Sunday, March 8, 2015

Gender equality in pop culture: a letter to the gents

by Leon Miller

I started writing a fierce, finger-wagging diatribe for International Women's Day. Two paragraphs in, I decided that my efforts could be better served if channeled differently.

Gents, let's be honest with each other. As much as we'd like to think otherwise, sexism remains an issue in modern society. Those issues spread deeper, wider, and faster, like the worst cases of cancer, in the geek community. It may be hard to accept, but this is the case.

If you’re like me, much of the stuff you read and watch features richly realized female characters--often created by women. You may have female friends who share your pop culture interests. And neither you (nor any of your male friends) would ever dream of verbally or physically abusing a member of the opposite sex over anything—especially not a movie, comic book or video game.

You may not play this villainous role, but men do. Run a quick Google search combining the term “sexism” with either “movies,” “comics,” or “video games.” Under-representation and mistreatment of women in the pop culture community is real and rampant.


This issue is multi-faceted. For starters, much of the output from mainstream entertainment providers seems geared towards a young male audience, with limited appeal to women readers.
Certain malignant elements of the male audience are prone to lashing out at female fans who voice their opposition to this storytelling status quo. Our pop culture sisters are about as welcome in our community as Richard Dawkins at a Creationist Society gathering.

It needs to stop and now, and it's up to us to fix it. We can fix it, by sticking to a simple set of behavioural and aspirational guidelines. We should strive to make women feel safe and valued in our pop culture community. We can do this by ensuring that the interactions of ourselves and others, with members of the opposite sex, are always respectful and inviting—both online and in person. Don’t threaten rape on Twitter as a response to “I don't think Wolverine is the best X-Man.” Don’t take up-skirt shots of a girl in cosplay. And when you do either of those things, you can just go straight to hell.

We must write, and embrace, stories that feature female characters who are varied in personality and appearance. This will provide: 1) better stories; 2) fresher stories; and 3) an array of relatable characters.

Most importantly, we must invite women to tell these stories. As industry executive and fans, we can make this happen and ensure success.

Jenji Kohan by Michael Netzer
At this point, I'm sure many of you will argue “meritocracy:” all non-gender specific creative roles should be filled by the best person for the job. To that I say, “I agree – and given that there's no way that the comparatively small number of female creatives in prominent roles within the industry is indicative of the number of talented women out there, isn't it about time that the major industry players started actually hiring creative staff based purely on merit alone?”

Change is possible and happening. I'm happy to report that I see a lot of normal, healthy interactions between female professionals and fans and their male counterparts on a daily basis. There is still a disgusting amount of misogynistic posts and tweets directed towards female pros and enthusiasts, but crucially, I'm starting to see men challenge this behavior. When this happens, the victims feel less isolated, and the perpetrators are marginalized.

We now see a gradual rise in the volume of websites eager to reach out to the female half of the pop culture audience (including Look to the Cookie, my own blog, The Pop Culture Studio editor’s note: Women Write About Comics and Black Girl Nerds).
Shonda Rhimes by Greg Hernandez

Another big indicator of our efforts in “the war on sexism in pop culture” is the recent uptick in the number of showcased compelling female characters within mainstream entertainment. On the big screen, consider Katniss Everdeen, the awkwardly-named protagonist of the wildly successful Hunger Games: she's strong, resourceful and tough, but also capable of tenderness and vulnerability. On the small screen, Orange is the New Black may be the shining light, with a diverse ensemble cast of women—many ages, ethnicities, religious beliefs, and sexual orientations.

On the gaming front, Lara Croft, star of the Tomb Raider franchise underwent a complete transformation, which includes a more well-developed personality and a less over-developed bosom. These changes were lauded critically and led to commercial success.

But of all the attempts to improve the . . . lives of women, through pop culture, those that excite me most, come from the world of comic books.

Comics’ reputation as it relates to female characters and employees is notorious, but not entirely fair. Great indie titles, like Love and Rockets, feature sophisticated depictions of young girls and women. But by and large, it's a bad reputation well-earned after decades of curvaceous bombshells, vampish villainesses, and women in refrigerators.

Finally, comics' pages (and most importantly, mainstream comic pages) are being filled with lead female characters like Ms. Marvel (a Pakistani-American Muslim), the Batgirl of Burnside (the best. costume. ever.), and kick-ass mom Alana, co-star of the crazy-wonderful sci-fi/fantasy masterpiece Saga. All of these characters break free of the tropes that have long hindered the genre.



A final point points to a fast rise in gender equality in popular entertainment--the recent spike in female creators within the entertainment industry.

While the entertainment industry as a whole remains male-centric, we exist in a time when Kathryn Bigalow, JK Rowling, Tina Fey, Fiona Staples, Gillian Flynn, Jenji Kohan and many, many more amazingly gifted women are enjoying incredible levels of praise from critics and fans.

Again, I'm not saying, “We've made it! Gender equality accomplished!” I'm trying to provide encouragement to all men who want to help our geek community learn to embrace different points of view, and welcome all those who want to join us.

Imagine a world where guys and girls can share their enjoyment of pop culture together without reservation or regret. Now "man up," and make that happen.

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