Equal means One-Up

Maybe part of the problem is that the concept of equality is lost on male filmmakers.

Linguist Deborah Tannen says that, generally speaking, women and men express themselves in different ways, with different end goals for their communication. (Yes, it’s a generalization, but I’ll explain shortly why this doesn’t matter.) According to Tannen, women prefer bonding as equals and define situations by whether or not they’re accepted; men see everything in terms of hierarchy, and define situations by whether or not they’re “one up” on the other party.

As applied to real life, Tannen’s theories are debatable, and meant to be. I think she is correct at least in noting that some people define life as a struggle for equality, and others define it as a struggle for one-upsmanship. As Tannen notes, in real life, some people communicate more like their opposite gender; others generally communicate like their own gender, but frequently switch over to the other gender’s style; and probably the most successful people in fields such as sales have mastered a variety of approaches, and also learned to read whether their audience is interpreting the situation according to equality or hierarchy.

But forget reality for a moment: Tannen’s generalized approach, meant to spark thought and debate in real life, is unfortunately bang-on when it comes to film and tv. On film and tv, women almost exclusively look for acceptance and equality, while men look to outdo each other. I’m thinking this could explain why female characters who start out strong, start out as determined to prove their merit as any man, end up just wanting to be loved by a big, strong man after a while: filmmakers are assuming that it’s unnatural for women to actually want to be one-up, so their idea of “character development” is when the woman realizes she really wants to be accepted by a man, not one-up on him. You see what’s missing from this equation? The possibility of equality. The possibility that the woman just wants to be held in equal regard to the man.

I know that individual viewers and filmmakers think well outside the box, outside the stereotypes of gender they’ve grown up with. But by and large, male viewers do seem to think like the stereotype, and so do a lot of male filmmakers. Take any scene where a woman gets on a soapbox and rants hysterically about feminism and how she deserves this, and men are stupid for seeing her as blah blah, and you think to yourself, “Hell, I wouldn’t listen to this idiot, either. Put a real woman on there!” I firmly believe that this is what most men hear when a woman says something reasonable, like “I have the the same years of experience and exactly the same degree he has, plus I worked in the Peace Corps for two years; why is he getting the job instead of me?” If a man asked this very same question in regards to his own employment, it would be perfectly reasonable – boys are taught to boast their accomplishments. It’s necessary for them to achieve status in the hierarchy. But from childhood on, females are punished for “bragging” if they make exactly the same statements. So when most men hear a woman making that point, it never occurs to them that she’s looking for equal treatment. She has to be looking to one-up a man, and that’s unacceptable. He doesn’t question why he thinks it’s unacceptable; the fact is, he’s been brainwashed along with everyone else. And this is not just a “men” problem: a lot of women also take issue with a woman who recounts her own accomplishments or abilities, or asserts that she deserves something she’s earned. She’s being uppity or demanding, or a prima dona, and needs to be taken down a peg.

When you present women characters in this way, it’s no wonder male viewers can’t relate to them: neither can I! But the solution is simple: look around at real people. If the classifications for film characters are:

  • Seeking acceptance from you
  • Seeking to be one-up on you

and the classifications for their approaches to their goals are:

  • Using indirectness and trying to make others comfortable
  • Being direct and not particularly caring who’s comfortable

… Film and TV have relegated the first classification in each group to women, and the second to men. Strictly. With very few exceptions. But look around you – the goals and methods are far more complex and interesting. How many people do you know who use indirectness and attempts to make you comfortable as a way to get one-up on you? Maybe to learn secrets they can use against you? I’ve known both women and men who do that. And how many people are direct, but sensitive to others’ discomfort, saying such things as “I’m sorry if that hurts you, but it’s what I believe”? And how many people use direct approaches because they feel it’s more honest, but really don’t give a flip who’s on top or bottom?

I have to wonder what the mixed approach would yield, and if male viewers could handle it.

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