The problem is that everything else isn't female enough
Earlier this year US TV Network CBS ordered a pilot for a Nancy Drew reboot and viewers everywhere who had been fans of the independent teenage super sleuth geared themselves up to see her reimagined as an adult detective in New York. Unfortunately we’ll be waiting a little longer before we see her on our small screens as CBS decided to cancel the show, stating that “the pilot tested well but skewed too female for CBS’ schedule.” Mm, we see. Would this be the same CBS that recently pushed the female-fronted Supergirl show sideways over to the CW? The presence of women must be fairly detrimental to their ratings.
This news combined with ABC’s recent cancellation of Agent Peggy Carter and Iron Man 3 director Shane Black’s recent announcement that the film’s female villain was axed because women characters don’t sell as toys has left us wondering, just how low is the threshold before we consider something ‘too female’?
The situation brought to mind a study that was often brought up with regards to class participation when I was at university. In her book Learning to Lose: Sexism and Education Dale Spender researched talking in class by using audio and video to independently evaluate who talked the most in mixed-gender university classroom discussions. She found that no matter what the gender ratio of the students was, and whether the instructor was directly trying to draw out more female participation or not, men always talked more. The interesting thing is that when Spender asked students who they thought talked more in these discussions, women tended to be fairly accurate in assessing that they talked less; but men were more inclined to see the discussion as being “equal” or completely dominated by women even though they were talking less than 50% of the time. PBS even have a well-researched article that backs this up with more academic references.
It appears that when men are used to women talking for a small part of a discussion, any notable increase in their participation, even if it’s still less than their own, will feel uncomfortably like women are dominating them. So could the same be said for other areas of our lives? We continually state our awareness that there’s a shortage of women in many industries, be it gaming, as directors, in tech, on film and, yes, on prime time TV where a report for the UK found that women tended to be outnumbered 2 to 1.
This leads us to think that the problem with Nancy Drew wasn’t that it was ‘too female’, the problem is that everything else isn’t female enough. We’re so used to seeing woman not women; it’s fine when we’re the single antelope in the field that the lion can eat, but increase our numbers and suddenly we become more like the stampeding herd of wildebeest that took down Mufasa. Just look at how everyone lost their shit over the female Ghostbusters cast or how every female-fronted comedy film seems to have to be compared to Bridesmaids because good comedy films with a large female cast are something like the Highlander and we can only have one which all the others must work to behead.
Of course when you’re used to a small amount of something for such a long time anything more will feel like too much. The problem with this is that 50% of the global population is not comparable to an extra glass of wine after a dry January. How can you have too much of half of the world when you never had enough in the first place? Are our viewing stomachs really so starved of women that anything more than a single serving has us turning over the TV feeling bloated with femininity?
Marketers seem to be stuck in a perpetual cycle of listening to the voices that they’ve forgotten they themselves have made loudest. Don’t be surprised that you’re only hearing the voices that are clamouring for male figures and characters – you handed them the megaphone by assuming they’re the only ones worth listening to, by assuming they were the tastemakers when that’s not the case anymore.
In eSports marketers focussed resolutely on attracting the highly specific demographic of white affluent male gamers aged 21 to 34. In an article on Polygon that looked into the lack of women in eSports, ESL programming director Michal “Carmac” Blicharz was quoted saying: “We are not focused on expanding our demographic beyond who we currently reach because our core audience is growing every year. Historically all attempts to target non-core eSports demographics have been failures. Various companies have tried simplification, gender segregation, mainstream-friendly rule sets and other similar things but does not work. It is not authentic as it alienates the immensely large core audience in the hope that someone new might pick it up. We don’t see the point.” And eSports marketing agency Trifecta Media had said “”In terms of gaining female gamers as readers, I think any benefit would be quite limited.”
Founding attitudes like this create a snowballing effect that pushes women out until we realise our mistakes and then have to spend years reversing the process and suddenly we have initiatives like AnyKey desperately trying to make the world of eSports more inclusive for women. These people are creating their own echo chambers and using them to justify their practices. It’s about time they opened a damn window in the house that white male dominance built and started letting some of the outside voices in.
Even in feminism we appear to need male proponents to balance out women’s voices lest the movement be branded as an unpalatably female march of the feminazis (it’s kind of like the march of the penguins insofar as we’d like to achieve some semblance of their gender equality by the end of it). We apparently rely on the other sex to balance us out so we don’t become ‘too much’, so why don’t they seem to feel the same need for us?
The good news is that we know there’s a hunger for female-fronted media to redress the balance and we know that actually women characters do sell as toys with things like the Where’s Rey campaign; the petitions calling for Black Widow to have her own film and for Agent Carter to come back; the success of shows like Jessica Jones that companies like Netflix are willing to take a chance on; and websites dedicated to catering for women and being ‘too female’ like Pypo and, yes, Gadgette. We can only hope that we’re working towards a society where we hear something is ‘too female’ as much as we currently hear something is ‘too male’.
Image via Flickr © Peppysis