The male-female debate in stories

It is no secret that unequal representations of men and women is a continuously hot topic. In fact, I heard someone recently state that the easiest essays are ‘either on gender or genocide’ and despite its humorous intent I am inclined to agree with the comment. My focus on this topic comes mainly courtesy of a recent article describing how all of the female Disney villains were suave, self-assured, fashionable and generally fairly good role models for a young girl until you come to the fact that they are evil.

Disney is no stranger to the caps-laden rantings of the online intelligentsia about the core principles in their stories and obviously takes these concerns with a pinch of salt. I say this less due to my natural cynicism and more in direct relation to the news that they will be showing a ‘catwalk’ in their parks in which their famous characters will show off designer labels by being projected onto the buildings. In and of itself this is most likely no problem, however the fact that they are modifying these role models to look more like fashion

models seems to suggest a certain disregard for sociological essays criticizing the Disney message. Either that or their PR department have done something to severely anger the powers-that-be and so they have decided, in a bout of amusing creativity, to bury them under complaints letters as punishment.

However, less well documented are the replies to these sociological outcries. Many have pointed out that while Disney princesses can fit squarely into very specific gender stereotypes in some ways, many of them are based on already-sexist fairy-tales and quite often the ‘strong prince’ that embodies their love interest is all-but-useless until a critical moment and the father figures, rather than being imposing and important, can quite often be hapless, hopeless individuals (think ‘The Sultan’ in Aladdin).

It could be argued that there is a persistent culture of negativity when it comes to much of the interpretation of women in stories and, while I don’t deny there are certain stories that send out terrible messages to young women (Twilight – my boyfriend is gone but he’ll reappear if I keep trying to kill myself!?) it may be that equally negative characteristics are attributed to male characters at different times. The piece article complains that powerful and stylish women are cast as evil, particularly in 101 Dalmatians and The little mermaid and Disney seems to agree:

However it also bears pointing out that their male lackeys are shown as quite thoroughly dense. You could say that this suggests smart women are dangerous but one thing that can be said about Disney movies – the evildoer is usually outsmarted and usually by their same-sex nemesis. In addition, films such as Mulan create admirably little room for feminist complaint.

Moving away from Disney, it is quite obvious that many of the most famous villains are male – even those that need not be male. Lucifer, Satan, the devil –by whatever name one of the oldest and most widely known evil-doers (if figures about the widespread nature of Christianity and Judaism are to be believed) is almost always depicted as male. This occurs to such an extent that it may obscure an important fact – Lucifer was a fallen angel and therefore, by necessity, gender neutral. He (and I say ‘he’ because that is the most popular pronoun) was neither male nor female. Perhaps it was that women were assumed too meek or unintellectual to set up hell? From experience I know this to be untrue but  things were different when the attitude was formed. It is also possible that this was established for the sake of symmetry for, as some may be screaming at their computer monitor by now, the Christian God is often depicted as male as well.

The feminist philosopher Camile Paglia stated ‘There is no female Mozart because there is no female Jack the Ripper’. By the merit of that statement it would make sense that most evildoers in stories be male – both the most talented writers and the most evil people in real life would have a Y chromosome. However – most people, myself included, would dispute her theory and perhaps refer to it by that dreaded sociological label ‘outdated’. In doing so we might unintentionally hit on a key fact in the ongoing tumult surrounding gender and fiction – no matter how much equality we achieve in the modern day, there has still been many, many years of widely accepted inequality and even now, much of the process of achieving fairness between sexes is politically charged. It is statement making. Before the advent of women’s rights, any inequality had no charge whatsoever and for many writers charge may be exhausting or perhaps even just too much for them to handle – certainly to have a equal depiction of men and women without creating a bland lack of gender-contrast or obscuring the narratives main thrust. It is quite possible that much of what could be interpreted ‘sexist’ literature is simply an inept or otherwise distracted author focusing on a message that while not necessarily opposing women’s rights, may not be related to it.

In addition, it is not necessarily the case that any exposure to these ‘sexist narratives’ is damaging. I would concede that being exposed to only the two-dimensional and offensive attitudes that seemed to make their way even into Disney’s propaganda (below) might warp a blossoming child’s perception of reality, however a certain dose of these things can only be positive.

Like the famous little girl in this Youtube clip,

we need to be exposed to an attitude in order to find that we disagree with it and the fact that gender equality is such a prominent issue suggests to me that children should be exposed to stories that represent men and women in old fashioned gender roles. Not only those stories, not all of those stories, but some of those stories. Perhaps it will draw outrage and scorn from them (two things that are great catalysts for social change) or it might allow them to enjoy a tale and take a break from the fight for equality. I am a strong supporter of equal rights (or ‘just’ rights as it is more accurately coming to be called) but even I accept that someone who refuses to ever take a break from banging that drum is eventually going to find that people no longer listen. Finally, some of the best stories in the world are borne from a play on an old-fashioned attitude or way of doing things. If you don’t believe me, watch Black Dynamite (18)– a fantastic (and lovingly made) send-up of old blaxploitation films or The Princes’ Bride (12)– which is a fusion between fairytale elements and the self-referential knowledge that the roles espoused in those fairytales are quite ludicrous from a modern-day perspective. Even Jayne Eyre wouldn’t be what it is if it were not a mockery of the popular romantic fiction of the time. If we are to avoid all relics of a less ‘equal’ period, we will be robbing children of the chance to mock it – something that I certainly would be very sad to lose.

On a serious note, if you have not looked at the fashion shoot story I suggest you do so, that: I cannot forgive

Propaganda film courtesy of brainpickings:

Riley on Marketing via Youtube:

Trailers for Black Dynamite and The Princes’ bride can be found on IMDB

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