The Problem of “Relating,” Part 2

Or, the ongoing task of crafting female characters a general readership will find engaging and “relate-able”.

Step 2: Stop casting women and girls as “the Other.”

Not long ago, my husband and I watched the screen adaptation of Andy Weir’s popular sci-fi novel The Martian. I’d resisted watching it for some time, because I have never been fond of one-character dramas (Cast Away, etc.) and I’d always assumed The Martian to be just such a story. Yet when I finally watched it, I was pleasantly surprised to find the action pretty evenly divided between the astronaut struggling to survive alone on Mars and the team trying to rescue him. It did rankle me a bit that all the scientists on said team, all the real problem-solvers, were (with one briefly seen exception) men, but nonetheless I was enjoying the film. Until one scene.

The group of scientists is devising a new solution to the problem of bringing the abandoned astronaut home, and the foremost among them comes up with a name for it: Project Elrond, a reference to the half-elven King in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The other men all approve of the name, one of them topping the leader with an even more obscure reference to Tolkien’s work. One person in the room, however, is baffled by their general amusement and unable to recognize the name “Elrond” — the room’s only woman, the PR bureaucrat played by Kristin Wiig. Her lack of comprehension adds to the men’s amusement, and the scene concludes with the frustrated Wiig proclaiming, “I hate you all,” while the menfolk enjoy a good chuckle at her expense. Girls, right? They just don’t get it.

At this point I wondered just how and why a good movie should suddenly morph into a weaker-than-usual episode of The Big Bang Theory. The worst thing about this little joke is that it’s completely unnecessary. It doesn’t advance the plot. It doesn’t tell us anything we absolutely needed to know about the characters. It’s just one more chance to affirm the already bothersome stereotype that interest in and knowledge about speculative fiction is a “guy thing.” When guys speak Klingon or quote Yoda, gals roll their eyes. Guys bond together over their special geek-related interests, but gals aren’t allowed into the club because geek stuff isn’t “for them.”

The scene is just one little symptom of a much larger problem, a tendency to create characters along the lines of what’s called “gender essentialism,” that is, the idea that while men and women might appear diverse, at their core they share the same basic traits. Men like to explore; women prefer to play it safe. Men have trouble expressing emotion; women (good women, that is) are warm, empathetic nurturers. Men are direct; women are indirect. (“Deception’s the curse of my whimsical gender,” sings Leela of Futurama, in an episode I otherwise adore.) Gender essentialist thinking lies behind accusations that warrior-women characters are just “men with boobs.” Since physical strength and aggression are presented to us as essentially masculine qualities, any woman who displays such qualities must be acting like a man — which, for some readers, may be the only way she can prove herself worthy of identification or a spot on a Favorite Characters list.

Like the Smurfette Principle, this kind of characterization sets the female character(s) apart from the pack based on gender, which of course limits the invitation to identification. In her book Brave Dames and Wimpettes, Susan Isaacs explains the effect of creating characters along gender-essentialist lines, which tends to result in “wimpettes”: “Everything they do proceeds from a single premise: They are women. As a result, they are one-dimensional characters” (17). Readers, whether male or female, aren’t likely to find them “cool.” If you’re a young male reader, honestly, how keen would you be to step into the shoes of a character whose package of defining traits is labeled “Not Like You,” and even worse, “Not Like You Should Want to Be”?

I should mention that I came back around to enjoying The Martian thanks to the character played by Jessica Chastain, whose moment to shine I won’t Spoil with too much detail. Unlike Wiig, Chastain plays a character whose gender doesn’t set her apart from those who surround her. Her role may be small, yet she’s a character any viewer might admire and even want to be.

Coming soon: Part 3: Rethinking “feminine” traits

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