Lately I read a lot of stuff online discussing gender equality, and more recently some posts that discuss equality in fiction specifically.
There are three things that I specifically noticed in posts on the positions of women in fiction that have prompted me to reflection. First: discussions of the meaning of the phrase “strong female character,” second: a certain test that supposedly tells you something about a woman’s value within a specific story, and third: the claim that mainstream fiction ought to have a one to one ratio of male to female characters.
First of all, there is the idea that female characters may be strong in mainstream fiction physically, or even mentally, but weak in terms of complexity when compared to the men. This, I can agree with, when I think about some mainstream films, but I also see other stories with nicely complex female protagonists, so I don’t see that in itself as quite so much of a concern. More about that later.
Second, there is the Bechdel test, where you look at any work of fiction and ask yourself one question. Does it have two women in it…who talk to each other… about something other than a man? And this is closely connected to the call for one to one.
In a discussion of equality, these seem like good things to bring up. However, although I see some value of the Bechdel test, that only goes so far for me, and the one to one ratio demand, spoken out of context, not only misses the point of the real barriers to equality in fiction, but becomes impossible to carry out.
Let me explain.
There are three primary motivations for characters in most of the stories I’m aware of, namely survival, romantic attraction, and deep concern for another character, or to put it more simply, love. If we look at how these desires are portrayed in mainstream fiction, it becomes apparent that, while either survival or romantic attraction can hold a story together by itself, love minus romantic attraction or survival concerns has a harder time getting a huge following.
So in mainstream fiction, what we’re usually talking about is stories where a. lives are in danger, b. there’s a lot of romantic attraction, or c. all the above. And if the situation is more dramatic, then all the better, you would say.
Now, in a fictional word that is dominated by sex and survival, in what place is a woman naturally going to fall? About where she has been falling in mainstream fiction all along, either not in the picture much or as a sex symbol. Why? Look at how life works.
In a situation where lives are in physical danger, men tend to be the ones who get pushed to the front of things, because they are physically stronger, generally speaking. Their bodies don’t have to balance the need for physical strength and speed with the potential need to carry children nine months and then nurse them. So generally, not always, the most efficient group of people to confront a physical crisis will be predominately male.
Women may be allowed to join the army if they like, but I don’t see a military with a one to one ratio happening any time soon, nor to I see women becoming subject to a draft in any situation, short of some kind of apocalypse. Women do get into life threatening situations, but in most societies there either exists or has existed an ideal in the past that whenever possible a man should put himself in those situations first in order to protect the woman.
And so it makes sense that if you are going to set any random story in a potentially dangerous environment, most of the characters who show up in that environment will be male. Now say you have a story about any random character who has a job of dealing with survival situations. Statistically, that character is probably male, along with most of his coworkers/sidekicks, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Now say that in another aspect of that character’s life he happens to be in love with a girl, and there you have it, a perfect example of woman’s place in mainstream media.
Will this story pass the Bechdel test? It can, if two of the survivor workers are female, but if you put too females together in the same scary environment, and in a situation where there’s no reason why more men couldn’t have been there instead, it’s going to feel forced, coincidental, as if the reason for their existence is not to advance the story, but to pass the Bechdel test. And if you start out with that kind of story and then insist that half the characters must be female, then I suggest you go with the apocalypse thing I was talking about and have most males in the world get killed off by some plague first, or I won’t buy it.
This is the reason for fictional inequality in terms of numbers. Most relationships between women and other women are neither romantic, nor are they focused on immediate survival. They are simply focused on love. So to anyone tempted to insist that women fight their way into fiction in large numbers by thinking and acting the way you would expect of men, and to those who demand a one to one ratio in mainstream fiction regardless of context, I have only one thing to say for you. Seek out gender equality in stories about human love, and you can find it there. Seek to make love itself, separate from the intensity of danger or of sexual passion, a higher priority of our society, and greater gender equality in fiction will be one of the natural results, along with a lot less violence in this world.
And in the mean time, feel free to cheer on all your “strong female characters” in mainstream fiction as it stands. Just realize as you do so that there are more ways to show strength than the kind that would give you a high score on your way into the hunger games. Katniss Everdeen is an unusual girl; her sister Prim is closer to the norm, and if you want more women in the world of fiction, then you need an overall fictional climate in which all women, the Katnisses and the Prims, can exist and can be valued. If and when society ever reaches that point, we will resume our discussions of one to one.