Women Identifying with Lead Males

From comments to the post “Do Audiences Want Female Leads?”, some very interesting issues have come up, and I’m going to post in more detail about a couple of them over the next few days. The first is from Revena’s comment:

Our culture is constructed with a “male lense” of perception, meaning that even women in the West tend to view the world from a male perspective. Not just any male perspective, either, but the perspective of the culturally dominant white male heterosexual. So when we watch a film, we may like to look at a beautiful woman, but we’ve been culturally trained all our lives to -identify with- the male protagonist. So, yeah, it makes sense that most people are going to initially respond well to male leads moreso than to female leads.

How often do you have a movie that’s seen through the eyes of a female character? Actually, it wasn’t always as rare as it is now. Gone With the Wind, still widely considered the most successful movie of all time, viewed humanity through the lens of a displaced Southern Belle – Margaret Mitchell. Or at least, that’s my take on it.

And getting even more specific, what about the characters we don’t just see the movie through, but truly identify with? The ones that represent some trait or issue we relate to intensely?

All of the fictional characters I’ve identified with over the years have been male, save one. It wasn’t their maleness I identified with, but their focus on the job at hand, or their hero’s journey. I identified with characters who wanted to improve themselves and/or their world. This is so rarely a female arc that it’s little wonder I only stumbled across one character in a female body that I related to in this way. (For anyone who’s curious, the female character in question is Mara Jade, but ONLY as written by her creator Timothy Zahn, in the Star Wars novels – for those who don’t know her, Aeryn Sun of Farscape could have been based on her.)

The problem is that women are so rarely given the hero’s journey – even the overly revered Joseph Campbell didn’t believe women could go on quite the same journey as men, given that they would need to work out daddy issues of a whole different kind. But do we?

I can only speak for myself, but the reason I identify with heroes is that I’m on a hero’s journey, in the sense that I’m constantly questing for self-improvement, and improvement of the world around me. I know a lot of women who are on the same quest: they protest at rallies, they write books, they argue with demogogues on cable news. Unfortunately, it appears truth really is stranger than fiction, because characters like this so rarely make it into film or TV. And when they do, it always feels to me like something essential is removed from them – they’re neutered. Or the filmmakers deliberately cast an actress who comes off as lacking in self-confidence.

Revena goes on to say:

But just because that’s a standard doesn’t mean it always has to be that way, even now, or that that lense can’t change…. I guess I think looking at market trends as a producer of product is one thing… Refusing to analyze those trends or challenge those trends in the pursuit of innovation, however, is just laziness. Get off your asses, film-makers. It’s about goddamn time.

I absolutely agree with and second this notion.

Why don’t filmmakers want to analyze the trends or challenge them? The standard line “We’re giving the audience what they want to see” doesn’t wash. They’re offering us limited choices, then swearing the one we pick is the one we really want. It’s like offering someone apples and walnuts, and assuming they wouldn’t have preferred chocolate.

Once again, I raise the question: are 18-25 year old white males so, er, masculinity-challenged that a woman with even a hint of a backbone raises their hackles? Or are they afraid they might be able to relate to a woman, the same way women have been relating to men forever? Why would they fear it? Do they think it means they’re not properly heterosexual if they can so much as agree with a woman’s point of view?

As often as I relate to men and male characters, I am completely confident in my femininity. I feel sorry for men if masculinity is so much more fragile.

Please tell me that’s not what this is all about. ?


  1. Ink says

    I used find myself identifying with male characters more often because, well, many female characters will be created as so two dimensional, so lacking in personality or so far removed from how I think and view myself that I just felt no connection to them.

    I’d end up identifying with the white straight male lead, ’cause the white straight male lead was often the one who was most, in personality and the like, recognizably human, whereas his supporting cast could be made up of talking cardboard cut outs.

    Like, before I started really thinking about media and portrayals of characters in connection with gender(which is relatively recent), I didn’t really notice the problem with how my gender was shown. I could watch shows and movies that were incredibly sexist (on reflection) and I didn’t feel anything about that; a) because I was desensitized to this and b) I just wasn’t recognizing a lot of these female characters as me and mine, I wasn’t really relating to them on any significant level. They didn’t look like me, act like me, think like me, but the male characters often did; they could be average looking or not considered attractive, and would often react like I would, like a human being would.

    This is not to say I never related to any female characters, or I related exclusively to the male ones, just most of the time (especially since I wasn’t actively looking for female characters and especially female leads like I do now). When I was younger, I did atleast have Xena and Gabrielle, which was nice but those are the only female characters I can recall really connecting with as a child (that ought to give you a fair idea of my age as well =P).

  2. says

    Ink, I relate to wounded heroes, so the first female character I stumbled across that I related to at all showed up when I was about 20: Mara Jade, from Star Wars novels. Then came Xena several years later. So I was an adult before I ever found a female character I remotely related to. And I didn’t exactly relate to Xena so much as wish I could in many ways, which is also a nice experience to have with a character.

    The characters I most relate to are still male. There are more and more females, especially in British TV, that I relate to in one way or another, but the vast majority of “YES ME TOO!” moments I experience are with male characters. Which saddens me, because I know it’s not just a coincidence.

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