This index compiles tropes that illustrate how gender is used in fiction.
Male and female characters are subject to different forms of characterization and they are exploited as plot devices in different ways. One overarching way is the active-male/passive-female dichotomy. Women are judged more by their passive attributes and men by their actions. Within that dynamic is a sub-dynamic in which women's interior world of emotional reactions is expected to exert more of an influence on the actions of others than men's interior world.
Another way to look at it is this: female characters are defined by the passive value that others give them, male characters are defined by their actions, usually to protect or win that which they find valuable. Female characters have passive value but they don't create it while male characters don't have passive value so they must create active value. Female characters can be exploited for their passive value and male characters are expendable if they fail to create their own value by advancing the plot through their actions.
This index is divided into five sections:
- Gender Dynamic Metatropes: Illustrating the underlying dynamic in characterization of male and female charaters that give rise to many Double Standards.
- Female Tropes: How the Gender Dynamic Metatropes manifest for female characters.
- Male Tropes: How the Gender Dynamic Metatropes manifest for male characters.
- Contrasts: Direct contrasts between Always Female and Always Male Tropes that illustrate gender dynamics.
- In Real Life: Research that illustrates aspects of Gender Dynamics. (Acceptable: studies on double standards in how we view men and women or media that illustrates a double standard. Unacceptable: Political writings aiming to use evidence of double standards to advance an agenda.)
What this index is not is complaining about Double Standards
, arguing which gender has it worsenote
, or going on wild tangents about what these tropes could be implying
. This index is about observations of the use of gender in fiction. We'd like to see positive changes, ie. more balance in the portrayal of male and female characters, but debates on the morality of the use of gender in fiction don't belong here. If you want to add discussion of the effects of these tropes in real life, be moderate, consider both sides of the equation and be brief. If you disagree with anything on this page, take it to the discussion page to avoid natter.
Some tropes end up in both the male and female categories; this is due to the reinforcing nature of misandry and misogyny. Where there's one there is usually the other as well. Also, when adding an example to this page, keep in mind how it reflects and illustrates the dynamics listed — don't just add it because it's annoying, stupid, or sinister. (That's what the Unfortunate Implications
and Double Standard
pages are for.) Please avoid implicating a gender or group as responsible
for these dynamics as well; they're dynamics, everyone
is responsible for maintaining them, from primary care givers of children to media moguls to politicians to — in some cases — social activists promoting them while attempting to correct them.
Gender Dynamic Metatropes
These metatropes underlie most of the Double Standards regarding male and female characterization in media.
- Everybody Wants the Hermaphrodite: Hermaphrodites are sex bombs because they have men's "having sex is a mark of honor" code without women's "sex makes you a whore" stigma despite having attributes of both genders.
- Guys Smash, Girls Shoot: Weapons appropriate for either gender.
- Higher Education Is for Women: Men go to work while women go to college.
- Men Are Generic, Women Are Special: Men are the generic, default, or normal form of humanity; women are a special sub-category or are "other".
- Men Are Strong, Women Are Pretty: Men are attractive as long as they're active and/or physically strong or strive to become so. Women are born attractive and if they're not, nothing but plastic surgery will ever make them attractive.
- Men Act, Women Are: Men are expected to be active and create their value through their achievements; women are allowed to be passive and take their value from passive attributes.
- Men Use Violence, Women Use Communication: Men physically destroy the enemy, accepting a compromise only if all else fails. Women parley with the enemy and compromise, resorting to physical violence as a last resort.
As a rule in fiction, the default assumption is that Women Are Delicate
. Used as plot devices and story trappings, female characters tend to be used as Fanservice
, to provide motivation for other characters
, a way of generating a feeling of horror
in the audience and as a source of in story emotional reactions
to events. In terms of characterization, female characters tend to be characterized by their relationships to other characters
and by their passive attributes
, and tend to exhibit more passive emotions.
Overall there are four categories to how women are portrayed in fiction: Objectified, Reactive, Relational and Motivational.
See also the index Acceptable Feminine Goals and Traits
Objectification of female characters involves reducing women's value down to their physical sex or other passive attributes at the expense of focusing on and giving plot-significant weight to their actions. Sometimes this is obvious, such as in fanservice aimed at men, and sometimes it's less obvious, such as the phrase 'women and children first'. In that case what makes the women singled out and valued for special protection is their sex, ignoring the existence of vulnerable civilian men or female combatants.
- Bait-and-Switch Lesbians / Discount Lesbians
- The Bechdel Test: Female characters tend to be limited by their innate value to certain roles, fewer female characters means fewer opportunities to pass the test.
- Cat Fight: Fights between women are often played as fanservice or amusing bickering rather than legitimate, serious battle.
- Cute Monster Girl: Female monsters still have to be attractive to human males.
- Double Standard: Rape, Female on Female: Objectification taken to the extreme, never the victim's opinion about being molested by another woman. No penis, thus nothing serious and there's nothing to complain about.
- Faux Action Girl: Everyone says she's an Action Girl, but she never shows her chops. Male characters being "actified", they only rarely fall prey to this.
- Girl-on-Girl Is Hot: Ironically, lesbians tend to be a Periphery Demographic for Girl-on-Girl Is Hot; straight men are the main target.
- Green-Skinned Space Babe
- Hooker with a Heart of Gold
- Lady Not-Appearing-in-This-Game
- MacGuffin Girl
- Male Gaze
- Missing White Woman Syndrome
- Most Common Super Power
- Ms. Fanservice: When portrayed poorly, a female character runs the risk of being little more than eye candy rather than a well-rounded character who happens to have a bunch of eye candy shots. Although the latter is becoming more common.
- My Eyes Are Up Here
- Neutral Female: She's not doing anything to advance the plot, she's just there to be fought over. Not unlike the last piece of cake at a child's birthday party.
- Sweeps Week Lesbian Kiss: In case you're wondering, just because you're a lesbian doesn't mean you can't be objectified.
- Vanity Is Feminine: Women must care about nothing else than their potential to be objectified. If they don't, they're not real women.
Female characters are often judged harshly on their lack of passive value. Passive value can be either physical beauty and/or helplessness and vulnerability. And women who refuse
to embody these traits are often portrayed as lesbians or man-haters (despite the fact that women who wish to avoid the objectification/actification dynamic might be doing so for its negative effects on men just as much as its negative effects on women).
- Abhorrent Admirer: Being average or ugly is inexcusable for a woman. Ridiculing her for her failure at being properly feminine is perfectly justified.
- The Baroness: Of the "Rosa Klebb" type. Only physically unattractive and sexually unavailable villainesses are treated as serious threats, again for their passive attributes rather than their effective acts. Double points if they're also lesbians.
- Christmas Cake: Women reach an "expiration date," after which they are perceived as old and less desirable.
- Brawn Hilda: Physically strong women are usually mannish, unfeminine, ugly, and Played for Laughs. Balanced out by the Amazonian Beauty, but since the woman is conventionally beautiful to begin with, it's a Broken Aesop.
- Death by Disfigurement: Almost always female, since losing one's beauty is a death sentence for female characters.
- Fat Girl: Being fat, or just rotund, is also unfeminine and worthy of contempt.
- Old Maid: See "Christmas Cake"
- Psycho Lesbian: A true lesbian - meaning not bisexual - is perceived as a sexual competitor who refuses to be sexualised, thus evil and crazy.
- Lesbian Vampire: Same deal as above, with the added benefit of being inherently evil.
- Tomboy: Active and refuses the feminine gender code — made fun of, expected to grow out of it, presumed to be lesbian.
- Vasquez Always Dies: One reason why women with lots of agency might be earmarked for death is because they are not helpless and vulnerable, thus have lower passive value.
- White-Dwarf Starlet and Hollywood Old: Old women (ie past 50) are sexually undesirable thus have lost all intrinsic passive value they could have had. They can sometimes play to the relational part of the dynamics but almost always as a Disposable Woman, proving one more time that old age is a female character's doom.
A side effect of Objectification is that women can only be moral objects and not moral actors. Consequently, more often than not, a woman's chastity and general attitude towards sexuality is the sole unit of measure of her morality. Many of these tropes are being challenged in Western media, however they still hold considerable sway, possibly because their inverse, that male sexuality is dirty, damaging and defiling
has not been addressed to any great degree. It may be that men have to be seen as having sexual innocence (and, conversely, women an equal sexual potency) in order for women to stop being judged by their
- All Women Are Prudes: Women should be averse to the idea of sex and preferably frigid when they have it. It ensures their morality.
- Defiled Forever: Doesn't matter if the "sullying" was from actual rape, if you're a woman and you've had sex, you're damaged goods.
- Disposable Sex Worker: Goes without saying.
- Lie Back and Think of England: When a woman has the audacity to engage in sexual intercourse with a man, even if he's her husband, she shouldn't experience pleasure. Only disgusting sluts have orgasms without a doctor's prescription.
- Madonna–Whore Complex and Slut Shaming: A woman is judged solely on her hymen. If she still has it, she's pure and perfect. If she doesn't, she's a whore who should be ashamed of existing and must be treated as she deserves i.e. getting a Cruel and Unusual Death.
- My Girl Is Not a Slut: Only chaste women and virgins are worthy of romance.
- Rape as Redemption: Are you a "bad girl", or even a "bad boy"? You need some Karmic Punishment to teach you to be more passive, and thusly, to be a better person!
- Nature Adores a Virgin: Applicable mostly to females. Virgins are unable to do bad deeds, as the hymen is a woman's Morality Chip.
- Virgin Power / Virgin Sacrifice/ Virgin Tension: Virginity is highly desirable in a woman for it heightens the "purity" of women's body. And it's always a woman.
And, in some cultures, a very negative effect of reducing women's value down to their passive attributes, in this case sexual chastity, is:
More recently, creators have attempted to correct the objectification of women as passive objects fought over by male characters by making them even more competent than male characters. However this is exactly the same dynamic
. The implication is that a woman's femaleness, not her chosen actions, have made her better than men. Girl Power and Girls Need Role Models
are additional examples. Telling girls that they have the power to make the world better because they are girls and not because of their personal choices, once again reduces girls' value down to their passive attributes!
This trend ties into an older trend of viewing women as morally and emotionally superior to men; reflected in the Victorian conceit of the 'Angel in the house
- Father's Day versus Mother's Day: Both are intended to be celebrations of the good things parents do, and appreciation for them. However, Father's Day is also used as a rallying cry against bad fathers (abusers, deadbeats) whereas it would tend to be seen as completely inappropriate to criticise mothers on Mother's Day.
- Female Angel, Male Demon: Angels are often portrayed as females because positive attributes such as kindness, refinement, and mercy are associated with femininity.
- Girls Need Role Models
- Men Are Childish
- Parenting the Husband
- Positive Discrimination
- Women Are Wiser: Female characters are shown to be more competent and wise then male characters.
One additional effect of focusing on female character's passive attributes rather than their actions, is that their actions tend to have fewer negative consequences because female characters aren't seen as responsible in the same way male characters are.
On the one hand, this could be seen as a positive benefit to female characters because they avoid punishment
, but on the other hand, the lesser consequences make the moral choices of female characters less compelling — thus female characters less compelling.
Additionally, media exerts influence on how we model our own choices in life. By softening the consequences of a female character's moral choices with excuses — or presenting women as morally perfect to begin with — the potency of moral choice is removed for both female character and female audience. Girls learn that their femaleness — passive attribute — is always more important to an outcome than their actual actions.
In summary, objectification is when a female character is reduced down to her passive attributes and her agency denied. It can manifest in being valued for fanservice, but more subtly when a female character is characterized as good or competent because
she's female or her negative actions downplayed as the fault of a male character. The implication is that objects, namely women, don't have the ability to make moral choices; their existence is summed up by their attributes and all their apparent 'choices' are the result of the agency of real people, namely men.
Succinctly, objectification is when a woman's femaleness is presented as more important to the story and her characterization then her actions or choices.
Women are often used for reaction shots. This heightens horror, imparts a sense of urgency and distress, deepens the emotional impact of events, and sets a mood.
The reactions of female characters are also used to characterize other characters. A character who causes distress to a woman is usually a villain
or at best a dark Antihero. This distress can be caused by as little as arguing with her or speaking harshly to her. In extreme cases, this is one reason why the trope Double Standard: Abuse, Female on Male
exists. The initial female on male abuse is ignored because calling the woman out on it, much less responding in kind, would lead to her being upset.
In terms of characterization, female characters often put more emphasis on their emotional reactions to events and actions taken by others than actual actions taken in response. A female character's emotional sensitivity is seen as a big part of her femininity (see "The Princess and the Pea
"). In essence, the more vulnerable, the more delicate, the more she suffers, and the greater emphasis on her inability to recover or take proactive action — her victimhood — the more feminine she appears. Even in modern works this holds true. Active women may be portrayed as positive characters, but their agency does not make them more feminine
Overall, anything that creates a negative emotional reaction in women is bad; anything that creates a positive emotional reaction in women is good. To see this in action, observe media for how often it portrays the following sequence; A unexpected revelation is made or there is a surprising action taken, followed by a close-up shot of a woman reacting. Adjust for the relative proportions of male and female characters.
This is likely a result of the Women Are Wonderful
effect. What is good for women is seen as good for everyone; conversely, what is bad for women is seen as bad for everyone. This may sound favourable (and in certain circumstances
, it definitely is
); however, it limits women's drive to achieve
and makes their passive attributes
more important then their personal successes
— what's valuable about women is something they have no control over
and don't build for themselves
Creator and audience ambivalence is often expressed towards women in powerful roles who necessarily have to take on a proactive versus reactive role. Their femininity is often portrayed in opposition to their duty to their people to be proactive and strong and their relationship to power is rarely as natural-feeling as a man in the same position. Although some brands of evil powerful figure are disproportionately female (See God Save Us from the Queen!
and Lady Macbeth
), as the trope Iron Lady
notes, most female leaders are super-competent and less corrupt
then their male counterparts.
Although seemingly positive, this may, again, be a reflection of ambivalence towards female power. We feel more comfortable examining all aspects of male power, including the negative ones; these examinations make us far more uncomfortable when it comes to female power — this ambivalence in some cultures manifests as portraying female power as all bad and in ours as all good. Perhaps because a balanced portrayal would make female power more grounded and real
rather then stereotypical and unreal thus dismissible as fantasy.
Modelling failure — as well as success — in female characters is also one way of empowering women to view their success as a result of personal effort rather than unchanging attributes (See Real Life for research into why this is so very important). Also, most powerful people in real life are rarely all good or all bad, just effective
- Aggressive Submissive: A dominant character who has a submissive sexual side. Mostly these are women or gay men.
- Evil Matriarch
- Family Versus Career
- God Save Us from the Queen!
- Go-Getter Girl
- Iron Lady
- No Guy Wants an Amazon: Female characters who take action rather than motivate men sacrifice their attractiveness and femininity. (Is balanced out in some respect by Amazon Chaser.)
- No Guy Wants to Be Chased: Romantic agency in female characters is undesirable to male characters.
- Quickly Demoted Woman
- Rape and Revenge: Rape is often seen as an acceptable in-universe motivation for a female character to become a Badass — thus embracing greater agency — and avenge herself. In a way, this supports the idea that agency and action are innately male; only women who are deeply wronged by men become active and only then to punish men for their actions against them — being forced into an active role becomes part of the negative emotional fallout of rape for the woman. This is a somewhat old-fashioned trope.
- Vasquez Always Dies: Masculine women are more likely to be earmarked for heroic sacrifices than feminine women. It could be because of the discomfort between agency and femininity, it could also be because the woman in question moves from the reactive-valued dynamic of femininity to the active-sacrificial dynamic of masculinity.
- The Woman Wearing the Queenly Mask: Suggests that women are usually unhappy with wielding power and find no fulfilment through it. Somewhat balanced out by the more gender-neutral The Chains of Commanding.
One example of the Reactive dynamic for female characters is how emotional dynamics are portrayed in families in fiction. Often children (mostly male children) tend to the emotional needs of their mothers. This is usually portrayed as charming and sweet,
rather than abusive and creepy
. A specific example would be after a death in the family, after which children are portrayed as tip toeing around and tending to the emotions of their mothers. Often, these mothers are labeled
as pillars of strength for the family
; however, they function in story more like emotional albatrosses
. This despite the fact that a mother is necessarily older and more mature then her children (yes, even adult children), thus has had more time to develop the wisdom and emotional strength to guide her children through emotional trials.
Another example is how emotional reactions tend to be portrayed as more of the concern of female characters, particularly positive or empathetic emotions (as opposed to anger, hate and jealousy). Female characters are often shown mediating disputes between male characters, offering solace to other characters caught in a reactive moment (where they are depressed or upset at something), and if a mook expresses concern over the morally dubious behavior of the Big Bad
or his orders, almost invariably it will be a female mook (the lone female mook of a bad boss is always the one to bet on for a Heel-Face Turn
; she is almost never depicted as relishing
the evil she does). Rarely are male characters depicted offering each other an emotional safe space as this might come across as uncomfortably effeminate or gay (the only exception seems to be war movies). This has the effect of making sympathetic emotions the domain of female characters, which somewhat ridiculous because all people have them and there is evidence
that we can't think or make decisions without emotions and this includes the positive and sympathetic emotions. Essentially without them, far from being more effective, we are paralyzed with indecision.
In summary, the Reactive dynamic uses female character reaction as a shorthand way of illustrating how we should feel about setting, events, and characters in the story. Often these reactions are necessarily negative because without conflict there is no plot. This can start feeling somewhat misogynistic
. Until audiences start consistently caring about events, settings, and characters negatively impacting on the reactive
interior world of male characters, this dynamic is unlikely to change
Female characters tend to derive their significance through family or relationships to male characters. On the one hand, this suggests that achievement is male, while riding on the coat-tails of others is female; on the other hand, it also implies that women are more central to family, and men are more periphery and need to achieve to be part of a family.
- All Lesbians Want Kids: Even lesbians need to be in a relationship with a man. Somehow.
- Career Versus Man
- The Chief's Daughter
- Daddy's Little Villain
- Dark Mistress: A villain's Satellite Love Interest.
- Disposable Love Interest: 99% percent of the time, it's a woman.
- Everything's Better with Princesses: Princesses, by default, combine both Relational and Reactive dynamics: they are defined mainly by their relation to the (usually male) monarch and are born into high status, (usually) without having to work for it. Motivational role is often included for free in classical plots, and said high status complements the Achievement-Oriented male dynamic, since "getting a princess" sounds better than "getting a girl". Following subtypes are particularly affected:
- Princess Classic: Her relationship to her father is what she derives all of her significance from.
- Family Versus Career: Female characters have to choose between being valued for their relationships and being valued for their actions. Relationships often win out.
- Feminine Women Can Cook: Making food is women's only acceptable proactive ability, often suggested to be somehow innate to femininity.
- The General's Daughter
- Girl of the Week
- Good Girls Avoid Abortion: Morality debates aside, refusing to be a mother often equates refusing to be a real woman.
- I Want Grandkids
- Lineage Comes from the Father: Only men transmit nobility and honour through their bloodlines, women only get to be disposable vessels who earn their title from marriage or paternal descent. Consequently, when the mother is noble and the father is not, their child isn't considered part of the bloodline.
- Mad Scientist's Beautiful Daughter
- Mandatory Motherhood
- The Mistress: Often has no relevance to the plot other than being a guy's "side dish" wishing to become the "main course".
- My Biological Clock Is Ticking: Women must have children before their menopause if they want to be recognized as valuable members of society.
- Never a Self-Made Woman: Because it's both acceptable and expected for female characters to take their value from passive attributes, they often are portrayed as family members or love interests of more accomplished male characters.
- The President's Daughter
- Satellite Love Interest: Disproportionately a woman.
- Temporary Love Interest: Ditto.
Female characters are often used to motivate other characters. Sometimes this involves wisdom
, the power of Heart, or dying tragically
. Female characters can also appeal to some aspect of their femaleness to motivate others. The dynamic is in effect when it's implied that a woman's motivational qualities are based entirely on her femaleness, not the skills or abilities she's obtained through her own choices.
The difference between Reactive and Motivational dynamics is focus. With the Reactive dynamic, the focus is on female characters' reactions to events; with the Motivational dynamic, the focus is on female characters motivating other characters. Often female character's reactions will be used to set up the motivations of other characters — or help the audience buy into those motivations. A classic female-reaction/character-motivation set up involves a scene of a distressed damsel chained to train tracks screaming her head off
paired with a shot of The Hero
rushing to her rescue on his white steed
. There is no question what's motivating his action.
The existence of the Motivational dynamic in media is why despite being portrayed as passive, events in plots often seem to revolve around female characters
- Always Save the Girl
- Cartwright Curse: Disposable Woman taken Up to Eleven.
- Chickification: Female characters can function, in story, to motivate other characters as well as being heroes in their own right. That's why female characters survive Badass Decay into a Damsel in Distress without facing death or being written out of a series like male characters. They can still fulfill a plot-important function by motivating others.
- Damsel in Distress
- Disposable Woman: Her only purpose is to be killed off, preferably in a gruesome manner, so a male character can avenge her to prove his manliness.
- Lady Macbeth: Even when it comes to evildoing, evil women usually limit themselves to motivating villains into acting evil.
- Leg Cling
- The Lost Lenore: An Always Female Love Interest whose death still affects the main character or his entourage. Male examples do exist but are much rarer.
- Manic Pixie Dream Girl: She exists solely to cheer up, nurture, and inspire a brooding, depressed guy and motivate him to prove his manliness by solving some major problem for the world. She has no life to speak of otherwise.
- Moe: In its' most extreme form, Moe encourages a romantic or sexual attraction to helplessness, whether the character in question is male or female.
- Morality Pet, Morality Chain: Often a younger, smaller, weaker, kinder female character who keeps a older, bigger, stronger, meaner male character from going off the moral deep end. And his concern for her gives people a reason to care about him.
- Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Often inspired by the death of a male protagonist's wife, daughter or sister.
- Stuffed into the Fridge: Disproportionately a woman.
- Wife-Basher Basher
A necessary consequence of focusing on female character's motivational qualities rather then their action is:
- Stay in the Kitchen: Taking physical action is unfeminine and deprives men of the motivation of "a home to protect".
Female characters with dubious morals can use this trope to deceive and manipulate other characters to do their bidding.
In some cases, creators have attempted to correct imbalances in how the genders are portrayed in fiction. These are not necessarily positive or negative corrections, just attempts to correct.
- Action Girl: A female character whose greatest value is her agency and her actions to advance the plot.
- Damsel out of Distress: A traditional damsel as "getting captured for the plot" aspect but more likely to rescue herself or otherwise be a Defiant Captive instead of a passive observer.
- Female Gaze
- Effortless Amazonian Lift: An attempt to show a woman's unexpected physical strength or her dominance in a relationship.
- Masculine Girl, Feminine Boy: Reversal of gender roles.
- Real Women Don't Wear Dresses: Strong women aren't feminine and shouldn't be; opens up a whole set of characterization problems. As a consequence of this is the Bald Women trope. When a woman wants to appear powerful and respectable, nothing does the trick better than shaving off her hair. It shows a refusal of femininity, thus a refusal of "being weak and incompetent".
- Rebellious Princess: The antithesis to Princess Classic, who rejects her relationship-based inherited status to make her own fortune. Unless, of course, her "rebellion" boils down to substituting one man (her father) with another (her love interest).
- Spirited Young Lady: a woman who, while fitting into her culture, knows what she wants and is active in getting it.
- Proper Lady
- Silk Hiding Steel: More modernist takes on these types of characters emphasize that traits which are traditionally considered feminine aren't necessarily weaknesses. When poorly executed, can lead to the implication that strong women are always feminine, and should be.
- Yamato Nadeshiko:
- World of Action Girls: Where a setting tends to toward female characters being more likely to provide the action than males, or where it seems every woman is innately badass.
As plot devices and story trappings, male characters tend to be used as expendable minions or pawns
creating a sense of danger in a story or establishing a protagonist as a badass
. Certain actions
taken against men are more acceptable than equivalent actions taken against women as their emotional effects on men are more easily ignored. Male characterization tends towards focusing on action rather than emotional reaction and men exhibit more proactive emotions. Overall there are four categories to how men are portrayed in fiction: Actified, Proactive, Achievement-orientated and Expendable.
Actified is the counterpoint to Objectified; Characterization is focused almost exclusively on the action of the male character in question. In some cases not only does it seem like his only existence is action but that that action is exaggerated beyond all reason. Think Jack Bauer
Such patterns also run a risk of stepping into a much darker territory: action taking from men often involves violence and killing other people—almost always other men and almost all exceptions to this rule are villains—at one point or another. Even though it is widely thought as a rite of passage, this expectation associates "real" manliness with the readiness to do violence to other men
, often in the service of saving women
. Also applies when the story focuses on getting Revenge
Male characters who fail to live up to an impossible standard of action-taking or being successful (just as you can never be too busty or too thin if you're a woman, there're always more macho things to achieve if you're a man), are failures as men and just like women who fail to be properly feminine, are punished by death or ridicule:
The emphasis on male character's actions over their attributes may be a contributing factor to the idea that virginity in men is undesirable. Virginity is valuable as a marker of innocence and newness
but real men should be taking their value from their actions, not their lack
of action. That and also the fact that male sexuality is considered simple and unworthy of study (why going to a proctologist is still considered shameful even as people get more accepting of women going to gynecologists). In fact, it is rarely ever addressed in as much detail as female sexuality, implying that men have no complexity or nuance in their sexuality, other than being sex maniacs
. Strangely this also holds true for gay men
despite them being depicted as being more cultured then straight men in other areas. When they're not depicted as completely asexual,
One possible consequence of actification is the fact that gay men are viewed as more gay or perverted than lesbians. The focus is on the men's actions, not their emotional responses, which may tend to make people view gay men as insatiable sexual deviants
but gay women as merely looking for love in an ultimately harmless
but inappropriate way
Male characters are also given disproportionate responsibility for the activities that transpire around them relative to female characters.
- Teacher/Student Romance: A male teacher seduces a female student; a female teacher is seduced by a male student.
- This Is Something He's Got to Do Himself: Disproportionately applied to male characters. Female characters who tend towards this sort of loner, exclusive responsibility approach to their problems tend to get the Power of Friendship treatment more often.
- The Unfair Sex: If something goes wrong in a relationship, it's usually considered the man's fault. Questionable actions taken by men in a relationship are usually seen as worse then the exact same action taken by a woman.
Proactive means male characters favoring proactive emotions or actions over reactive ones. This particular dynamic comes into effect when male characters are chided for responding with passive rather than proactive emotions. Additionally male characters are often portrayed as indifferent damage that would kill normal people or at least have them in traction for months and therapy for the rest of their lives.
It is also interesting to note that, somehow, Jerkassery
is masculine. Being smug or just outright assholish (think House
) is often seen as a sign of confidence and a willingness to be more proactive than others, thus acceptably manly. Consideration for others being a passive emotion, showing no care for anyone other than oneself unfortunately associates selfishness and self-centredness
with manhood. However, unless the character in question wants to run into villain territory
he better be shown to respect and care for female characters in some way. Either his Jerkassery gets things done and saves the girl
when a more compassionate approach wouldn't have worked, or he demonstrates a willingness
to help old grannies
across the street on his off hours.
Male characters are expected to set their emotional reactions to events aside in favor of responding proactively to them. In some cases proactive emotions such as anger and hatred are acceptable, as long as they fuel the action. The more a man can shrug off emotionally, the more masculine he appears to be.
Because male characters are expected to be proactive, their emotional responses to events and characters tend to be downplayed and don't exert as much of an influence on the plot or other characters. An interesting effect of proactive versus reactive emotions is how they change our sense of sympathy for characters who are victims of other character's violence. Victims who react with anger tend to receive considerably less sympathy then victims who react with fear or pain.
- Get a Hold of Yourself, Man!: If a man does break down and get trapped in passive emotions rather than proactive, he needs a talking-to.
- How Much More Can He Take: The tension is in seeing just how much damage a male character can take before he succumbs or gives in.
- Macho Masochism: Same as above but self-inflicted and over-the-top to the point of being laughable.
- Made of Iron: Male characters shake off things that would kill normal people or have them in serious therapy for the rest of their lives.
- Men Are Uncultured and Book Dumb: Being cultured implies receiving éeducation and refinement. Cultural refinement or a focus on learning suggests an aversion to action.
- Men Don't Cry: Expressing sadness and sorrow is strictly forbidden for men, since it's an unspoken confession of weakness. Only Berserker Tears are acceptable and Manly Tears, if acknowledged to exist, must be used sparingly.
- Nigh-Invulnerability: Incapable of being hurt at all.
- Real Men Hate Affection: In order to be seen as a man, a male character must not display passive emotions such as love and tenderness.
- Real Men Hate Sugar and Real Men Eat Meat: Related to the above and Manly Men Can Hunt.
- Slasher Smile: Smiling is an expression of joy which is somehow an unmanly emotion. It's only acceptable when it expresses a killing intent.
- The Stoic: Men shouldn't show emotion of any kind, not even positive ones.
In situations where a character needs more passive, nurturing emotions to succeed, male characters are often shown as useless or actively malevolent. This includes raising kids and other family situations.
Men's relationship to their children is often portrayed ambivalently. On the one hand if they don't want children and their partners do (or are pregnant) they are often portrayed as unprepared
. If their partner gets pregnant on purpose to jumpstart or upgrade
their relationship they are usually told to man up rather than having it recognized in story that forcing a person into parenthood is abuse
. Men who want children when their partners do not are often portrayed as creepy, controlling and/or borderline abusive
- Awkward Father-Son Bonding Activity
- Bumbling Dad: Fathers are often clueless around their children, especially widowers, single dads or when the child is a daughter.
- I Hate You, Vampire Dad
- Heir Club for Men: Noblemen are complete jerks to their daughters and only see their sons as vessels for the next generation. (And that's often all they see their sons as.)
- Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: Men need DNA testing, if they can get it, to be sure that the child the woman bore is actually theirs. This is often played to make them look jealous.
- Overprotective Dad: Fathers have usually know no other way to show their care for a daughter than being a judgemental obstacle to their love life.
- Panicky Expectant Father: Men are useless when it comes to childbirth and break down in hilarious hysterics as soon as labor starts. Even more amusing if the man was established as a Badass and he faints during the delivery.
- Parental Abandonment: Almost always the fact of fathers.
- Raised by Dudes: Without the presence of women, men are usually shown to be unable to nurture and raise young children. If this can be played out positively when the kid is male and sufficiently grown up to walk, it is not the case at all for babies or little girls.
- "Well Done, Son!" Guy
- What the Hell, Dad?
- When You Coming Home, Dad?
A male character can be depicted as falling into a depression, almost always in response to his own failures as a man. If he fails to be proactive enough—by not protecting loved ones who then die, or, alternatively, for not upholding a standard of morality—he is allowed to succumb to sadness, self-loathing and guilt. But these emotions are always directed at his failure to be proactive resulting in others being hurt, not in response to events or the actions of others that hurt him
An example of this dynamic is a heroic male character who somehow fails to protect another character (usually a woman)
who then falls into a deep depression punctuated with guilt and self-doubt. Possibly leading to a situation where the hero needs to be roused out of his stupor
to combat some greater threat.
- The Alcoholic and Drowning My Sorrows: Alcoholism being acceptably manly because of its potential dangerosity to one's health, this is about the only expression of sadness that you'll ever see in a male character, along with...
- The Atoner: Gender-neutral in itself, but much more males than females apply for this character type.
- Dirty Business: A man can regret having done something morally questionnable to solve a problem... but only if it's brief and never mentioned again after the fact.
- Failure Knight: A man's failure at something is only acceptable as a motivator, not as a source of remorse.
- I Let Gwen Stacy Die: Typical reaction to the death of a Disposable Woman, which always leads to...
- Mangst: Men's angst mustn't show. They are allowed to feel it but they should never express it, lest they'll be branded as sissies.
- My Greatest Failure: Mooning over it is only acceptable as a motivator.
- You Did Everything You Could: Often presented as cold comfort but it's the only words of solace a man can address to another man.
The lesser focus on men's internal world may also be why creators tend to make more villains men. If you want an uncomplicated bad guy, it's a lot easier to make him male rather than female because female villains inspire more questions in the audience's mind about why she's evil and who made her that way, all of this being summed by the phrase "Behind every bitch, there's a bastard who made her that way" .Unconflicted male villains
, on the other hand, feel more believable.
- All Abusers Are Male: People who abuse tend to be abuse victims themselves. Poverty and drug use also play a large role. In a lot of media men are not only portrayed as abusive, and the only abusers, but they are one-dimensional and over-the top abusers with no effort to examine why.
- All Men Are Rapists: All men are rapists and only the exceptions are notable.
- Complete Monster: More often than not a male character is pure evil than a female one.
- Female Angel, Male Demon: Demons are representations of unexamined evil. Why are they evil? No reason, just made that way. Due to this they are often portrayed as male.
For male characters characterization focuses on the what the character has accomplished rather than who he's related to or other passive attributes. This is made necessary due to the greater emphasis on male characters taking action in order to create value. Conversely male characters that are completely defined by their relationships to others or passive attributes or fail to live up to a Badass reputation are not usually well received.
- But Now I Must Go: No matter how much a man may achieve, he can still do more, cue an unending need to achieve still more with virtually no limit to what is materially possible. If all is done in a place, a man has to go somewhere else and achieve again.
- I Just Want to Be Badass: Badassery being the quintessence of manhood in fictionland, this goes without saying.
- I Want to Be a Real Man: Self-explanatory.
- Miles Gloriosus: Talks a big talk, but has little to back it up. Usually universally loathed.
- The Neidermeyer: A superior officer who is characterized by his lack of effective action.
- The Obi-Wan
- Old Master
- Small Name, Big Ego: A male character whose inflated opinion of himself is not backed up by his actual achievements.
Male characters who put emphasis on their passive attributes are often portrayed as undesirable or unmasculine. This holds particularly true for physical appearance.
- Bling of War: Men can wear shiny things as long as they reflect glory and achievement (well, sometimes...)
- Camp Straight: One trait of the Camp Straight is his focus on his appearance.
- The Dandy: Considered somewhat effeminate for his obsession with his looks.
- Guys Are Slobs: Low standards of hygiene, vulgarity and boorishness indicate a man has no concern for his physical appearance. Apparently stench is close to manliness.
- Men Can't Keep House: A companion to Guys Are Slobs. Being messy also means being manly. Apparently.
- Sharp-Dressed Man: A man who isn't considered less manly for caring about his appearance. However notice that his choice of attire is usually a business suit, yes this is a subversion that really isn't because a suit evokes a man's business achievement.
An Expendable male character is treated as if their interior, emotionally reactive world is irrelevant. In a way, this dynamic takes Actification to it's most extreme and disturbing conclusion; whatever happens to a man he deserves because he failed to stop it from happening. This is the intersection between our belief in men's omnipotent agency and responsibility (compared to women's lack of agency and responsibility) and events that no person can reasonably be expected to be responsible for. It also explains why female-on-male violence (emotional, physical, magical, etc.) is so much more acceptable then the reverse; a man only ever lets
a woman hurt him; a woman who is hurt by a man is helpless to stop it.
Another aspect of the Expendable dynamic is that a man who fails to demonstrate uber-agency (a man who isn't Actified) deserves what he gets for failing to be manly. The portion of the Men Are the Expendable Gender
quote quoted illustrates this dynamic succinctly.
When a character is Actified, his actions are focused on to the exclusion of almost every other aspect of his character, but we admire him for it. When a character is Proactive, he is shown ignoring his emotional reactions to events and others' actions in favor of responding proactively or having proactive emotions, and he's portrayed as more masculine for it. When a character is made Expendable, he is generally a victim—he's being abused, killed, tortured and raped—however, the audience is expected to feel contempt or just not care. He's letting it happen and failing to live up to a masculine standard, after all!
In some cases this dynamic results in creators 'missing' the fact they're writing rape and abuse into a story. Notice also that some of these tropes involve male characters being the victims of aggressive female action: Oftentimes this is considered humorous precisely because it defies our strong beliefs about male agency and female passivity.
- Dismissed Gender: The fact that media tends to ignore men's internal world of emotional reactions is why many Dismissed Gender plots stop working when you reverse the sexes.
- Disposable Sex Worker: If you are a male prostitute, don't expect a happy ending. Only exception : straight male porn stars.
- Disposable Vagrant: Almost always a man, doubly guilty for being defined more by his need and suffering (homeless) than his strength and determination to succeed.
- Double Standard: Abuse, Female on Male: A man who isn't strong enough to keep a woman in line deserves what he gets. How exactly he's supposed to 'keep a woman in line' without violating Wouldn't Hit a Girl or Domestic Abuse is never explained. Apparently it must involve passively radiating an aura of masculine agency at her.
- Double Standard: Rape, Male on Male: Prison Rape of men. Not a huge humanitarian crisis and condemned by Amnesty International but really, really, REALLY funny! The man let it happen after all. This trope, by contrast, apparently gets even more hilarious when the character is shown to be badly traumatized.
- Double Standard: Rape, Female on Male: Even when the man couldn't stop the rape, he's responsible for it. Not his rapist. Him. Somehow. Victim blaming at it's finest. A surprisingly common belief in Real Life.
- Gorn: Disproportionately targeted at male characters.
- Groin Attack: The humor seems to be partially in defying the expectation that men don't react or suffer.
- Teacher/Student Romance: Far more acceptable when it's a female teacher and a male student.
- Men Are the Expendable Gender: Audiences aren't supposed to have as much sympathy for men's suffering(particularly anonymous men), male characters are used as cannon fodder.
- Missing White Woman Syndrome
- Stalking Is Funny If It Is Female After Male: When a woman stalks a man, it's cute and harmless. Howver, if a man stalks a female, he is a creep and a pervert.
- The Unfair Sex: It's not the same if a woman does it to a man.
Some very negative effect of this dynamic for men is:
- Circumcision Angst: Regardless where you sit on the pro versus con end of circumcision, genital surgery on infant boys without anesthetic is a pretty good example of ignoring male pain.
- Conscription: With the exception of Israel (which still exempts women from combat), the draft or registration for the draft only applies to men.
- Draft Dodging: Historically men who were not willing to die or kill for their country were put to death. In World War One non-enlisted men were shamed with a white feather campaign.
- Honor-Related Abuse: One third of all honor killings target men. Men are sometimes targeted for failing to live up to the ideals of manhood.
- We Have Reserves
In some cases, creators have attempted to correct imbalances in how the genders are portrayed in fiction. These are not necessarily postive or negative corrections, just attempts to correct.
- Action Survivor: Male characters are now allowed a bit more latitude to freak out in the face of danger and not know what the hell they're doing or what's going on. Creators have discovered that this can make a more interesting story.
- Female Gaze: The passive attributes of men are emphasized for the pleasure of female viewers. This allows for male characters having some innate value.
- House Husband: Men have only recently become accepted as homemakers and caregivers, the traditional "motherly" roles, in contradiction to the literally centuries of assumptions that the only personal value a man could have in a family setting was as bread-winner.
- In Touch with His Feminine Side
- Non-Action Guy
- Papa Wolf
- Shell-Shocked Veteran: Male characters who've succumbed to emotional trauma related to war are now characterized in a neutral way, rather than condemned as malingerers. In other words, taking emotional damage in war can be seen as a reflection on how awful war is rather than how weak the man is.
- Moral Typecasting involves separating people into moral agents and moral patients: moral agents are capable of right and wrong and incapable of being affected by the right or wrong done to them by others, moral patients have right and wrong done to them and are seen as incapable of doing right or wrong to others. Moral Typecasting explains why moral patients who do nothing are sometimes viewed more positively than moral agents who do good—if someone is capable of doing good s/he is also seen as capable of evil. In this schema, a hero is closer to a villain than either are to a Damsel in Distress. Note that this schema exactly mirrors the active/passive; proactive/reactive; achiever/motivator dichotomies listed above.
- Men and women associate more positive characteristics with women and more negative characteristics with men. Despite this, women are still discriminated against for certain job positions that require a perception of greater agency. In light of the research into Moral Typecasting, it's possible that women are viewed more positively than men because they are seen as moral patients who are incapable of doing bad or good. This view subsequently hampers them when they wish to achieve positions associated with greater agency and responsibility.