Thanks to the naming a of a female Doctor Who last week (hello, Jodie Whittaker), I’ve seen a lot online about so-called ‘masculine narratives’. It’s been floated via my various TLs that there are some types of stories that are ostensibly for or even ‘about’ males, whilst there are some for or even ‘about’ females.
According to these people, there is an historic difference between the stories that have a male lead and the ones that don’t. So, let’s examine the evidence …
For some, this notion is ‘common sense’. After all, there are certain differences in the genders, right? Such as:
- Men are stronger than women (except when they’re not)
- Men can’t get pregnant or have babies (except some can if they have uteruses, such as trans men)
- Men are less sensitive and emotional than women (except there are both sensitive and emotional men)
- Men can’t have periods (except some women can’t either, including trans women)
- Men are more violent than women (except violent women exist)
- Men talk less than women (maybe average, but chatterbox men exist)
- Men take more risks than women (except do they? I don’t believe I am alone or unusual in knowing reckless women)
- Men are more likely to be serial killers than women (except nope, serial killing females exist too)
- Men like blue and women like pink (now we’re just getting silly)
Obviously I’m scratching the surface here. But really, there is not a single thing on this list that men can or can’t do, or vice versa. If I’d written any of this with women as the focus, my comments section would soon fill up FULL with outrage, too.
But the reality is, YES – society socialises men and women differently. But ultimately, whether you’re XY or XX, we are more similar than not, at grass roots level.
We are all human, thus stories are principally about humans, or at least human POVs and emotions. On this basis, writers CAN create outside of these shared experiences, as well as our personal ones.
If people mean audiences have certain preferences and gender can form a part of this? Then sure, there are some genres and types of story that ‘play better’ with women than men, or vice versa.
But then again, these days? Maybe not.
The so-called ‘Geek Pound’ for comic book movies and other type of fare is just as likely to be from a woman’s wallet as a man’s in 2017. Same, believe it or not, with video games!
Thirtysomething women were the first generation to love Horror and Science Fiction and that shows no sign of slowing down. Traditionally, the so-called ‘Chick Flick’ meant women liked Rom Coms and Horror was a male domain … Except even that has changed now, with the advent of ‘Bromance’ comedies and ‘Date Night’ Horror movies, especially amongst heterosexual couples in their twenties.
In other words, lines are blurring. They have been for a good while. Time for writers and filmmakers to catch up.
Breaking It Right Down
Writers frequently mistake archetypes and stereotypes; this means they will frequently mix up what stock characters are too.
Put simply, an archetype is the perfect – or rather ‘typical’ example of something. When we’re talking psychology or characterisation, an archetype is a kind of framework for how people or characters work. An obvious example of an archetype we can all relate to that is universal is the hero. Everyone knows what this idea means, regardless of race, culture, class, gender, even age (more next).
Archetype was Merriam Webster’s ‘Word of the Day’ on its podcast, which you can download HERE.
Whilst traditionally, a ‘hero’ was the principal male character in a story, play, film, etc (and ‘heroine’ was traditionally the female version), but this is no longer the case in general usage. This is backed up by various dictionary definitions, such as the Meriam Webster’s here, which places gender neutrality first, with gender only applied in the sentence examples:
‘1. A person noted for courageous acts or nobility of character: ‘He became a local hero when he saved the drowning child.’
2. A person who, in the opinion of others, has special achievements, abilities, or personal qualities and is regarded as a role model or ideal: ‘My older sister is my hero. Entrepreneurs are our modern heroes.’
SUMMING UP: The hero, at grass roots level, has no gender. It’s someone’s personality and behaviour that makes them a hero.
3) The Monomyth
Also known as ‘The Hero’s Journey’, popularised by Joseph Campbell and then built on by Christopher Vogler.
In narratology and comparative mythology, this is the common template of a broad category of tales that involve a hero who goes on an adventure, and in a decisive crisis wins a victory, and then comes home changed or transformed.
Note how the ‘hero’ is not only gender neutral in this definition, what ‘adventure’ and ‘victory’ is, is open to interpretation.
Of course, Campbell goes into waaaay more detail than this and that’s usually where a lot of female writers part company with this version. His version is based massively on stuff like The Odyssey, especially notions of female characters as Goddesses and Temptresses, which lots of women do the eyeroll at. (Whilst I do too, I also don’t see why a female voyager can’t get in touch with the Gods or be tempted by gorgeous sirens and buff blokes with rock hard abs, know what I mean?).
SUMMING UP: Brave, resolute, clever … Why can’t women do the monomyth?As far as I’m concerned, they totally can. Basically, a hero is a hero, male OR female.
4) The Feminine Heroic
Renowned script consultant Dara Marks suggests there is a different ‘kind’ of hero’s journey for female characters. She posits that it ‘isn’t grit or physical prowess that gives the feminine her heroic stature, it is her ability to descend into dark, forbidding places that lie within each of us to retrieve our essence, which is interrelatedness and love.’
I love this idea as a female WRITER and feel it can be hugely useful for women writers to connect with their creativity in a world that favours patriarchal and supremacist ideals which may come out in lots of ‘expected’ ways (ie. the ‘classic’ being heroes who are male, straight, sexual, able-bodied and can FIGHT).
However, I like it less for actual female characters, because as already noted in this article, as far as I am concerned the hero’s journey is both gender neutral and open to interpretation.
When I think of say, Elle in Legally Blonde, this tale is TOTALLY monomyth to me, if we go back to its base definition:
Elle goes to law school to get Warner back (the adventure); she’s threatened with being ostracised or even expelled for not doing what others want (decisive crisis); yet she prevails and comes out on top (victory). She’s also shifted her perspective too by the end, because she no longer wants Warner back.
Obviously others will say Legally Blonde is The Feminine Heroic too because Elle is neither ‘gritty’ and does what she does ‘out of love’ (she also doesn’t punch or kick anyone in the head in the movie), but I believe the best MALE heroes act out of love too (even if just ‘the right thing’).
I don’t see actual violence as part of the definition in the monomyth, either. It’s an assumption, surely based on the notion that ‘hero = male’ and ‘male = violence’. You can totally see why (forty years of blockbusters have put these type of male heroes at the forefront), but it’s still an assumption.
SUMMING UP: Both the male and female hero descend into dark places in order to do the ‘right thing’. What this means is again open to interpretation.
5) The Heroine’s Journey
In his recent article for Screencraft, Ken Miyamoto draws attention to The Heroine’s Journey by Maureen Murdock. Like Dara Marks, Murdock suggests there are ultimate differences at grass roots level between the journey a male hero goes on and the journey a female hero might go on.
Unlike Marks, Murdock suggests this is not because of ‘love’, but because female heroes will face prejudice for being a hero by virtue of actually BEING FEMALE.
This notion I have a lot of time for. Whilst ALL heroes have to stand out, above the crowd, male heroes have it a trifle ‘easier’ on the basis of literally being male. We are literally MORE LIKELY to believe in the male hero over the female hero.
In addition, in society, men can advocate for women in a way women cannot always advocate for men. In other words, men may get a free pass to do what they want to (and/or lead others), whilst women more times than not have to earn one. (Of course, this may or may not intersect with race and other issues of diversity, but that’s a matter for another time).
We can see this in action with Mad Max Fury Road. Furiosa lives in a man’s world and even though she emerges victorious over Immortan Joe, Max must advocate for her when they go back to The Citadel. The War Boys literally will not accept her until Max raises Furiosa’s hand in the air. This is an authentic example of how women rely on male allyship in the fight against patriarchy and underlines the filmmakers’ own intent that Mad Max is not so much a ‘feminist’ film, but one that declares men and women need to work together.
With this in mind though, it might be a little previous to call Mad Max Fury Road part of the ‘heroine’s journey’ given Furiosa only wins when she combines her feminine power with Max’s masculine power. But whatever. Both Furiosa and Max are genuine heroic archetypes and it’s a great movie with a great message, so who cares.
SUMMING UP: Female heroes may well have that bit ‘further’ to go in the first instance, especially since society is of the belief females are *less likely* to be heroes. But ultimately they follow the same path and get to the same destination, even if it takes them longer.
Good writers use archetypes, rather than stereotypes or stock characters. But it’s important to remember society (and thus we) place certain assumptions on those archetypes – not one if them has a gender applied at grass roots level. Just as heroes are generally assumed too be men, we generally assume care-givers to be female (and that’s just for starters). Yet neither archetype begins this way.
Obviously there are stories in which gender matters. But that doesn’t mean the hero archetype itself has a gender. Archetypes are about a character’s role function in the narrative, not their personal characteristics.
Storytelling is not masculine, but it’s not female either. It is universal and made up of good characterisation (specifically character role function and character motivation), plus good structure. This means there is literally no difference between the male out female hero (or indeed any other archetype).