Popular Media Needs its ‘Fearsome Females’
Have you ever read something of such unlikelihood, that you bypass bewilderment totally and head directly for slack-jawed awe? On the 19th of July 2015, the Sunday Times culture magazine printed an article written by Bryan Appleyard called ‘Armed And Dangerous’ – an article which purported to delve into the controversial stance that women are… wait for it… being portrayed too well in popular media. I know. You’re there now, aren’t you? You’re just staring at the page in confusion. Bear with me. It gets worse.
Now, I must pause here and correct myself in the interest of fairness. Women being portrayed ‘too well’ is not quite the gist of Mr. Appleyard’s argument. On the contrary, he considers popular culture to be quite poor as, in his own words, books and television have apparently become inundated with boring, stereotypical characters. “The role of the Hapless Male (and Ferocious Female) have become a contemporary prison inhabited by the stereotypical identities of both sexes,” he writes.
Honestly, I felt tricked into reading this article, because Mr. Appleyard opens with some interesting, nay, compellingly accurate points. “Television advertising is the form most hopelessly in love with the Hapless Male,” he writes. “I’ve seen ad breaks in which every slot featured one.” He’s not wrong there, with advertisements featuring bumbling men being patiently guided by confident, calm, perfect women, and cooking/child-rearing products featuring nary a male in sight. If they do, it’s only to demonstrate how ‘easy’ something is. So easy, even a man can do it. Even though he wasn’t born with those genes which grant him a predisposition to housework, right ladies?
Thankfully, Mr. Appleyard points out that “research has shown that women don’t like to be told that their partners are weak minded idiots, so the ads don’t work for either sex.” This is cheering news. As a woman with a lot of friends who are male, I have absolutely every faith in their abilities as future fathers and housekeepers. I also don’t appreciate the insinuation in these adverts that cleaning and child-rearing is my job alone. [pullquote]As a woman with a lot of friends who are male, I have absolutely every faith in their abilities as future fathers and housekeepers. I also don’t appreciate the insinuation in these adverts that cleaning and child-rearing is my job alone.[/pullquote] (I’d also like to take this opportunity to yell that the gender binary is a social construct).
After that, however, things start to go awry. Let’s deal with Mr. Appleyard’s claims that our media is being inundated with Fearsome Female stereotypes first. When I began reading the article, I really thought Mr. Appleyard was going to delve into my personal pet peeve – That is, when the (only) female character in the film is demonstrated to be more competent and more talented than the male character, yet he’s the lead of the movie because he’s the Chosen One, or some such nonsense (see the likes of The Lego Movie, Guardians of the Galaxy, Wanted, the list goes on).
He didn’t. Instead, he talked about how, in our society, despite the fact that the Centre for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University found that women comprised a paltry 12% of protagonists in the top-grossing films of 2014, there are just Too Many Competent Women Doing Things. He went on to ‘prove’ it by alluding to The One Girl in a group of male heroes (The Avengers Black Widow – who still doesn’t have her own solo film), a character from a show with needless and graphic shock-rape (Brienne of Tarth from Game of Thrones), and the one female protagonist in a story about socioeconomic privilege, propaganda and modern warfare, that is usually ignored by the media in favour of a love triangle (Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games). As well as this, he was also generally griping about the fact that the TV says he can’t do the washing up properly.
“In the wake of feminism,” Mr. Appleyard writes, “there is a real-world problem for men”. The fiery, fiery wake of feminism… Because apparently feminism has already changed the world beyond all sensible recognition. [pullquote] The fiery, fiery wake of feminism… Because apparently feminism has already changed the world beyond all sensible recognition.[/pullquote]
All right, I’ll bite. Just what characteristics exactly must a female character demonstrate in order to be labelled a dreaded, stereotypical ‘Fearsome Female’? At first I thought Mr. Appleyard was relying on films where the (only) female character is shown to be ridiculously competent, probably to the detriment of a bumbling male character. However, in his article, he references “the blockbusterish Fearsome Females – Daenerys Targaryen and the Amazonian Brienne of Tarth from Game of Thrones”. Two women, who could not be more different to one another, in a huge cast predominantly made up of nuanced, developed male characters. Is variation in female characters only allowed when none of them are strong, independent leaders?
The example which made me really sit back and inhale air sharply through my teeth though, was that of Black Widow. She’s ridiculously competent, yes – because she’s a superhero. And where is the bumbling man whose character suffers as a result of her development? Is Captain America a hapless male? What about Iron Man? Mr. Appleyard looked at the only lead woman in the entire film and took umbrage with her. What exactly does Black Widow do that makes her more unrealistic than Captain America? In fact, Mr. Appleyard shakes his head disapprovingly at Scarlett Johansson’s roles in general. He says:
More seriously, there is the curious career of Scarlett Johansson, who in rapid succession has played Fearsome Females as superhero, alien, app and cyborg […] Remarkably, she seems to have covered the entire cinematic waterfront when it comes to putting men in their place.
I’m still finding it difficult to pin down exactly what one must do to be labelled a Fearsome Female – it’s starting to look like all you have to do is be better at something than a man. Any man.
Even the classics are not safe from Mr. Appleyard’s stamp of disapproval. He expresses discontent with the fact that “in London lately, there have been two-” two! “- productions of Euripide’s Medea, the supreme Fearsome Female, who slaughters her children to avenge the infidelity of her husband, as well as a long run of Electra, another story of a murderously vengeful woman.” Oh those dastardly, radical feminist Greeks! Presumably, if Mr. Appleyard was faced with a twelve year run of Hamlet, the story of a Danish prince who spends the entire play plotting revenge, he wouldn’t bat an eyelid. Or how about the story of Macbeth, the blood soaked king? Whoops! Sorry, Lady Macbeth is an obvious Fearsome Female, what am I thinking?
By the time I finished the article, I was uncomfortably aware of something that I don’t think Mr. Appleyard is aware of himself. The Fearsome Male is such a well-worn part of our cultural landscape that he doesn’t even see it any more. [pullquote]By the time I finished the article, I was uncomfortably aware of something that I don’t think Mr. Appleyard is aware of himself. The Fearsome Male is such a well-worn part of our cultural landscape that he doesn’t even see it any more.[/pullquote] There are not even half as much ‘Fearsome Females’ as there are bristling, righteous leading men, who constantly thunder in and save the day (James Bond, Chris Pratt in Jurassic World, The new (new) Batman film, Superman, the five other goddamn Avengers, I could go on all day).
But that’s fine, that’s the way things are supposed to be; Mr. Appleyard has no problem with that. Ridiculously talented, unrealistically heroic male lead characters? That’s no problem. But when women break in and start saving the day, well, they’re just making the men look bad.