[Author’s Note: Because of the readily available information on film, Hollywood, and demographics of America, most statistics given are relevant to that scope. However, that doesn’t undermine the central point, if anything it makes it stronger with the monolithic nature of American culture in the current world landscape.]
So, the somewhat recent Doctor Who recasting sparked a wildfire of debate about gender bending traditionally masculine characters. Now, look, in my original draft of this piece I was very unfair towards those who were against the decision. I want this article to be more even handed, because I get how it can seem. If you focus on what is being taken away, it can seem unfair. Like Dudley Dursley bemoaning that he has one less present than last year, rather than focusing on the increased size of some of the presents. You know.
I get how it can look like a trend. Ghostbusters created female analogues to the characters of the 1980s movies. Star Wars new trilogy features a female lead. Doctor Who has recently announced the recasting of an alien who can change their face when they die. Following the Doctor Who cast announcement, some clutched their blouses and worried about a female James Bond (an awesome idea and one that a podcast I rather enjoy, Movie Maintainance, examined in this episode of their podcast.
First, I’m going look at why female representation matters in the big picture. Ok, first things first, in a recent (2014) examination of women’s role in film it was found that women made up 12% of lead protagonists in film. More recently that number in 2016 was 29%. That does mean that the number of women protagonists on film has doubled, but it still means that women only make up less than one-third of protagonists.
Often another excuse for why women are underrepresented is an appeal to this idea that men make up the majority of the audience. They don’t. Women comprise 51% of the population and make up 52% of audiences. When it comes to audiences there should be another fact mentioned in the name of intersectionality. Asian film goers represent 14% of film goers while only being 8% of the population; Hispanic film goers represent 23% of film goers while making up 18% of the population. Racial representation is another issue that should potentially be touched on as part of this conversation, especially the intersection gender and race.
I once saw a video that explained this concept elegantly but have been unable to source it. Imagine you have two bowls. One has 71 Malteasers in it. The other bowl has 29 Malteasers in it. Then you’re told that only mean can eat from the bowl with 71 Malteasers and only women can eat from the bowl with 29 Malteasers. Now, the woman with the 29 Malteasers would feel pretty put out. Then imagine turning around and going ‘What are you complaining about? That’s twice as many as yesterday’. The woman would then point out that while the scales have been slowing inching towards a 50/50 split, you, as a man, have been getting 80ish Malteasers for 80 days in a row.
Now, imagine that you have to hand over one of your Malteasers. You now have one less Malteaser. That’s sad, but one Malteaser won’t change the fact that you’ve still got most of the Malteasers.
So, why does it matter? Isn’t the hero’s journey universal? Some might say it doesn’t matter that most protagonists are men. Women can see themselves as the hero in that context, yeah? Here’s why it matters. A little something called Cartesian duality. So, there was this dude called Rene Descartes. You know the guy. He thinks, therefore he is. Descartes proposed this idea that came to be known as Cartesian dualism (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jteIKYWAS4A). It’s basically a way of thinking in strict separate binaries. Mind/Body. Self/Other. Man/Woman.
Now, because the mind can influence the body but the body cannot influence the mind than Descartes gave a sort of hierarchy to these dualities. Mind over Body. Brains over Brawn. Self over Other. Man over Woman. Lots of these ideas fed into a patriarchal system where the winners get to decide what is the norm. Now, let’s be realistic, white guys were the winners of history. I’m a white guy living in Australia. I’m fairly well off and never experience racism, especially in the visceral physical way that those who don’t look like me have experienced. Most of the people around me, look like me, despite the fact that we weren’t the dominant force in this country up until about 300 years ago.
This can be a difficult thing to convince people of. If you agree with my assessment of the situation, you’re probably sitting there going ‘Yeah, no shit.’. If you don’t agree, you’re probably saying ‘Yeah, but it’s always been like that. Why should I be blamed for something other people in the distant past did?’. Think of it like you’re Oliver Queen. Oliver benefited from the shady stuff his dad did. He got to live in a nice house and party every other night because of his dad’s empire that often exploited the poorer citizens of Starling City. Oliver has been working for years to undo that system of inequality that his father helped create. To be better people, we have to actively work at undoing what those in the past did to put us where we are today.
So, why is gender bending important in contemporary media? Because the future has to be more equal than the past. I can’t put it in more basic terms than that. Films should represent a wider pool of experiences than just the experience of the white dude. If we lose those representations, then we might miss out on something we didn’t even know that we didn’t know about the experiences of others.