Why only men can be leads

A few days ago, I listed some dramatic TV shows and films, and asked why the leads were all male, even in the cases where there were strong female secondary leads. Today I’m going to talk about some answers I’ve heard.

Industry people and professors always told me: demographics show that audiences want white men in the lead. You can have strong women or non-white men as main characters, but the lead needs to be a white, straight man, because that’s what the audience wants. This makes me wonder just how random their polling sample is, because I don’t remember anyone making a big deal about Ripley in Aliens, or Agent Starling in Silence of the Lambs.

Another answer which I find more interesting came from a story told by George Lucas about the draft he wrote of Star Wars in which Luke Skywalker was female. He discarded the draft, stating he wasn’t sure he understood women well enough to write them, and didn’t want to offend women with a bad characterization. I have no idea if Lucas is alone on this, but I can say I worry about writing men believably when I write them. If this is any factor at all – and I’m not sure it is – then more female writers might be the solution. Or you can do what Ridley Scott did with Ripley: change all the pronouns in the script from “he” and “him” to “she” and “her”. Unless your story is actually about being male or female, it really doesn’t make any difference.


  1. Mecha says

    I think the discussion in Back to Basics about Mary Sues points out how much of a problem it can be to make a bad female char, and how much you can get panned over it. Don’t make her too soft, you might say all women are soft, don’t make her undercriticized, she’s a mary sue, don’t make her over-criticized, or you’re sending the wrong message, don’t make her too hard, she might end up as a man with breasts or a bitch, don’t make her have a mental disorder, that’s stereotyping women… just consider exactly how many ways you have been pissed off at someone mischaracterizing a woman, and then imagine nobody taught you how to avoid them. Even the ‘best’, people like Whedon and the like, still get panned hard for how they treat women when they’re not perfect. It’s a hard thing to do. It is harder to write women then men because of the patriarichal society, in a large way. Unless they tend gay, men are usually men. If a man isn’t a man, he’s in a chick flick, which gets dismissed. Not ‘protested’. Dismissed. A ‘bad’ female characterization is often not dismissed, but dissected. By everyone. Much harder for a male writer to do that. Female writers with female characters in main-stream shows wouldn’t hurt one bit. Maybe it’d give the field more to stand on as a track record, more of a body of work to build on.

    And until there is no stereotype on whether a relationship is same or cross-sex, being male or female will always matter in a story. Until there is no message sent whatsoever by a woman protecting life versus a man protecting life, until there is no societal picture whatsoerver of differences between a man and a woman… switching the pronouns will pretty much always change something. (Aliens with a female hero sends a different message than Aliens with a male hero. Aliens in general has a lot of twists from character sex norms. Facehuggers, female versus female final battle, etc.) It just won’t change anything that doesn’t deserve to be changed at least 50% of the time. 😉


  2. Jennifer Kesler says

    What different message did you get from Aliens than you would have if Ripley had been male? Was there some subliminal ad for tampons that I missed? 😛

    Seriously, though. I saw Alien and Aliens (but not the later ones), and as far as I can see, Ripley could’ve been swapped out with someone like Jack Bauer from 24 without changing a thing.

  3. baskerville says

    In one of the sequels Ripley bives birth to an alien, doesn’t she? One could argue that it’s an alien movie anyway, they could easily lay eggs in a guy or something, but in one of the movies (The one with Ripley’s daugter, I believe.) I seem to recall someting having to do with Ripley’s maternal instinct, or something. (The alien is up in her face, and she says soemthing to is, and you’re not sure if she’s going to kill it what.)

    I don’t think that sub-plot, or twist or whatever it is would have worked so well with a guy. I don’t think they’d have ‘gone there’, as they say. A guy, I think, would just rambo his way through, and if an alien had popped out of his gut, rather than being a source of doubt and indecision, it would just be all the more reason to kill the aliens.

    ps. My memory of these movies are all running together. Possibly crossing over with other aliens-are-eating-us movies. I may be wrong/mixed up on all counts, in which case: Whoops. Sorry.

  4. Mecha says

    Changing a thing in terms of what’s put on screen? No. Changing a thing of the meaning? Well… The main difference is the mother-protector image. Consider that the main fight in Aliens? Is female versus female. The ‘rape’ imagery of the facehuggers? Would have a different tone if the now-guy-leader then went out and capped some ugly alien woman for raping his team. Anger versus protector. Mother versus father. Patriarichal symbol versis matriarichal symbol. Etc, etc, etc. Think Xena here. Women matter, in the Aliens of this world. Ripley, mother-protecter-warrior-goddess of the entire human race. Far different from ‘guy who kicks some alien ass, woo!’.

    Heck, the fact we’re _talking about it_ means that it means something. The choice has meaning, in the art and in the world outside it. If it works, then women might take it as a role model or example. If it’s wrong, it gives everyone the wrong image of women. Because of the environment it exists in. That’s the kind of choice you may have to make every time you have a female character, especially a main. This also goes back to ‘what negative things can you have happen to a woman in X format’? In a movie, one bad consequence could ruin the entire movie. It’s short. In a TV show, you have a larger body of work, to hope that one mistake won’t blow it (which is indeed just a hope.) There is _no risk_ to putting in male characters, because of the environment we live in. There is a risk for female chars. If they don’t stand up for all womenkind, you get smashed. You wonder, “Is there a message this one female is trying to say about all females?” Consider the House analysis that goes on in this journal. Sometimes it comes down to ‘There are other women in the series, and they aren’t this specific woman who’s _got flaws_, so the writers might not be saying something bad _about women_.’ That kind of logic means that putting just one woman in a cast? Could be a disaster. Putting in 3? Only if one of them is clearly not a negative image. But not TOO non-negative. Look at all this balancing, and heding, and stuff you just don’t have to DEAL with when it’s a male char? Even in perception?

    This is why I say the environment just makes it hard to have female chars. Because this all means someone who writes females will either be judged to be 1) bad at it or 2) good, and usually 2 comes with confidence. When was the last time anyone, in the capacity of analysis, looked at a female char and said, “Eh, it’s just a female char?” Just as the ‘invisible privilege’ thing talks about how failures reflect upon your sex… when will a char being female be irrelevant? Fully irrelevant? Never. Symbols demand it. As long as ‘male’ and ‘female’ mean anything but ‘has a penis’ and ‘has a vagina’ (which will be true for as long as I can ever imagine) there will be something. But mostly irrelevant… well. One can hope. One can more likely hope for the time when ‘male’ is no longer _default_, but has a meaning choice all its own in the mind of the writer. As I pointed out above. The male hero in Aliens _would have meant something_. Neither male nor female is neutral as a choice. Not in this world.

    Not that that much stops me from having female chars. But the issues… myriad. And they extend from the person of the writer all the way out to the world that the art will exist in. *chuckle* Of course, I doubt many people bother analyzing it this far.


  5. says

    Some points:

    * The first person in the movies to ‘give birth’ to an alien was a man. The gender of the host doesn’t appear to make a difference (although the species does). The reason it’s a big deal in ‘Alien: Resurrection’ is that Ripley has been cloned with a queen growing inside her, which could just have easily happened with a guy.

    * Ripley’s daughter dies between the first and second movies, while Ripley is in Hypersleep. This is a big motivator for her relationship with Newt.

    * Interesting point about “doubt and indecision”, but not one that is really borne out in the films. In fact, of the two characters that express any interest in not killing the aliens (apart from, you know, the aliens), both are (nominally) male, although one is an android.

    * Ripley’s gender plays a big part in ‘Alien3’, where she finds herself on a men-only prison planet.

    * I believe the line is “get away from her, you bitch”.

  6. baskerville says

    Oh. Okay, then.

    But isn’t there some scene in one of the movies, where Ripley’s face-to-face with one of the aliens and she seems to almost be fond of it or sympathetic or something?

    It’s been awhile since I’ve seen any of them, though. My info is dubious.

  7. Jennifer Kesler says

    What you’re describing are instances where the writers have been fleshing out Ripley, and they’ve used her gender to do that. Which is all well and good. But they could’ve achieved the same stories and same impact with a male character.

    Remove Ripley, and replace her with Jack Bauer, and very little revision is needed. The maternal instincts become paternal ones (look how far Jack goes to protect his daughter), the prison planet full of men becomes a prison planet full of some group of people who have a reason to hate our hero, etc. No big deal.

    As for the moment of sympathy or empathy with the enemy… men in sci-fi do that a lot. It’s a bit more cerebral than the pure action genre.

  8. Jennifer Kesler says

    I’m still not seeing it. A woman protecting her kids seems different to you from a man protecting his kids? That’s why I brought up Jack Bauer, who can be manipulated to do ANYTHING, in a very non-masculine way, just because someone’s holding his daughter hostage. And yet no one questions his manhood. It’s a parent thing, not a man or woman thing.

    As for your recent discussion of how frightening it is to write a character that might be analyzed by critics, you’re missing a key point: they write great women all the time. They just don’t put them in the lead. And believe me, that’s NOT because there’s a shortage of writers who firmly believe they can write great lead women. That’s because they’re told in screenwriting classes and in the industry that they are not allowed to.

    Believe me, fear of offending is not why we have so few good lead female characters, despite having a bevy of good supporting ones that prove men can write women just fine.

  9. Mecha says

    Meh. Lousy rambling that I do aside, I think it does send a different message, especially in application. Consider films like Kindergarden Cop to a film like The Long Kiss Goodnight. Men doing ‘womenly’ things is a source of humor, on the major part. On the other hand, being manipulated via kidnapping is an old, old, old, OLD concept, and crosses pretty much all dividing lines. Drop back to Ahnold and True Lies if you want for a semi-modern example, and a far more direct comparison. Everyone reacts to kidnapping. But ‘protector’ versus ‘mother’ does play a part. Jack’s rescuing is heartfelt… but after he is immediately seperated, busy, working, IIRC. Enough so that the women are immediately subjected to even more trials and dangers. Tasker (True Lies)’s rescuing is important… but he’s immediately seperated, busy, working. Long Kiss Goodnight? The kid is just about stapled onto the female lead. Protector versus mother. Terminator 2 is a case where ‘protector’ versus ‘mother’ does cross the line for a lot of the movie, for Sarah (especially Connor running off and trying to take out Dyson)… except that then she crosses BACK with her talking about creating a life (nevermind that the guy has a child, so he created life too) among other things. Ultimately, male protector versus mother-guardian does come off different. Societal cues, script cues, whatever. You probably could cut them apart fully.

    But then you get something like the analysis of GI Jane (or some analyses of Alien, see http://www.duallens.com/index.asp?reviewId=102903 as an example) where the female lead ‘isn’t female.’ It is as if you have to force in the ‘mother’ aspect simply to make a woman seem like a woman to analysis. Which doesn’t make it a pure 1-1 substitution at all, to me. And I didn’t even get into heavy semiotics or anything about inherent societal meanings of ‘man’ versus ‘woman’ and the like and how those affect the interpretation of a text. Those are mostly just textual examples of how male protector is presented differently from female, and expected to be.

    Okay. Everyone is told they’re not allowed to write female leads. I don’t much remember arguing with that, you’ve got the experience there. But aren’t you the one who specifically brought up a director/writer fearing making a female lead? If you wanted to say he was lying, you coulda just said it, honest. 😉

    The question would then become: Are there no boundraries but the simple mental chains of being told to making a female lead? Like there’s a giant dam of female leads just waiting to burst forth from all the established writers, if only they had an extra brain cell? I’m not so sure about that. You seem to hint at a far more far-reaching set of justifications for both directors/writers and advertisers/marketers/executives

    I was bringing up other mental issues, mental justifications, reasons that even if people wanted to break that wall… things that would stand in their way. Reasons that marketers and executives and such would also stand in their way. I thought trying to bring up possibilities was part of why such a discussion existed. If nobody could possibly believe any of those things might happen, and especially not more than one person, or even use them to try to quash someone’s attempt to make a female lead… well. Not sure I could say much to that, and I’m rambling besides, so I’ll stop that here.

    As to decent female (support) chars.. well. Only so many that are decent, right? This journal alone is rife with examples of modern female chars that aren’t good. If there were so many excellent examples, done by a majority of writers so that you might use ‘bevy’, why don’t they come up? IS everyone really writing good female chars? If so, where are all these bad examples we talk about coming from? Where are all the good ones? And if the supporting character -> main character jump is so trivial as to mean that having lots of one means lots of the other is no trick at all… then why is it screwed up so often, to the tune of thousands of Mary Sues?

    These are honest questions here, when I ask them. I really am curious as to why, if someone knows, especially if nothing I say could be true. ^^; And if nobody knows… maybe all the better, for the thoughts.


  10. Jennifer Kesler says

    But aren’t you the one who specifically brought up a director/writer fearing making a female lead? If you wanted to say he was lying, you coulda just said it, honest.

    I never said it was a lie. I said it was a psychological dam that’s easily worked past: either you write a story where gender doesn’t matter (like the first Alien movie, at least) or bring in more female writers who can confirm or correct the male writers attempts to write believable women.

    George Lucas’ problem is, he can’t write characters for anything. He had outside help humanizing the characters in the first trilogy, but by the time he got to the prequels, he wasn’t intersted in working with people who could have filled in the gaps of his skill set.

    It’s ironic he’s arrogant enough to think he can write and direct his movies better than people like Irvin Kershner, but isn’t arrogant enough to think he can write a central female lead. Hmm.

    Are there no boundraries but the simple mental chains of being told to making a female lead? Like there’s a giant dam of female leads just waiting to burst forth from all the established writers, if only they had an extra brain cell?

    I’m not sure I’m following you here, but I knew a lot of men and women in film school and in the industry who really wanted to write female leads, and were told to go make indies, because the industry wouldn’t fund them. So, yeah, I suspect there are plenty of writers out there who would love to write lead women, if only it was considered viable.

    And remember: while this site only focuses on the anti-women bias, the actual proscription is also an anti-color, anti-non-Christian, anti-not-heterosexual bias, too. I need to keep that in mind, too. Maybe the question isn’t so much “Why no women” as “Why only white, straight, and generally Protestant Christian males?”

  11. Mecha says

    It’s ironic he’s arrogant enough to think he can write and direct his movies better than people like Irvin Kershner, but isn’t arrogant enough to think he can write a central female lead. Hmm.

    Ha ha ha ha. Okay, when you put it like that, it does sound awfully weird. And it is true: There are ways around that particular fear.

    As to the other part, I was mainly trying to figure out whether the block was for the _writers_ (which is the angle I was approaching it from, since you had done the same) or the _management_, especially considering that you’d just ripped to shreds the concept that anyone might fear writing female chars from the writing side, or worry about any of the concerns I brought up. If there’s no problem with the writers in wanting to write good, solid female chars and lead chars… then why do we so often end up criticizing writers? I mean, clearly the structure and the administration is doing extra clamping down to the white, straight, protestant christian molds, but most of the analysis we do around here and people do in general ends up directed at the writers, not the administrators. Maybe that’s just because we don’t get to see the people behind the scenes that perpetuate it via funding. Part of me wonders just how much control a writer really has, when you think about it like that.

    Sadly, I think that ‘gay’ and ‘female’ are the two biggest disqualifiers to being a lead character, character-wise. Religion and race can be diqualifiers, but religion isn’t usually a big part of films (and thereby can be ignored usually, much like actor sexuality versus character sexuality) and race… well. Maybe that’s just a missed perception on my part, something I don’t examine enough. They’re definitely minority compared to white actors, though. (In contrast to order of people getting the right to vote and presidential choices, neither of which follows that same ordering.) The only, though, is likely somewhat the same in how it falls out. ‘Gay’ TV. ‘Black’ TV. ‘Women’ TV. ‘Latino’ TV. Those choices make something niche, far too often.


  12. Revena says

    Just a quick interjection here – if you’re talking about -my- analysis of G.I. Jane, I’d like to point out that I’m not saying she’s defeminized because she’s not a mother – I’m saying she’s defeminized because her most “masculine” traits are exaggerated at the same time as her “feminine” traits are removed or downplayed. Making the character a mother wouldn’t have made the difference, there.

  13. Mecha says

    It was one of the ones I had in mind, yeah (I thought it was interesting back when I read it.)

    It isn’t just ‘being a mother’ that I was focusing on, just the associated qualities of being motherly, which are often things that are treated as uniquely female, as opposed to her masculinization. The loss of menstrual cycles, the haircut, the sexual harassment being ignored, etc. It seems to be, for one reason or another, one of the biggest ‘femininity’ indicators, in analysis or otherwise, perhaps for no other reason than it’s something that a woman simply can have. If that doesn’t do anything for you in analysis, that’s interesting to me too. It seems strange that it wouldn’t, to me.

    Of course, the other big feminine indicator I can think of is ‘being a hot chick’, so maybe there’s not too much to care about there. Maybe this just relates back to the concept that there is a very weak societal definition of ‘being a real woman’, so sexuality and motherhood become the only things people can key off of.


  14. Revena says

    I’m not saying that motherhood and/or motherliness doesn’t have an impact on analyses – I’m saying that merely making O’Neill a mother wouldn’t have made the difference in that particular narrative. And there are -lots- of other typical markers of femininity beyond motherhood/motherliness and “hotness”. Several of which, such as clothing, empathetic behavior, vanity, and even long hair, I discuss in that same article.

    Now, whether or not those things -should- be markers of femininity (I’m gonna go with “no”, for the most part) is another question, but they -do- read as “feminine” for people performing character analyses in our culture. In a broader way, you’re right to say that there’s a weak societal definition for being a woman, but the simple shorthand is – a woman is anyone that is not a man. Man/masculine is the default in our social discourse, and in our creative endeavors, and woman/feminine is anything that deviates from that default.

    Most of G.I. Jane is taken up with transforming O’Neill so that she -doesn’t- deviate from the masculine standard, which is part of why I critique it as I do. It’s marketed as a sort of woman’s empowerment movie, but the character who is empowered is, ultimately, not particularly womanly.

  15. Jennifer Kesler says

    Maybe that’s just because we don’t get to see the people behind the scenes that perpetuate it via funding. Part of me wonders just how much control a writer really has, when you think about it like that.

    They have none. Which is why I generally talk about studio executives, producers… the entire powers that be. Writers write what they’re told, which is why I quit. Bet you’re not shocked. 😉

  16. baskerville says

    It’s marketed as a sort of woman’s empowerment movie, but the character who is empowered is, ultimately, not particularly womanly.

    I find it odd that people critisize O’Neill’s lack of femininity, (not you in particular, but just in general; I’ve heard other people call her ‘dikey’, etc) and yet don’t have a problem with charachters like Xena and that girl in Alias who changes her clothes a lot.

    O’Neill functions in a realistic male world, and takes on the charachteristics of it, a little bit like Mulan. (Who I’ve also heard critisized (Disney version, not the original fairytale) for not being empowered ‘as a female’)

    On the other hand Sydney (Sydney? Is that right?) and Xena have the female long-hair, feminine attire (very different attire, but I don’t think a guy would wear Xena’s get-up) and so forth, but their power is ultimately fake, because the world they function in is so, so contrived.

    I’m probably way off topic, but what I’m getting at is, is a ‘woman empowerment movie’ less empowering just because the lead takes on traditional male charachteristics? She still succeeds in a ‘real’ world, as an equal, and without taking any ‘girl handicaps’ (like the step-up when they’re jumping the wall in drill) and I think thats more powerful than silly costume-switching girls in an impossible spy-girl soap opera world.

  17. Revena says

    Personally, I’d say that a story which clearly tells me that before I can succeed, I have to stop being myself does fail as an empowering narrative, yes. At the same time, I take your point about a preference for realism, and in that way it is certainly true that a film like G.I. Jane succeeds on a level at which Xena does not.

    But what I want to know is why couldn’t G.I. Jane be a realistic (comparatively – it’s still very fantastical) movie about a female lead who succeeds as an equal without having to give up every marker of her femininity? I loved the part where she demonstrated physical strength and capability equal to her male peers. I did -not- love the part where the music in the background in her hair-shaving scene declared that “it’s just as well, the bitch is gone”.

    But, y’know, my analysis of G.I. Jane is just one way of looking at the movie. I see lots of things about it that are problematic, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be a powerful film for other women – and even for me, when I’m in the right mood to enjoy it on that level.

    I can’t speak for everyone else who writes for Hathor (and I won’t even try to speak for people who criticize O’Neill by saying she’s ‘dikey’! Geez), but when I choose to spend the time to write a critical analysis of something, it’s usually because I think it’s coming painfully close to telling the story I most want to hear, and I want to tease out what it would take to push it just a little bit further along that path.

    Well, either that or I’m so horrified by it that I can’t help myself… 😉

    (Incidentally, I think I’d be inclined to write a very favorable article about Mulan, and would probably critique Alias pretty heavily [though I’ve not watched either with enough of a critical eye to be able to say for sure without actually doing it]. I’m sure there are people out there who give fantastic fantasy narratives a free pass and are hyper-critical of more realistic fantasy narratives, but I’m not sure how many of them you’ll find here)

  18. Mecha says

    Not really, no. As a ‘fiction writer in the grant proposal genre’, I can very much see how power might be far away from the people who write. 😉



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