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Quantity or Quality? The male to female ratio in fiction media

April 27, 2015

Once, I watched a film which had no speaking female characters in it whatsoever. And the silent ones weren’t on screen for long. They were just set pieces, to show that some of our heroes were married. This film was The League of Gentlemen (1960). OK, so I think a couple of words were said at the start of the movie, but their absence certainly struck me.

Since then, most films with the word gentlemen in, films mostly about men, still have one or two talking female characters. Women are part of the world, after all. Even Fight Club, that flagrantly homoerotic piece of sadomasochistic genius, had a significant female character in it. What remains interesting about The League of Gentlemen is that there isn’t much to say about the fact that there are no women: these criminals are all men, just like criminals in film were once typically men; the group was male, just as groups in film were once typically single-sex; the resulting kerfuffle was all male, just like kerfuffles in film were once typically predominantly male. It doesn’t feel very significant, even though it reflects a world that no longer exists – if it ever did.

It passes some comment on the assumptions of the film makers, for the reasons above. But it feels far less significant than more contemporary films from Bridesmaids to Showgirls which are predominantly female in cast. In these films, the attempt to represent women varies from slightly inaccurate and generalising, to downright alarming in its portrayal of women as these alien, manipulative creatures, out to ride cock and make dollars.

The League of Gentlemen cleverly, if accidentally averted being misogynistic. How could it be? There are no women to be disdainful of or violent towards. That there are no women could be considered a coincidence, or the result of an established trend, like all those times I’ve gone to classes and workshops and found I was the only man there. Those wives could have been significant satellite characters, but the home front wasn’t the focus of the movie, it was the heist. These days, you couldn’t as a director show a wife or mother without having to explain why you didn’t give them a character; nor could you leave them out completely, and make the world look like the female half of the population has inexplicably died.

In those days, you could. People didn’t worry, when watching a decent movie, that there were no women in it. Of course, people would have noticed if there were no men. People would have thought it was downright ridiculous, not to have any men at all. Which in a way, makes sense; at that time, men got everywhere because they had the rights and freedoms to be anywhere that people could be (excepting restrictions of age, class and race). Women, on the other hand, were far more constricted. It’s just interesting when people’s view of realism is happy to accept the total absence of people who should be present, as long as they are marginally less present in real life.

Then there are video games. They have also changed, just in the wrong direction. Not to say they were more egalitarian before. My, no. Only that it was fairly difficult to be sexist creating Pong, the game characters being a pair of disembodied paddles and all. These days, men and women alike are finely rendered, and the more finely rendered they are, the more like magazine models they become. Now, it would seem that the easier it is to make women and men look different, the more required it is to do so; and the more it is done, the more necessary it is to make men and women significantly different in role and character so people don’t have gender crises, or something.

Princess Peach in the old days (and to this day) was a set piece and a plot device, with notable exceptions in the franchise either a bit weakly done, if fun (Paper Mario), off-canon (Super Smash Bros Melee) or actually not part of the franchise but pretending to be (Super Mario 2). That she is not supposed to be a “real” character is significant to her underdevelopment. It’s easier to have at least one object ferried this way and that for you to collect, so if it’s not a Princess, it has to be coins or bananas or something. Which is less fun that a pink, screaming figure in a crown, so I’m told.

However, lately it’s become obvious even within the insular video game community that there are no more excuses available for deciding that women can’t do anything from firing guns to planting crops. So now, by and large you can choose to be male or female. In the best games, it makes absolutely no difference (Pokemon); some games decide that you’re male no matter what you choose, and if the NPCs ever commented relevantly on any situation at all, they would probably say: “Duuude! You got boobs! The fuuuhhh?” (Skate 3); some games make the female version exactly the same version as the male and just have the female voice artist / text box read exactly the same as the male no matter how inappropriate, which sometimes accidentally leads to a bunch of very open minded NPCs with no heteronormativity at all, where your character can openly flirt with other women and no one bats an eyelid (Fallout 3).

Most all games fall through the cracks slightly on this last one, and you can tell that’s what’s happened, because there is no opportunity as a male character to flirt with other men. They just play-tested the game as the default heterosexual male character and forgot to go through the game dialogue with a fine tooth comb with straight women in mind. Oh well, two birds, one stone and all that – rarely on purpose are video games champions of the LGBT community.

Yet, the worst is when the female character is too different from the male. Either men in the video game industry genuinely have no idea what a woman is, or they are substituting their common sense with marketing strategies. Hourglass figures and skimpy costumes sell, so the fact that the characters look ridiculous, are underdeveloped and annoying is roundly ignored. This tends to get peoples’ goat far more than the innocently wailing Princess Peach, who like her equally rather personality-less boyfriend is fairly harmless. When women are not women but objects and intended as such, it is almost less offensive than when they are ostensibly intended as characters but are objects anyway. Bad characterisation stands out, far more than absence or no characterisation at all.

Video games are different to films because there is currently a limited amount of characterisation in general, though this is changing. When there is no or little characterisation to be had, it is done through clothes or quips or clichés, which does suggest a lack of engagement with your own character. If the makers can’t, no one else can, and no one else tries. Trying to put the relatively new fixture of female heroes into that environment is a mistake.

As far as video games do characterise at length, like RPGs, the gender representations are usually better. You couldn’t enjoy a game if half the people you spoke to were unmitigated jerks and cretins. I think of the Fallout franchise, where you can talk to more or less every NPC you see (except the bad guys who have NO PERSONALITY BECAUSE THEY ARE EVIL), and most have a unique character, or share one with a twin of the opposite sex. Game consoles have the memory capacity, processing power and money behind them to do characterisation well, so let’s do more of it. Even without the gender concerns, it makes a game richer and more human.

I certainly don’t want to see a return of the all-male film or video game cast (though a genderless one is always an option). I think that it’s important to recognise that just because someone is a partner or a mother, it doesn’t mean they’re insignificant, and just because someone is female, it doesn’t make it IMPOSSIBLE that they could be involved in heroism or mercenary criminal activity. That said, masculinity has changed in film for the worse, and a male-majority film of now stands out as alpha male tripe far more than any all-male films back in the days of The League of Gentlemen. This changes the situation, because we tend to assume that if a film doesn’t pass the Bechdel test, it’s failed at the first hurdle as an egalitarian movie.

Not that it’s entirely wrong to say that women talking to each other about something other than men is a reasonable test of their autonomy in a film, but it certainly isn’t the whole story. You could pass that test with a random conversation about make-up and hairspray that lowers everyone to the most fatuous level of humanity – Showgirls is surely a good example. You could make a film entirely of women chatting complete nonsense, suggesting all women are stupid, vacuous alien beings. You could bung them in one after one and shoot them one-by-one as soon as they’re done with self-introductions. What is being said how, by whom for what reason is important, as is the behaviour and prominence of men. They seem to have become larger than life since women became life-sized. I’m not sure it’s a coincidence.

I think we should worry less about having 50-50 casts, and more about proper character development of the few, both male and female. Not to say that one can’t do both of these things, just that it’s surprising how often people fail to. It would be comforting to think that film makers could be utterly relaxed about the idea of casting as many female extras in an office context as male, as many female support as male, as many female minor as male. Once you’ve got that sorted, your choice of male or female main character is less important as long as it is done well. Only a small amount of characterisation is needed for anyone is isn’t a major character, and this small amount will be the difference between a fleshed-out movie that looks like an examination of life, rather than a video game like Pong. If in doubt, cast Alison Janney as your janitor or greengrocer or astrophysicist. She’ll take care of it for you.


From → Media Analysis

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