Smurfette, the seductress, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, the overweight friend as surrogate mom, the patient nurse, the frumpy friend, and the superficial high maintenance hottie. We all know the tropes, and deconstructing them is easy pickings.
And that’s precisely why it is pointless to do so without understanding why they persist in the face of such criticism.
Anita Sarkeesian has a great blog called Feminist Frequency where she runs down these tropes and others as they appeared in film, TV, comic books and elsewhere. And neither her criticism nor analysis are wrong, to the contrary it’s all very insightful. But what she is missing is the why.
These cliches and stereotypes are there because they cater to the male audience, which is sort of stupidly obvious. But you may be surprised to learn that the male audience for pop culture is not the dominant audience. In 2009, according to the MPAA, “A higher percentage of women than men are moviegoers in all categories of frequency.” Furthermore, in that year, 55% of tickets were purchased by women. So why does the content skew male if the audience doesn’t? Are the free markets broken? Is capitalism missing something?
Here’s what is happening, in a nutshell: women go to movies with cliched female characters like 500 Days of Summer and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and they roll their eyes. But they go. And to Hollywood, a dollar from an bored eye-roller and a dollar from a fanboy are both worth exactly the same.
The problem is this: women are not ruthless about expressing their preferences in the market. Men are.
The data shows clearly that women will readily participate in a market dominated by male-oriented content. If the representation of women within that content is the problem, you can argue for changing it, but that argument can’t be on the grounds that there is more money to be made in doing so.
In other words: because men and women are buying the cliched content produced now, the question is not “if you produced positive feminist content would women buy it”, the question is “if you produced positive feminist content, would men buy it?” That is the calculus the industry conducts. They have pretty much everyone now. Maybe they can change gears and collect more from women, but they may risk losing more from men. Do the gains exceed the losses? Who knows? So they stick with the status quo.
And the industry has tried. I trot this statistic out every time the issue comes up as evidence:
Disney animated films with a female lead character, consistently do significantly worse at the box office than their animated films with male leads produced in the same time frame. Not one Disney animated film with a female lead has broken the $400M mark (as of 2010 when I gathered these numbers):
f – Little Mermaid (1989) – $211 million
f – Beauty and the Beast (1991) – $337 million
m – Aladdin (1992) – $504 million
m – Lion King (1994) – $783 million
f – Pocahontas (1995) – $346 million
f – Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) – $325 million
m – Hercules (1997) – $252 million
f – Mulan (1998) – $304 million
m – Tarzan (1999) – $448 million
f – Lilo and Stitch (2002) – $273 million
A final addendum: all Pixar films to date have had male leads characters, all have grossed over $360M, and most over $500M.
My selection of Disney and Pixar films is not accidental. These films are seen primarily by children accompanied by their parents, but if we assume that little boys and girls want to go to the movies equally, then something is suppressing the turnout for the movies with the female leads. My guess is that moms are happy to take their little girls to Toy Story, but as a general rule are not likely to take their sons to see Little Mermaid or Pocahontas. “Maybe the little boys don’t want to see them!” Maybe. But who is shaping the preferences of 6 year-old boys? Mothers.
Maybe it’s nature (I doubt it), maybe it’s nurture (bet on it), but the fact is that girls show up to guy flicks, but boys don’t show up for girl-flicks. This isn’t how it should be, but this is how it is.