Thursday, 6 January 2011

From Hero to Zero

Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Captain America, James Bond and Indiana Jones. Names that conjure up images of tough, macho superheros whose job is to save the girl and save the world and still able to look mighty heroic whilst doing it.

Women who featured in the lives of these paragons of virtue and masculinity were either pretty, helpless creatures who needed to be rescued, or to act as their assistant, like Miss Moneypenny, or, more rarely, as assistants to the mad and bad male villains who threatened to destroy the world with their schemes of world domination.

The superheroes took on the supervillains - man to man, as any contest of will and strength should be - and dashed their evil plans. Women stood on the sidelines, pouting and watching the men slug it out and then swooning into her rescuer's arms when he emerged victorious.

Or, on a lesser scale, men like Clark Gable, Cary Grant and Harrison Ford, would breeze in and sweep women off their feet with a heady cocktail of masculinity, charm and wit.

That's the way men and women used to be portrayed in the past in films and television shows in the days when men could still claim to be the dominant gender and the world was still a man's world. To be sure, there was the odd anomaly, such as Dustin Hoffman's "Tootsie" and the odd woman playing a strong, leading role and defying traditional gender stereotypes but TV shows and films were consistent in potraying men as strong, masculine and leaders and women as helpless, feminine and following her man's lead.

Over the past two decades though, with women becoming more numerous and successful at school and in the workplace, and changes in the expectations and image of modern womanhood, the portrayal of the genders has changed radically and reflects the changing balance of power between the genders.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the long running cartoon show "The Simpsons". Obstensibly a typical nuclear family, the four main family members are highly representative of the changes and gender role reversal that is taking place. There is Homer, the "head" of the family, who is portrayed as a fat, lazy, slob. He has a job at the power plant, but in one episode, an organisational chart shows that he is so far down the food chain that even the nuclear fuel rods are senior to him. Homer is an anti-hero who gets into messes of his own making and has to be bailed out by his long suffering wife and children. This, according to the world of Simpson, is the image of the modern American man.
Marge, Homer's wife, is portrayed as the rock which holds the family together during the numerous crises inflicted upon it by her husband (or occasionally, one of her children). She is sensible, smart and compassionate and wants what is best for those she loves.
If Homer is the typical American man, then his son, Bart, is the typical American boy. He is a hopeless and disruptive pupil who prefers courting popularity amongst his male peers and playing pranks and (just like his father) getting into scrapes to uncool activities like studying.
His sister, Lisa, by stark contrast, is the modern American girl. She is a highly intelligent student who plays the saxophone, is a vegetarian and highly vocal feminist and she dreams of one day being President of the USA.
Most of the other male characters in the Simpsons are invariably shown as incompetent, irrational boobies whilst most of the women are shown as level headed, rational and compassionate.

Yet, this image of modern Americans is not so very far from the truth.

In the 1990's and 2000's, there has been an explosion of strong female characters. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Nikita, Lara Croft, Xena the Warrior Princess. The list is a long one. These characters are different in many ways but are consistent in that they are smart, strong women, with special skills and talents who are determined to achieve their goals and are more than capable of defeating anyone who stands in their way. Mostly men stand in their way, and are soundly beaten and humiliated, but there are also strong female villains who try to be more than a match for these heroines, but who also fail miserably.

In the meantime, what has happened to the portrayal of men of the last twenty or so years? There is still a James Bond and an Indiana Jones but they are increasingly having to share the action and the limelight with women who are more than a match for him (Michelle Yeoh in Tomorrow Never Dies is the most obvious example, outdoing Pierce Brosnan's Bond in many of the action scenes).

At least Bond and Jones are still able to maintain some dignity and air of masculinity. Lesser men are not so fortunate, portrayed rather like life versions of Homer Simpson. Somewhat likeable, but dumb and incompetent nitwits desperately in need of a strong woman to guide them and to rescue them from their own folly.

This reversal of the stereotypical image of men and women over the last twenty years has been quite dramatic and leads one to wonder just how far it is going to go, especially as women are now poised to become the unquestionably dominant gender. Based on current trends, film and television will be populated mainly by female superheroes in various guises and helpless and hopeless males badly in need of rescuing within a few decades.

1 comment:

  1. Apparently, America still struggles with the idea of women being chivalrous towards men and saving them and a lot of American men don't like it. They always want to be the hero that saves and courts the girl.

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