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.]