Men Are Generic, Women Are Special
"If a smash hit has mostly male characters, nobody raises an eyebrow, but if it has mostly female characters, it's a Great Big Anomaly worth several trees' worth of shocked speculation.
— Sarah Morayati
, author of the Interactive Fiction
work Broken Legs
, in an interview discussing gender in fiction
In media, male is the default, "normal" form of humanity, while female is a special subcategory reserved just for women. This meta-trope is Older Than Feudalism
and is found not only in fiction, but is ingrained into many human societies and cultures
. The technical term for this is "androcentrism
Take the English language, for example. The terms "Man" and "Mankind" are often used to represent humanity in general, whereas "Woman" and "Womankind" only ever refer to humans of the female gender.note
If the gender of a person is unknown, the traditional proper pronoun to use is "he" (e.g. "Everybody take out his pencil") – the "singular they" goes back to Shakespeare
, but remains controversial even today, reflecting this trope. Certain languages like French and Spanish take this concept even further, having two words for "They"; a masculine and feminine form, but if there is a mixed group of men and women the masculine is the default. In fact, this is correct to the point at which if there was a group of any
number of women, and one single man.
This phenomenon carries Unfortunate Implications
for both male and female characters when used in fiction. The main problem for male characters is that maleness is not special in the way femaleness is, and is often undervalued to the point of being disposable
; men's actions are less likely to be judged based on their gender, which gives them more freedom to act, but the consequences for their actions are likely to be magnified. The implication for female characters is that femaleness is special in a that way maleness isn't or, to put it more bluntly, being male is "normal", while being female is "abnormal", which can either mean superior to men
This leads to the Smurfette Principle
, in which a character's femaleness is the most important and interesting
thing about her, often to exclusion of all else. It also tends to result in works failing The Bechdel Test
, because if there's a potential character who doesn't have to be any particular gender, the role will probably be filled by a male character by default.
Likely exacerbated by the fact that Most Writers Are Male
Probably the parent to Men Act, Women Are
and Men Are Strong, Women Are Pretty
- One of the most obvious consequences of this trope is the role of The Chick in the Five-Man Band. Males tend to have more diverse personality traits (The Big Guy, The Smart Guy) that may or may not fit the traditional defintion of "masculinity", whereas The Chick is often defined solely by her femininity/typically feminine character type.
- The tropes Women's Mysteries and Wondrous Ladies Room both depend on the idea that the female lifestyle is completely alien to men.
- Uni-sex clothing has the same cut as male clothing, impliying that male is the default body type. Also, a woman wearing "men's clothing" is more socially acceptable than a man wearing "women's clothing".
- Men Are the Expendable Gender.
- When showing groups of children, "boys'" toys will more often feature a girl playing with them in their advertising than "girls'" toys will feature a boy. One philosophy followed in the advertising industry is "If you have a product aimed at both boys and girls, and you can only use one child in the advertisement, you use a boy, because girls will listen to a boy, but boys won't listen to a girl."
- Tertiary Sexual Characteristics are more commonly applied to female characters than males. The implication here is that viewers will always perceive a cartoon creature as male unless given plenty of evidence to the contrary. Non-Mammal Mammaries may serve a similar function. Additionally, androgynous or sexless beings will often be portrayed as having a masculine physique.
- This trope also applies to sexual relations, where women are generally seen as "desirees" and men as "desirers". This has the Unfortunate Implications of goods (supply and demand) but it can also be described as follows: women "own" something special that men both lack and want.
- Even in shows that have a roughly even gender split in their audience, the viewer is usually assumed to be a heterosexual male by the production, hence most Fanservice being of the Male Gaze variety, and the prevalence of attractive lesbians having a relationship over attractive gay men.
- A philosophy adopted by some male writers and directors, such as James Cameron, is that the secret to writing a strong female character is to write her as a male and then change the pronouns. (Yes, the Unfortunate Implications of that could be discussed until the cows come home, but the ends justify the means.) What it means with regard to this trope is that it takes a lot of effort to write a female character that is free from all of these "special" characteristics associated with femininity.
- Additionally, characters originally written to be male can be easily changed to be female with few alterations; however, a character written to be female has to undergo more significant revisions to be re-written as male. Otherwise he might come off as a bit... "special".
- An unmet character turning out to be female can be The Reveal, but discovering that an unmet character is actually male can't. See Samus Is a Girl, Female Monster Surprise. The Reveal of a male character's gender is only a surprise when he has been previously implied to be female or if the character is in a role heavily associated with being female, such a cheerleader.
- Content ratings for media sometimes include 'Violence', and 'Violence Against Women' as two separate categories in the same work. Violence is expected in some kinds of work, such as action movies and most games, and it's expected it will involve men. Especially when Action Girls are not involved, violence against women is seen as a worse thing, and it's expected that men should be better able to defend themselves.
- Many languages use different versions of job titles for men and women. Traditionally, the male version is the generic term.
- In languages where nouns have a (grammatical) gender, this extends beyond professional titles. "Amigo" means friend or male friend, while "amiga" means female friend. If you had a room full of your friends, you'd refer to them as "mis amigos" unless you were sure that every single one of them was female — only then would they be "mis amigas." (There is a hint of flexibility in this.)
- Even in English, "Guys" is a traditional male term, but you can say "You guys" to your friends who are all girls, and even the colloquial "Dude" will work. If you tried a female group term like "Hey girls" to an all-male or mixed group, it won't work, unless you're dealing with a group of Vitriolic Best Buds. And when the coach, sergeant, or other team leader addresses his squad as "ladies", you know they're in for a scolding.
- In Irish, the word for nurse literally translated as "female nurse" (beannaltra) but was changed to simply "altra" to make it more gender-neutral.
- The feminine form of many professions in Irish is created in the same way, by sticking the word "bean" (meaning woman) at the front of it. So a male police officer is "garda", whereas a female police officer is "beangarda".
- In Dutch, the archaic word for "doctor" is "geneesheer", which approximately translates to "healing man". There is a gender-neutral word for it, "geneeskundige" ("healer"), but it's hardly ever used since people use the words "arts" or "dokter" instead... which are both masculine nouns.
- Many Russian actresses dislike the word "actress", prefering "actor" instead, even when they're speaking a language where it doesn't make much sense.
- In Chinese, all professions fall victim to this. Female doctors, police officers, drivers, etc. must have "female" tagged in front of the generic term. Inverted for nurses because females are dominant in the industry.
- Ido, an early 1900s revision of Esperanto, was designed to avert this. It includes "pan-gender" third-person pronouns, and unlike Esperanto, all words are gender-neutral, with optional suffixes for female or male instances (servisto is a waiter, servistulo is a male waiter, and servistino is a waitress).
- Male-to-female Gender Benders are seen as far more common than female-to-males, and are portrayed as being far more difficult to adjust to because of all the "special" behaviours they now have to adopt, whereas it is assumed that a female becoming a male would have little trouble adjusting - there's no "special" behaviours to adjust to because being male is "normal"! This seems to be a false assumption on the idea of male as default:
- There are many female-to-male trans people who will point out that to expect strangers to immediately recognise you as male, it involves changes to your voice, walk, the way you stand, your clothes...
- Norah Vincent went undercover as a male for several months as research for her book. She considered herself very butch, and her body type was fairly stocky, so she assumed she would have no problems passing herself off. All the men (and some women) she interacted with assumed she was an extremely effeminate male.
- Played with in Real Life. Embryologically (in mammals), the genitalia of both male and female fetuses arise from a 'genital tubercle' that resembles neither. The deciding point is the presence or absence of the SRY gene (usually located on the Y chromosome, though there are individuals who have them on different chromosomes due to gene translocation mutations). If the SRY gene is not present, then genital tubercle will become female genitalia. If it is present, then it will become male genitalia. The SRY gene does not contain "instructions" for making men; it acts as a biological switch that affects the expression of other genes (on other chromosomes). So the genetic material for making men and women are contained in everyone, but only men have the "male" switch.
- Mammals generally kind of invert it in terms of genetics, which is shown in mutation research; A person with one X chromosome only (XO) will default to basic female anatomy (although they are sterile so their female functions aren't 100% up to scratch). A person with a YO set-up (ie one Y chromosome) cannot exist because the X chromosome is essential. Other species which have 2 homogenous chromosomes denote a male (eg birds, snakes and some lizards) still need further research to see whether it truly is the 'default', as there are theories on their systems working differently to the mammalian (and other species like certain chameleons etc) XX/XY system.
- A wife taking her husband's last name is considered normal, while her keeping her original last name is seen as an exception to the rule, though it is becoming more common as women marry later and want to preserve the professional reputation attached to their name.
- A man taking his wife's name is largely unheard-of mostly . He and his wife may hyphenate their surnames or meld them into a new surname, but taking the woman's name entirely is extremely rare.
- It's perfectly acceptable for women to keep their last names after marriage in the former Soviet republics, due to the Communist ideology that all people (men and women included) are equal and must be treated as such. This becomes more of a problem if they move to a country where it's not as acceptable. Even women who change their last name will have it spelled differently, for the most part, due to Russian language rules (e.g. "Ivanov" for male and "Ivanova" for female).
- In Hungary, a lot of women take their husband's name, but almost none of those who are doctors or lawyers.
- This is unheard of in Arab cultures. An arab woman always keeps her last name, as the last name shows what family she comes from.
- Few games with a (primarily) first-person perspective will have a female as the protagonist. Unlike a third-person camera perspective, which distances the player somewhat from the character, (and allows the player to examine her voluptuous figure), most first-person games feature a male or ambiguous player character. This may imply that most gamers find it difficult to identify with being a female character at that level, while female gamers can identify with a male protagonist... either that, or the programmers decided that there's no point having a female protagonist if we don't get to ogle her.
- This may be why Chell from Portal drew quite a lot of attention. The game also uses a first-person camera, although you do get to see Chell through portals fairly often.
- The indie video game Slender features a female protagonist - though you don't find out until you run out of stamina and start to hear her strained female-sounding breathing. This tends to startle players, since they assume the character is male.
- Both Mooks and Redshirts are nearly always male. Female characters in the military are nearly always officers and likewise it is very rare for a female cop to be below detective.
- Female mooks do appear in fighting games like Streets of Rage, but they're far more likely to sport distinctive outfits and weapons (such as whips) rather than just trying to punch or kick you. They're also more likely to be mini-bosses.
- In many jokes where the gender of the character does not matter, the protagonist will be male by default (i.e. "a guy goes to the doctor complaining of a cold..."), and female only if it somehow pertains to her being a woman (i.e. "a woman driving by a country lake decides to go skinny-dipping...).
- Nudity taboos in general seem to represent this. There is something more pornographic about the female nude even in a completely nonsexual context, though in blatant fanservice the female is more represented.
- However, when it comes to full frontal, it is male nudity that is considered more obscene and as Fan Disservice.
- Inverted with content warnings: There is a content category called "male nudity." No category called "female nudity" exists; it's just called "nudity" and it is seen as the expected kind. This is probably related to the assumption of the Male Gaze as the default.
- The stereotypical Mary Sue may be female for this reason, although the fact that Most Fanfic Writers Are Female could lead to females being more common as an Author Avatar.
- Old books about How To Draw the Human Figure typically show a man's body first, and then "modify" the proportions to show a woman's body - for example, we learn that a woman has wider hips, narrower shoulders, and a lower centre of gravity in comparison to the "default" male body.
- Also true of older medical texts, although current ones are trying to avert this bias by presenting equal numbers of male and female figures in illustrations.
- Most model skeletons, muscle figures, and other anatomical models still use the male as a default design, possibly with interchangeable parts for the different versions of the reproductive system.
- The famous museum exhibits "Body Worlds" and "Bodies: The Exhibition". has been accused of this. The exhibit features preserved human bodies, stripped of the skin but showing the bones and muscles. One complaint about both exhibits was that female bodies were only shown in "feminine" poses, such as those related to maternity, reproduction, and other poses and actions associated more with women. Male bodies, meanwhile, could do everything else. The complaints were not just about enforcing gender roles, but also enforcing this very trope: that men are the norm and women are something out of the norm.
- Men's names occasionally become unisex, but the same cannot be said of female names. Examples include: Mischa (Russian equivalent of Mike), Sasha (Russian equivalent of Alex), Kim (The character who popularised the name was male, full name Kimball O'Hara) and Meredith (which is Welsh for "Great Lord")
- A guy with a name that is considered nowadays to be a "girl's name" (even if it wasn't originally), such as Ashley, Leslie, or Marian is probably much more likely to be made fun of than, say, a girl with a masculine-sounding name or a masculine-sounding nickname like Alex, Sam, or even Charlie. Males in that situation are more likely to use a nickname, such as with Meredith. It's "Rodney", thank you very much.
- Inverted with the terms used to refer to cattle, chickens, and ducks in English.
- "Cow," the word used to refer to female cattle, is very commonly used as a gender neutral singular term for cattle, but "bull," the word used to refer to male cattle, is not.
- Hens (as in female chickens) are often simply referred to by the gender neutral species term "chicken," while roosters (male chickens) are more likely to be called the masculine term, "rooster," than just a chicken (save for Chicken Boo from Animaniacs).
- Female ducks are simply referred to as, well, "ducks," but male ducks are called "drakes." (Female ducks are also called "hens," but very rarely so).
- "Goose" is female or gender-neutral, "gander" is male only.
- Inverted: The German word for cat, "die katze," is used both generically and to refer to female cats in particular, but "der kater," the term used to male cats, is never used generically.
- There's a special word for gay/homosexual women, "lesbian", but not one for gay/homosexual men that unambiguously means only men (apart from various slurs).
- To clarify, the word "gay", at least originally, means homosexual man. This still plays this trope straight as lesbian women can, nowadays, be called "gay" but gay men cannot be called "lesbians".
Examples found in specific works:
Anime & Manga
- Cell in Dragon Ball technically has no gender, and is only referenced in the English manga as an "it", in the anime however, Cell has a male voice and is only called a "he". Though to be fair, the cells that make up its body are pretty much all male.
- Similarly with Piccollo and the other Namekians, a One-Gender Race who reproduce asexually, but are only referred to as male.
- In The Transformers, all the Transformers were considered genderless, but were referred to with masculine pronouns... until one story in which the Autobots created Arcee, who is considered female and is described with feminine pronouns.
- In the above Marvel story, Arcee was actually created, in story, as female to respond to the sexism that people saw in the perception of the Autobots as male. When the same writer (Simon Furman) introduced Arcee into the IDW transformers universe, it was presented as an experiment by Jhiaxus to introduce gender into the formerly genderless species. The default remained 'male', while she got the female referents. She also went somewhat insane.
- Similar to the toy-advertising example above, the movie Rapunzel was renamed Tangled, with the marketing focused mainly on the male hero rather than the formerly eponymous heroine, in order to appeal to young boys. Nobody worried about alienating a young female audience by having a film named after the male hero in the same way that a female heroine supposedly deters young boys.
- "Chick Flicks", the term for a genre of films defined by their target demographic, namely adult women. A movie with a primarily female cast is almost immediately tagged as being "for women", where movies with primarily male casts are considered the norm and categorized by their content, not as being "for men".
- Surrounding the female subject of an Item Number with indistinguishable, uniformly dressed and coifed men was common in the early musical movie era. Marilyn Monroe's Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend (homaged by Madonna's Material Girl), is a famous example, but far from the first.
- In Going Postal, one of the golems gets named Gladys and given a gingham dress so that Miss Maccalariat will approve it cleaning the ladies' privies (prior to which, neither Gladys nor anyone else minded what "she" wore). In Making Money Moist compares Gladys to the generic "male" golems, and then has to remind himself that they aren't male, any more than Gladys is really female.
- Something similar happened to Rincewind in Interesting Times. After his Luggage (a sentient trunk on legs) started following a more 'feminine' model (its toes are painted, etc), he is first bewildered at the general idea, then realizes that he's never really had a reason for thinking of his Luggage as male. "True, it had a homicidal nature, but so had a lot of the women Rincewind had met."
- A similar point can be made with Discworld dwarfs. All dwarfs look like short, male Vikings. Male dwarfs in human society are content to look like short, male Vikings (except Casanunda, but he's a special case), while many female dwarfs are starting to adopt a "feminine" look along the lines of human society. (Dwarfish, like Inuktitut, has no gender-specific pronouns, but their non-specific ones are generally translated as "he", "him", etc.)
- As a twist, the Dwarf femininity issue is presented as cultural rather than sexist. It is simply considered un-Dwarfish and none seem to have a problem interacting with women of other races. A few dwarfs obliquely refer to the fact that dwarvish culture can look odd to humans, and they have no expectation that another culture to follow their rules... unlike humans.
- In the Honor Harrington series, the convention is for individuals to use their own gender as a generic pronoun, unless there is some indication otherwise. Many characters still, however default to "men".
- In the Star Trek: The Original Series episode "Metamorphosis", Spock modifies their Universal Translator to communicate with an Energy Being that has been maintaining the life and health of a man marooned on its planet. The device gives the Energy Being a female voice, which Kirk and Spock find worthy of note. (Perhaps the translator has a "gender neutral mode", but going by this exchange, it seems more likely that the crew would have considered a male voice "genderless").
Kirk: Feminine. No doubt about it, Spock.
Spock: Yes. The matter of gender could change the entire situation.
Kirk: I'm way ahead of you.
Spock: Then it is not a zookeeper.
Kirk: No. A lover. note
- Inversion: Some of The World of Darkness sourcebooks use female pronouns to refer to hypothetical characters of unspecified gender.
- Dungeons & Dragons has done the above too, as well as other methods of avoiding bias like alternating "he" and "she" (in one infamous instance for the same character) or basing it upon the Iconic that best represents the situation.
- One strategy in various games from the 1990s on was to refer to the Game Master as female and to the players as male in the examples.
- The Hasbro game "Guess Who?" invoked this trope when a six year old girl asked why the characters were disproportionately male.
- Gen IV in Pokémon introduced aesthetic gender differences on members of the same species. In most cases, the "regular" design (i.e., the one that had been used in previous generations) went for males and the females got something different (One notable exception would be Xatu). Although the gender differences are quite realistic and reflect gender differences in animals in real life (for example, female Bug Pokemon tend to have wider thoraxes than the males), some Pokémon have a clearly "human feminine" traits like female Wobbuffet using lipstick.
- In most RPGs, there is more likely to be extra female-specific equipment, character classes, and/or abilities than male-specific.
- In Nickelodeon's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2012), April discovers she has a rare gift when she is able to "communicate" with a psychic mutant monkey. This gift intrigues Splinter and he offers to train her as a as a Kunoichi, who were traditionally trained with different skillsets than male ninja.
- This is played with Young Justice. There's a perfectly good strategic reason for Nightwing to send an all-female squad for the day's mission, but he still presents it as though an all-female squad is a deviation. Batgirl calls him on it, on the basis that while Nightwing wasn't wrong to send an all-female squad, he was wrong to assume that the all-female squad would find the fact that they were an all-female squad strange and in need of explanation.
Batgirl: "Oh, really? And would you have felt the need to justify an all-male squad for a given mission?"
Wonder Girl, Bumblebee, and Miss Martian all glare at him.
Nightwing: "Th-there's no... good answer for that, is there? So... Nightwing out."