And so we come to gender roles in popular culture, about which many things could be said, but my housemate (a man) sent me the image below to get the ball rolling. I’ve seen a few variations of it kicking about the internet, but this one was especially pertinent given that it depicts comic book heroes.* And it does serve to highlight the general ridiculousness, and narrowness, of how women are portrayed in the media and popular culture.
Gender roles is a topic that comes up over and over in conversation with friends, but it feels like it’s been more prevalent than ever in recent months (or perhaps that’s the influence of Caitlin Moran’s deeply excellent How To Be A Woman, a must-read for everyone, wherein she speaks upon Brazilians and the size of knickers amongst other things. In fact, if I could just quote from Caitlin Moran for the rest of this post, it would make life easier. She also makes me feel better about using copious quotas of exclamation marks).
Reading How To Be A Woman was enlightening, not because it is the most revolutionary feminist book you will ever read, but because it discusses lots of very obvious issues which should be easier to talk about openly but somehow are not, and it does so in a hilarious manner. But it’s not just Moran’s savvy observations that have got me thinking. It’s the scary things that are happening politically, in countries where they really shouldn’t be: the recent laws on abortion passed in Arizona are frankly terrifying.
Last month, Ashley Judd published this brilliant article in the Daily Beast in response to media speculation over her physical appearance. She opens with this:
“The Conversation about women’s bodies exists largely outside of us, while it is also directed at (and marketed to) us, and used to define and control us.”
This article essentially sums up far more eloquently what I want to say. Judd also makes the point that stereotypical gender roles are not only enforced by men, but by women, often unconsciously but sometimes quite knowingly.
So – how can popular culture help to address these issues? There seems to be a lot of ongoing debate surrounding the presentation of women in SF and fantasy (and indeed, the prevalence of female writers). Certainly there is plenty of fiction out there that reinforces stereotypical conceptions of gender. I’ve read enough about the Twilight books to know I have zero desire to read them. Then there is the much lauded fiction that has subtly worrying tropes. I love Game of Thrones, am completely addicted to the TV series, but I can’t pretend I wasn’t disturbed by the discovery that Daenerys is thirteen and the scene depicting her ‘wedding night’. Equally, I very much enjoyed the US series Homeland over the past couple of months, but I couldn’t suppress the niggling thought: What if Claire Danes was playing the Damien Lewis role and vice versa? Would the character of Carrie have been quite so hysterical if she were played by a man?
I think not.
At the same time, fantastical fiction provides a unique opportunity to be progressive in the exploration of gender roles, and SF in particular has a pretty good track record for it. Ursula le Guin is the obvious trailblazer in literature. I like the way the female crewmembers in Battlestar Galactica look like they could actually do some damage in a fight; they’re not all skinny wraiths with unlikely sized breasts. The TV series Rome has a brilliant cast of female characters who use their intelligence (and every other weapon at their disposal) to exert power through the confines of a patriarchal society. Moving across to magical realism, Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body is a superb example of how to break down conceptions of gender notions – first and foremost it is a beautiful love letter, but the narrator is never defined as male or female. He or she is just human, with human failings and a very human capacity to love.
Finally, I thought I’d post a link this inspirational TED talk by Sheryl Sandberg on Why we have too few women leaders. Because she just says it so damn well.
And now I must leave you with the revelation that my (male) housemate is off to, I quote: “iron his shizzle”.
*Disclaimer: about which I am sadly uninformed, and suggest reading Mr Tobin’s excellent post previous to this.