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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Largely Incoherent Rant about Gender in Fantasy Parodies

(A.K.A. Me ranting about Your Highness, based on a couple of commercials.)

I was just watching television (shock, I know!) and I caught one of the trailers for "Your Highness" and it reminds me of something that really irritates me about high fantasy parodies.

Invariably, you have male lead characters who are doofuses or dicks, largely incompetent, and so on. And then you have the girl, who is the most competent/kickass of the bunch.

And that irrationally bothers me.

I get that this might seem strange to some people, as I am a feminist and I prefer my female characters competent in general. This is a special situation though. What bothers me here, about scenes like when the macho guys posture about how they can protect Natalie Portman and she promptly beats them up, is what I like to call Lysistrata humor.

See, Lysistrata's an old greek comedy where a woman convinces all of the women of Greece to withhold sex in an attempt to force the men to find a peaceful solution to the Peloponnesian War. This leads of course to a battle of the sexist. The key element though, the core joke, doesn't really come across to modern Americans though, unless you realize that in Ancient Greece, women were considered the baser sex. For modern Americans, the joke goes the opposite way. (Would the 40-Year Old Virgin have been as funny if said virgin had been a woman? Or any movie where the guy makes a bet to forgo sex for any specific period of time.)

So when I reference Lysistrata, I'm basically referring to the sort of parody where the joke involves a set-up that's considered really unlikely by modern wisdom/stereotype. We get the opposite of what we're expecting. (Also, it's me being incredibly pretentious, of course, but I think that's kind of expected by now. :-))

And that's the inherent joke in these sorts of parody movies (or tv shows: see Krod Mandoon as a recent example.) You expect heroes on serious or important quests to appreciate the gravity of the situation. You expect them to be good at what they do, reasonably clever, and of a fairly altruistic bent. So, naturally, in these parodies, you have heroes that are clumsy, inadequate, stupid, think only with their penises, self-absorbed, sociopathic, oblivious and so on and so forth.

But what do we have for the heroine? She's competent. Is the fact that the woman is actually competent supposed to be the joke?

(I'll spare a moment to acknowledge that Krod Mandoon also played up Annika's "promiscuous pagan" thing. But even then, the show made more of the joke about Krod's insecurity and inability to deal with this trait. Meanwhile, Annika continued to be regularly the most intelligent/competent person on the team)

Oh, they do get to be bitchy at least. But even then, that's not so much a flaw as it is pretty understandable when you're dealing with a group of idiots. And it never gets in the way of the heroes following her around like drooling lust-buckets.

I don't know if I even really have a point to this rant. Maybe I just want to see something where the token girl gets to be as stupid, lazy, incompetent and reckless as the men around her. Like in Hot Fuzz, where no one was really incompetent, but Doris was pretty much the same level of complacent, inappropriate, and y'know FUNNY as the two Andys. Or, say, it's Always Funny in Philadelphia. It's not really to my taste, but it got a lot more fun when they finally decided to write Dee as being as stupid, self-absorbed and sociopathic as the rest of the gang. (I realize those two examples aren't from fantasy, but that's honestly because off the top of my head, I can't think of a fantasy comedic female character that fits! Except maybe in anime, and you know how much it crushes my soul to admit that. :-P)

Or even better than letting the token female be involved what if there were TWO girls in the group? Or even three? Notice how that never tends to happen? Then even if one had to be the token competent person (which, okay, I can see the need for to keep the other idiots from getting killed), we'd have another girl character who'd get to be part of the joke?

Then it'd seem less like the idea of a competent female character in fantasy IS the joke.

Now, as a disclaimer, this rant is sparked by a couple of trailers. It is possible that my conclusions are erroneous. Maybe the movie is not the sort of "look! Incompetent Heroes!" fantasy parody I think it'll be. Maybe the chick will actually be not nearly as awesome/competent/smart as she thinks she is and therefore be part of the joke. (I would be very amused by a Zapp Brannigan style female character, actually. Or even a Hal Jordan one.) But the commercials at least fit a trend that's annoyed me for a long time.


  • At March 31, 2011 1:08 AM, Blogger Zaratustra said…

    I think the general assumption is that women are more easily offended than men.

  • At March 31, 2011 10:44 AM, Blogger Josh Krach said…

    Would you say Ms. Marvel is a Hal Jordan-type female character?

  • At March 31, 2011 3:52 PM, Blogger SallyP said…

    I don't know Josh, she doesn't get hit in the head nearly as often as Hal.

    But yes, it would be nice to have more than ONE woman on the team.

  • At March 31, 2011 5:58 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    Zaratustra: I am offended by that assumption! :-)

    Josh: Yeah, sometimes. Though I don't think she gets to be as much the butt of the joke as Hal is.

    Sally: Exactly!

  • At April 05, 2011 1:49 PM, Blogger Ami Angelwings said…

    I agree w/ you so much about this -_- This isn't irrational at all... and feminism is about equality not female domination, I would so love if there could be more "Elaine" characters, who is one of the few women in recent sitcoms I can think of that isn't a "straight man" to the males.. she's as goofy and made fun of as they are :3 the reason women are the straight ppl often seems like a form of comedic chivalry, as well since this is a comedy, being funny, odd or strange are actually qualities that make a character the focus.. also as you pointed out, when you're the ONLY woman in a cast, the char starts becoming representative for an entire group... this happens with other gruops as well, queer chars, PoCs etc, the fear that if you do nething to them as a writer it says something about YOU (hence the idea that women might be more offended, or PoCs... white men are the default in fiction and the majority of roles of all kinds.. if there was only one white guy in every single work of US fiction and he was almost always ONE particular trope, it'd feel the same way for them (actually if you listen to guys like trollbert, even 8 slices of the pie right now isn't enuf for them xD ) ).. like you i think the solution would be to have more variety and more female chars, so some can be effective and some can be goofy :)

  • At April 11, 2011 11:08 PM, Anonymous nemryn said…

    It's worse than that! The woman doesn't even get a 'things are different than you expect!' joke; she's just a prop for the guys' joke.

  • At August 25, 2012 10:34 PM, Anonymous Marjory said…

    I believe one and all must glance at it.


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