Sunday, March 4, 2018

Gender Reassignment

I follow the Twitter account Man Who Has It All. Like many of the parody accounts I enjoy, it provides a series of minimally varied riffs on a single joke. As a result, it's the kind of thing that isn't very funny on, say, the 100th time, but somehow on time #103 or so it's funny again . See also: Presidential Trump, Common Squirrel, and pretty much all of Saturday Night Live.

Man Who Has It All makes a simple but important point about the world we live in. The theme and variation is to take women's magazine advice, common wisdom, and 1950s home ec. textbooks and reverse the genders. You end up with stuff like:
In related news (you'll need to trust me on this), I recently watched the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot. This film was flawed, but not for the reason that my fellow Generation X guys, and the men's rights activists--if you've never heard of such a thing you lead a better life than you knew, until now--have been so butt-hurt over. This version of Ghostbusters suffered from flabby pacing, overly self-conscious jokes, pedantic comedic timing, lots of buddy comedy shtick, gratuitous violence, and a cartoon-ish story line.

In other words, pretty much just like the original. Don't get me wrong, I liked the original. Also, I was in the 8th grade.

People who loved or hated Ghostbusters, however, didn't talk so much about any of this. All they seemed to care about was that the genders were reversed. We heard about the fact that there are no substantive or even interesting male characters, the blatant and unnecessary objectification of the (male) receptionist, and that it seems to fail a reverse Bechdel Test. It's almost as if Ghostbusters was given a pass on any film-making criteria I might care about because it swapped the genders around.

Meanwhile (also related, trust me), I finally caught up on Outlander on Starz and finished reading the first novel. If you haven't done these things, you should stop reading here, since the following will be riddled with SPOILERS.

The first Outlander book/season includes a graphic and disturbing rape sequence--see, told you: SPOILERS. What makes Outlander different from so many contemporary TV series that deal with rape (see also: here) is that both the victim and rapist are male. Also unlike so many series that deal with rape, Outlander spends quite a lot of pages/screen time portraying the lasting effects on the victim.

Complicating the impact of the rape, the protagonist offers himself as a victim to save the life of his wife. As a result, the assault is coerced, but isn't entirely forcible. This factor actually creates more trauma than if it had been entirely violent. Jamie Fraser, a formidable--almost superhuman--character is not entirely sure that he will ever want to be touched by his partner, and for a long time wishes that he hadn't survived the attack. His emotional injuries long outlast his physical injuries, which is saying something given that one of his injuries was having his hand destroyed with a mallet. Luckily, his wife, who served as a nurse in the war, seems to be a osteopathic surgeon and plastic surgeon, capable of rebuilding the ruined hand without benefit of anesthesia, antibiotics, a sterile operating room, or proper instruments. That was fortunate.

The rape plot in Outlander is a far more serious example of reversing genders than that in Ghostbusters, and yields a much more serious and nuanced exploration of gender--emblematic of the feminism throughout the series. Unlike many period costume dramas, Outlander is liberated from some of the built-in misogyny of its era by having a modern (if the 1940s-1960s counts as modern for you) heroine. She brings 20th-century gender norms--enhanced a bit, as those weren't always our best decades for equality--to 18th-century Scotland. Also helpful, she is fortunate enough to hook up with a man who is receptive to it. There's still plenty in the series for the male gaze, as well as some groan-inducing damsel-in-distress moments, but compared with its contemporaries in the genre, Outlander is a Women's Studies course.

This brings me to the final case study. Star Wars: The Force Awakens was the first movie in the franchise to demonstrate any idea of how to deal with women. For the first time ever, the most important character was female. For the first time, said character isn't compromised by appearing in a gold bikini, or by having half of her shirt ripped away in a fight, or by falling in love with a complete douche nozzle over the course of one stupid montage. For the first time (a long time ago) in this particular galaxy (far, far away), a female character could have been swapped for a male character without changing any of her lines, or even her name.

It wasn't until I saw it that I realized just how poorly Episodes 1-6 did with all of this. Princess Leia was pretty useful in a fight--especially by 1970s standards--but she was pretty alone in the Galaxy. She couldn't really have a conversation with another named female character (not about a man) because she encountered so few women. Plus, she was a princess. Plus, her hair and wardrobe were not always conducive to doing things--apparently the most difficult special effect in the first movie wasn't lightsabers, it was making it seem like a person could actually run and fight and save people with that hairstyle and without underwear.

The Force Awakens, and its contemporaries Rogue One and The Last Jedi, showed us what we'd been missing the whole time. Characters in these films act heroically and stupidly; they succeed and fail; they fix problems and make problems much worse. What they don't do is always act in a way that lets you know whether or not they have a Y chromosome.

Flipping things around, as in Man Who Has It All and Ghostbusters, alerts us to gender equality defects that still exist. Sometimes the easiest way to see if we've reached an acceptable level of equality is to see how it looks if you just reverse everything. The next level is to subject male characters to horrors usually reserved for women, as in Outlander. The reversal there, and the refusal to make it a quick three-episode arc, makes it clear how cavalierly we generally encounter this horrifying topic.

The Force Awakens (and the following Star Wars movies so far), however, provides the gold standard. We don't need to make art (or public policy for that matter) that reverses past injustices by imposing the same injustices in reverse. What we need are men and women who could sometimes be swapped in their roles and it wouldn't really matter.

You've made it through 1,200 words of this and may have arrived at the question "So what?" As mentioned above, the impetus for this whole post was watching other white, straight, cis males, age 35-50 claiming that Ghostbusters (and Star Wars, and Wonder Woman, and...) had ruined their childhoods. They're like this because they've been well taken care of so far in life (see also: here). I'm not absolutely sure this is what they hated, but I'm pretty sure it played a part.

I'm also watching this from the perspective of the father of daughters. Watching my five-year-old reenacting fight scenes in the grocery store after Wonder Woman, and dressing as Rey for Halloween, and planning to save the world (and learn to sail just by trying it) like Moana has helped me to notice that something has changed since the movies her mother watched. In fact, something's changed since the stuff her sister watched. And it matters. Girls and boys are influenced by seeing themselves (or not) in these roles. Otherwise, grown men wouldn't feel so threatened by seeing the movie franchises of their formative years expanding to include heroes that don't look like them.

If this progress is to be sustainable, it's going to need to be done in the manner of the higher quality examples previously referenced. It's also going to require those of us who have had the entire space to ourselves so far to yield just a little.


  1. Sean, I love this post more than any of your other ones that I've read, and that's saying something. Thank you for saying these things. (I'm also very very happy you appreciate Outlander as much as I do.)