Social commentary and think pieces

18 April 2020

Why do we so often fail to accept the female narrative?


In 2019 the James Bond filmmakers announced that in their twenty-fifth instalment of the James Bond franchise, No Time To Die, the next 007 would be played by female actress Lashana Lynch. Unsurprisingly, there was an uproar, as you could only expect there to be when a narrative which so many know so well is changed. People simply didn't want to see a female 007. But why?

Against the notion of a female 007 is the argument that you cannot simply change the gender of a character who was written to be male. James Bond was written a male and so male he should remain. Its a perspective I understand but don't agree with. The original James Bond films starred Sean Connery so, on this basis, it is arguable that you shouldn't be able to change the actor portraying Bond to Pierce Brosnan, Daniel Craig or any of the other Bond actors; because they didn't star in the original. Gender does delve deeper than merely appearance, but what is most crucial to remember is that 007 is not James Bond. In the new film, No Time To Die, Daniel Craig continues to play Bond. However, he has left Mi6 and is working against a new villain in Jamaica. In his absence, there is a new 007 agent, played by Lashana Lynch. James Bond is still very much present in the film and is still male, so is the real problem that society can't accept a female in a stereotypically male role?

Many have also tried to argue against this change by asking "how would women feel if we changed Wonder Woman to Wonder Man?" In saying this, so many have entirely missed the point of why Phoebe Waller-Bridge - who was involved in writing No Time To Die and is credited with the introduction of a female 007 - pushed for a female in that role; because women so often lack representation in such genres. Wonder Woman is one of few female superheroes among uncountable men. Women's voices are scarcely heard in films of these genres, particularly in James Bond where women are, quite often, objectified and seen as something to "win" and posses, so isn't it about time we saw some women being fairly represented in these roles?

This uproar merely exhibits how, as a society, we are both unimaginative and misogynistic. We seem to be forgetting that Bond is a fictional character, born from the imagination of Ian Fleming. The fact that we have the capacity to imagine a fictional character living that of James Bond's wildly unrealistic lifestyle - leaping from building to building, killing the bad guys and driving off into the sunset with a girl he's just "won", you can imagine him winking at the camera as he passes, like a bad perfume ad - but cannot fathom the idea of a female in that role is both astonishing and reflective of how truly misogynistic we are to be so unaccepting of the female narrative.
And its not just James Bond. Dr Who's thirteenth doctor Jodie Whittaker has faced discrimination too, simply for being a woman and existing in a role considered to be traditionally male, despite Dr being a genderless term. Since Whittaker took on the role of Doctor, ratings have gone down. The season finale starring Whittaker attracted 4.69 million viewers, compared to previous Dr Peter Capaldi's 6.48 million. Considering Dr Who's predominantly male audience, this speaks volumes of the lack of acceptance of the female narrative. Put simply, 1.79 million people lost interest when the female narrative was introduced.

Furthermore, in 2013, HBO conducted an experiment on their TV viewing public. They aired two new programmes back to back, both buddy dramas and both alike in the quality of their production. Both programmes belonged to one genre but were hybrid to many others  and both ended with the reasserting of the platonic bonds of friendship. The only thing differing them was the gender of the two leading protagonists. These programmes were True Detective and Doll and Em.
The way in which both were critically received differed drastically. True Detective was analysed to the point of parody, whereas Doll and Em was brushed aside, inaccurately labelled "satire" and forgotten. The male programme got far too much credit and the female programme far to little, despite them being deliberately compatible. But, what drives us to be so dismissive of the female narrative?

In her essay, Exposure, Olivia Sudjic writes "Male readers seem to baulk at the prospect of entering the mind of a female protagonist... Women, by contrast, are conditioned to accept a male narrator at the controls, and to accept male intrusion and colonisation of their minds." Considering the predominantly male audience of both James Bond and Dr Who, Sudjic's words are powerful in reflecting the mentality of fans of the Bond and Who franchises and why so many seem to be against the idea of a female lead.
Its why male-led films and books are considered more universal than those led by women; because the male experience is so often considered more universal. Its why films starring women are classed "strong female leads" and why female-centred comedies and categorised "chick-flicks." Its why we dismiss the art behind the female narrative, labelling femininity a genre, and not taking it in all of its seriousness. Its blatant misogyny. But, we aren't born misogynistic, so where does it come from?

In a 2018 article for GQ magazine on the psychology of misogyny, George Chesterton wrote "Masculinity, then, appears on a sliding scale, usually depending on the boy's childhood environment and trauma. All children experience negativity, with indifference or neglect at one end and physical or sexual abuse at the other, and the more painful childhood is, the more likely a boy is to emerge as 'hyper-masculine'. Meanwhile, the more masculine a boy is, the more he represses his feelings about women, so the more misogynistic and abusive he is likely to be. This also works in reverse, with the hyper-masculine men also more likely to be emotionally vulnerable, even helpless." Put simply, Chesterton says that the more hyper-masculine a man is, the less accepting he will be of the female narrative.

As well as psychological factors, conditioning has a lot to answer for with the extreme presence of misogyny within our society.
For the most part, misogyny - internalised or otherwise - is firmly ingrained in us all. It comes from decades worth of conditioning by the media and general societal attitudes towards gender that have fooled so many of us into believing - wether we realise it or not - that men are simply above women and that the male narrative is simply of more value than that of the female. Its not surprising that so many of us are even slightly misogynistic. How can we expect not to be when we live in a world where masculinity is in crisis, men are criticised for showing any form of vulnerability and women are marginalised and put down as "pussy's" for showing emotion? Misogyny effects us all, but our refusal to entertain the female narrative goes to show how women are criticised to a far greater degree than men.

In an article for the Guardian, Lili Loofbourow says "Anefarious impulse strikes when we look at faces. Its a result of advertising combined with energies of male-dominated image-making. Perhaps you have noticed; when you look at a face you have been told is female, you critique it at a much higher resolution than you would if it had been labelled male. Women's skin should be smoother. We detect wrinkles, discolourations and pores and subtract them from the women's beauty in ways we don't if that face is presented to us as masculine."
This is true. As a society we are undoubtedly more critical of women than we are of men, and its due to decades worth of media conditioning which has resulted in a society of misogynists. We are all misogynists to an extent.

As for misogyny within the representation of women in stereotypically male roles, I don't think we always shun the female narrative in such genres.
Consider the success of Killing Eve, in which Jodie Comer stars as - female - assassin Villanelle. Its wildly popular, though it appeals far more to women.
Admittedly, I don't think I would be such a fan of Killing Eve if the two lead roles weren't female and if Villanelle were a male assassin. Part of the appeal of Killing Eve is that its refreshing to see a women in a stereotypically male role, possessing the stereotypically male trait of cruelty, and doing so so unapologetically. However, despite its mass appeal - to both men and women - it hasn't reached the same level of global success as either James Bond or Dr Who, both highly successful franchises.
Many factors contribute towards this - Killing Eve has only been on air since 2018, whereas Dr Who first aired in 1963, just one year after the first Bond film was released. It takes time to develop a fanbase and form a franchise and so its not surprising that both James Bond and Dr Who have outdone Killing Eve in terms of audience size. Especially when you consider that the male narrative is, like I said, far more "universal" than the female narrative.
However, there's also the fact that Killing Eve doesn't solely focus on action or science-fi genres. What likely makes it such a successful TV programme is that it delves far deeper than the surface genres - action and crime - immersing itself in the psychology of the mutual fascination between Eve and Villanelle, who are continuously drawn to each other, despite the detrimental impact it has on their lives. Killing Eve abandoned James Bond's materialistic focus on wealth and the objectification of women, instead giving far more focus to the complexities of the characters who are never simply one thing or the other.
But, I do think that a largely female audience being able to fathom the idea of a female assassin where a male audience, in regards to James Bond and Dr Who, so often can't speaks volumes about our attitudes towards female narrative and how accepting we are of it depending on gender. But, for the most part, I think we just don't like change.

We are far more accepting of a female assassin in Killing Eve than we are of a female spy in James Bond because that's how it was written. Villanelle was written as a female assassin and wasn't originally a male character . But, James Bond was and so maybe the fact that we can't accept a woman "replacing" a man in a typically male role reflects a male fear of being "bettered" by women? Maybe we are just so used to stereotypes that we struggle to accept change.
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2 comments

  1. I'm all for strong and powerful female characters in movies. And as a fan of Alien franchise and classic Tomb Raider games I would be absolutely dissatisfied if creators would substitute my favorite female characters with male protagonists. The best solution in my opinion is to create something new and fascinating, not simply substituting the existing heroes. Thank you for the post, stay safe!

    Lots of love ♥ January Girl

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