Men identifying with female characters

In the past, I’ve written about how women are comfortable relating to male characters, and now I want to tackle it from the other end: are men uncomfortable relating to female characters, and if so, why?

To answer the first question. There’s no hard and fast research on this, so I have to base my answers on experience and observations. Personally, I’ve never heard a guy go on about how much his life is like some female characters’, or how much he relates to something that happened to her on a show. So while I’m not quite sure they don’t relate, it seems to me they don’t acknowledge it if they do. Try to imagine a guy telling you he’s getting sick of some conspiracy theorist who keeps bugging him at work. Now try to imagine him saying, “Jeez, I felt like Agent Scully after a while”. Even though that’s a gender-neutral comparison – in fact, Scully’s role as the grounded and scientific partner is often a male role – it’s just not the comparison most guys would make.

I’m not criticizing guys for this. I want to make that clear.

I think the reason is that, no matter how enlightened you are as an individual, we’ve all inherited a ton of brainwashing from infancy on, telling us that women and men don’t have the same roles in society, and women’s roles are inherently second-class. When women and girls want to have male roles in society, it’s discouraged – but it’s seen as only natural. But when men and boys want female roles, not only is it discouraged – it’s evidence that there’s something badly wrong with them. Examples of some stereotyping that illustrates my point:

  • If a girl wants a toy gun, that’s cute. If a boy wants to play with dolls, there’s a trip to a psychitrist in his immediate future.
  • If a wife wants to work outside the home while raising her kids, that’s selfish. If a husband wants to raise his kids while only his wife works outside the home, he’s an unfit husband.
  • Women wear pants with society’s approval, but a man wearing a skirt to work is probably at risk of getting arrested.

This is how entrenched our society is in the assumption that men’s roles are better than women’s. No wonder so many people of both genders relate more to male characters – their roles are predefined as best. But even setting the pre-definition aside, far more male than female characters get to do stuff and think cleverly and develop depth. They can be unsympathetic heroes and likeable villains and all the other shades of grey. With exceptions, female characters just aren’t allowed this level of variety and emotional truth.

Basically, it’s embarrassing to relate to most female characters. I mean, if you tell me you feel like Rachel Green from Friends, I am so going to write you off as a vapid, selfish twit, no matter your gender.

So if we get more female characters like Ripley from Alien, whose roles could easily have belonged to either gender, will we eventually get men saying, “Jeez, I felt just like Ripley trying to tell them the mission was a bad idea”. I think we might need some conscious re-adjustment before that happens, but the the first step has to be assembling a mass of female characters no one would be embarrassed to admit they relate to.

[Edited for clarity – I hope – after Telepresence’s insightful comment.]


  1. telepresence says

    I’m not sure there was anyone on Friends I’d feel comfortable declaring a great deal of identification with. Is Rachel Green any more embarassing than Joey or Ross?

    I’m also not sure your examples in the earlier paragraph dealing with gender stereotypes support your conclusion. In two of the three examples, women have more choice than men (in toys and work clothing), men (to follow the thought to a conclusion), don’t so much prefer to identify with male roles as resign themselves to the only role allowed them.

  2. teal'c junky says

    Sorry that I don’t have the time or the braincells to be serious or profound atm, but I just had to point out that if more men knew the glory that is the utilikilt – – then I’m sure we’d be seeing men in skirts in the mall and the workplace in staggering numbers! *goes of to order hubby’s Christmas kilt*

  3. Jennifer Kesler says

    “I’m also not sure your examples in the earlier paragraph dealing with gender stereotypes support your conclusion. In two of the three examples, women have more choice than men (in toys and work clothing), men (to follow the thought to a conclusion), don’t so much prefer to identify with male roles as resign themselves to the only role allowed them.”

    I see what you mean – I phrased it badly, leaping from the stereotyping society pushes on us to the choices we make as individuals. I’ve attempted to edit for clarity. Your point still stands, and you may still not agree with me. :)

    And to address your other comment, no, Ross certainly isn’t preferable to Rachel, and probably neither is Joey (although at least he’s not as phony as they are). Do you find there are female characters you relate to as much as male?

  4. Jennifer Kesler says

    glory that is the utilikilt

    OMG, I totally like that! And I don’t even wear skirts myself. I’ve often wondered how guys function with just a wallet pocket to carry stuff around with them. 😀

  5. sbg says

    Honestly, it all comes down to boobs. It’s not that men are uncomfortable, they just get distracted by the boobs. Okay, I’m just being a jerk. I honestly don’t know of any answer.

    I’ve had the unfortunate happenstance of working with some really unintelligent women. I mean *really*. They were far worse than anything I’ve seen on film or TV…and those women were treated differently by my boss than I was.

    I often wonder, though, to try to find some way back on topic, if men just don’t want to see women as anywhere near their level – intellectually, physically, or whatever – because then their own manhood is in question. If a girl can do what a guy can do…where’s the security in that? It’s a stereotype, of course, but I don’t think entirely untrue. Haven’t we all heard that phrase? “Oh my god, I was beaten by a *girl*?” Like that is such a terrible thing.

  6. Jennifer Kesler says

    I think a lot of people, male AND female, find the idea of women being smarter than men disconcerting. It’s just ingrained in our culture that men are supposed to be more intelligent and logical, and not everyone’s thought their way past it yet. My mother’s generation was taught never to outsmart a man to his face – bat your eyelashes, giggle, laugh at his jokes and tell him how clever he is.

    While a lot of people are beyond that preconception now, I can tell you firsthand it still hangs on in predominantly white rural areas, which comprise a lot of desired TV viewers. I wonder if it’s prevalent in Latin American immigrant culture, since that’s the big new viewership TV executives are stalking? I don’t mean to insult anyone’s culture (the white rural one IS actually my own background culture), but that’s how TV execs look at it: they carve us into ethnic, regional, gender, and age blocks, then they poll us, and the opinions expressed by the majority of people in your group become, in their minds, YOUR opinion.

  7. SunlessNick says

    I posted this comment to another article, but it’s relevent here, so I copied it (with some editing).

    I was about fifteen when I first read Lord of the Rings. I didn’t really have a favorite character, but I had a small clutch of characters who’d done my favourite things – one of them was Eowyn.

    On the offchance you’re unfamiliar with the story, she is a princess from a culture easiest to describe as Norse, but with horses instead of boats. She’s disguised herself as a man and gone to war to defend her people because she is’t prepared not to defend them. During the battle, she ends up facing the Nazgul Lord, a demonic creature that “no living man can kill” – it tells her as much, and she replies that she’s not a man – which makes it hesitate slightly. And ok, she isn’t able to win against it without help from one of the hobbits (who’s also not a man), but that’s not really the point – she has no expectation of being able to win, but is there to defend her people (and at that exact moment also her uncle) and won’t back down. And I remember thinking that I wished I’d be strong/brave/cool enough to do that in her position. Most of Eowyn’s portrayal didn’t really live up to that moment (something Tolkien himself regretted IIRC), and I’ve encountered much stronger/braver/cooler female characters since. But at the time, the only competition she had were the little girls from the Narnia books. And I had no qualms about finding Eowyn something of a role model.

    I hear a lot about positive female role models, and that’s great, but I would love for role models to ignore gender lines entirely, and just focus on virtues. Is it so weird for me – as a guy – to aspire to the fortitude of an Ellen Ripley, the loyalty of an Eowyn, or the strength of an Aeryn Sun? Compared to aspiring to them when they’re found in Kyle Reese, Faramir, or Ka’Dargo? Or aspiring to be as compassionate as Tara (a frequently, and IMO unjustly maligned Buffy character) compared to as Frank Blank?

  8. scarlett says

    The women I really admire – fictional and real – are women like Scarlett O’Hara and Eva Peron, who had a lot of ambition and hustle and often did some questionable things to get to the top but to me, that was part of their charm, their willingness to coldly calculate what it would take to achieve something, and go about doing it. There was no sitting down and crying and waiting for a man to carry them home; nope, they went out and hustled themselves a fortune.
    Funnily enough, I didn’t admire the same kind of men half as much – for example, Scarlett seemed much more admirable then Rhett, Eva then Jaun, even though they would have done similar things to achieve what they did. I wonder if that’s me as a woman relating to other women, or appreciating that, in both those cases, the woman was starting from a lower place in society and had to overcompensate to achieve equality with her husband?

  9. Firebird says

    I was talking to a guy friend recently about another guy in our group. It seemed that this other guy was constantly on the defensive around me and bristled at everything I said. I couldn’t avoid him because he often hung out with our group, and I couldn’t figure out why he didn’t like me, so I asked this friend what he thought was going on.

    “It’s not that he doesn’t like you,” he said. “I think he’s intimidated by you. You know guys and their egos. Just try not to correct him or show him up and things will be fine.”

    I’ve avoided discussing things with him and sure enough he doesn’t act like he’s a cat being rubbed the wrong way all the time. But I wonder – is this just one insecure guy, or is it this culture that says I shouldn’t know stuff he doesn’t, given that I’m younger, less educated, and, most importantly, female.

  10. Jennifer Kesler says

    My guess? Intelligence is resented, coming from anybody, male or female. But there’s still a significant segment of the population that just doesn’t believe women should ever outsmart men. At least not overtly.

  11. Rak Nay says

    One thing that always bothered me

    If The Geek guy have a fast relationship with the chearleader and see that she is not good for him is a victory

    If the geek girls do the same with the jock it’s a bad thing, a girl never can say “ok, at last i score a hot guy.”

    And a lone king it’s a vitorious one, with all the glory and power
    A lone queen it’s a pity one with a terrible burden.

  12. Keith says

    I think people’s reaction to Utilikilts is not necessarily the same as it would be for other skirts, even if they were designed to be masculine. I wore one to work for several years (I’m a consultant now, and not in a position to challenge a client’s dress code), and I still wear one almost exclusively when I’m not at work. More often than not, people identify it as a kilt, and there are all sorts of ideas attached to that which aren’t attached to, say the Tripp men’s skirt that Hot Topic sells.
    But what’s been really interesting is discovering how many men won’t do something that they want to do because of a fear of ridicule from other men. The amount of positive feedback I get when wearing a kilt is *huge*, particularly from women. I get very little negative feedback to my face, yet I can’t even count how many men have said they’d love to wear a kilt, but their friends would never let them hear the end of it. In my opinion, those aren’t friends, but hey, whatever.

    I may be atypical, but I can think of at least one female character with whom you could say I identified: Honda Touru, from the anime Fruits Basket. I’d like to be that caring and compassionate.

  13. Cassia says

    This was brilliantly put.

    The day we all can claim women are equal with men is when guys feel they can happily identify with female characters. And that comes with firstly being aware of the profound brainwashing that occurs throughout Western cultures today and altering our behaviour.

    The son of a friend of mine was recently making bracelets for himself and for some of his friends. He was weaving them together using colours of teams playing in the World Cup. His mum was about to have a go at him saying “isn’t that a bit of a girly thing to do?”, when she stopped herself and instead asked him to make her one. Which he did with a smile. We all judge on gender lines and have to police our behaviour better.

    I don’t believe there is any such thing as ladylike behaviour. It’s all a nonsense to me. As human beings we are all individuals and squashing what we are into pre-made gender packaging just limits us and makes us pretty unhappy.

    Let’s all keep talking about it and make “girly” things available for anyone. Including skirts.

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