If I could consign one single idea from and about pop culture to the ash heap of history, never to rise to show its face again, it would be the prevailing notion that stories about girls are just for girls, while stories about boys are for everyone. We may see more girls and women playing important roles in fiction than ever before, but this one idea, I believe, is the root of the problems that stubbornly persist.
It’s why, despite strong (and well-performing) exceptions like last year’s Zootopia and Moana, the vast majority of “family” films continue to focus on male protagonists, with female characters usually stuck in the stock roles of sidekick, foil, or villain, if they’re there at all. It’s why animated movies like Mr. Peabody and Sherman and Mars Needs Moms don’t even bother to conceal their sexism — little boys and their parents won’t care about that, or so it’s thought. It’s why, when a family film does feature a female lead, trailers and ads mostly highlight the male characters to the point where potential viewers could be forgiven for thinking Moana actually played a supporting role in the movie that bears her name; we should not forget that the weak box-office performance of The Princess and the Frog (a fine movie that deserved better) was blamed on the use of the word “princess” in the title, and why the title Rapunzel was changed to Tangled to keep the movie from sounding too “girly” (the movie, for example, was called Rapunzel in Germany). And it’s why, in 2017, only two American animated films feature female leads, one a story about a ballerina, Leap, and the other a My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic movie.
It’s why, even though print fiction is many miles ahead of American cinema in terms of female representation, and even more in terms of female writers and creators, male leads dominate (albeit to a lesser degree) in children’s and middle-grade fiction. It’s why many writers of animal fantasy continue to make the majority of their characters male even though their maleness has no apparent bearing on the plot. It’s why, when award-winning author Shannon Hale visits a school to give a reading, boys are excluded from the assembly because the reading is “for girls.”
What’s the result of all this? Young men and women, the potential writers and creators, of pop culture future, grow up with “male as default gender” hardwired into their brains. They grow up thinking that stories about girls and women are by their very nature narrower in scope and therefore less interesting than stories about boys and men. If they’re aware of what they’re swallowing, their own writing may be a welcome reaction against this way of thinking. If they’re not, they will likely produce the same kinds of limiting stories, and the problem will go merrily on. One of the comments responding to The Mary Sue’s article examining the Twitter thread #ThingsOnlyWomenWritersHear is sadly telling: “I’d say that because of the overwhelmingly male perspective in lit and society can often mean WOMEN can’t write women,” citing J.K. Rowling (open for debate) and Anne Rice (no debate necessary) as examples.
In considering how we might slow down this vicious circle until it finally stops, we have to realize we’re playing a long game. I’m not the most patient of people, but we can’t put an end in mere years, or even mere decades, to ideas about characterization and gender that have centuries of reiteration behind them. We need to think carefully and consider all the facets of the problems we want to solve. Just why do boys’ stories presumably have more universal appeal, and why do so many authors, both men and women, prefer to write about male protagonists? No doubt a big part of it might be put down to plain old-fashioned sexism, but what else might be going on?
From an unconscious standpoint, the white male lead, the “default,” can seem wonderfully freeing. Because he is the default, the norm, the conflicts that he might face are without limit. Almost any story might be told about him — hence, the supposed wider appeal, and the presumption that his stories are for everyone. But if the protagonist diverges from this norm, say, in gender, many writers (again unconsciously) decide the story must revolve around said divergence — hence, the huge number of stories about “being a woman in a man’s world” in SFF, a genre that comes with the option of designing a world that’s at least a bit less of a man’s world. These stories foreground gender in ways the white male protagonist’s stories don’t have to do. This can limit their appeal, even for female readers who feel, like me, the endless repetition of gender-based conflicts is getting very boring.
The first step toward improvement is for us to get conscious, to train ourselves to think of the female protagonist as we think of the male protagonist, as someone who can carry any kind of story. If we writers can feel the same freedom writing about women and girls as we do writing about men and boys, it’s bound to result in female characters who are a lot more fun for all readers.
In the recent controversy about whether “diversity” is responsible for the drop in sales for Marvel Comics, one name kept coming up: Squirrel Girl. Nobody wants to lose Squirrel Girl. Male and female readers love her, and with good reason — because Squirrel Girl, a.k.a. Doreen Green, dashes into danger completely unhampered by all the self-doubts and second-guessing that slow down far too many female protagonists. She’s a combination of fearlessness and humor that wins readers over. Tor.com recently published a post about her appeal, and in the Comments section (which is actually worth reading most of the time on Tor.com) one person suggested the comic was obviously aimed at preteens, being too silly for anyone else. Two older fans, both men, wrote in at once to shut that nonsense down and make it clear that all ages of readers enjoy the character and her adventures. I only need look at Matt, who laughs uproariously when he reads Squirrel Girl comics and shoves them into my hands when he is done.
More recently, we (Matt and I) took in the Tony-nominated musical Matilda at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta. I already loved Matilda. I’d read her story as Roald Dahl originally wrote it, and I’d seen her underrated movie. It hardly took a nudge for me to fall in love with her again, particularly as she sings that we shouldn’t just shrug off life’s unfairness because if we do, “you might as well be saying you think that it’s okay, and that’s not right.” Matilda has a brilliant and unbridled mind. She soaks up information whenever and wherever possible, reading every book she can get her hands on despite the obstacles her family throws in her path. She has a keen sense of justice and stands up not only for herself but for others who are mistreated. She fights the power, and she wins. When she overthrows her bullying schoolmistress, “the Trunchbull,” all the audience cheers — not just girls. I loved seeing so many little boys in the audience. If they weren’t supposed to admire or identify with Matilda because she’s a girl, they and their parents didn’t get the memo.
We love Doreen and Matilda because they display the qualities we want to see in our heroes, whether those heroes are male or female. Courage, determination, capability, and confidence are strong traits that needn’t be linked to gender. Doreen and Matilda are the very last people who would ever let insecurity and gender-related angst stand in the way of getting a job done. They are role models for everyone.
I would dearly love to see more heroines like this, heroines whose very existence flies in the teeth of the notion that the appeal of female-led stories is confined to girls. They are drops of rain, and in time, enough steady rain can wear away the hardest stones.
And remember: Squirrel Girl has the powers of both squirrel and girl. Eat nuts and kick butts!