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part of a small rebellion | 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.)

  • RogerBW

    I didn’t perceive this identification as anything other than a universal ability until I read people complaining that other people weren’t able to do it. (This Penny essay is the first time I’ve heard someone complain that she’s unable to do it herself; until now it’s been the censorship-style argument, “well, of course I am all right, but other people might be damaged”.)

  • Rebecca Dalmas

    I can often identify with a well-written character, male or female.
    On the other hand, my brain hurts trying to pin down what it means to identify with the “maleness” or “femaleness” of a person. I think that is actually different than identifying as a member of the same group. It’s easier for me to empathize with experiences. Identities, as some might call them, seem to me much more amorphous.
    Perhaps the closest I’ve come with self-identifying with another female based on femaleness–as opposed to being a member of the same appointed group–was someone else’s first period. At that moment I could visualize a line of women throughout all time being connected by our intimacy with blood and birth.
    So when talking about gender identity, there’s that common experience, mostly-universally shared by one gender, then there’s everything else culture attaches to that gender. Maybe :)

  • Danielm80

    When I was little, my favorite super-heroes were women. It was the ’70s, and I could watch shows like Wonder Woman and The Might of Isis. These were, arguably, terrible shows, but that didn’t stop me from having a super-heroine-themed birthday party. The other kids thought I was girly, and they thought I was gay, but I was too young to notice. When I got a little older, I developed male role models, like Spider-Man, and it probably had something to do with social pressure. The other kids still thought I was girly and gay, but that was because I liked comic books. Of course, now that I’m an adult, I have role models like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and I care a lot less whether people think I’m girly or gay. And as lousy as my childhood was, a lot of the time, I still hope there are boys who are watching Joss Whedon shows and asking their parents for Buffy-themed birthday parties.

  • Rebecca Dalmas

    I was little in the 70’s as well, but my superheroes were my older brothers, and at that time we didn’t have TV (unless dad rented one to watch the Dallas Cowboys in the Super Bowl.) I had to learn, much to endless regret, that punching someone was not an acceptable form of communication.

  • PJK

    Coming from the Netherlands, where comic books don’t follow the superhero tradition I got plenty of exposure to female protagonists in comic books.

    The main “heroic” female characters from my youth where Yoko Tsuno (a female electronics engineer who’s adventures include both time and space travel as well as more “mundane” adventures solving mysteries in our own time => http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yoko_Tsuno ) and Franka (a female private eye who’s adventures take her all over the world and include strong female opponents => http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Franka ).

    Both series started in the early seventies and I still buy every Yoko Tsuno album which is published (though I only read Franka in the public library).

    Currently I’m also reading the comic book series “Konvooi” (or Silage as it is called in France and Wake during its short run in the States => http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wake_%28comics%29 ) which chronicles the adventures of a young human female who joins a space traveling civilization of many races (the Convoy from the dutch title) after the planet she’s been stranded on since shortly after her birth is destroyed by one of those races. She becomes part of the security forces of the Convoy and has many interesting adventures whilst also trying to find out where she came from.

    Another series I’m currently reading is Carmen McCallum, whose protagonist is a female mercenary who manages to find herself embroiled in cases of serious political and social impact in the not to distant future ( http://www.librarything.com/series/Carmen+McCallum )

  • MisterAntrobus

    Funny that Ms. McDaniels would choose the Hermione example about males identifying with female protagonists, because that is exactly what came to mind for me when I saw the question. Most of the time, I did identify most readily with Hermione, the know-it-all nerd who’s overeager to do well in school, when I read the books. (I found myself annoyed with Harry and Ron’s casual attitude toward their studies, actually.) Of course, I read them when I was already pretty much an adult — I was in college when the first book was published. Still, I read the Beverly Cleary “Ramona” books when I was a wee lad, and don’t recall having any trouble identifying with the title character then. More recently, I’ve read a couple of William Gibson’s latest novels featuring female protagonists, and I’ve found them just as gripping as those which have featured men.

    All these examples, of course, are books. When there is a female protagonist in a film or television show, of course, my responses may be complicated by my own “male gaze” . . . and how the producers of TV and film cater to it. J.J. Abrams’ Alias comes instantly to mind. Sydney Bristow is supposed to be a brilliant, lethal, thoroughly professional super-spy, but there seems to be at least one moment in each episode which features her in some sexy outfit, always with a somewhat flimsy plot justification. And of course, when I started watching the Harry Potter movies, I found myself thinking, “wow, that little girl is going to be a knockout when she grows up,” then hating myself for thinking that . . . (I did turn out to be right, though.)

  • Repna

    I’m from Iceland, and the vast majority of comics from my youth (translated from various European countries) featured males, except, yes, Yoko Tsuno!

    And I loooooved Yoko. Sure, the other books were fun to read, but none of them got re-read or loved as much as Yoko. She had it all: smarts, aliens, cool technology, etc etc. She also looked really ‘normal’ and relatable, there were no ‘tits’ or ‘ass’ engorgements. She may even have played a part in why I ended up going into electrical engineering!

    They only ever translated three Yoko Tsuno books into Icelandic, but I loved them so much that I’ve since then bought a number of them in the original French (even though I hardly speak it), and now snatch up the English ones as they’re being republished by http://www.cinebook.co.uk/index.php?cPath=148_245

    So yes, a female protagonist imprinted more strongly on me than the males ever did when I was young and innocent.

    Sadly, by now I ‘know too much’ and am continually dismayed by what the ‘popular culture’ throws our way. And still haven’t found a comic-book role model to replace Yoko.

  • Jess Haskins

    Or how about in games? This is a big issue in the gaming world right now, where players have traditionally had to project themselves onto a heroic male avatar, barring the odd surprise like Samus Aran’s gender reveal at the end of Metroid (I was playing as a GIRL the whole time?!). The industry is full of excuses for why it doesn’t make financial or market sense to include playable female characters (it would cost twice as much to model and animate a second female avatar, men can’t identify with a female main character and would stay away in droves!), and there have been some kind of shocking stories lately about the ACTUAL POLICY at certain publishers who refuse to greenlight projects with a female main character.

    Not too long ago Ron Rosenberg, an executive producer on the latest Tomb Raider game, got himself into quite a bit of hot water by saying, “When people play Lara [Croft], they don’t really project themselves into the character. They’re more like ‘I want to protect her.’ There’s this sort of dynamic of ‘I’m going to this adventure with her and trying to protect her.'”

    And: “She’s definitely the hero but— you’re kind of like her helper. When you see her have to face these challenges, you start to root for her in a way that you might not root for a male character.”

    He caught a lot of flak for those comments, which is a good sign that some things in the industry and the gaming press are changing, but he said them with a straight face, which is a good sign that there’s a long way to go.

  • Owen Smith

    Personally I’ve never had a problem identifying with male or female heroes in books and films. However I do feel there are too few female protaganists, and often when there is one she’s the token female in a group of adventurers and therefore has no personality other than “the chick”. If there were a group of female adventurures with just one male would he be characterless and just there as “the bloke”? I doubt it.
    I know a number of computer games developers who work for Frontier. I remember discussing a game with them during development a few years ago, and later discovered it had been greenlighted with just one change forced on them by the publishers: the character you played had to be changed from female to male because the publishers thought men wouldn’t buy a game where they had to play a female character (and this at a time when Lara Croft games were at the height of their success).

  • Matt Clayton

    Glad I wasn’t the only one who enjoyed reading the Ramona series. I loved how awkward and normal she was, her occasional fights with Beezus, and how funny and resourceful she was. (Her sibling fights reminded me of my fights with my little brother.)

    I don’t have a problem identifying with opposite sex protagonists, provided they’re strong, well-rounded and interesting.

  • PJK

    I checked your link and it looks like they’re really messing with the publishing order of the books. I hope that they’ll at least will keep the order in which the other books are published intact because while each book somewhat stands on it’s own, sometimes there are recurring characters introduced which would “fall out of the sky” for readers if not introduced beforehand.

    The current selection available consists of original book number 7, 11, 12, 9, 16, 17 and 1, which as you can see is a bit of a strange sub selection. My guess is that they probably didn’t want to tackle the older books first (where Roger Leloup’s drawing style was still developing) and that meant cutting out the Vinea books which started with book 1.

    At least now they can add those books into the publishing schedule, i guess. >B’)

  • PJK

    I thought that it was a brilliant choice they made for Elite, when they named the protagonist “Commander Jameson” since it doesn’t imply gender at all.

  • Patrick

    Dr. Beverly Crusher

    She never backed down from an argument with anyone–including Captain Picard. She was principled and dignified. And she saved the day almost as much as her son did.

    But, her character is often overlooked, if not put down because

    1. She’s *gasp* in a caregiver role and that makes a woman WEAK!

    2. She’s mild mannered–another unforgivable sign of weakness!

    Because a female character is only strong if she’s a loud, in-your-face asskicker who’s always looking out for number one first and foremost.

    Because all strong male characters are loud, in-your-face, asskickers looking out for number one…wait, they’re not? You mean, there can be nuance and variety in what constitutes strength and power how it’s expressed? Nah! Violence and hostility is the true mark of strength as we all know.

  • OnceJolly

    I think that the word “identification” is being used in a stronger way that I normally think of it. I can take an ensemble of fictional (or real) people and identify with them in various ways (a general view of the world, an emotional response to a situation, a passion for certain subject matter, etc.) without (I think) ever strongly fantasizing about being in their skin (and in some sense being them). As a (male) child, I read YA mystery novels, including the Three Investigators, the Hardy Boys, and Nancy Drew. And while I might have been conscious around my peer group with regards to the latter (though my close friends at the age, all male, didn’t see to care much) I don’t really remember giving any thought to being any of the characters in these series (though Jupiter Jones reminded me of a friend at the time). More generally, I don’t think that my enjoyment of fiction relies on the strong identification implied in the article above.

    That said, there *were* fictional characters that I did strongly identify in my childhood and adolescence. Wolverine of the X-Men comes to mind, and while there was a number of female characters from the series that I quite liked (Rogue, Storm and Kitty Pride), I never had any strong interest in playing them in the RPG systems I was playing at the time. Though when I did, I think it was more of an exploration of adolescent sexuality (what would it feel like to have a woman’s body? What does a woman’s body feel like?).

    Without diminishing anyone’s need for appropriate role-models, I don’t think my enjoyment of fiction requires strong identification with the characteristics. I had no interest in being Gregory House, or the characters from The Wire or Buffy, but I still enjoyed all those series. The idea of needing identifiable heros often seem to be tied to stories that rely heavily on wish fulfillment (action/SF/comic book films); at this stage of my life, I’m not really drawn to these kind of stories.

  • Patrick

    I apologize for the tone of the previous post. In real life, I’m mild mannered, and while I’m not in a caregiver role, my parents are–and are some of the strongest people I have ever known.

    My hackles automatically get raised whenever this subject comes up, because it sounds (and I emphasize *sounds*) that there’s a narrow criteria for constitutes a strong character.

  • Julian Porter

    (1) I don’t see this as something that one sex or the other does. I see it as a function of the quality of the material (literary or dramatic) being experienced. A high quality text will make the author identify with the protagonist whether male / female or a tri-gendered alien something or other. For example, Alan Moore’s ‘The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’ is an great text, and forces its reader to identify with the very dominant and very non-macho Mina Murray; the rather dreadful film of the same name reduced her to a hanger-on and went for macho.
    (2) I don’t think it’s fair to say that the potential for experience of identifying with another sex is limited for men. It is limited only if you limit yourself to the lowest form of trash culture. Good literature has been dominated by women for centuries, non-mainstream comics are currently very much woman-centric, and such as there still is of art-cinema is neither here nor there on the matter. Even the collapse of mainstream cinema is only recent. It’s not that long since Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Lauren Bacall et al bestrode the world like colossi. Now we have to look to the rare visionary like Lars von Trier to remedy the situation. Likewise in comics.

    Anyway, I have no trouble identifying with women characters. In fact, I nearly always identify with women characters, even if they are not the protagonists.

  • I’ve never really thought about it, honestly. I just read books, play games, watch movies, etc. and enjoy the story no matter who the main character is. I’ve never been one to put myself in someone else’s shoes. I’m sure I dreamed of being a hero, and was influenced by entertainment, but I didn’t want to be Luke Skywalker or Indiana Jones. I wanted(still want?) to be the hero as ME. So it wouldn’t matter whether the hero of the story was male or female. Sadly, I can’t recall many(any?) females that may have influenced me growing up.

  • Another Ramona reader here! Loved them all and re-read them all.

  • I’m playing that game right now. I love it.

    I don’t project myself into the characters that I play in games. I always see it as someone else’s story. Kind of like when reading a book, or watching a movie. So it doesn’t matter whether the character I control is male or female as long as the story is decent and the game is fun to play.

  • Because most stories, especially stories with any kind of heroism involved default to male protagonists, men have the luxury of choosing whether or not to explore female led narratives. That’s not to say that I haven’t done so from time to time.

    Take for example the character of Kitty Pryde in the X-Men comic books.
    She’s the only Jewish character on the team and, as a Jewish Reader, that made her a
    character I quickly and easily latched on to. Yes, she’s female, but she had an easy point of relation that allowed me to really become interested in the character.

    Another work where I felt really strong identification with a female lead character was in Pan’s Labyrinth where I felt incredibly strongly towards Ofelia, using stories as a means of coping with a horrific world.

    I think that, so long as there’s a fundamentally human point of access to the character it’s easy to associate with characters of the opposite sex. It just requires having an open mind about it, which is sadly less common that I think it should be.

  • Matt Clayton

    It is a shame that the movie adaptation missed the point of the Ramona books. It was pretty much a “best of” movie with all the famous scenes from the book series incorporated in the narrative.

    And Beezus is supposed to be an ordinary teenager, not some gorgeous Disney star like Selena Gomez. Joey King was a great Ramona though.

  • Repna

    Yeah, I noticed that too. I’m not a big fan of the ‘older’ style Yoko, so I’m not crazy bothered, but I can’t help but scratch my head at it a bit.

    That said, they only ever translated Vols. 12, 13, and 14 into Icelandic, so I never really had the backstory anyway…

    Oh, and according to amazon.co.uk the next English one is coming out on 4 July and it’s Vol. 2, so maybe they’re getting back on track? http://www.amazon.co.uk/Yoko-Tsuno-Vol-Roger-Leloup/dp/1849181640/

  • dwa4

    Limiting ourselves to the specific question asked and with some of the qualifications that OnceJolly characterized, I think I am able to “identify” with opposite sex protagonists a significant amount of the time. I would propose, maybe too optimistically, that being able to identify with (or not) a protagonist has more to do with the situation they are placed in and their character and resultant actions rather than their gender.

    Perhaps my favorite protagonist of any movie series (actually debatable if she is truly the protagonist but I can make a weak to moderate case for her being the protagonist…certainly major character) is Pamela Landy in the story arc of the Bourne series. She is highly professional, driven, focused. She is placed in a situation that ultimately is to serve the purposes of somebody else and then used as the scapegoat when things go bad. Not only is she able to decipher that, she is able to come into a situation where she believes or is presented with assumptions and conclusions regarding another character, analyze them, and debunk them coming to the proper conclusion. When she is working with/against Voson, she is able to recognize Bourne is with Nicky Parsons in the Madrid house even when Parsons says he isn’t and is able to communicate with him, against her superior’s desires. Ditto when she was able to communicate the location of the original facility by giving Bourne the address disguised as his birthdate. When everyone else wanted to track Daniels by looking for active phones, she knew it was more logical to look for those who had their phones off and match those people to the initials on the evidence from the reporter’s room. And she is able to stand up to her antagonists with some snark…”enjoy your eggwhites”. The fact that she is a woman operating in what appears to be a male dominated culture where the men are trying to take advantage of her adds to the character. Ultimately, I don’t identify with her because she is a woman. I see her stand up when the odds are against her in a culture/situation that is set up to use her for the wrong purpose and yet, through intelligence, analysis and shrewd actions, she is able to rescue herself and Bourne as well as defeat the antagonists. That is a person I can identify with. Joan Allen does an outstanding job bringing that character to life.

  • Ben

    People are not defined SOLELY by their gender. Neither are fictional characters. I am a straight male who has found myself identifying with many female characters over the years – because I find that aspects of their personality or belief system I find relatable, regardless of their physical makeup…. one example is Sarah from the Jim Henson film “Labyrinth”. As an adolescent, I felt lonely and something of an outsider, and would retreat into fantasy fiction and other geeky paraphernalia for escapism. And I must admit, I had some of the same whiny and self-pitying tendencies that Sarah has in the movie as well. The fact that she was a girl didn’t stop me from understanding what she was going through, seeing bits of myself reflected in the character or enjoying the film…. also, as a “Doctor Who” fan, I have often found The Doctor’s female companions to be more sympathetic, interesting and relatable than The Doctor himself. The Doctor is an alien, with an alien sense of morality and sometimes that can be a bit… well… “alienating” to me as a viewer, and I find myself relating more to his companion’s view of the situation. The fact that so many of The Doctor’s companions were women was never an issue for me in identifying with them – for me, it is always the character’s personality and belief system that determine how closely I identify with them, not their gender. I took the view of “Alessia” quoted in the article: “A character for me wasn’t a boy or a girl, it was a person and the story was that of a person”…. and furthermore, I feel no shame in saying that I can identify with female protagonists.

  • dwa4

    Nice recovery! I find the majority of healthcare workers, usually as a matter of survival, to be tenaciously strong.

  • Never bothered with the movie. Sounds like I made a good call.

  • amanohyo

    When I was in middle school, every grocery store, 7-11, and arcade had at least one Street Fighter II cabinet, and I identified strongly with Chun Li because she used a lot of kicking attacks and relied on speed, high priority pokes, and timed chains, which meshed well with my playing style and personality.

    I distinctly remember one of my friends at school asking me, “Have you seen that Chinese chick in Street FIghter?”

    “Yeah!” I answered, figuring he was going to reveal some new strategy or combo he had discovered.

    “She’s so hot. In some of the moves you can see her panties”

    I waited for more, but that was it. Eventually I managed to mumble, “Oh… uh, yeah, her legs are really muscular.”

    Maybe it’s because I watched a lot of cheesy Kung Fu movies with female leads growing up, but the weird thing is that until my friend made that observation, I had never thought about Chun-Li in a sexual way. She was just another fighter in the tournament who was out to take revenge for her father’s murder. Oh, and more importantly she had (and has) a wicked low forward and standing fierce.

    Ditto for Samus. My best friend told me about the Justin Bailey code, and after I used it I thought, “Oh, it’s a girl inside the suit, that’s cool.” My friend was shocked that I wasn’t turned on by seeing a pixelated leotard. The idea of objectifying her never really crossed my mind. Of course I identified with her… who else in the game could I identify with?

    As graphics have improved and cutscenes have become more prevalent, it’s become much easier for the male gaze to assert itself (and with increasing frequency the female gaze… which might be a good thing in the short run. In the long run… I’m not sure). That’s my primary issue with most “TripleA” modern games – no matter how wonderfully produced and well-written the cutscenes are, suddenly you aren’t playing the game anymore, you’re watching the game play itself, and that opens up the possibility for you to view the character as a puppet or an object that can be controlled. There’s always a disconnect between the character you were controlling, and the character robotically walking (or being transported) to it’s preassigned spot and rattling off (usually horribly written) lines (although I haven’t played The Last of Us yet – supposedly it handles these transitions well).

    Fighting games in particular offer a nice glimpse into the process of identification because when you’re first learning a character, the relationship is clearly one between a user and a toy/tool. The motions are awkward – you have to experiment for a while and operate like a machine (this is true of any game of course, but the gradient is much smoother and wider for a good fighter).

    However, once a player has really learned a character, they can’t help but identify with it regardless of gender because the distance between thought and action has shrunk to the point where the motions are automatic. While the fight is happening, it’s pure gameplay and there’s really no choice but to identify fully if you want to improve and win, especially if the character and fighting system are well-designed.

    One of my main issues with many modern Japanese games is that when the main character is female, there seem to be more and more fan-service moments that undermine a lot of the character development and intentionally disrupt the identification process. In SF Alpha/Zero 2, Chun Li’s costume was designed to be more practical and in line with the rest of her character design (she is supposed to be a police officer after all), but there was such an outcry that Capcom returned to the more revealing, impractical costume for the following games. There are more and more special moves, superfluous poses, and costume designs that are made specifically so that a player can ogle the character (Mai Shiranui being the most ubiquitous and er.. seminal example).

    It has gotten to the point where there are fewer and fewer games developed in Japan that I actually feel comfortable playing – and that’s a real shame because I generally favor the gameplay over narrative approach (or as I prefer to say, narrative via gameplay).

    That said, I’m encouraged that Nintendo is finally making Peach playable again in a marquee platformer after 25 years (pretending that Super Princess Peach never existed) and am looking forward to seeing if Bayonetta 2 can subvert any of the stereotypes it seems to embrace. Remember Me and Lollipop Chainsaw were disappointing.

    On the western front, obviously most people think Bioware and Bethesda are moving in the right direction, but I’m also curious to see how Mirror’s Edge 2 turns out (and like everyone else to find out if Beyond Good and Evil 2 ever becomes more than a teaser trailer).

    Over the past couples years the number of stories about female main characters in games and female game developers have taken off and gained a lot of support from both men and women of all ages. Not too long ago the Kotaku and IGN communities (even gamasutra to a certain extent)) were cesspools of oblivious male-privilege and sexist asshaberdashery, and I’m shocked to see how they’ve almost become civil… for brief moments… sometimes dare I say it, even intelligent and reasonable. Gamers really are growing up – brings a tear to my jaded eye.

    Of course, 1Up was shut down soon after Parish and Silva led the feminist cultural revolution, and the backlash against Anita Sarkeesian and #1ReasonWhy shows that there’s still a long way to go as you say. However as long as thoughtful people like you find ways to join and stay in the industry while preserving their love of the work and the medium (not to mention their sanity and health), I’m sure the future of gaming will be in good hands. I love, love, love movies, but I know deep down that more than any other medium, gaming has an enormous potential to drive positive social change, not by becoming didactic, but just by doing what it does best – making people feel free, capable, brave, and in control of their own destiny.

  • Todd Parker

    I’ve never at any point cared much about the gender of a protagonist except in so far as it actively affects the story. Having grown up watching anime and playing video games (old ones, the ones where gender representation was far more equal than it is now), I’ve always felt that heroic qualities have nothing to do with gender. Skill, strength of will, perseverance, purity of heart, those have nothing to do with private parts or public roles.

  • Jess Haskins

    Not much to say except thanks for the really great and thoughtful reply.

    Also, I think I’m going to have to start using the term “asshaberdashery” more. Sadly, I’m sure I’ll have plenty of opportunities.

  • BrianJKelly

    I grew up reading New Mutants and X-Men, which featured female characters I was just as able to identify with as the male characters. I’m also a lifelong role-player, and about half of my characters are female, so I’m used to identifying with them as strongly as male characters. I’ll definitely admit I didn’t have as much of opportunity in movies and TV, but I can think of a few off-hand – V.I. Warshawski, Samantha Caine / Charly Baltimore in Long Kiss Goodnight, Velma from Scooby-Doo (she’s who *I* identified with on the show)…

  • singlestick

    I suppose that growing up I often identified with a male hero. As an adult, I don’t think I particularly “identify” with any protagonist (or villain) just because of that character’s gender. But also growing up, I was a huge fan of SF, and some of my favorite authors were women (e.g. Andre Norton). Even though her protagonists were often male, here I think I identified with Norton (as opposed to any of her characters) because I was interested in possibly becoming a writer when I grew up.

    As another poster noted, I equally valued the male and female characters in X-Men. And, for a lot of reasons, I especially seek out books, movies, TV shows that are gender and ethnically diverse. And some of the works that I think are among the best of any medium include “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and the woman-centered TV show about prison internees in World War II Singapore, “Tenko.” Toss in DCI Jane Tennison from “Prime Suspect” as well, a female protagonist who I admire just as much as I do other favorite British TV detectives such as Foyle and Inspector Morse.

  • singlestick

    RE: She’s *gasp* in a caregiver role and that makes a woman WEAK!

    Funny, I never thought about the character in this way. I thought she was a variation of Dr “Bones” McCoy in the original Trek, but I didn’t think her character was as successful or as charismatic. I put most of the responsibility for this on the show’ writers. I also realize that I didn’t like her because I detested her son Wesley, so maybe there was a little guilt by association going on here. Also, Bones McCoy was NEVER a loud in-your-face asskicker. I just don’t think that Crusher stood out much or was particularly distinctive. The same was oddly true of Diana Muldaur’s Chief Medical Officer Pulaski in the second season of Next Generation, and of Paul Fix and John Hoyt, who were the doctor’s in the original Trek pilot and the earliest aired original Trek episode.

  • Jim Mann

    Even when I first read the Harry Potter books, I wasn’t close to being a boy (I’m 57 now), but Hermione was the Harry Potter character I alway identified with — and I think I would have when I was younger.

  • dwa4

    “but I didn’t think her character was as successful or as charismatic. I put most of the responsibility for this on the show’ writers”

    In general I would agree about the writers not giving her the greatest solo shows. She had 2 episodes pretty well dedicated to her..Remember Me was , I thought, a good storyline to work with, and Subrosa, which was lacking quite a bit.

    She did, however, get a lot of nice juicy roles and lines in other episodes. Cause and Effect, Attached, The Big Goodbye, Iborg, Data’s Day and High Ground were very good stories in which she played a major, if not the major role. I loved her in Iborg and Data’s Day but…I find her performances almost distracting in a lot of the other episodes. Would be tough to be side by side to patrick stewart…most of the cast suffers compared to him.

    Just in looking at those roles, it seems she got a lot more play that McCoy did. Would have to look at TOS episodes but I don’t remember him having as many good roles as I just listed for Crusher.

  • Jonathan Roth

    I’m going to take this in a slightly different direction. Like others here, I never had problem identifying with women as main characters; some of my favourite films as a child were Secret of NIMH and the Americanized version of Miyazaki’s “Nausicaa”. These days, I choose female characters in games when offered just as readily as male characters.

    What I will admit to, however, was suffering from “femmephobia”. It was easier to deal with the embarrassment and social pressure from liking things for younger children (like Sesame Street) than it was to like toys for my age group targeted for girls.

    Pink and purple were anathema, and playing with those meant something was wrong with a boy. I would not be caught dead looking in the girl’s section of the toy store. This is the sort of attitude that helps promote LBGT fears, as well as the viewing of girl-coded things as being untouchable.

    I’m a little better at that these days (I still have negative connotations towards pink and purple that way), but the sad truth is that while I had no problem with identifying with female characters in media, I would not watch it if it was branded “for girls”.

  • In my experience, it’s the writing that encourages or limits my ability to identify with a character, without regard to that character’s gender. Specifically, if characters make decisions I agree with or consider “smart”, I will more closely identify with them. The dumber they are, or the more muddled their motivations, the more difficult it is to get inside their skins.

    So, writing, writing, writing. Gender is meaningless in good storytelling (unless it’s a story about gender I guess?).

  • That’s an excellent way to describe it, RogerBW. it is unsettling sometimes to hear people talking about not being able to put themselves in another’s shoes just because of gender, or race, or religion, etc… doesn’t make sense to me. A good character is good regardless of demographic descriptors.

  • Skill, strength of will, perseverance, purity of heart

    FemShep for life!

  • I’d argue that her character wasn’t overlooked so much by the audience as it was by the writers. They seemed to have difficulty coming up with things for her to do (one of the reasons McFadden quit after season 1).

    EDIT: and I see now others have made this point much more eloquently than me already. GMTA etc.

  • We’ve got a spectrum just like everybody else. But the good healthcare workers are quite strong. :)

  • Well said!

    I discovered an interesting emotional dynamic related to gaming, specifically modding games. As a scientist (ahem) I find it important to experiment with new technologies as I find them… uh… and anyway so I discover there’s a texture modification that adds nude character models to Mass Effect 2. For science, I tried it out.

    I play the main character, Commander Shepard, as female. The game works better for me that way, and I find the male version to be a weird interloper whenever he pops up in videos / playthroughs, etc.. She’s the only Shepard, in my opinion.

    So I try this “nude mod” out and discovered something interesting about myself and my ability to (I suppose) identify with fictional characters… I was not at all interested in seeing Shepard nude. It felt like a violation. This character who I’d “played” for hours and hours had become (and continues to be) a vibrant presence in my mind. I attribute this less to her gender and more to the great writing and a fantastic vocal performance. But the point was, I identified with her in a way that I did not anticipate. I was still comfortable “violating” the other female characters in the game with this texture modification, but not Shepard.

    I know that’s kind of a creepy weird story, but it felt germane. And, uh, it was years ago. At least 3.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    TNG’s writers had trouble coming up with things to do for every character who wasn’t Picard, Data, or Worf.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    For science. :)

    I’m not sure of the relevance, but I credit a lot of the popularity of FemShepard on Jennifer Hale, a much better voice actor, giving a much better performance than Mark Meer as MaleShepard. Given that the game play is identical for both, and the story doesn’t deal with gender issues (homosexual romantic pairings notwithstanding), it seems the most likely answer.

  • Riker should have been killed early on, to give Picard a real motivation to do all those away missions himself, and so they could drop the “But sir, I should go!” “No, no, number one, this will be an easy mission I’ll be fine” “Oh all right I’ll just hang out here and make poker allusions”

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Well, that was just a bad decision from day 1: “Here, for the sake of ‘realism’, let’s be sure to keep our main character as far from the action of the stories as possible.”

    The story goes that Riker existed as a hedge in case audiences didn’t care for Picard and wanted a Kirk-clone in the lead role.If that’s true, they made a mess of the idea. In addition to being prepared to exercise whatever escape clauses they had installed into Stewart’s contract, they should have had a few actors on speed-dial to step in. It didn’t have to be John Frakes, either. He seems like a really nice guy, but he’s a soap opera actor, and L.A. is full of them.

    To bring it back to the topic at hand, Roddenberry should have, at least, gone back to his own Star Trek roots and made the first officer character a woman. I think he tried to create some real gender diversity in the crew, but what he really ended up doing was overloading the cast. Crosby may have messed up the idea of the gender dynamics when she left, but she was right in thinking that her character wasn’t going to get much attention from the writers. The cast was just too big.

    If I were to go back and remake TNG from scratch, I’d combine the characters of Riker and Troi into a female XO with special alien plot powers, and eliminate either LaForge or Yar, probably LaForge, but cast a non-white actress as Yar (Angela Bassett was probably available at the time). That would split the characters up nicely. 3 male, 3 female. 3 human, 3 non-human.

  • That seems to be the common consensus, and I certainly agree. Hale’s performance was stellar.

  • Michael Ewins

    The easy answer to this is: very easily, and always have.

    Sure, when I was younger I watched ‘Power Rangers’, ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’, read Spider-Man comics, collected Action Man toys and played videogames about soldiers, but I was never afraid to, shall we say… peek over the fence at what appealed to girls – perhaps because I had more friends who were girls than friends who were boys. I tell this as an amusing anecdote now, but for my eighth (possibly ninth) birthday I had a Little Mermaid birthday cake – which aroused laughter from many of my chums, some nice chuckles and some mean-spirited – because she was my favourite Disney character, and to me a real hero.

    What I identified in Ariel was a desire to live in and be accepted by a greater world than the one I was in – to accomplish this she had to go through radical physical and emotional changes, which everybody in my peer group – male and female, albeit with major differences – was experiencing at that time. I don’t know if it would read that way now (it feels like the film has some dodgy politics I missed as a kid), but I loved her spirit, I loved the film’s sense of adventure – she was the only character I could have had on my birthday cake.

    Later on, Hermione *was* the character I identified with in Harry Potter, because she was the geek, like me. She was resistant to adventure, cautious of stepping out of the boundaries, like me. Hermione and I, we were not the rebels. Nor the trendsetters.

    Soon I got into the obvious stuff that every geek loves – Buffy and Tomb Raider, but in any videogame where the option is allowed to play as a female character, it’s now always the one I take. More often than not I do this for the sake of variety; as a man, I’m sick of playing as men – the same old cardboard cut-out gruff with a chip on his shoulder. Characterization has got a lot better in games recently, for men too, but especially for women, so I play as them.

    Recently the mumblecore wave has offered interesting roles to women. In the way that it portrays the uncertainty of your twenties, I’m relating to Tiny Furniture and Girls in a big way. I have empathy for these women because I know them. They exist in my life.

    For all these reasons and a few more, despite knowing how serious an issue there is with gender representation in media and strong female characters, I’ve never actually felt that divide. I’ve always identified with female protagonists or even supporting characters, always liked their stories, always talked about them with female friends. I hope that some of my experience is echoed down the line here. It would be a shame if men are finding it hard to identify with women in popular culture.

    In my experience, identification has never been “forced”.

  • Neil Duckmanton

    I have never had a problem identifying with female characters or male characters. As long as a character is well conceived, well written (and in the case of dramatic media well played), I have no problem empathising with them. I also don’t have a problem identifying with fictional characters who are not the protagonist or identifying with more than one character at the same time.

    I am male and grew up with an older sister. We together with each other’s toys: Sindy’s, Action Man, He-Man, Star Wars, Scalextric, Lego, Playmobil – sometimes combining different toylines (long before crossovers were everywhere you looked). Our parents encouraged us not to see people who were a different gender or race to us as ‘other’ or ‘alien’ to us. If we behaved badly or were thoughtless to other people, we would be told to think about how our behaviour made that other person feel. We would have got short shrift if we had said we couldn’t possibly because they were a different gender to us. We never did though, because people were just people, and all people have the same basic emotions, regardless of how we look on the outside.

    I am sad that so much of fiction these days is ghettoised. If a story has a female protagonist and largely female characters it’s classed as ‘chick lit’ and male readers are discouraged from going anywhere near it (when perhaps it might do them good if they did). Authors such as Fay Weldon and Alexander McCall Smith, write about a wide variety of character of different genders, ages, and nationalities – and from many different perspectives. Dracula written by a man, has a large portion of its text written from the perspective of it’s heroine, Mina. Frankenstein, written by a woman, has two male narrators. The Bronte Sisters’ stories
    have largely female protagonists but were widely read by men, as was Jane Austen’s work (famously the Prince Regent owned all her published work and was a fan of hers). Female readers in the nineteenth century had little problem identifying with the struggles of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Perhaps society’s lack of universal empathy is a fairly modern thing.

  • Female readers and movie watchers today have no problem identifying with male protagonists. We are *able* to do so. But we shouldn’t be asked to do so the vast majority of the time.

    Do you think you’d start to get a little annoyed with the assumption that you would identify with female protagonists if 90 percent of movies featured them, rather than men?

  • Neil Duckmanton

    I would not be annoyed about having to identify with anyone who had perceived differences from me (i.e. of a different gender, race, nationality, age, of a different time, or even a different species as in Bambi, Watership Down, Mrs Frisby and the Rats of Nimh etc.). I do find it annoying that there is such a severe imbalance between male and female characters in mainstream cinema and TV. It’s equally annoying that whenever the balance tips the other way the film or TV programme is marketed as a women’s picture, alienating half of it’s potential audience. The message from the marketing department to men, seems to be, ‘This film is not for you. Don’t watch it.’ This is just stupidity on their part and comes from the school of thought that men either cannot or shouldn’t be asked to identify with female characters or understand them in any way. On the other hand, action films featuring predominately male characters are marketed towards everyone.

    I am an effeminate gay male. When was the last time you saw one of those in a mainstream film, that was not a figure of fun, or minor supporting character. If a gay character is the protagonist, the film gets pushed into the LGBT genre by marketing, and heterosexuals are not expected to go and see it. I, on the other hand am expected to pay money to see films that portray a world where no one like me appears to exist, and it can get annoying cumulatively that I might have seen thirty newly released films and there were no gay characters in any of them.

    Heterosexual men appear to BE the mainstream in Hollywood. If a film has a predominately female cast then the marketing department and sometimes the film makers themselves give the impression that the film is ABOUT being female, and the posters and publicity will be printed in soft pastel colours (similar to female specific toy lines). If a film has even one gay character in it, it will be classed as being ABOUT gayness, and pushed into the ‘special interest’ bracket. (Do heterosexuals have difficulty identifying with gay characters? I am gay but don’t have much difficulty identifying with heterosexual characters of either gender. Do some heterosexuals fear identifying with gay characters? And do some heterosexual males fear identifying with women?)

    On the subject of the imbalance of male and female characters in films Geena Davis has some wise words on the subject:


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