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die hard is a xmas movie | by maryann johanson

how easily do you identify with opposite-sex protagonists in movies (or TV, or books)?

woman hero

Laurie Penny has a long essay in New Statesman this weekend about how the lack of female protagonists in the stories she absorbed as a kid impacted her. Early on there’s this:

Men grow up expecting to be the hero of their own story. Women grow up expecting to be the supporting actress in somebody else’s. As a kid growing up with books and films and stories instead of friends, that was always the narrative injustice that upset me more than anything else. I felt it sometimes like a sharp pain under the ribcage, the kind of chest pain that lasts for minutes and hours and might be nothing at all or might mean you’re slowly dying of something mundane and awful. It’s a feeling that hit when I understood how few girls got to go on adventures. I started reading science fiction and fantasy long before Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, before mainstream female leads very occasionally got more at the end of the story than together with the protagonist. Sure, there were tomboys and bad girls, but they were freaks and were usually killed off or married off quickly. Lady hobbits didn’t bring the ring to Mordor. They stayed at home in the shire.

And the gist of the whole piece is that she had to invent her own story for herself, as a model for her life, and this ended up being less than positive in the long run because she lacked the role models for a better one, and now she’s working on fixing that. It’s very personal piece, and well worth reading: it might not match with your own experience (it doesn’t with mine), but I suspect that many, many young women would recognize themselves in it.

But then, in the comments, section, there’s some harrumphing from women who had no problem putting themselves in the places of the male protagonists they were confronted with at every turn. Such as Alessia, who writes:

I’ve read book totally gender-blind all my life. I’ve never questioned for a moment that the hero being a boy was because I couldn’t be a hero being a girl. A character for me wasn’t a boy or a girl, it was a person and the story was that of a person. Their gender was coincidental like the colour of their hair and mine has never been more than that either. So are stories really sexist or is this obsession with gender that makes them so?

We are all characters in other people’s stories, and so other people are characters in our own. We all see the world through our lens in the end.

This does not negate Penny’s experience, and of course there are no comments from men who state they had no trouble seeing themselves in female protagonists… because that’s something that boys and men never have to do. Because they are not forced to imagine themselves as a hero of another gender, they’ve never had to learn (however unconsciously) to do that. As commenter Tapati McDaniels says:

[W]e have a world where girls grow up identifying closely with male heroes and putting ourselves into their shoes, understanding and relating to them. Do you think boys grow up identifying with women characters at ALL? It’s unlikely when the most potent insult to men and boys is either that they are girly or gay. Identifying with women characters would be threatening to them. I doubt a single boy (unless he doesn’t identify himself as such) imagines himself to be Hermione. Patriarchal narratives insure that empathy will continue to go one way only.

That’s why we need more women characters and also why we need to try to stamp out the feminine-as-insult model of boyhood. What kind of world might we make if BOTH boys and girls grew up imagining themselves in each others’ shoes and understood each other better as a result?

For that to happen, though, adult men would have to demonstrate to those marketers that they will go see movies with women in the hero role and in large numbers.

These are all things I’ve said before, many times. But now it’s time for you to talk about your experiences in this realm:

How easily do you identify with opposite-sex protagonists in movies (or TV, or books)?

I’m particularly interested to hear from men about whatever limited experience they might have being forced to identity with a female hero.

(If you have a suggestion for a Question, feel free to email me.)


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