Thursday, June 13, 2013

Sexism and Stereotyping in Entertainment

Sexism exists.

It's understandable, really. People in general tend to stereotype groups we don't understand, and our culture's common segregation of ages and genders ("Go play with the children of your same gender!"), many people have no opportunity to come to understand the other gender.

That's assuming they even want to. Some people don't care to understand others' perspectives. (Personally, I think that's a side effect of our culture's worship of self—"All that matters is what I want"—but that's a rabbit trail I don't need to go down today.)

In that sense, sexism is a side effect of stereotyping. I once had a (male) employer give me a hard time because I don't multitask well, and women are supposed to be better at that than men.

I am a young(-looking) childless female. At one point or another, I have been belittled or treated dismissively for each of those things.

Now, I don't think that everyone who's dismissive of someone else is conscious of that stereotyping. My own father was genuinely bewildered when others pointed out that he has a hard time taking women seriously. He's working on it.

(Of course, in the meantime, my brother has learned that attitude. He's not intentionally malicious about it, but I'm praying it doesn't take poisoning me with something I am allergic to for him to realize I'm not a hypochondriac. My experience has been that once someone thinks you a hypochondriac, they have to learn otherwise the hard way. Which is far more unpleasant for me than it is for them.)

I've had clients assume that, when I questioned something in their text, it was because I was too young to get the reference, when in actuality I understood the reference but was indicating a missing transition or relevance to connect it to the surrounding text. Or that my comments on how children speak and behave are dismissed because I have none of my own, though I know (and regularly converse with) many. (Children are far, far smarter than they're usually given credit for, and most love when you give them credit for brains.)

You may have heard about Chuck Wendig's post, the recent SFWA brouhaha, the less-recent incident wherein an author grabbed a woman's breast during an awards ceremony and the audience laughed…

Yes, that's terrible. No, that shouldn't happen. But there's both misogyny and misandry in the entertainment world.

Consider the general objectification of people by stereotype. Women are often described by how attractive they are, and they're often specified by gender. Even Hollywood "plain" is pretty, more so for women than men. Father figures are usually soft, bumbling, and unobservant, while the mothers wear the pants and keep the family running. If the movie features children and parents, the parents will be idiots whom the children have to deal with, but if the movie features younger adults and older ones, whichever one who isn't the movie's intended audience will be an idiot. In romantic novels, the men are usually obscenely handsome and not infrequently are deemed "loving" when they cater to everything the woman wants.

Okay, I get that a good amount of fiction is wish fulfillment, but some of the critiques I've seen of Twilight call Edward abusive because he had actual desires of his own that Bella had to accept in order to have a relationship with him. So Bella should've had everything she wanted, while Edward should've had nothing he wanted. Am I the only one who finds that creepy?

Consider the movie Mr. and Mrs. Smith. I enjoyed that movie, but it featured the over-the-top and not-that-smart guy (who kept screwing everything up), the precise and intelligent girl (who was way better than the guy at…everything). And as far as I remember, all the guys and girls were similarly delineated. All of them. Which was what bothered me. Why can't a story feature guys and girls who are equally competent, even if they go about it in different ways?

In the workforce, it's well documented that women tend to earn less for the same jobs. While some of that is likely from some men who refuse to accept women as competent—which I've seen and experienced—I suspect some of that's because we're less likely to ask for raises. Also, I've observed that we're more likely to have someone try to play our empathy, to get us to put up with things a guy would be more likely to ditch.

Note that I do say "more likely". Anybody can be maniplated. But women in general are more prone to getting caught up in emotions.

Interestingly, from my experience as an editor, women in general also tend to have a different writing style than men. Women are more likely to need the editorial pen cut redundant emotions and add the completion of actions. Men are more likely to need help making sure sufficient character emotions are on the page to supplement character motivation.

Of course, there are exceptions. But the answer to a man's action-heavy or a woman's emotion-heavy narrative isn't to make them sound like the other gender or even to make them sound genderless. It's to ensure that the reader can understand what's going on and why. Beyond that, there are different levels of detail about character intention, motivation, action, and speech. Different authors and different stories will focus on different things. That's part of what gives writers their styles.

What does this have to do with sexism and stereotyping in entertainment?

Writers need to write about a variety of people, at least some of whom should differ from the author. It's far easier to write to a stereotype than to try to comprehend someone who's completely different than you. But a person's comprehension of others is limited by their own experience, practice, and interest in dowing so. When writers try to avoid stereotypes but they think the other gender might as well be aliens to them, their characters all tend to sound like…the author's own gender.

Is there something wrong with having a empathic male or action-oriented female? Not at all. The problem comes when all your characters act one way or another.

I believe my own casts tend to be heavy on the females. That's not intentional, but it's a side effect of my own gender and my narrators being female, in situations wherein they'll probably associate most with their own gender. I do my best, though, to display a spread of characters, with their own strengths and weaknesses and competence. Evonalé is not Lallie. Aidan is not Aldrik or Liathen.

I like to think I did okay with conveying realistic characters, but that's readers' call. All I can do is stop and consider my writing, every so often, to make sure that I'm not reverting to stereotypes. That's all any writer can do. We're only human.

What do you think of sexism and stereotyping in entertainment? Do you have any examples to share or discuss?


Popular Posts
(of the last month)