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Gender Toxicity

Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, Aug. 19, 2023

The debate on what constitutes a “strong female character”, whether having “strong female leads” or “feminism” is tanking “woke” films these past few years, is ongoing. There's accusations of toxicity on both sides. Misogyny, misandry, wokeness and brokeness, all of these terms and hot takes are fired and take no prisoners.

I've talked in other articles before about how to write a strong female character, but I think that's been overdone. The more current day writing for big corporations develops, the more I see a strident approach on how male and female characters are written or are expected to be written. The more movies or comics tank or are blasted on social media and rating sites, the more both “sides” to this debate buckle down and radicalize.

And I'm all for politics (if you know me even a little you know I'm enthusiastic about political discourse) but I feel that there has come an impasse and people on both “sides” of the argument on how to write men and women (and everything in between) miss the forest for the trees. Yes I put “sides” in inverted commas because I think they're both after the same thing, but take different paths, and both of these paths end up being wrong because of anger and stereotypical thinking.

And what is that forest then?

In my opinion, the problem lies in the stereotypical categorization of traits as “female” or “male”. Being nurturing, supportive, emotional, is being “female”. Being aggressive, dominant, and prone to lead, is being “male”. Just take a look at this gem from one of Britain's top tabloids:

They mention only in passing that there are studies with millions of participants that debunk this attestation done by one single study without any mention of method or limitations

This is where the problem is. When you classify traits by gender, you inadvertedly will be faced with a problem as a writer or creator: how do you make a strong female character if all female traits are soft? How do you make a strong male character that doesn't come across as a douche if all supportive and nurturing or communicational skills are female?

So you end up with “strong female characters” that come across as rude, entitled, and very one-sided, and “progressive male characters” or “strong male characters” that either come across as half-wits that are a burden to the plot and the female characters, sly backstabbing twats, or unapproachable one-trick ponies.

And this happens because the creator mixes “some man in the woman” and takes away the “power from the man” (i.e. all the traits that are coded masculine) so the woman can shine. It's not done out of spite, I don't think. It's done out of desperation and possibly because both genders look at each other like they're aliens (another trope imbuing the general zeigeist).

The truth is completely different. Society is what codes male and female traits, from personality to clothing.

Manly. Frilly. Fabulous. What woman want.

Manly. The skirt has pleats. The tights are tight. Women love it.

As manly as it gets! Ladies can't get enough.

Did you read my captions as sarcastic or factual? Because they're both. Looking at these decidedly male-coded outfits (some were forbidden by law for women to wear or severely discouraged depending on the era) through our modern society's lens, my captions are sarcastic because skirts, dresses, and high heels are coded female. But if you look at these outfits within the context of the society that created them, then my captions stand as factual.

It's the same about personality and behavioral traits for men and women. Society is what dictates the categorization, but that is as relevant to what traits men and women possess as what is hanging under the dresses and skirts in the pictures I posted.

Both male and female people have the entire spectrum of traits whether they are coded masculine or feminine by society. What happens is that these traits MAY (and that is a big ‘may’) manifest in different behavioral patterns that are socially appropriate for the society these individuals are in. So if society codes “aggression” as masculine, female people that are aggressive will express this aggression indirectly or in ways that are acceptable for women. That doesn't mean they aren't aggressive through and through.

And that is only in some contexts- when there are a lot of people watching, for example. In private, aggression in female people (depending on their personality) may manifest exactly as it would in male people, or even more severely exactly because it's being stoppered and restrained.

Leaders exist in male and female people alike. Leadership has no gender. Aggression has no gender. Nurture and caring has no gender. Society likes to assign genders, which creates a ton of problems and makes the interaction between genders toxic. Not only between a man and a woman, but also between a mother and a daughter or son, or a father and a daughter or son.

It's even more unfair for men in certain situations, because female traits are coded as potentially emasculating for men. So if a man cries, there will be the douche that tries to stop him with the adage “men/boys don't cry” (or laugh him into quiet). Men can be scared of being called out as emasculated if they display the traits they have that code female in society. And I'm not even touching upon assumptions about the person's sexuality. This is severely toxic and creates a hotbed for a ton of emotional and mental problems to develop.

Doesn't mean women have it easy. Male coded traits manifested by women can code for ‘defiminization’ if you like (i.e. that women lose their gender identity as women if they display male-coded traits). Women can be ridiculed or ostracized if they are considered “too masculine” by their peers. Again, not even touching upon assumptions about the person's sexuality. This is also severely toxic and creates, you guessed it, the exact same hotbed of emotional and mental problems risk.

Add into the mix individuals that refuse to identify as male or female, and society panics at the need to categorize them without the necessary categories. The go-to catch-all for those individuals is the abusive, unfair, toxic category of “unnatural”.

To take this back to character design, another toxic byproduct of this situation is that somehow there's a misconception that there can only be a strong female character lead or a strong male character lead. There can't be both, they can't coexist, they can't share the spotlight of the story.

Which, of course, is utterly wrong, together with the idea that a single hero is all that's needed for the plot goals to be accomplished (another fallacy that seems to be propagated by the average pop film or comic). Even worse, there is a concept that “gender wars” are a thing that is normal and totally okay to have.

Would you like a bit of genocide with that?

And thus, often “strong female characters” are pitted against “the male oppressor” who is written like the most cliche antagonist that was ever written: either supportive until the twist villain moment of backstabbing the female lead in some way, or a complete buffoon that creates problems because of his ego until the plot crashes down on him and proves the female lead was right all along. Or alternatively, the “strong male character” is bogged down by the “girlboss” that is basically an angry female caricature until situations reduce her into a screaming mess, and the “strong male characters” swoops in to save her, even though she made his life hell.

And this is what I generally call gender toxicity, which is found in real life and in fiction.

But how does one write strong female characters alongside strong male characters in a story?

I'll tackle that next time.

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Ozoneocean at 1:04AM, Aug. 24, 2023

My own approach to female characters is to write them as humans first and foremost- not men in dresses and not my idea of what it is the be "female", I just write them as people because as Tantz says there are no male or female traits unless it's part of the culture the people are from- And THAT is important. S shitting, terrible writer will image those traits are innate and that will make the character bad. A good writer will create a character who will display those traits in the correct cultural context.

Ozoneocean at 12:56AM, Aug. 24, 2023

This is very thoughtful and interesting Tantz! You deserve a much wider audience for this. It's good to see a normal human perspective on this topic for once rather than all the usual blushit ones that are reactionary, completely ignorant, or simply just designed to get a reaction. Instead we have straight logic here.

Tantz_Aerine at 8:28AM, Aug. 20, 2023

Your thoughtful comments are a joy to read everyone! Thank you!!// Paul: you can't talk about gender roles without at least a tad bit of role theory. XD But there's a lot more along with that mixed in.//Deno85: that's an excellent point!! // Everyone that talked about coin flipping for the genders of extras or secondary characters, that's genius.

PaulEberhardt at 6:35AM, Aug. 20, 2023

I believe it's all about how you sell the gag. I'm mentioning this because I based a number of gags on stereotypical "female" behaviour and managed to get away with it, some female commentors even applauding them. It's probably because I unconsciously treat gender roles as a kind of act, not as something defining a person, and usually provide some kind of contrast either through other character traits or other characters whose overacting of what they think are their social roles is worse. Also, and that's a concept I miss in many people's mindset these days, a little teasing now and then can be a sign of affection (whenever I make jokes about women it definitely is, just so you know!). If nobody tries to make fun about stereotypes associated with you, it might mean nobody appreciates your existence - now what's worse?

PaulEberhardt at 6:22AM, Aug. 20, 2023

My own approach to writing characters has always been thinking of them purely in terms of personality, and once you do that, gender stereotypes are an inexhaustible source of gags. You see, when I sit back and observe people in everyday life, that always brings me back to role theory. (Read your Mead, folks! Role theory has some glitches and the technical texts about it are often too overblown for my tastes, but bearing in mind its concepts does help writing relatable dialogues and scenes a lot.) Role theory says, in simplified terms, that people will mostly act according to what they think is expected of them, so in any given situation they "take a role" as if all the world really was a stage. That's very much true for gender roles and associated traits, and some men and women overact sometimes. This usually causes me to roll my eyes, as I would when watching bad actors (even if they don't think of it as an act!), but once YOU realise it is, you've got a prime source of gag material.

PaulEberhardt at 5:53AM, Aug. 20, 2023

I was about to write exactly the same as TheJagged. To me, it's such an over-analysed, over-discussed topic that my immediate instinctive reaction is that nothing good could ever come out of going to town on it any further. Yet, the way you wrote about it, Tantz, provides a refreshing no-nonsense perspective that puts the mechanisms of social coding behind it* in clear terms and thus back down to earth where a civilised and fruitful discussion is actually possible. Thank you so much! ----- (* with a dash of role theory added for good measure, unless I'm mistaken 😉)

Deno85 at 12:55AM, Aug. 20, 2023

(English is not my first language btw in case I write any typos.) From my experience it's becoming more popular with female characters who inherit more of the "masculine" traits which could make'em "unlikable" by some folks, but it's a breath of fresh air and put's things in perspective, and (hopefully) make more people reflect on their own stereotypes and learned habits of how women are viewed in society. I'm nonbinary but enough female presenting that those who don't know me treat me like a woman by default and I've noticed words used for me that would mean something else if I were a man, like being called "shy" when if I was male presenting I would most likely be called "reserverd" or something. Stuff like this is very interesting to me, and it reflects back on my comic and makes me aware of how my female presenting characters are precevied. Anyway thanks for bringing up a topic that means a lot to many people and keeping it civil.

usedbooks at 5:09PM, Aug. 19, 2023

In my stories, often I literally rolled dice to determine age, gender, and other demographics when I need a new character for a specific role in the story. Or I picked something I haven't written in a while. Then I tweak the character with however that demographic might influence them.

usedbooks at 5:05PM, Aug. 19, 2023

To be fair the HORRIBLY written "strong female character" was just as bad if not worse in the 90s. Jill from Home Improvement was the most terrible, shallow anti-man "feminist." Murphy Brown was pretty awful too, but at least had maybe a hint of dimension. I think the flaws come when you begin defining a character by a demographic. Certainly our demographics (race, gender, income, age, etc.) influence characters but that's the WORST place to begin character design or to use as the key defining feature.

mks_monsters at 12:48PM, Aug. 19, 2023

I'm just so sick of gender wars and gender politics... Can we just create a good story and enjoy it regardless of what is below the characters' and author's belts? What does it matter really?

mks_monsters at 12:38PM, Aug. 19, 2023

I have a confession to make... part of my goal with Psychoborg is to bring back positive masculinity and femininity as well as showing how the combined efforts of a strong man and a strong woman working together as equal partners can make the world better. We're not made for ourselves. We're made to work with each other and we should start finding joy in that again.

fallopiancrusader at 11:01AM, Aug. 19, 2023

My lead characters are drawn as they are conceived in my mind, but when I am drawing background characters or minor secondary characters, I flip a coin to determine the sex of those people. It is my attempt at eliminating any expectations of sex-based social roles within the background world/context that I create.

TheJagged at 9:48AM, Aug. 19, 2023

If only we could stop talking about this gender bullshit for 5 seconds, and go back to just creating well-written characters. If only, if only...

Jason Moon at 9:38AM, Aug. 19, 2023

People are crazy man

Banes at 7:20AM, Aug. 19, 2023

Very interesting stuff, a feast for thought. But I gotta say, I love that animation at the top of the article. Made me laugh heartily!

marcorossi at 6:54AM, Aug. 19, 2023

For an extreme example, there is the stereotype of the angelized woman, with the knight that only is eroic because of her, and she representing somehow his good conscience. This is a very maschilist trope, because it implies we are seeing the world always from the male hero's perspective and the lady isn't a real character. But on the other hand, we never see an "angelized man", because even doing this (that in its feminine form is clearly maschilist) would be too much for the feminile hero who wants the traditional male virtues but also the traditional feminine ones, and of course this means that the male characters can't have either, which creates too flat characters.

marcorossi at 6:49AM, Aug. 19, 2023

I personally tend to have one lead per story (though in four comics I have two male and two female leads). It seems to me that often when there is a strong male lead the female coprotagonist/sidekick tends to balance the male and in some sense it is as if some parts of the male hero's charactere are taken away from him and personified in the female sidekick, so for example he is strong and able but needs her to tell right from wrong. Nothing bad with this dynamic, but when there is a strong female hero sometimes writers shy away from taking away positive traits from her and placing them on the male sidekick, because the idea is that the female hero should never depend on the male sidekick (while the male one does, although in traditionally gendered ways), and this IMHO creates boring and too perfect female heroes.

InkyMoondrop at 6:45AM, Aug. 19, 2023

I think James Cameron is one of the most feminist directors out there and in a good sense. He makes male characters that are nurturing or showing a capacity to learn in that direction relevant to the plot and to the growth of the female lead who's either independent or needs to adapt to a survivalist lifestyle / mindset due to circumstances. As the environment they were nurtured in falls apart, their nature starts shining through. Anyone who challenges this growth becomes secondary because in order to ensure a future male characters need to adapt too, often to the point of self-sacrifice. Hollywood kept this trope in the form of the ultimate macho growing old and mentoring a child girl that's fierce af before walking off to the sunset one last time but often without much substance. But fact remains: heroes that are static throughout their journey don't tell captivating stories, they are idolized but not humanized.

Andreas_Helixfinger at 1:03AM, Aug. 19, 2023

Great article, Tantz! As always. Seeing all of this nonsense drama of strong male lead vs. strong female lead over the years I've always thought to myself "shouldn't we see strong male leads and strong female leads work together as a team". Shouldn't we get to see them clasp their hands together flexing like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Carl Weathers in Predator (1987). That's the sort of thing I'm now picturing Blue Eyes (female protagonist) and Terry Hopper (male protagonist) doing in my seafaring action comic Endtide in the future. A sort of John McClane and Jane Rambo perfect teamup to take out a big bad together in a packed action scene and then clasping their hands together in a "you've done well" gesture, wouldn't that be the sight. I'm not spoiling anything here by the way, I'm just picturing it^^

Genejoke at 12:51AM, Aug. 19, 2023

That "Rant" image... Wow.

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