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
. Compare Men Are the Expendable Gender
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".
- 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. Arcee was actually created, in story, as female to respond to the sexism that people saw in the perception of the Autobots as male.
- The same writer (Simon Furman) returned for the IDW-published new continuity, he again set all cybertronians as genderless but using male pronouns. When he introduced Arcee, it was presented as an experiment by Jhiaxus to introduce gender into the formerly genderless species. This ended up having loads of Unfortunate Implications as it both made being female "abnormal" and the fact that Arcee went insane had plenty of potential sexist/transphobic implications. This would end up getting getting fixed (depending on who you ask) in later issues where Cybertronians from Camiens are introduced as naturally-evolving female Transformers.
- 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 Shortpacked! everyone refers to Ultra-Car, a talking car, as "he". It's not until U.C. gets a human body that we learn she identifies as female, and when people are surprised she points out that cars don't have gender.
- 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."