Humanoid Sympathy
Pictured: why Cobb is sympathetic.

I posted earlier this week that I feel I am neither a man nor a woman. What I didn’t say earlier this week was that I don’t feel I’m a man or a woman given the options presented me. I’d like to distance myself from modern masculinity because it’s become so much about posturing, but I’m not a woman because I don’t believe finding tequila sunrises delicious makes me any more effeminate than chugging pitchers and pitchers of beer. Women do both of those things in real life, after all. And in real life, men can be frightening without having muscles, be wimpy without being short and be neurotic without looking like it from the outside. It’s only in fiction that gender comes with certain trappings, and it’s here that it gets fun.

Gender in fiction is a topic I’ve written about at length before. I’ve posted about The Bechdel Test and how The Social Network‘s women come off a lot better than Inception‘s. The only reason I feel even vaguely qualified to make either of those statements is that, again, in real life, I find myself exhibiting almost no traits of either specified “fictional” gender. I ran into a dude on Omegle the other day who said that he “didn’t pay attention” to what gender characters were in movies. I identify with his approach of willful ignorance. The movie is the movie and should stand not on its racial or sexual politics, but on itself and its own merits. However, not paying attention to these things also makes you miss out on so much that the director, writer, producer and cast are saying underneath the plot and its twists and turns. What does Christopher Nolan feel about the relations between men and women that he’s not likely to tell us directly? Why, indeed, is Fight Club almost impossible to blindcast with regards to gender?

In fiction, everything is treated as a fictional device. Everything. From chairs to hats to certain recurring words and phrases, everything is some shorthand for some larger concept that the creative team behind the work wants to convey to you with the least amount of space and time used. These things are called tropes, and if you don’t think gender can be a trope, you are sorely mistaken. There are indexes on TVTropes labeled Always Female and Always Male. These are exactly what they say they are: collections of tropes that exclusively apply to either men or women. Surprisingly, a Sweater Girl is one of the few tropes that cannot be filled by a man. Among these lie women as the representation of comfort, dead little sisters as backstory, all sorts of junk. I’m pretty sure there’s a trope for the Penelope, but it might not be called that.

The Penelope, as I’m calling it in this article, is the woman at the start of the story who starts the hero on his journey. Just like that dude who did that oddysseying thing and I’ll never forget it’s wife, this woman shows up at the start and usually halfway through the narrative to say “I exist and I motivate you”. The finest contemporary example of the Penelope in my estimation would be Erica (Rooney Mara) from The Social Network. Despite the fact that her character is almost 100% guaranteed fictional–evidence against her including the fact that Mark Zuckerberg has dated the same girl since 2003–she’s there to tell us why the Zuckerberg character has to do what he does. He doesn’t want to be seen as a nerd or an asshole–he wants to be seen as powerful and in charge. Hence Facemash the night he gets dumped, hence Facebook the months after.

Another way gender politics come into play in fiction is if a work of fiction establishes itself as an examination of one gender that goes ignored in society. Of course, the very idea of having to examine a particular gender in society is ridiculous; they both compose half of the societies in question. And yet, that’s what works like Fight Club do. Fight Club is an existential and philosophical meditation on the role of men in today’s corporate world. It resonates so strongly with young men because they can relate to the apartment full of IKEA furniture and the fridge full of condiments with no meals. These things represent our lives, now devoid of the bare necessity of primitive life. We used to be the top of the food chain in everything, and now, despite enjoying a position of power in a patriarchal society, we find that our power is meaningless. Just like Charles Foster Kane, another of cinema’s great fictional men.

It also struck me, somewhere along the line, that despite the fact that Japan is home to “deviant” pornography–for the record, I don’t think it’s that weird, really–it also has built an entire industry that passes the Bechdel test in televised animation. I have not seen an anime series that has not, at some point, featured two women talking alone about something that isn’t a man. In fact, I’ve seen entire series–40 episodes worth–go by without a single regular male speaking role. This isn’t weird, and these series aren’t chock-a-block with exploitation. Well, some of them are, but that’s really an individual prerogative. The point is that the world’s leader in tentacle porn is also the world leader in televised feminism, and maybe that’s worth talking about.

How come the Japanese see women solely as human beings in their stories, no matter whether they play bass, don’t wear pants or get repeatedly violated by unspeakable eldritch abominations? How come North American media is still hung up on the idea of the Woman as Backstory, where all we need to know about a hero to sympathize him is that he’s doing this because he got dumped? These are all really good questions to ask, and I suspect the answers are anthropological, but at the end of the day, I just don’t know.