So I watched two movies today. Okay, more than two, but these are the ones I’m talking about. Full disclosure: I didn’t make it through Bounty Killer. The guy with his head split in two wasn’t disgusting, it was silly. Whose head wiggles as it falls to the ground, I ask you?
So Tank Girl I remember from high school. My friend Kathy loved it. I never quite saw what the big deal was but when I watched it again, I realized how cool it was with its main character Rebecca. She certainly didn’t conform to gender roles, for one, and she wasn’t afraid to use the gender stereotypes to get what she needed. Bounty Killer started out all right but the difference between the main character of that show and Rebecca was the Bounty Killer was all about what she looked like and Rebecca wasn’t. Rebecca had a partially shaved head, wore crazy clothes, and had the attitude to match. The BK chick wore sixties style clothing, designed to highlight her body. Her shoes were high, her skirt short, and her body shape implausible for the ass she was kicking. Now, the actress who played Rebecca wasn’t huge but she did have some muscle.
I think the difference I felt in the two shows was this: Rebecca was a kick ass crazy person first. That she was a woman was incidental. It was all about her as a character. BK was a hot chick first who happened to be a bounty hunter. The focus was on her looks. That seemed to be the point of the show. The focus also wasn’t on her. There was a strapping, muscular dude, and a nerdy dude, and a bunch of women in face paint chasing them. I’m still not certain what the point was.
Anyway, I think a lot of stories are like this. The character is a sexy chick first, a person with agency second. The books I love to read have people doing stuff, some of whom happen to be women. It’s a small distinction, but an important one to me and, I’d guess, to a lot of people.
When we focus on gender, we get stereotypes. “I’m going to have a female main character in this movie. She’ll be hot, right? And she’ll know her way around a knife and gun. She’ll wear short skirts and kick ass,” is contrasted with, “I want to write a story about a bounty hunter. This person will know their way around a knife and gun. They’ll have a dark past. Heck, maybe they are running from a crime themselves.”
There are times when you need a specific gender (male, female, transgender and all the other wonderful nuances that we often forget about.) When that time comes, you still don’t start with the gender, right? Maybe you need a nun (automatically a female, right? Unless you’re doing Nuns On The Run, in which case you need two males.) and so you begin with gender. The key at that point is to stray away from stereotypes unless they are important to the story and unless you find a way to shake things up. Tank Girl shook things up. Bounty Killer didn’t. Pippi Longstocking shook things up. Cinderella didn’t. Paperbag Princess shook things up. Snow White didn’t. The Hunger Games shook things up. Twilight didn’t.
It’s not to say that stories like Cinderella or Twilight shouldn’t exist. We should just have more of the stories that shake things up, so that everyone finds a story with them in it.