As a girl, I learned about friendship from Frog and Toad, Anne and Diana, Frodo and Samwise, Han and Chewie. I learned about adventure from Huck Finn, Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, and Peter Pan. I learned about growing up from Jo March, Douglas Spaulding, Ender Wiggin, and the Cosby children. I learned about courage from Spider-Man, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman. What an amazing way to grow up! I had so many kick-ass role models to look up to. The fact that the vast majority of these characters were male never really registered with me. I was able to read books and watch movies, identifying with the hero or heroine, enjoying the stories of both men and women, getting something out of male or female targeted fiction. This is the world I grew up in, what I knew and never questioned, an excellent world – one which I loved.
As I got older, I noticed more and more how much of the literature I read and the films I watched were dominated by male heroes. Ensemble casts would add in one or two women, but were still mostly male, one Hermione to both a Harry and a Ron, a Black Widow and a Scarlet Witch to the rest of the Avengers. As an elementary school librarian, I still have to search to find books with female leads – even when they’re about animals and not humans. Even after the fabulous push for strong heroines in sci-fi books like “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent,” they are still the minority. At school, at least three out of every four books assigned were by male authors.
And yet, as a girl who grew up on this literature, watching these films, reading these stories and poems and books in school, I was still able to find great value in them. I never really had a choice – it was either find something I could identify with, appreciate, or be entirely left out of the story. I was never taught to do this – no one ever sat my sister and I down and said, “now we’re going to read a book written by a man about boys, but you can still appreciate it and get something out of it.” No, we just learned to do that by reading and watching and putting ourselves into the heroes’ shoes. It was expected that this would come naturally to us, and, for the most part, it did.
This, by the way, is how half the world grows up – being exposed over and over again to the male perspective as representative and authoritative, and we mostly accept it, even love and appreciate it. These mostly male-dominated stories and characters are dear to my heart, and helped shape me growing up – I have nothing against them. I am the first in line for the latest “Batman” movie clearly targeting a male audience, and have read and reread the almost entirely male “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
As a geek and a Christian, this ability to put myself into the male narrative became even more necessary. Both of these cultures are dominated by male voices, so I learned to listen to pastors give illustration after illustration of being husbands and fathers, and I learned to somehow apply the lesson to my life. I read comic book after comic book in which many of the female characters were just there to be rescued, depicted scantily clad, or were just absent and I learned to love the story line, the artistry, and the adventure anyway.
And yet, when the 13th Doctor is announced as female, the internet reveals pockets of geeky men who just can’t handle this. When “Wonder Woman” strikes a powerful emotional chord with its female audiences, boys are confused about why. When Christian women bloggers start to bring up topics like this one, articles are written on how they need more male supervision.
I realize the trolls in comment sections aren’t the best way to judge how most people feel or think about controversial topics, but they do represent a growing, vocal cohort of the population. About a female lead for “Doctor Who,” one thing the more logical, thoughtful male commentators say is, “well, I’m not a misogynist and have no problem with women, but I just think this is going to alienate the original fan-base.” The assumption that the original fan-base was all male, and all macho men who can’t handle a female lead, is problematic in and of itself. I personally, woman that I am, have been watching “Doctor Who” since Eccleston resurrected it back in 2005. More importantly, why on earth should a female lead alienate anyone? Male leads haven’t alienated female audiences, why can’t men appreciate the courage, passion, and awesomeness of women in fiction just as much as we appreciate it in male characters?
“Wonder Woman” was a big deal, but if we bring up how powerful and important it is for us to see a strong female superhero as the lead of her own blockbuster movie, we are called “libtards,” “PC snowflakes,” or other words I won’t honor in print. When Christian women ask genuine, important, thoughtful questions about gender roles in the church, even those of us who are actually quite conservative in our beliefs, we are called “rebellious,” “unbiblical,” “upstarts,” and again other words I won’t honor in print by so-called Christian men.
In the library, I’ve had multiple little boys tell me they can’t read particular titles because they’re “girl books.” I have yet to have a single little girl tell me they won’t read a “boy book.” When I was a high school teacher, I never had a female student groan about the assigned text just because it was written by a man or for a mostly male audience, but the minute I assigned a text by a woman or one written for a mostly female audience, the teenage boys would whine and complain as if I was asking them to exert themselves in some horrible way.
As my wonderful brother-in-law pointed out, this isn’t just a problem of sexist men, but rather the result of a society in which men are expected to behave in very specific ways, one which is sadly emphasized too often in the church. “Manly” men are all the rage – some churches even preach this as the theologically necessary view of manhood. Therefore, even if a little boy wants to read “Nancy Drew” books along with his “Hardy Boys,” he might be bullied or seen as effeminate, so that desire is crushed out of him. In this way, I actually had more freedom as a little girl since I was never judged too harshly for reading “boy books” along with my “girl books.” So this issue goes beyond just a few sexist men to the way both fathers and mothers, pastors and teachers, really our whole society, raises its children.
As I would tell my teenage boys when they groaned as I assigned Charlotte Bronte or Maya Angelou: “your female classmates, half the class, have been reading books by and for men since they started school and they haven’t once complained, the least you can do is read one or two by and for women.” All I’m asking is for those threatened guys to quiet down for a moment about not liking a woman being cast as the lead, or not understanding why a female superhero movie is a big deal, or not wanting pastors to allow female voices and stories be heard in the church, and instead learn to find the value in hearing someone else’s story. Rather than only being able to identify with stories when they feature someone exactly like you, do what the rest of us do and learn to use your imagination to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. And if you don’t understand why things are a big deal to women, please ask us. Avoid the temptation to mansplain why it shouldn’t matter, and just listen for once.
This disparity in representation between men and women only increases when discussing people of color, and especially women of color. At least as a white woman, I have a few heroes that look like me – but the minute you add any race other than Caucasian into the equation, the chances that you’ll find yourselves depicted as the hero or lead diminish to almost nothing. Though the focus of this article is on sex and not race, I cannot keep from mentioning this because it is a topic which seems to bring out the worst in people. If you think men shouldn’t have to be alienated by trying to appreciate a female lead, then how much more do you think men and women of color are alienated by having to try to identify with often stereotypically white macho males being held up as the quintessential hero?
What is my goal with this rant? I call upon my two favorite communities, Christians and geeks, to take a step back and ask ourselves if we are showing compassion and understanding to those different from us by allowing them to tell us their stories. Are we shying away from hearing someone else’s voice because it does not specifically represent us? Are we refusing to read or watch or listen to something because we might feel uncomfortable or alienated? Are we raising our sons to think anything written by a woman or with a female lead is too girly for them? Are we judging the value of story only based on things we know we already like, already can relate to? Like men and women of color, and women in general, have we ever trained ourselves to be able to listen to voices other than our own and still find value in them, or do we groan, whine, get angry, turn away, and search for a face that looks just like us?
My challenge to all of us this week is to read a blog or a book, watch a movie, or listen to a sermon by someone totally different from ourselves, aimed at a different audience. Take it in. Ponder. Look for something other than confirmation bias from it. Try to find points of connection. Do what every single woman and person of color spends their life doing. Who knows, you might find a new voice you actually like.
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