Emasculation not required

It used to be that women in stories were incompetent.  Their only jobs were to a) look pretty and b) make the hero look good. (Even the villainesses.) They got in trouble so the hero could rescue them; they asked dumb questions so the hero could demonstrate his knowledge; they stood around spectating so the hero could have an audience for his great deeds. Which of course made men feel good about themselves, as they projected themselves into the hero’s place.

But it didn’t make women feel so good. They had a choice between a) identifying with the villainess — who loses, b) identifying with the heroine — who “wins” by being the real protagonist’s prize, or c) identifying with the hero — who they could never be. And so, as women asserted themselves more as part of the audience, writers began trying to give them something to admire.

Unfortunately, too many of those writers treat the problem as a zero-sum game.

According to this way of thinking, the only way to make women more awesome is to make men less so. There’s a horrific pattern running through our culture right now, of the immature, uncivilized schlub of a man paired with a no-nonsense alpha bitch of a woman. The problems with that are twofold: first, this is often presented for comedic effect (haha, isn’t it funny to reverse reality this way, making women the effective ones), and second, the tail of that idea often curves back around, like a scorpion’s stinger, and fills the audience with poison. Lots of men don’t enjoy seeing themselves as caricatures of uselessness — why should they? And since the narrative insists this is how women become strong — by cutting inferior men off at the knees — the female characters become their own kind of caricature: strident, controlling shrews with no humanity or nuance, who make men’s lives a misery.

Until, of course, the moment of reversal at the end of the story, when the hero usually manages to reassert himself in some fashion, taking the pants back from the woman who’s stolen them all movie long.

I say movie because again, I think this is more of a film thing than a book one, though it shows up in both media. (Also in comics, video games, and every other narrative form we’ve got.) Romantic comedies are particularly venomous in this respect — not all of them, but the cheap, disposable films like The Ugly Truth that depend on horrific stereotypes for their supposed humor. The war of the sexes has become bitter indeed, Hollywood tells us. And it’s because women are no longer satisfied with their traditional victory, being overmastered by and awarded to the man who controls the story. These days, we want to cut his balls off.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. One of the things that pleased me about Mr. and Mrs. Smith was that, while it went for a few of the expected cheap shots, ultimately it didn’t structure itself as zero-sum: she didn’t win by his losing, and he didn’t win by her losing. They both won, and they did so without either of them losing their strength. I vividly recall the moment in the narrative where I assumed, bone-deep, that Brad Pitt’s character was about to reclaim his primacy by busting out as the Manly Man over Angelina Jolie’s suitably Weak Woman, and it didn’t happen. I just about melted with glee.

We have models for this kind of story. It’s called the buddy movie. Not “a hero and his sidekick,” but two characters working side-by-side, each doing their part, without it coming at the expense of their partner. So why this conviction that men and women can’t be buddies? I don’t mean “friends without any romantic complication,” though I’d certainly like to see more of that, too. I mean equals. Two people who strengthen each other, rather than weaken. The closest we ever seem to come is the Mulder and Scully clones populating TV, the mystical touchy-feely men paired with hard-bitten rational women. But since we equate mysticism and emotion with the lesser status of femininity — and since these are generally spec-fic shows, where the supernatural really is real — then the balance must be restored by having the man be almost invariably right, in the face of his partner’s close-minded doubt. Only then is he a man again. The good writers can make it work, having both characters provide real value to the process, but in the bad cases it’s more of the same: the women are a drag on the men, holding them back and making them less, until the woman is proven wrong and the status quo returns.

It isn’t a zero-sum game. Strong women do not have to come at the cost of emasculated men. And men don’t have to hate women for taking away something that used to be theirs. As they tried to teach us in kindergarten, we can share. And you know, it’s a happier world when we do.

Filed under Uncategorized. You can also use to trackback.

There are 21 comments. Get the RSS feed for comments on this entry.

  1. 1. Sam

    Well put again.

    As a brit, I’m constantly horrified by just how heavily US “culture” (or at least the stuff that gets exported over here) seems to be stuck in this “gender war” concept.

    Don’t get me wrong, british culture has its fair share of inequality and sexism, but there doesn’t seem to be a constant undercurrent of “men and women are fundamentally different beasts” and hostility between the two.

    The whole “men are from mars, women are from venus” thing doesn’t seem to be so ingrained as it appears in the US.

    Of course, I’m only speaking from my own experience, maybe I’m just lucky in the people I’ve met, but it always strikes me hard whenever I see a hollywood film, or US TV series, and I wonder if it’s just me.

    I guess I’m saying that sexism is a problem in many societies, but this particular expression of it seems very american.

  2. 2. Shakatany

    I still think the original Mrs Emma Peel and John Steed pairing remains unsurpassed even after 40 odd years. I remember in the early days of feminist wonder of looking forward to more such relationships…I’m still looking *sigh*

  3. 3. Marie Brennan

    Sam — I get that impression, yeah. Catherynne Valente was posting recently on her LJ about the horrific Super Bowl commercials this year, and a number of responses from Brits made it sound like things aren’t so bad on your side of the pond.

    Shakatany — Haven’t seen that one, but we could line up other examples 40 years old that are better than half the stuff we have now. Our progress, it has not progressed so much as we might hope.

  4. 4. Becca Stareyes

    Actually, the female-male (or female-female) buddy piece in fantasy or SF is one of my major ‘I need this book’ things, especially if it is not driven by romantic tension*. Because I like the way it displays that you can have two strong people who are partners — that a strong female character doesn’t need to weaken herself or weaken her partner to be happy, and that she can be as assertive as her partner. (It was one reason I was happy when The Dresden Files hit its stride in that Harry finally got it through his head that Murphy might not have the supernatural knowledge he has (making her Scully to his Mulder), but that shielding her was just making it more likely someone would get hurt, and that her physical/mental fortitude and police connections made her able to keep up and lend a hand.)

    * Not that it can’t be romantic, but that half the inner monologue scenes don’t involve one or both mooning over the other, and the book/series ends when the relationship stabilizes as a romantic one. I want people who are friends and partners, whether or not they are also lovers or spouses.

  5. 5. molly

    Lovely article. I really liked MacKenzie Fegan’s response video to the Dodge Charger ad (the one that aired during the Super Bowl), but I did regret that the sort of overwhelmingly misogynistic tone of the original ad necessitated a just as vitriolic rejoinder. It’s sad. I, too, would like to see a return to the Peel/Steed model of things.

  6. 6. Marie Brennan

    Becca — I’m a sucker for that, too. Good solid partnerships of any kind, but bonus points if it crosses the gender line. Fringe (the TV show) is a satisfying recent example of the latter; in fact, I’ve generally been pleased with the way they handle Dunham as a Strong Character, Female rather than “Strong Female” Character.

    Molly — I saw somebody link that video, but didn’t end up watching it. I haven’t seen the original commercial, either; I’ve decided that I refuse to give Dodge another set of eyeballs.

  7. 7. Mac

    The whole “men are from mars, women are from venus” thing doesn’t seem to be so ingrained as it appears in the US.

    I honestly and sincerely believe that this can somehow be connected to the way violence and sex are treated in the U.S. media, as opposed to the U.K. (and Europe). Because nudity et cetera is so censored and regulated here, we pretty much suck, relatively, at showing the nuances of male-female relationships. (Or, I would say sexual relationships in general, but queer relationships are still so underrepresented in the blatantly-shown-media arena that I don’t think I have enough info to be capable of making the argument properly.)

    Sex remains either a world-changing prize or a world-changing mistake instead of something people do in relationships because they’re in relationships, and as a prize, it requires a battle to win it. Or a battle to recover from the aftershocks.

    I… really haven’t thought this through. :-)

  8. 8. Marie Brennan

    Mac — Ah, the unshakeable legacy of a country founded by Puritans. <sigh>

  9. 9. heteromeles

    Ummmm, Marie,

    I’d say it’s not that the country was founded by puritans (that was New England, (cough, cough Maryland, Virginia, Carolina, ahem!!!!). Rather, the US is a country that fell hard for two party competing democracy, despite the fact that it’s not what the Founding fathers wanted.

    The combative duality shows up in Good vs. Evil, Men vs. Women, and of course White vs. Black (as in skin color matters–Henry Louis Gates points out that he has lots of Irish ancestors, but because of his black ancestors, he’s black).

    The combative duality shows up in some weird places. Take Wicca, for example. In many quarters, it’s a simple substitution of a duotheistic system for a monotheistic one, and it’s also the most popular Europagan religion in America. Truly polytheistic Europagan groups (such as the druids) are much smaller, despite the fact that they are often older.

    It’s interesting to debate whether the US got big into duality and spun that out into politics, or got big into dualistic politics, and spun that out into the rest of life, or whether they developed in tandem, due to the fact that North America was a haven for European religion extremists (read: absolutists) for centuries.

    Good point about the non-zero sum sharing thing. I was just puzzling out how to work out a romance in the story I’m writing, and that was a very timely and much appreciated reminder. Thanks!

  10. 10. Marie Brennan

    heteromeles — I don’t disagree that we’re big into the two-party thing here, but I don’t think that explains our culture’s rampant issues with sex. We simultaneously stigmatize and glorify it in a way I find really problematic.

  11. 11. heteromeles

    I was thinking about the duality, so I guess we’re not talking about the same thing. I understand your point though, but I think it’s part of a bigger problem.

    Our culture depends on addiction, whether it’s brand loyalty, greed (in consumer culture, salaries, or bigger, better houses that we don’t need and can’t afford), power, or real addiction to drugs both legal and illegal. Part of the draw of addiction is that it’s bad but it’s oh so good. That kind of thing.

  12. 12. peacerenity

    i don’t know. i think i actually prefer it this way, to be honest. and its because once you strip all of the mythology away from sex, what’s left is much smaller. much less special. sex with prostitutes or going to a strip club, that kind of sex doesn’t feel like sex to me, because it’s lost all of its emotional undertones. and im not necessarily saying that the forbidden nature of sex gives it its emotional undertones, just that a lot of times the forbidden nature gives the emotional undertones time to develop, and when it is finally done, it is done with the appropriate measure of gravity. because sex really is the most intimate thing that you can do with another person, which i think a lot of people forget. it’s not a bad, forbidden thing, but it’s also not something to be taken lightly/drunkenly/etc.

    people make a big deal about the casual european attitude towards sex, but personally, i think this is a case of the grass is greener on the other side. i dont want my society to have the exact same attitude towards sex that my college does. there’s a time for sowing your wild oats, and there’s a time to realize that what you do and who you do it with does matter. i hope i don’t ever live in an america where saying “i had sex last night” is greeted with a shrug.

    so in summary, no i dont like the weird forbidden nature of sex in america, but im willing to grin and bear it for the special nature that it lends sex.

  13. 13. Marie Brennan

    heteromeles — I was originally responding to Mac’s comment. The duality thing may very well play a role in dividing the genders from one another, but so may the treatment of violence and sex in U.S. media, and our incredibly fraught attitudes toward the latter, I do blame on the Puritans.

    peacerenity — If we could find some happy balance where we treat it as special without it also being half Forbidden Fruit, half Holy Grail, I would not complain. As it stands, I feel like we get the worst of both worlds: it’s treated like the world’s most important goal that you shouldn’t be trying to achieve. And so you end up with lots of negative side-effects, all over the playing field of gender relations — like the sense that sex is something women owe to men and yet our value as people is decreased if we give it away, or that men are not really men if they’re not getting any, etc. Those are consequences I’m not personally willing to grin and bear.

  14. 14. heteromeles

    @13: We’ll have to disagree on blaming the Puritans. Similar attitudes spring up elsewhere where the Puritans never landed (such as Muslim countries, parts of Asia, etc). One thing to consider is that, 100 years ago, a fraught attitude towards sexuality made sense, for women. This is not because women are inferior, but because women had to bear a vast majority of the medical problems associated with reproduction. Sex might be fun, but even if it worked right, it could very well kill you. In the first world, we’re mostly beyond that, yet the attitude persists. STDs pose another reason to consider sex both fun and dangerous.

    While I disagree on the cause, I agree with you that there are serious consequences to the attitude.

  15. 15. Elias McClellan

    Late to the game as usual but I would offer an observation or two. We’re more emasculated and conversely retro-verted by individual, personal stupidity than any all-encompassing movement. This is endemic to the Dodge ad. Chrysler’s pitch to the lowest common denominator is based on the fact that as a company, they’ve been handed their hat and are on their way to the door. Out-dated ads, out-dated attitudes, for out-dated products and business models. So long dinosaurs.

    For the Anglo-philes, I encourage a viewing of ‘Prime Suspects,’ made in the ’90s and show casing very real depictions of sexism and misogyny. The idea that this is an exclusively American, Christian, or even a Puritan-rooted problem is another generalization that fixes the blame but not the problem.

    Our society, like countless others, in attitudes of equality in cultural mediums, is constantly in flux. We had break out advances in attitudes toward women in the ’60s and ’70s, reflected in popular movies and books. Only to see a huge backlash in the ’80s. I was fond of blaming this on Regan; as I blame most things on Regan. Including jock itch. Then a professor at university hipped me to the notion that Regan didn’t steal the throne in a singular power grab, any more than Hitler seized Germany by spear and magic helmet, nor did Gandhi seized leadership of India through some arcane power; she’d been thrown out of office before. These men and woman were chosen and supported in their actions by the majority in their nations.

    Same thing in popular entertainment. Like politics, we advance and then scared little men (and occasionally, some scared little women too) regress and run for something safe. Some sheltering, familiar, generalization that takes them off the hook of personal responsibility and uncomfortable growth. For you consideration: ‘Mr and Mrs Smith,’ did nowhere near the business that ‘True Lies,’ did.

    As I prepare to adopt an 8 year old boy and a 4 year old girl, I’m ready for ‘You’ve come a long way, baby,’ to be more than an out-dated, tongue in cheek, pitch to sell to women a product. How far women have come should be measured in acheivements and characterizations; good, bad, and ugly.

    As for the romantic equation, that goes back to the ‘what good is she?’ argument. We will NEVER have stories that include men/women, gay/straight, and majority/minority functioning as equal participants until:

    1. we insist that our little books, scripts, etc be received without sex-tinkering and

    2. we insist on the same in the books/movies/TV we consume

    Excellent topic, as always, Ms. Brennan

  16. 16. e.lee

    Donna Haraway’s essay on cyborgs and feminism made me realise alot
    great post!

  17. 17. Marie Brennan

    As a follow-up for anyone who comes across this post later:


    A piece talking about the economy and changing gender roles, related directly to the Super Bowl ad that sparked this column in the first place.

  18. 18. Joshua

    A couple items to add as a ‘puritanical’ male.

    Puritans are badly misunderstood by a subculture which hates christians. Long story short, puritans loved their beer (they were very quick to build a brewery when they landed) and in one well known incident, invoked church discipline on a husband who wasn’t, er, “serving” his wife enough in the bedroom when she complained. If that doesn’t shatter your preconceptions, I don’t know what will. The modern day christian is badly misunderstood too. And all I can say is, when you talk about us like we’re not in the room, we can still hear you. If you have questions about why we’re so weird, you could ask us instead of talking about us like we’re the bad kid of the family…

    Elias’ comment got me thinking. In a post-modern culture in which there is no objective measure of value, how can you say that women have come a long way simply by measuring them up against men? How are women more liberated by forcing them to live up to an arbitrary standard of manliness? It’s my contention that in such a culture, there is no progress, there is only change. Why isn’t happiness the standard?

    Truly bizarre.

  19. 19. Marie Brennan

    Hi Joshua,

    If you look at the historical context, though, the details of Puritan behavior you cite appear rather different. Beer was a necessity of life; it was often safer to drink than water, as the alcohol helped kill germs. So they probably didn’t build a brewery just so they coudl kick back with a cold one on a Friday night. And with “be fruitful and multiply” as a Biblical injunction, one instance of a husband failing to do his holy duty by his wife doesn’t mean the Puritans were a sex-positive culture.

    As for the modern day, I’m not sure what “subculture” you see that hates Christians. But that’s a subject that is probably beyond the scope of the SF Novelists blog, so I’ll leave it at that.

    The gender question you raise being more on-topic, I’ll answer it by saying that I don’t know anybody who measures women against men as a standard, nor who feels “forced” to live up to that model; the focus is much more on opportunity, freedom, fair rewards, safety, legal rights, and other such things that are major factors in happiness. Where those are concerned, we’ve definitely come a long way — but there’s still a long way to go.


  1. the zero-sum game, with red sonja reference » paper fruit
  2. The Honorary Male at SF Novelists

Author Information

Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of more than forty short stories and seven novels, the most recent of which is the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy. Visit site.



Browse our archives: