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See Post #52
To reiterate, the "Men With Boobs" effect occurs when well-intentioned writers try too hard to make a female character with non-intrusive attributes with regard to her gender. This can be a side-effect of a writer trying to develop characters who pass the Bechdel Test as well as an attempt to invoke the idea that Real Women Never Wear Dresses, tropes that are not sure-fire indications of a multi-faceted and strong female character. De-feminizing (or even neutering) a character can certainly have its advantages, but when taken too far, the character can end up being implausible to readers.
Now, there are times with this effect (or trope) can be used effectively in, say, a parody or an Attractive Bent-Gender comedy that attempts to show just how little a heterosexual man would change his gender identity if he actually became a woman. Obviously, the idea of having a "Man with Boobs" character can also be advantageous in some works of science fiction such as a world where males and females have been androgynized to the point that they are indistinguishable. And while I can't think of too many characters at the top of my head, there are also plausible "Man with Boobs" female characters such as those who have been raised in a heavily masculine-oriented environment, so this isn't a universally bad trope.
To put things into further perspective, look at Samus Aran from the Metroid series, especially in her most recent iteration. The introduction of the Zero Suit raised a lot of controversy, as many fans argued that having a well-known and iconic female hero wearing a skin-tight blue body suit detracts from years of progress in feminist gaming.
I actually welcome the Zero Suit with open arms explicitly because it hints more toward her sexuality, rather than obscuring it or ignoring it. Metroid Other M does have some problems in terms of its gender roles, but that's another issue that has created too many flame wars to count, and it's honestly beside the point I'm getting at. Using Samus as an example, we sometimes see a backlash toward a traditionally non-sexualized character who receives a more feminine touch, however slight or drastic it may be. Sometimes the amped-up sexuality is justified and sometimes it isn't, admittedly and often the latter. The Hotter and Sexier trope page describes this issue in detail.
Writers have to walk a tightrope when forming the sexual identity of a character, and there are still plenty of double standards to be found among female characters with masculine traits, perhaps vice versa. This same concept goes for the romantic and erotic inclinations of the character in question. I can't help but imagine that Samus is at least mildly aware of the attractiveness of her physique when she wears the Zero Suit, and I would say the same for Solid Snake and Wolverine with their skin-tight suits. They have muscular physiques and various writers, both professional and of the fan fiction variety, are quick to exploit those features to nudge the readership as if to say "by the way, this character does indeed have a sex life".
Again, this seems to be much more problematic with female characters. Going back to the Samus example, here's an interesting argument I found from her Wikipedia article.
"The Toronto Star argued that the sexual politics surrounding Samus and the Metroid series needed to stop, as they considered it unwarranted. They remarked that although Samus is female, it is not a significant characteristic after considering the fact that she spends most of her time in a suit of armor that 'precludes creepy ogling'. The newspaper believed that the 'big crazy shock to the gaming public' that followed after Metroid revealed that Samus is female was 'some seriously misspent energy [...] Metroid Prime's heroine is not a woman for the benefit of the sweaty/excited crowd, and neither is she a standard-bearer nor a courageous leader in the struggle for video game civil rights. She is a supremely talented action figure, and in the closeups on her helmet you can kind of see that she wears mascara, but that is all.' Rupert Goodwins of The Independent wrote, 'Samus Aran [...] is apparently female, although the Transformer-like suit she wears could just as easily contain a large centipede; it's hardly a breakthrough for feminism.'"
I apologize for the lengthy opening post, but I have my reservations about posting links to articles. This topic seems like it belongs in a different forum area, but I'm putting it here because it's a problem I see fairly often in amateur and professional fiction.
edited 7th Feb '11 3:57:25 PM by Aprilla
Oh, hey there Gender Issue! Nice to meet you! But yeah, this has been a problem but not as much as in the past...hopefully. Usually when I make a female character, I just try to make them the kind of people I'd like to hang out with. So even though the character may not have much the audience can see in them, at least the audience can see them as a friend.
edited 7th Feb '11 4:13:53 PM by SandJosieph
I think you could apply this to writing characters of all kinds of cultures and subcultures, not just women. Although, speaking as a white Western male and therefore not in the best position to be the judge of such things, I'm much more irritated by writers who go too far and make their characters stereotypes than writers who create "men with boobs".
With regards to Samus, she's quite similar to the typical male (nominally, but voiceless and sexless so they could just as easily be robots) A Space Marine Is You type protagonists. I don't expect or particularly want her to be overtly female, any more than I care that the Master Chief is a guy. I wouldn't have any problem with her whatsoever if she didn't keep getting held up as a shining example of feminism in gaming, which I think is laughable.
I would be willing to argue that "Men with Boobs" characters are becoming stereotypes in and of themselves, as they are the bastard offspring of both contemporary feminist fiction and masculine-based sex appeal. This also calls attention to the belief that sex symbols and feminist archetypes are mutually exclusive. In some cases, they aren't.
Part of the problem is that people are using a relatively (and up until recently) genderless character as the poster child for feminism in video games, which has Unfortunate Implications all on its own. It's as if to say we have to praise a woman who spends the majority of her time in a powered exoskeleton and has few personality traits that speak for or against her status as a woman.
Like I said, this can sometimes work well for characters from strange environments or cultures who have Blue-and-Orange Morality in which they are genderless or unisex, having no patriarchy, no matriarchy, or even a default gender mentality the way we do it real life. "Men with Boobs" characters are, in my opinion, a reflection of how fleshing out a character's gender identity can go awry.
And to clarify, I'm not knocking on gender neutrality. What I am definitely asserting is that if you're going to write a conventional female character, make sure her femininity and/or masculinity are plausible (but not necessarily balanced).
edited 7th Feb '11 4:38:28 PM by Aprilla
I'm kinda torn on the whole "Men with boobs" style of characterization.
One one hand: Female characters that aren't completely defined by their femaleness and how they're different from men? Awesome
On the other hand: Female characters that reinforce the notion that characters can only be considered good, cool, or interesting if they're predominantly masculine? Devalues femininity, which doesn't gel with my branch of feminism * The short of Sparkysharps's brand of feminism is that sorting particular traits into boxes of masculine and feminine, linking masculinity with men and femininity with women, and devaluing feminine traits — and therefore women as a group — is generally Not Cool and we should make efforts to stop doing it and is generally not awesome.
Basically, I see it as getting some of the point, but not all of it.
I think there's an important difference between the 'female characters are just as manly as men, but with boobs!' phenomenon, and the 'Character is essentially personality-less, but just happens to be female'. The first I would say is bad, but the second is OK. Look at Chell from Portal.
I would agree. The former (assuming a there's tendency towards masculine female characters being valued over feminine female characters and not just "some women are manly, some aren't, and it's all chill") values masculinity and devalues femininity. The latter simply doesn't regard male as default.
edited 7th Feb '11 6:37:41 PM by Sparkysharps
Again, this seems to be much more problematic with female characters.
This is something that bothers me a bit. A male character can be strong and Badass and also have a love/sex life and that's perfectly fine - in fact, it probably adds to his badassery. Give a female Action Girl or whatever a Love Interest and it's controversial - at best it's a traditional move, at worst a sell-out. Are "empowered" female characters not allowed to include romance in their range of interests?
No, it's just dirt common to always require that a female character, regardless of 'badass' rank or otherwise, be in some sort of romantic B-plot or relationship, and almost always this results in them playing second fiddle to their lover. When a badass male character gets a female romantic interest, it's more of a commodity, a 'trophy' to win and rescue and fight for. When a badass female character gets a male romantic interest, it's to make her 'open up' and become more trusting of others or other bullshit.
These are obviously not hard-and-fast rules. But they are strong general trends that justifiably make many people leery of when a supposedly-badass female is tagged with a romantic interest but not have the same bias with males.
As for 'men with boobs', if I'm understanding correctly, a character that is basically a 'man' in all but genitals from their looks to their attitudes and personalities. I see nothing wrong with this and I enjoy female characters like this. There shouldn't be any 'character type' that is blocked off from someone because of their sex, so implying that any 'man with boobs' character is badly done or somehow offensive or some other unflattering idea doesn't sit great with me.
The implications that could come from the other way, that holding up a 'masculine female' as some kind of feministic ideal is putting down feminine traits as less is a legitimate concern. However, I understand why people would see a character like this to be empowering and fresh in its own way. For very long, females in fiction and real life were not even considered for these types of roles, or much any roles other than 'The Chick' or other caricatures of gender. It was as though the idea of a woman being masculine and acting too 'like a man' was preposterous and impossible. A character like this defies that very physically.
I make female characters like this, and used to worry sometimes "if they are pretty much like a guy in every other way, isn't it pointless to make them a woman anyway?" until I realized how ridiculous that idea was. "If it's so pointless, what's the harm in making them a woman? That's like saying it's wrong for a woman to ever be this kind of character." I have male characters that are the opposite, and I have very feminine females, masculine males, conservatives and traditionalists, liberals, neutral-gender types of both sexes, the whole range. Every single type within that range has pros and cons, things that empower them and are relatable and things that may have bad implications or are different and hard to believe.
Also, I found the concept of Samus and her gender-neutrality very refreshing, and it made me very happy to learn about it, as a female. You have no idea how damn fucking rare it is to see something like that happen when you actually look out for it. The movie Salt, while its quality as a whole was just OK, is another great example of a similar phenomena. I don't find it ridiculous to hear Samus's name in conversations regarding feminism in contemporary media and video games.
One thing that I think is interesting is that, if you look at the traditional "feminine" heroine, her story almost invariably ends once she gets married or wins over her true love or whatever. That's it; she is now supposed to be fulfilled and that's the happy ending. This isn't the case for traditional male heroes nearly so often.
I agree with this, but I'm less keen on the idea that in order to be taken seriously as a heroine, a character must be traditionally masculine (incidentally, I don't think much of the reverse, either).
But more than that, I also think that gender roles, while by no means universally embraced, tend to influence people, one way or another, and some moreso than others.
Nor do I, but I don't think she's a particularly feminist character, all the same. I won't dispute her significance from a historical perspective.
edited 7th Feb '11 9:03:29 PM by BobbyG
@almyki: I disagree with a few things you're saying, but you brought up some good points in this topic. The movie Salt is an excellent example of how the "Men with Boobs" concept can be properly executed. Angelina Jolie's character is very mysterious and well-trained, and although she does have a husband who brings significance to the plot, neither of the two become a Romantic Plot Tumor, which is commendable. Furthermore, Salt's profession actually makes her an even more effective "Man with Boobs" because it requires stealth, patience, and an ability to discard and alter identities at a moment's notice.
Jolie's character is a covert operative, so that basically means she's a ghost in terms of both gender and personality in general. They could have easily made it where she slips on a cocktail dress to get secrets out of some FSB agent, but instead they had her jumping through an elevator corridor and weaving a motorcycle in and out of rush-hour traffic. I honestly like Fanservice, but seeing rough and violent women in movies like Salt and Kill Bill are very refreshing. Remember in my original post that I said the "Man with Boobs" effect has positive virtues. They just aren't successfully pulled very often as far as I'm concerned. Video games are probably the worst offenders.
People bash sex appeal a little too much. Sex appeal can be a good thing if it adds to character development, but being able to do this without degrading the character in question is a feat most writers can't handle. I really don't want to pull out the Most Writers Are Male card, but I find it hardly coincidental that the scantily-clad women who are only known for being scantily-clad tend to be written by men. Look at the link to the topic below and skim through some of the posts. It actually ties into this issue fairly well.
I like Samus because she looks good in that Zero Suit, and I frankly find it sexy. However, I also enjoy her as a character because she A.) gets shit done and B.) doesn't seem to be the type of woman who will quit her line of work the moment she gets into a relationship so she can inexplicably "make babies" or some other nonsense. Notice that I said "inexplicably". By this term, I mean that a female character with masculine traits can legitimately go through Chickification if the writer carefully constructs it in such a way that it's actually believable to the reader and the character if that character actually existed. Feminism is about freedom of choice, and if someone like Samus wanted to get married, have children, and become a stay-at-home mom, then that's fine. But, there had better be a DAMN good reason for this shift in lifestyles, and that is what makes or breaks a good female character, masculine, feminine, or otherwise.
edited 7th Feb '11 9:25:04 PM by Aprilla
I've never been too enthralled by the whole "men with boobs" term being honest, it feels very sexist, essentially pretending that you want equality in the representation of women but then drawing a line at the point where it makes you personally uncomfortable. Women should have the same restrictions (or lack thereof) as to what kinds of characters they're allowed to be as men, I see no reason to shoehorn in feminine traits where not appropriate because it feels wrong to some people that she doesn't have them. Masculine women like this exist in the real world after all.
Now I do have a problem with female characters who are made thuggish and confrontational and so on because the writer thinks it solves the problems people have with women's representation in fiction but those characters suck because they're typically 2-dimensional and created for an agenda, not because they're too masculine.
EDIT: I agree with your stance on sexuality though. Either a female character's sexuality is completely ignored or she's made to appear virginal/innocent. Unless she's evil, then she can do whatever she wants.
edited 7th Feb '11 10:22:47 PM by Bask
@Bask: "Masculine women like this exist in the real world after all."
They certainly do, but a sign of good storytelling is making these women both entertaining and thought-provoking. This may sound painfully obvious, but just because something exists in reality doesn't mean it will translate well into fiction. If you write a story about a female British Special Air Services commando who can speak five languages and bench press as much weight as her male colleagues, you need to fully develop her character in such a way that she feels like a person in action rather than a living trope. Otherwise you've created a virtual Mary Sue pretending to be a non-traditional heroine. I'm not saying you don't already know, but I thought I'd point that out.
Also, I can see how the term itself can be sexist and presenting a false air of equality, but feminism isn't outwardly or solely the objective of the term. It's similar to the Bechdel Test in that it can operate as a gateway into feminist undertones in fiction, but it is not the end-all be-all of the treatment of female characters. Much like the term Mary Sue, Men with Boobs has a dubious meaning, but I don't think it attempts to tackle anti-feminist undertones. I think writers who try to point out this concept are more concerned with poor character development, and as Bobby pointed out earlier, the concept itself can be expanded to relate to all character types.
The Camp Gay character, the Sassy Black Woman, the Well-Intentioned Extremist...as tropes and as characters, these people actually exist in real life, but we don't question their existence because it is self-evident as we are empirically a part of reality (although solipsists would have you believe otherwise). Fiction does not have that luxury, and the burden of proof rests upon the writer to build a world that, while non-existent, should be as authentic as possible without being interrogated by the reader.
Not to derail, but the movie Inception is actually built around this concept in terms of lucid and non-lucid dreams. Keeping the target dreamer unaware of the fact that he is dreaming is a central part of the plot, and many writers have commented on how the movie can be used as a metaphor for the fragile balance between good and bad storytelling, or more specifically, willing suspension of disbelief. To put things back into perspective, it does become a matter of individual taste. There are just some characters I see who make my bullshit radar go off, while others on this thread have already explained that they don't have a problem with it. That's perfectly fine.
"Now I do have a problem with female characters who are made thuggish and confrontational and so on because the writer thinks it solves the problems people have with women's representation in fiction but those characters suck because they're typically 2-dimensional and created for an agenda, not because they're too masculine."
This is basically my argument in a nutshell. Well said.
To add to that, my problem isn't that the female characters are too masculine, but that they're masculine in a poorly executed manner. It's an issue of quality more than quantity for me. I'd say the exact same for effeminate male characters who are effeminate for its own sake rather than having genuine feminine qualities that organically relate to their personality.
edited 7th Feb '11 11:57:43 PM by Aprilla
I am not enamored of the tendency to call female characters 'men with boobs'. It's dismissive, and it all-too-often carries the opinion that a woman who's drawn to a stereotypically masculine occupation shouldn't be too much like the guys in that occupation — even though that's often in real life the case.
That said, a woman in our culture who does things that are stereotypically masculine will be affected by our prevalent sexism, one way or another, and thus will be different from the men in at least that she's had to deal with that (in whatever way she's chosen). Perhaps she's thick-skinned and ignores it. Perhaps she believes the best defense is a good offense, and makes sure the guys know she can insult them just as hard. Perhaps it does get to her but she doesn't let her public face show it. Perhaps she's the type to be instantly accepted as "one of the guys" (with all the useful but, again, sexist implications of that).
Morven: "and it all-too-often carries the opinion that a woman who's drawn to a stereotypically masculine occupation shouldn't be too much like the guys in that occupation — even though that's often in real life the case."
Taking that statement a little further, you could also argue that part of the problem with masculine female characters - some, but not all, is that a double standard comes into being when you try to reverse this effect. In other words, having a male character be "one of the ladies" doesn't sit well with many audiences unless he is gay, especially when you're dealing with action-based genres that often cater to males. I can think of several works of fiction that involve a female character taking on masculine roles to assimilate to a male group, but I honestly can't think of nearly as many stories that integrate an effeminate male into a female group (at least without ostentatiously calling attention to said fact). Stanley Tucci's character from The Devil Wears Prada was a fascinating character, and while some people wonder whether or not his character is meant to be gay, I have to wonder what difference it makes, if any. I'm a fairly masculine guy, but I could relate to his character and he seemed to be genuinely interesting and multi-dimensional. He felt like a person.
A very important thing to remember about stereotypes is that they are not real. In terms of structure logic, stereotypes are an exaggeration of a truth value in such a way that the conclusion negates the validity of the statement as a whole. Put simply, stereotypes are not grounded in reality, but they derive from perceptions we make about reality.
There is something very pretentious about making a strong female character into a walking statement about exceptions to physical weaknesses in women because such a characterization mockingly assumes that the audience is not aware - or seems to be in opposition - to the idea that a woman could be masculine. Again, some people will argue against me in saying that this is a case of Some Anvils Need to Be Dropped, and I'm actually inclined to agree to some extent. I don't care for artificial diversity and artificially unconventional characters. To throw out another example, my girlfriend told me that Astrid from How to Train Your Dragon is a deeply masculine character, but in a setting full of Vikings, this is both plausible and really not a big deal. The fact that she is of a fighting capacity is only mentioned in passing, and given the success of this movie and other stories with similar characters, we might suggest that Samus Is a Girl is slowly but surely becoming a discredited trope.
Going back to video games as an example, look at it this way. For every Lara Croft, there are an army of wannabes who fail to raise the same ambitions in a female audience, or even in a male audience. I have a female friend who once told me that characters like Lara Croft were her initial motivation for being as athletic and competent in marksmanship as she is today. However, Lara Croft arguably has a certain degree of emotional, cultural, and intellectual content that many characters like her simply don't have. This is all despite her fluctuating sex appeal, and I would even say that many male gamers see her as a source of inspiration despite some of the unrealistic actions she performs in the games.
edited 10th Jul '12 10:41:12 AM by Aprilla
THANK YOU, Morven. I'm sick and tired of the "men with breasts"-meme, for those exact reasons.
Interesting debate to be sure. Let's move the conversation from Samus onto another character for a moment: Toph Bei Fong◊. For those of you who are unfamiliar with that name and don't have thirty hours to waste, here's a short synopsis.
She's 12. She's 5'2" (with the bun). She's blind. She spent several minutes in her introductory episode tossing grown men around like rag dolls. There isn't a feminine bone in her body * except her pelvis An interesting thing here was that the start of her character arc had to do with her (filthy rich) parents forcing "femininity" on her, mostly because of her blindness; she was always protected, and treated like a fragile little thing. But she can — and does— fight for herself, and when her parents find out, they still decide that she'd had too much freedom growing up.
Anywho, take my word that for 94% of her time on-screen, not including her intro episode, if Toph were a boy, nothing would change. How do you guys feel about that?
edited 8th Feb '11 2:05:18 PM by SalFishFin
Her being a girl makes her awesome, for one. She's not masculine or guyish. She's just Toph, and that's just how it should be.
I read "Toph" and immedietely thought of Tnophelia. o_O Also, I do like it when a character's gender at least has an effect on the people around her and her way of life. It doesn't really need to effect the story, just add some color.
edited 8th Feb '11 2:08:29 PM by SandJosieph
Actually, now that I think about it, he gender really doesn't have an affect on her life in the outside world. Aside from the Water Tribes, the world of Avatar doesn't seem to have defined set-in-stone gender roles. For example, there was one episode where Sokka— a guy— begged Suki—a girl, and the leader of an all-female warrior group—to teach him how to fight, and she responded that she doesn't usually teach outsiders, "let alone boys." Then she decided to take him on as a pupil, with a few strings attached◊
I haven't seen much of that show, but from what I've seen of Toph, this is a sign of a masculine female character at her best. AHR said it best in noting that Toph is just Toph. She is her own person, and her gender seems to be a non-essential part of her character development. From what I've understood, her problem with her parents has less to do with their attempt to feminize her and more to do with the simple fact that they are attempting to make her into something that she doesn't want to be.
Part of the problem is that "masculine" can be read as both gendered and gender neutral (https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/discussion.php?id=7vwcb9vkyj6mpi4t76o86yjz), so if a work features a "feminine" female character and a "masculine" male one, the audience probably perceives the female character as more strongly defined by her gender. * The fact that many works have about two female characters for every six males doesn't help either.
So if a creator is tired of seeing female characters who are strongly defined by their femaleness, it's probably tempting for them to make all their characters - male and female - "masculine".
Due to the fact she's blind. Which is a great handicap because it has nothing to do with her gender!
This thread seems to have quieted a bit. Can anyone think of other examples of "successful" masculine female characters? I enjoy Major Kusanagi from Ghost in the Shell SAC, and I have to say that, despite some of the backlash the game itself received, Final Fantasy XIII's Lightning and Fang were two of the best less-than-feminine characters I've seen in a while.
Lightning needs a little bit more work as a fully formed character, but I enjoy the fact that she is a stand-alone female who doesn't exist by virtue of a sexual or romantic relationship. I'm also confident that if a love interest were written in (especially a male one), it wouldn't detract from her progress as a person in the slightest. I haven't finished the game, but I like how her no-BS attitude has much more to do with her background as a soldier and older sister than anything else. The attitude isn't tacked on, though some may disagree.
The entire premise behind this "trope" seems like nothing but blatant sexism. Why is it sexist that a female character be silent and stoic? Defining femininity so as to exclude that is just plain absurd.
"Part of the problem is that people are using a relatively (and up until recently) genderless character as the poster child for feminism in video games, which has Unfortunate Implications all on its own. It's as if to say we have to praise a woman who spends the majority of her time in a powered exoskeleton and has few personality traits that speak for or against her status as a woman."
This is just ridiculous! Master Chief is a man who spends the majority of his time in a powered exoskeleton and has few personality traits, yet is held up as a paragon of masculinity. It's like you're saying that women can not/should not be silent, stoic, and potent, which is nothing but sexist claptrap.
You're essentially trying to imply that stoicism and potency are fundamentally masculine traits, which pretty much means that you're never going to find any character who's a not sexist in some way. Either they're stoic or potent which means they're "Men with Boobs" or they're not stoic and not potent and are stereotypical.
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