Fiction: escapism for men, problem-solving for women?

One of the broad generalizations the film industry believes is that most people watch movies and TV purely to escape reality, and more specifically, that men find escape through fantastic plots and wild special effects while women find it through fantastic relationships. I think there is actually some truth to this, but I interpret it a little differently. I think most people do watch movies and TV to escape reality, but that men are more likely to find escape through pure fantasy with little focus on problem solving and women more likely to find it through seeing problems get solved in fiction. Why?

Because it’s actually the same drive: the very same mechanism getting expressed differently for no reason other than that it’s a gender-imbalanced world. You see, reality is a playground in which men (at least white, straight ones) get to create and solve their own problems. They start wars and finish them. They create nations and bicker over how to run them. They make mistakes and then, in many cases, blame other people for them. Such is their privilege as the dominant group.

Meanwhile, women stand on the sidelines, having little to no say in how to fix the problems that affect them, too. Except in fiction, where once in a while, things turn out the way we think they should. Once in a while. Which is probably why popcorn romance is popular with women; if you can just get on board with wanting X and Y to get together, it’s a foregone conclusion you’ll see a problem solved to your satisfaction by the last reel. But even here, the most successful romances are the ones that involve a tough, realistic struggle for the characters to get together. None of that “…and then Jane took off her horrid glasses and it turned out she was a supermodel underneath, and Biff asked her to the prom and they lived happily ever after.” You need wicked step-sisters and abusive mothers in law, you need emotional damage for characters to overcome, you need real barriers to getting this couple together, or else you end up with at least half your potential female viewers complaining that this is a stupid problem (i.e., Stargate SG-1′s attempt to claim military regulations were a real barrier to supposed love between Sam and Jack, when all they had to do was get on separate teams, then boink to their hearts’ content) and therefore the characters must be stupid people.

This is the real reason why the film industry wants to write for men. Not that bullshit rationale that men spend more money (untrue) or that they’re more susceptible to ads (hardly proven). When men sit down to watch TV or a movie, they’re more likely to be frustrated by real life problems they can’t solve, so they’ll accept bullshit problem solving (or no distinguishable plot at all) in their fiction as long as other elements of the show or film give them a rush of enjoyment. When women sit down to watch, we’re more likely to be frustrated by problems we could fix but aren’t allowed to. So when we see that if the good guy had just followed procedure none of the plot would’ve happened, we’re more likely to lose patience: here’s this stupid character who can fix a problem and is allowed to, but instead does something moronic. To male viewers, it’s just a device to further the fun stuff – no big deal. To women, it’s a huge waste of a form of entitlement we’d like to have.

Or, look at it in an opposite example: the romance genre. Men lose patience with romance movies that target women not because men don’t care about romance or sex, but because if they like someone, they are allowed to just ask her out and risk rejection; if we like someone, we must scheme and plot to get him to ask us out. Yeah, I know there are increasing exceptions to this rule, but the majority of men do not like to be asked out and/or assume any woman who asks them out is basically begging for sex, and the women who want to date them know the rules they have to play by. The goal in het romance – to find sex or love – is the same for both genders, but the frustrations we want relief from are completely different because of these goofy social rules.

This post contains several broad generalizations because I’m talking about broad trends. There are plenty of exceptions to these trends – I often find myself willing to overlook bullshit problem solving in my fiction if there are other things I like about the show or film. And I know men who can’t stand it when bad writers create stupid problems because they’re not smart enough to write solutions to really challenging problems. But by and large, I think women are more likely to value the problem-solving aspects of plots and take issue with plot holes and plot devices and inconsistencies, and I think it’s because we’re less likely than men to be able to solve the manufactured stupid problems in our own lives.

Comments

  1. says

    I think you may be onto something. It certainly helps explain why a lot of the really popular movies (Armageddon, Jerry Maguire) drive me crazy – even before you start thinking about the sexism.

    The most frustrating part of Armageddon – the part where I just stopped watching rather than continuing the half paying attention I was doing before – wasn’t the bad science. It was when the government guys came in and the “good guys” gave them hell for violating their patent.

    Wtf? Patents are not a human right, they are an artificial commodity that is created by the government for a specific purpose; what the government giveth, the government can taketh away – especially in times of crisis. They have before (planes in WWI) and likely will again. So instead of addressing a real problem in a logical way, they used a fake problem as excuse for posturing and emoting. It didn’t help that the whole scene was meant to evoke the end scene in Sneakers- a movie which is full of very interesting problems – political, economic, intellectual, emotional….. – and solutions to them.

    And re: Jerry Maguire and “you had me at “hello.”" I was never convinced that she had changed her mind. It was extremely obvious to me that she simply stopped caring if he loved her or not. Which meant that the fundamental problem of marrying for love or security was simply brushed under the rug rather than addressed and resolved.

  2. S. A. Bonasi says

    Interesting hypothesis!

    It made me think of the Paul plotline from the first season of Dexter, which I just finished watching the other day. I though the writers did an excellent job of realistically showing all of the ways that Rita wasn’t allowed to solve the problem, as deck (law, society) was stacked in favor of her abusive ex-husband Paul. The resolutation carries with it a strong element of escapism. Paul is removed from Rita life by [Rita's boyfriend] Dexter, who is able to do so not because he is a man, but because he is skilled at working outside of the law. This is a bit different from what you talk about in your original post, but I’d say it’s the same idea that fiction can present solutions to problems that are unattainable in real life, which is immensely satisfying to viewers go through life not being allowed to find solutions.

  3. says

    S.A. Bonsai – I agree, I think that particular storyline – Rita’s whole story line really – in Dexter is a good example of this.

    I especially love how her not being allowed to find solutions to the Paul problem are echoed in her not being allowed to find solutions to both the dog problem and the missing fiance problem. Not only are none of them able to really solve the fiance problem, not only is the half solution that Dexter comes up with very much outside the law, but the inability of the friend/co-worker to save her fiance echoes the way Rita would like to save Paul from himself, but cannot.

    Even better is the fact that the Paul problem exacerbates the dog problem – the neighbor not only laughs in Rita’s face, she is explains that she is doing so because of how Rita dealt with Paul in the past. And when Rita does find a solution it is – much like Dexter’s – very much outside the law.

    And yet it still manages to not promote vigilantism – at least much less so than most shows do. Dexter’s solutions never really solve the underlying problem – it’s not as if no one’s fiance will ever be held by coyotes again. Which suggests that maybe the problem is larger and more universal than it seems at first. Granted this part isn’t really highlighted that much, but it’s still very much there.

  4. says

    Here’s another possible way of looking at the same thing:

    It seems to me that women on average have greater capacity to analyze and comprehend interpersonal relationships. How much is nature and how much is nurture (learned in order to compensate for relative lack of empowerment) is a difficult question, but let’s assume for the sake of argument that it’s true.

    It would naturally follow that the average woman would prefer a certain amount of complexity in the relationships portrayed (in order to make the story interesting), and that the same amount of relationship complexity/ambiguity renders the story too disconcerting to be light entertainment for the average man.

  5. Jennifer Kesler says

    I haven’t watched Dexter, but the example you guys are discussing sounds like a good one!

    C.L., that’s an interesting point. In my experience, however, men who are very sharp at analyzing relationships still tend to prefer popcorn stories over stories that involve truly challenging problem solving (and women who are not so good at relationship analysis still tend to go for heavier drama). That’s the distinction I’m trying to account for.

  6. sbg says

    For some random reason, this reminds me of trying to play board games with my family. We’ve got one group, mostly men, who overtalk everyone else, shout and scream and are distracted throughout the whole game of, of all things, Trivial Pursuit.

    Then there’s the other group, mostly women, who are focused on listening to the questions, who respect other people’s eardrums and try very hard to concentrate, until they reach a point they just can’t take the annoyance of the shouters anymore and snap.

    A call for quiet is generally met with derision and orders for the upset party to “learn to have fun,” when, of course, listening to the questions and thinking is the fun part for them.

    Hmm, did I have a point or did I just need some venting? ;)

  7. S. A. Bonasi says

    Mickle,

    Which suggests that maybe the problem is larger and more universal than it seems at first. Granted this part isn’t really highlighted that much, but it’s still very much there.

    It’s definitely there. Dexter’s victims are often relatively privileged, Dexter’s victims’ victims are often less privileged, and it’s not hard to see some connection between societal & instituationalized privilege and the way in which Dexter’s victims have evaded the law. There’s actually a part in the third book (Dexter in the Dark) where Dexter targets a man who has been a bit careless with covering up his murders (of lower-class people), which Dexter speculates is because the man in question comes from enough money that he could afford lawyers who could get him off in any trial. Dexter can never solve the larger problem, merely remove one predator at a time (the escapism for the viewer discussed), but both the books and the show make it clear than there is a larger problem.

    BetaCandy,

    The first season of Dexter’s great if you ever get a chance to check it out. (I haven’t seen the second season yet, but I’ve unfortunately heard that isn’t as feminist friendly as the first season.)

  8. says

    Sorry to continue the derailment but – good catch S.A. Bonasi!

    (and sorry for misspelling your name earlier)

    That makes me think of the ending of The Criminal Minds Episode Lucky, where they team is hunting for a satan worshipping cannibal. (For those that have seen it, I mean the search team part, not the part about Penelope.) I was, at first, a bit thrown by (that part) of the ending, not because it was over the top but because it didn’t seem to have a purpose other than being over the top.

    And then I was thinking about it a few days later, and how this guy has been preying on prostitutes and other outcasts of society for quite a while, and he only got caught now because he started going after the “good girls” and people started noticing that they were missing. And then I realized that the whole point of that really nauseating scene was: we are all complicit. We didn’t notice or care that the “bad girls” were missing, and so we let a monster grow, and it eventually came after us too.

    Which, of course, is why the priest had to hear it as well; why the team couldn’t save him from the knowledge of what had happened. Because that’s a priest’s job, to counsel people to not be complicit.

    sbg – yeah, that’s sounds familiar. And it also fits and yet flies in the face of conventional wisdom. That boys are obsessed with rules and arguing over them, while girls are more about friendships and tend to simply comply with rules as stated. However, it’s also the boys that are choosing social interaction over abstract problem solving, while the girls are using social interaction for the purpose of problem solving.

  9. says

    BetaCandy — I’d just like to follow-up and explain my theory a little more clearly since this is a really interesting topic. If you guys don’t agree with me, that’s okay. ;)

    I’m not the type of feminist who thinks women are better than men. All people, regardless of gender, tend to act in their own self-interest. However, I think it is reasonable to suggest that there exist some cognitive differences between men and women (thought the same is not true for differences between races). The differences between male brains and female brains is slight compared to the overlap, so it’s not generally useful to play it up or worry too hard about it. Yet I think that some differences exist on statistical average.

    I think that women (on statistical average) have a greater capacity than men to analyze and understand relationship dynamics. I think this is one of the reasons why self-help books about relationships and stories about relationships are always marketed to women. It is also the grain of truth behind the stereotype/joke about how the girlfriend/wife wants to sit her boyfriend/husband down to talk about their relationship and he runs away: not so much because he’s worried that it’s going to be bad news, but rather the discussion itself is painfully boring, like a difficult class one must endure at school.

    You’ve pointed out that many men are very sharp at analyzing relationships, and I agree. Like I said, the overlap is far greater than the difference. Many women are very tall, and it’s trivially easy to find individual pairs of people where the woman is taller than the man. Yet men are taller on average. From talking to straight men and straight women about relationships, and comparing stories by men with stories by women (including unpublished manuscripts), I get the impression that the difference is real.

    You present the classic relationship model in which the male seeks general status, then selects a female and indicates his interest, then waits to see if he will be accepted or rejected. The female, by contrast, employs more sophisticated relationship strategies that are tailored to the particular situation. I agree with you that men do this because they can (they are empowered to treat relationships this way), and women do what they do because they have to (they are not given the opportunity to do otherwise).

    However, I think that the opposite is also true: The average woman uses her problem-solving skills to figure out how to make the relationship work because she can (she has the capacity to do it), whereas the average man employs a far simpler relationship model because he has to.

  10. Deborah Smith says

    Great essay. As a veteran romance novelist (35 books and counting) I appreciate your serious take on why women read (and watch) romantic stories. IMHO it is about the problem solving angle regarding relationships and human dynamics, but also a kind of womanly reassurance that *how* we deal with the tricky stuff is a communal issue. People pish-tosh the virgin-whore tapdance in some romance novels, but that plot speaks volumes to modern women who are trying to negotiate sexual mores without being either too prissy or too skanky. Men don’t have that problem.

  11. says

    CL, I have a feeling I’m missing something with your comment. I’ve read it a few times, and really don’t disagree with any of it (though I have an alternate spin on the last paragraph, which I consider to be true in addition to your points, not instead of). If I have missed something, you’re more than welcome to try to hit me over the head with it. :D

    I’m not the type of feminist who thinks women are better than men.

    My understanding of the term “feminist” – men and women being equal – precludes the very idea. I mean, I guess people are allowed to call themselves what they want, but I’d call that a “female supremecist”.

    The average woman uses her problem-solving skills to figure out how to make the relationship work because she can (she has the capacity to do it), whereas the average man employs a far simpler relationship model because he has to.

    Yes, but for those of us women who aren’t good at relationship maintenance, and for those men who are, the usual gender assignments are like a punishment from hell. If you’re a woman who doesn’t get relationship maintenance, you’re consistently confronted with men who assume you do and are just not bothering to do your part of things and therefore don’t care about them. And off they go to find someone who “cares.”

    I’d so much rather do the man’s part: risk rejection, then show up and be myself, and if it works, it works. Unfortunately, as a woman, I’m not “allowed” that role and therefore don’t “deserve” to be loved. Whatever, world.

    Relationship maintenance should IMO be something that some individuals are good at and others not. Not something we imagine “women” to be good at and men “not.

    Interestingly, I think this is why the male-male buddy dynamic is a favorite of mine in fiction. Here you (almost always) have two men who don’t know how to maintain a relationship, but they make stumbling efforts and somehow keep it going. I get that! I relate!

    People pish-tosh the virgin-whore tapdance in some romance novels, but that plot speaks volumes to modern women who are trying to negotiate sexual mores without being either too prissy or too skanky. Men don’t have that problem.

    I think I get what you’re saying here. It all depends on whether the author seems to endorse the “virgin/whore tapdance” or is simply acknowledging that here’s a crappy thing women go through in life, and giving the reader some catharsis.

  12. says

    As for my first comment, sorry if that sounded like I think some feminists are female supremicists. That’s not what I meant — I just meant that I’m not a female supremicist, even though in this one comment I’m pointing out a trait where I think women may have an advantage on average over men.

    Regarding the second, that’s very true that people who don’t coorespond to expected gender stereotypes end up having a difficult time. That’s why I was saying that it’s better not to focus too much on the differences. I was merely trying to provide some further possible ideas on responses to the question “Why are stories for women so often focused on relationship problem soving?” That is all. I wasn’t really trying to make a point beyond that.

  13. says

    I was stuck in a very linear mode of thinking that day. I do that sometimes. :)

    I can see how the ability to do relationship maintenance could be an advantage if it wasn’t a gender-assigned duty. Which I think is more or less what you’re saying. :)

  14. SunlessNick says

    I wonder if this escapism vs problem-solving might lie at the root of two common tropes I see:

    One being the “simplistic idea that turns out to be brilliant” (that’s been mentioned before by BetaCandy) – frequently an idea had by a man alongside a woman who’s meant to be the genius/scientist in the story – and maybe in there as a way to cut through the reason/science stuff rather than employ it.

    The second is the chosen/destined one trope. Rather than have a need to fight, work or struggle to make something happen, or occupy a cerain role there’s a force of destiny pushing along the same route, helping out. Not to say that prophecies and destinies can’t be cool, but they often used in stories as a shortcut.
    (And adds an interesting element to the finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where in effect they hack into a destiny and change it).

  15. says

    Hmm, you’re right, Nick. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but there’s a certain deus ex machina to both those tropes, and it does serve to move the story along to the juicy parts so we don’t have to waste time seeing the problems get solved.

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