Opinion: Examining gender roles and social constructs

What characters like Lara Croft, Ellen Ripley and Katniss Everdeen can teach us about women in media

The term “gender” gets conflated with the term “sex” all the time. Sex is the biological term for “male” or “female” and gender is more encompassing because gender refers to the social expectations accompanying sex.

When you think of female and male, you associate characteristics with each gender. The problem is that a lot of our gender-based expectations exist only to perpetuate stereotypes and arcane social structures that seek to undermine the progression of women in the male-dominated world (patriarchy). But with time, every system degrades, and art and life imitate each other to create this ouroboros of influence.

These rigid categorizations of gender permeate media at every conceivable level and they’re not going away over the course of a few short years or even decades. Each generation takes small steps to break down and examine the relevance of gender roles and constructs in their politics, their entertainment and their art. And some attempts are more successful than others.

Lara Croft first appeared in Tomb Raider in 1996 on the PlayStation. She and the game she starred in represented rarities in the gaming world. A female protagonist in the traditionally male-dominated action genre gained a lot of mainstream attention. Cut to the reboot in 2013, after countless sequels, movies and merchandise, also titled Tomb Raider, and she and the game she stars in are still rarities.

lararadiotowerIn 17 years, the country’s rigid gender constructs haven’t shifted enough to allow for equity between male and female characters in popular culture. That’s a problem, but it’s not the only one in the context of Tomb Raider.

The bigger problem is the character herself. Lara doesn’t represent a step forward for female character design, for one. She doesn’t break down or examine gender constructs at all. But aside from that, she fails as a rounded character in her own right. But that’s a discussion for another time.

If Lara is supposed to represent a feminist hero, then she shouldn’t get all of her motivation, skills, and life lessons from male figures like her mentor, a gruff, old dude, her main enemy, a crazy, old dude, her pre-existing familial issue, following in the footsteps of her dude parent (known in clinical circles as the father).

The only female character in the game she has a real relationship with is Sam. The relationship in this game: rescuing her before she gets sacrificed by the derelict, male populace. Sam is the damsel in distress and Lara’s role is to save her. Her femininity, and her humanity by the same token, is limited to her moments of vulnerability. After the killing starts, she just becomes another video game character. She couldn’t conform to traditional male gender roles more.

This prevalence of male figures in her life and this chapter in particular mean that her worldview has essentially been shaped by men.

If our attitudes, personalities, and prejudices are inherited or affected by our relationships to others, then we can only assume Lara Croft is shaped by the men in her life because the only other important characters in the game around Lara are guys.

Katniss Everdeen falls somewhere in the middle between Lara Croft and Ellen Ripley; while her empathetic nature falls into traditional female gender roles, she is definitely “coded” male, in the words of the Escapist’s Bob Chipman. “Katniss is so macho, she even hates the cat,” he points out. “For fuck’s sake, even Clint Eastwood was nice to the cat.”

12135531-katniss-everdeen-from-the-hunger-gamesAgain, this is judging her by the standards of “conventional” feminine and masculine qualities. Her terseness, disdain for the cat, and physical prowess are “coded” masculine.

There’s no logical reason for that; it’s just the way society has conditioned us. What’s even more insidious is how we are conditioned to call qualities like softness, compassion and tenderness as “feminine.”

They should just be called “human.” But we live in a society that values male aggression to the point where boys are conditioned to be violent and our prisons are overwhelmingly full of males.

But Ripley, at least in Alien and Aliens, shows how pointless the social construct of gender as we know it is. She is a living amalgamation of the best of “traditionally” masculine and feminine traits: she’s a capable soldier, a caring and empathetic parental figure, and a clever problem solver. Her empathy doesn’t just show up in her arc with Newt, but in the scene where the marines first encounter the aliens.

As the company man refuses to help the marines, she takes control of the vehicle and barges through to save them. She saves her surrogate daughter by blasting away aliens. Both of these scenes combine a traditionally “masculine” action with a traditionally “feminine” motive. By placing these two traits within one character, Aliens says that these terms are arbitrary. She is masculinity and femininity in one.

It asks the question “why do these matter?” while we respond “because that is how society is built and continued to be molded by.” It’s not the film’s fault that we are constantly trying to place Ripley, Hicks, and others in specific categories. It’s how we were trained.

Aliens invites us to throw all that away by focusing on a character that doesn’t fit into those categories. Even though the film also focuses on the concept of maternity, it still places that concept in the context of an action movie where dudes are blowing away aliens with shotguns. Call it tonal shift, call it dissonant, call it genius; it’s still crazy. And the most heroic, fearsome, and competent figures in the entire picture? The mother figures.

aliens ripleySo if Ripley is simply “masculinized,” that means she can’t be heroic. Because to be “masculine” as we define it, means to be direct, action-oriented, and heroic. That’s a narrow, regressive view of humanity that illustrates how useless gender constructs are.

It means that Ripley isn’t feminine because she actually kicks ass. It means that male protagonists have to sociopathic assholes who only express anger if they are to be considered “men.”

For example, I read that Ripley becoming an action hero betrays the feminist undertones of the first film because it categorizes her as a “chick with a dick[gun]” If a woman taping an assault rifle to a flamethrower like a fucking champion “defeminizes” her in your mind, you’re the one with the problem. You should look at how she treats people and how she acts. A gun is just a gun. Just because Freud would call it a dick-replacement doesn’t mean it is.

Ripley’s characterization illustrates the relative uselessness of current gender conceptions. Katniss represents what might be the most progressive step in female characterization in cinema since Aliens. 

Lara Croft is an abject failure, but at least she exists. At least she is there to say “women can be main characters.” Even Ripley represents how entrenched gender roles and expectations are in our society. Cinema and gaming continually overlook half of the world’s population.

And when creators do acknowledge the fact that the female gender exists, the (mostly male) corporate creative body inconsistently portrays them. Sometimes, they do it well, sometimes they fail, but they will always create characters that we examine under centuries old sociological microscopes.

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