Thursday, August 28, 2008

My Vagina Is The Key To My Empathy

I love books. I love movies. I watch television shows. And a lot of the books I read and the movies and television shows I watch have a dearth of female characters as the protagonist. Like, Pixar films. Pixar creates films again after again after again that are wondrous in their brilliance; they are well written; they are complex; they are subtle; and they make an emotional connection with the audience through characters like Mr. Incredible and Woody and Buzz and Speed and Alfredo and Flick and Mike and Sully and Remy. Don't get me wrong, Pixar has incredible female characters as well in Dory and Elastigirl and Violet and Jessie and Colette. But those characters are never the protagonists. And Pixar won't have a film with a female protagonist until 2011; and even then, the story will be a more traditional fairy tale instead of empathetic robots or anthropomorphic toys or loving fish or rat chefs. And throughout my life, the movies and books and television shows have generally had a lack of truly wonderful female leads. The books of my childhood were based almost primarily around male characters like Harold with his purple crayon, and Max and his journey to his island where the wild things were. And Lentil with his harmonica, and the Happy Lion and Francios the keeper's son. There were some girls mixed in. I had Frances.

On Sesame Street, I had Maria and Susan and the random kids who would play "One of These Things", even though a majority of the muppets were guys. But Reading Rainbow had LeVar Burton and Mr. Rogers Neighborhood had, well, Mr. Rogers -and Mr. McFeely. And he had King Friday, "lording over the lesser puppets". And later, I would watch M*A*S*H; and although it had Major Margaret Houlihan, nearly every other character was a man -even Klinger, though he pretended to be a woman. Later still, I watched Northern Exposure, which had Dr. Fleischman as the main character. And then Sports Night, which did a good job but still had men outnumbering women. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was really the first show I had ever seen where the amount of girl characters outnumbered the amount of boy characters, and in the first season, they were pretty evenly matched.

Moving out of the realm of fiction, we hit the "real" world. My bosses have been men. My politicians, both on the local and national level, have been made up of a majority of men. What does this mean? It means that this premise of "but you feel that way because you're a female and you can identify with Clinton" is true. I am a female, and I do identify with Senator Clinton. But it is also false. Because I don't identify with Clinton due to the fact that she is a woman and I am a woman. I know this because I identify with: Casey McCall. With Big Bird. With Mr. Rogers. With Barack Obama. With Hawkeye and BJ and Radar. With Huck Finn. With Lentil, and the Happy Lion. With Francios, the keeper's son. With Buffy, but also with Xander. With Frances, but also with Harold. With Woody and Marlin and Mike and Alfredo. With Batman. With Cyclops. With Harvey Dent. With Dana, but also with Josh Lyman and Sam Seaborn. And when I don't identify with a man -like, say, John McCain or John Kerry- I can still muster up outrage at the treatment they have received. And I know this because I do not identify with every woman, not even every liberal woman, and not every feminist woman.

And I've come to the realization that maybe that is a special skill; maybe women, by being sidelined for so long in reality and in fiction, have been able to extend beyond their gender in terms of who they can identify with, who they can empathize with, and whose humanity they can recognize. Not all women, certainly. Ann Coulter missed the boat. But women in general versus men in general. It explains things like how girls can read books like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and enjoy them -but boys will scoff at the idea of reading Little Women. Boys scoff at Little Women and other fiction that focuses on females because, studies say, they find it "boring". But why do they find it boring? Why don't boys run the gamut of finding issues interesting like girls do? Why can girls read John Steinbeck and Hemingway and Mark Twain, and also read Louisa May Alcott, and Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen, but boys are only interested in reading "boy" material? I think it comes down to two things.

One, I think girls are forced, often and from a young age, to identify with the default gender in society -and that default gender is not female but male. Because of the fact that boys populate so much of fiction and so much of this real world -even now, 88 years after the 19th Amendment and 30+ years after the Woman's Lib Movement that fought for things like access to the job market and equal pay for equal work- girls have learned to adapt. Girls can find that they can identify with Huck and his raft down the river. We can identify with James Thurber and his crazy family life. I can identify with the men of The Corrections. I can look up to and admire and want to write like Thomas Jefferson. We can look at politicians and identify with them when they are men, because it hasn't been that long since there were legitimate women available to identify with -and even now, there aren't all that many on the national scale. We are 68th in the world for representation of women in our Congress. And yet, "women vote in higher numbers than men, and have done so in every election since 1964". And "women have voted at higher rates than men since 1980", with "56.2% of registered women voters" going to the polls in 2000 "compared to 53.1%" of registered men voters. That means that there are a hell of a lot of women voters who have voted, time and again, and have identified with, time and again, male politicians. Because we have to; because we are socialized to. Women are, to rip blatantly off Simone de Beauvoir, the second sex -the "other" in dichotomy to the default.

Men, however, are the default sex. They are the "norm" to women being the "other". They are the primary sex. "Boys and girls"; "men and women"; "guys". "Guy" is gender neutral, because it refers to what is implicitly thought of as the default sex. Try calling out "Hey, girls (or gals)" to a mixed group of men and women, and see what happens. My guess is, the men will either not react, or react poorly. Because men have so many figures to identify with who are of their gender, they don't have to instinctively gravitate toward members of the opposite sex. Because of that, they are less likely (or able) to find something that connects them to Jo from Little Women or Lizzy from Pride and Prejudice.

And secondly, girls are being, in greater numbers, told and taught that they can be anything. There are definite caveats, like you can do everything but you have to be attractive; and men get to decide what constitutes as being attractive, and that rubric is always changing. But girls are told that they can be astronauts or explorers or housewives, and they are no longer immediately derided as being a lesbian or "butch" or unfeminine. Boys, however, are called "sissy" if they show too much of an interest in anything feminine. They are called "fag" or teased for being "gay" for doing so much as expressing an interest in the color purple or pastels. And so, boys are still overwhelmingly told -by society, by their peers- that there are certain acceptable areas and interests boys can have, but they still cannot deviate from those aligned paths. Because girls and girl interests are still seen as being "less" than boys and boy interests. So it is perfectly understandable why girls would be interested in fire trucks and guns, but the same is not true for boys interested in dance and dolls. And so, boys haven't been conditioned to be interested in fiction that centers around girls, both because they don't have to adopt girl stories in order to satiate their own need for representation and because they are taught not to be.

And those two aspects seem to bleed over into other aspects of the world. Men harass women on the street in far greater numbers than women harass men. Some men have to be told "that is somebody's sister" in order to recognize why they shouldn't treat women like less than human. And so, some men hear "take out the garbage" and see Hillary Clinton as their first wife instead of recognizing her as a fully independent human being. And it allows men of all stripes to not react in as much revulsion when such sexist comments are made. So yes. I identify with Hillary Clinton. Yes, I am a woman. And if "but you can't feel that way because you're a male and you can't identify with Clinton" is true, then I pity those men. If being a man excludes someone from recognizing or being reviled by sexist acts, then I pity them. And if a majority of men cannot be stimulated and excited and moved by fiction involving mainly females or a female story, then I pity them as well. And I also think we have to try our damnedest to make sure they one day can.


MediaMaven said...

This reminded me o

My senior year of high school, I was doing a project on As You Like It (the Shakespeare play considered to have the most complex female character) and went downstairs to look at some of my childhood books for inspiration. And I noticed that many of them not only featured a female protagonist, but they were, essentially, the same kind: willful, independent, smart book lovers who dreamed of becoming writers. Anne of Green Gables. The Little House on the Prairie series, and the Rose books. The Betsy-Tacy series. Little Women. Matilda. Ramona Quimby. No wonder I became who I am! Of course I wanted to be like Anne, who was the smartest in the entire school, and not only won a scholarship but the heart of the second-best student.

I did often feel, though, that females were neglected when it came time for television ensembles. As a child, I refused to believe that many of the muppets on Sesame Street were males just because they all couldn't be males; someone had to be a girl! I was narrow-minded in that I felt that I needed/preferred a girl to relate to, although that is obviously not the case now. At some level I wondered why the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles all had to be guys and their sidekick was April, or why the only female on Garfield was Myrtle, who was only around occasionally. I'm trying to think of other examples, because I know I felt this way often. It's probably one reason I fell so hard for Sailor Moon--all the characters were girls, and I saw myself in many of them.

But I differ from you in that many of my bosses/coworkers over the years have been female, and I'd actually like to work with more males, just to see what the experience is like, but who knew the communications field was so dominated by women? It's not in the upper echlons.

When I was younger, I also felt the need to vote for a candidate (often for something trivial like Student Council President, which in my school was a title that promptly meant nothing the next day) that was female, just to "even the ranks" for some cosmic injustice. I was dimly aware this was faulty logic, since I remember one day being torn between the female candidate who was lousy and a male candidate, who might not have been as lousy (I only remember who the girl was, not who she was running against), and wondering why I felt the need to automatically vote for a girl who didn't deserve the prestige of being Student Council President.

Sidenote: I don't like the new layout. This one looks cruder, and I found the other one easier to read and just all-around better looking.

John said...

Wow, what an eye-catching title! Just try to ignore seeing THAT in your RSS feed!

Anyway, I do agree with your assessment of the lack of identifiable female characters literature and television. I was going to mention the X-Men as an example of a nearly-balanced superhero team, but then I looked at the title again and felt kind of silly. I'm now kicking myself for losing the copies of Manhunter that I had lying around at work. (Manhunter has been a C-List superhero for decades, with the title passed down from guy to guy, until finally - and most successfully - landing in the hands of a female assistant district attorney and single mother. She fights crime by night, then works to put those same criminals in jail the next morning.)

Also, I want you to know that I too had Frances books growing up (and Tiggy, if anyone remembers her), and treasured them along with the rest of my collection. And for some reason, I always thought Big Bird was female. I couldn't tell you why, though. Oh, and don't forget Clarissa Explains It All and The Secret World of Alex Mack. They were some of the best shows on Nickelodeon at the time. But then again, I doubt you were allowed to watch them :(

petpluto said...

I actually WAS allowed to watch Clarissa and Alex Mack. I was allowed to watch Old School Nick after I reached a certain age. I think six or so? I'm not entirely sure. At a certain point in time, my parents apparently I had the cognitive ability to ascertain how commercials were stupid -or just that I had already been programed to like what I had and to not really beg for anything more until Christmas. Plus, my parents both REALLY loved Clarissa and Alex Mack, and later Hey, Arnold! And Rugrats.

By the way, in a way the whole anti-commercial way they raised me kind of backfired on them, big time because I didn't watch much television, I didn't have a video game system, my prized possessions were my books, and my out of school activity was dance -which they paid for in advance. So when I got in trouble, they literally had NO leverage in the whole "I'm taking X away from you as a punishment". Which was pretty sweet.

And Steph, I'd be interested in how many other girls were like you. I know that all of my stuffed animals were boys, except for the ones who were clearly girls, and even though my parents raised me in a "feminist" environment and my dad told me stories where women were at least equal protagonists, I was still affected.

Also, Myrtle is a girl? Wow, I never knew. I just figured that all kittens were cute.

MediaMaven said...

Like me in what way?

I watched Clarissa, but as I didn't get Nickelodeon until I was full "tween" (though that word wasn't used in 1996), I had to rely on Saturday morning cartoons and Saved by the Bell for my TV existence. My father's favorite threat to me was to take away my library card (and then the Sunday Times).

petpluto said...

Like you in the fact that when you were younger, you felt driven to vote for a candidate based at least partially on gender, and who refused to believe that some of the muppets weren't girls.