up every time a woman tries to bring this up.

Because apparently I can't have a problem with the way women are portrayed (or more accurately: aren't portrayed) without having some sort of ulterior motive. I feel safe talking to the Vingle community about this, because unlike other corners of the web, it feels like this is a group of people who seek to listen and understand instead of throwing around accusations of misandry. But it really does seem like any time someone mentions this issue, they end up talking more about that than representation. And as silencing tactics go, it's pretty brilliant. What better way to stop a serious conversation about gender politics than by forcing the people who brought it up to prove that they're not some sort of hypothetical man-hating witches?

I'm sure somewhere, those people exist. And they don't make my feelings invalid, or make the facts untrue.

That's what this is really about. Silence.

You rarely hear someone say things like "women should be seen and not heard" unless it's followed up by a "lol jk" or "it's funny, just learn to take a joke". It's not funny when the joke is on you. Or when the lessons you take away from your favorite super hero shows have nothing to do with the nature of justice and truth, but instead have to do with when and how a woman is allowed to contribute to the conversation (rarely, and not in any way that matters). We're there to look cool, deliver a sassy one-liner, maybe contribute to a training montage or die tragically, but our presence is often more ornamental than essential.

It's alienating.

Our heroes should show us our better selves, the versions of the world we should aspire to. And instead they show us this strange alternate universe where women are rare and barely have any opinions, interests, or lives outside of the men they interact with. It's discouraging. When I was a little girl I felt like I was constantly being told to dream smaller, to do well but never excel, and struggle in silence even if I needed help. And I couldn't escape into fictional stories, I couldn't look to them to support me or increase my self-esteem because most of those stories had the same message.

And often, it feels like I'm the only one who's noticed.

After a while, some of my friends have learned not to ask me what I thought of a movie, because my answer is usually negative. And it's not fun to hear my opinion. I'm sure it's tiring for them to hear the same complaints over and over again: there were no women, the one woman that was there was a sexual object, the male characters said these incredibly degrading things. Imagine how tiring it is for me! It's a relief when I can watch something without wincing every five minutes. I'm not sorry it's annoying. It's really annoying for me too.

"You think too much."

Maybe you don't think enough.

We're not allowed to talk about it.

If we do, we're breaking the rules. We're ignored. We're told we're being silly, or stupid, or too sensitive. Or worse, we're harassed. We're villains. The same dynamic we're fed in the media we view is the dynamic that is then applied to us. When we stop being the quiet and helpful, suddenly the response we get is the one reserved for the needy, insecure, vindictive, self-centered, duplicitous villains that make up the other half of the majority of female representation. If we're not Madonnas... we're whores.

And it's exhausting.

You know that feeling you get when you're having an argument with someone? It's tiring and frustrating. But it's even worse when you have to fight an uphill battle just to prove to the other person that you're human. Sure, they don't think you're an alien or a pod person or something. But does the other person respect you, or do they insult you and belittle you before they address what you've said? Do they dismiss your experiences but prioritize their own? Do they talk over you but get upset when you try to do the same? You spend all your energy just trying to convince the other person to stop hurting you, and you often don't succeed.
And I feel like I can't turn away. Because giving up would make me a coward, or a bad feminist, because if these convictions really matter to me I should be able to stand up and defend them, right? Because there is still some part of me that has accepted the prevailing message of our media culture: that my feelings don't matter. I should be willing to stay and teach someone about these issues, regardless of the cost to my well-being, because my feelings matter less than how useful my knowledge is.

The truth is, I didn't realize what I was missing until I found it.

Sailor Moon felt like a godsend. Here were five heroes, and all of them were girls. Tuxedo Mask came in sometimes, threw some flowers and then called it a day. He was there to be pretty, the Sailor Scouts were there to get shit done! And I saw something I could relate to in all of them. Amy was shy and awkward. Lita liked to bake and figure skate (I did too!). Serena struggled to keep herself motivated in school. And all of them were important. They had episodes about them. They were essential members of the team.

Why are shows like this so rare?

I felt amazing watching Sailor Moon. I still do. And I felt amazing watching Mad Max, which is basically Sailor Moon except grown up and way bloodier. Why isn't this something we can have all the time? We use heroes to teach lessons, not just to tell stories. Why is the prevailing lesson for young girls that they don't matter, that they can't save the day? Sailor Moon was incredibly popular, so clearly those stories sell, and they're not inherently more difficult to write than any other story.

I was totally that kid.

A few days ago @jokes posted a card about Legos, and how the current business model is to segregate the "girls" Legos. They're all pink and purple, and they're all about shopping and playing house. Why would they build a whole separate line, instead of just putting a few "female" Legos into their current products? Why is there this assumption that girls don't care about being heroes too? I know the card was intended to be funny, but the conversation @ButterflyBlu @buddyesd @JPBenedetto @RobertMarsh and @loftonc16 really got to me. Kids don't care about "gender roles" because they haven't learned to care about them. It's not something inherent because there's nothing inherently different about people of the same gender. So where do they learn? From the people they interact with, and from the media they're offered. What are kids supposed to do? Never see a movie and not talk to anyone? Sounds pretty lonely to me.

And those are the options.

We can either quietly accept the dearth of stories about our experiences, or we can be cut off from the world entirely. We're not encouraged to be vocal about these issues (and we're often punished if we do), so if it really bothers us we should just go away. And frankly, both of those options suck.
sometimes I think we've actually gone backwards in representative media. In the 90s, we had shows like Clarissa explains it all, the wierd world of Alex Mac, Sabrina the Teenage Withc, Taina, Life According to Ginger, etc etc. Now we are forced to gorge on Big Bang Theory and other similarly reductive fictions. I don't know why it's happening, but I know it needs to stop. And I know we need people like you speaking up about these things. thanks for writing this.
@VinMcCarthy thanks so much for commenting! I see what you mean. The 90s seemed like things were headed in a pretty good direction, and it does seem like now we've taken a few giant leaps backwards. When the sony leaks happened, it was revealed that a few badly-marketed and poorly written flops (Elektra, Ultraviolet, Aeon Flux) were enough to convince people in the industry that no one would ever want to see a female hero ever. Despite the numerous well-marketed poorly written flops (The Hulk, Green Hornet, Green Lantern, the Daredevil film) that didn't confirm the reverse. There have been plenty of superhero movies since then, and people still go! It's confirmation bias. I think that, and the overall culture of fear that's been spreading since the early aughts has really contributed to a regression in the media available for consumption
@RobertMarsh thanks for commenting! It's totally fine that you got long winded... I'm pretty sure that judging by the length of this card you can tell I don't mind! It's a lot to discuss. You're definitely right, society has backed up this standard for a very long time. It's unfortunate, because it really does feel sometimes like our only option is to not watch anything ever and just live under a rock. Which just means taking ourselves out of the cultural conversation entirely. There have been some really great shows/films in the past, but it's really disproportionate like you said. It happens once in a while and it's at the whims of these people in the industry that have had power forever and don't intend to share it. I don't know if I agree with you re: the biggest enemies of the feminist movement being women. I'm sure there are some women who feel like you're describing, but I've honestly never encountered them. A lot of my female friends in the National Guard (not the army, but just for and example) have spoken about how they often have to work twice as hard to earn the respect the men they train with have from the start. Despite passing the same physical requirements. It's like what @JPBenedetto was saying, it's not about being given special treatment. It's about the fact that we're told over and over we can't, and the assumption when we finally earn a space is that we're only there because we're female, not because we worked just as hard, if not harder. I think overall, the movement is about exactly what you said. Being equal. Being judged on our character or on our skills, and not on a set of arbitrary expectations that have everything to do with gender and nothing to do with what we can accomplish.
Powerfully written! So much to say on this. Sad though that gender inequality is still the norm, and still just a background conversation, especially given that women outnumber men in most countries, worldwide. I had to fight tooth and nail (almost literally) to gain professional traction AND respect in and out of firefighting and the public-service sector. And saddly this is the norm in nearly all aspects of life. Even in the kitchen. As a chef, I am still just another woman, trying to make up "the difference". That said, today's men also face struggles in "representation" - often being portrayed as inept, uncaring, and emotionally or philosophically bereft of meaning. That too is more than damaging and feeds the perceived "need" to balance then with the smurfettes of the world. Love this, thank you for the post and such passionate writing!!
@buddyesd thank you <3 I feel better having gotten it out there and knowing I'm not alone
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