I recently attended a panel discussion at which I met Elisabeth Robinson, a former film producer and executive turned novelist. The panel’s topic was whether or not publishers are tending to slot all female novelists into the “chick lit” genre. One of the points Ms. Robinson made was that her novel was clearly packaged as “chick lit”, with a picture of a little girl on the cover. It also featured not one but two female protagonists. And yet a number of men contacted her to say while they would ordinarily never have looked at a book with a little girl on the cover, someone they trusted recommended the novel, and they read it, and they loved it.
Hollywood insists men and boys don’t want to see stories featuring women, whether the women are shoe-shopping and falling in love or toting guns and shooting aliens. They say it’s unfortunate the male audience has that bias, but what can they do? Regular readers will be familiar with the response I gave in film school, in the film industry, and on this website: I don’t think men are incapable of enjoying female protagonists or even “women’s stories.” I think rather there is a stigma attached: a man or boy who reads female stuff suffers his masculinity and/or sexual orientation to be questioned. This is a cultural issue, and because marketing influences and shapes culture, I always argued Hollywood could indeed change the situation if they wanted – and open up vast new profit opportunities in the process.
A number of film professionals over the years explained it to me this way: young men prefer to picture themselves as the protagonists while women prefer to have sexual fantasies about the protagonists. They considered this immutable biological fact. The vast numbers of men who flocked to the Alien series and watched Sarah Connor kick ass and watched Buffy, sometimes on the sly, were “exceptions.” Or it was really the spaceship/Arnold/something else they were enjoying so much they’d put up with the unwanted female in the story’s midst. I was told I myself was a rare exception for relating to male protagonists rather than lusting after them. But since then the internet has exploded with women and girls expressing the same feelings.
Ms. Robinson also talked about the stigma against men reading women’s stories, and her book seems to be yet another example of a fiction that’s supposed to repulse men being enjoyed by those men who find it, despite the marketing. I also offered the fact that this website’s largest demographic (by a small margin, admittedly) is, and has been for some time, males 18-34. Judging by how rarely I have to moderate disparaging comments and how infrequently I track back our inbound links to some forum where men are bashing us, I’m going to hazard a guess this means most of that young, male audience is sympathetic to our desire for more diverse, interesting female characters.
What do you think? Are men really so offended by female sci-fi heroines, cops, and dramatic protagonists that they insist on male leads, as Hollywood assures us? Would Aliens have done better with a male lead? Should Terminator have been the story of Kyle Reese instead of the story of Sarah Connor (like, they elude the Terminator just long enough for her to give birth, and then she gets killed – probably protecting her young, of course – and he has to raise John)? Would the new Battlestar Galactica have been more successful if it had kept Starbuck male? Or is it just that men are teased and stigmatized into feeling they shouldn’t (openly) watch movies or shows in which they risk empathizing with a woman?