There is great power to be wielded in language and imagery. True or false, the stories we tell, the narratives we pass down from one generation to another, whether by word of mouth, carved into walls or broadcast across the world on screen, serve to shape our beliefs, our attitudes, our expectations and, above all, our futures. And in this day and age, with unprecedented access to information, the potential for ‘selective narrative’, in which we present versions of stories that have the effect of diminishing the roles and marginalising the contributions of key players, has never been greater. So it’s perhaps not surprising that there is a growing awareness that without immediate action we run the very real risk of women, in particular, becoming forgotten in the telling of life’s story.
I have spoken of this before, with the sudden and embarrassing realisation that my substantial DVD collection had painted the me into a corner of stereo-types about love and relationships. But the lack of representation of women in the narrative of hero was recently brought home to me again through the movie, ‘The Martian’.
I know I’m a bit behind in my film viewing and I wish I could say this film needed a spoiler alert, but frankly it doesn’t. ‘The Martian’ is as a tale about an amazing male engineer / botanist who travelled to Mars, got left for dead by the rest of the crew when the weather turned bad and then managed to survive for over 300 days before being rescued (by the same team that left him behind).
I also wish I could say that I didn’t enjoy the film, but the truth is that it played directly to my inner nerd and adrenaline junkie. And, as for astronaut Mark Watney himself, he was – point in fact – exactly what I have been indoctrinated to look for in my heroes – brains, brawn and humour. Oh, and male. In fact, entering the cinema that Sunday, it never even occurred to me to expect the lead to be female.
And it was that point, which I admit, left me with a slightly uneasy feeling. Simply put, I had just shelled out $21 to watch a man survive against all odds, colonise a planet and return the hero… yet again. And I was somewhat overwhelmed by the feeling that I had put money on the dispossession of the female narrative. My narrative.
But it was only later as I rolled pivotal scenes through my head that, aside from realising the movie clearly failed the Bechtel Test, I began to question whether the storyline would have been as well received if the main protagonist, our hero, had been played by a woman.
For instance, is it possible for a woman planting potatoes to be seen as resourceful and genius, or would domestic stereo-types lurch forward influencing our perception? And would her emancipated body been capable of registering as a symbol of endurance given the oft accepted, overly thin physical portrayal of women in mass media?
Could a female Watney have danced to disco music without it being somehow sexualised or, and I’m not sure which is worse, as a woman not taking the situation seriously? Likewise, could she have nearly blown herself up and then dealt with the situation with the humour about burning her hair, without it being reduced to a moment of feminine vanity?
And could a female Watney crying at the end, just prior to launching into space covered by nothing more than a tarp, be interpreted as anything other than feminine weakness?
More to the point, would the very fact that she was knocked over and impaled in the first place, have simply served to reinforce the stereo-types of women being physically weaker than men and therefore a liability on the ‘front-line’?
The question I realised I was asking was, would a female protagonist cast in the same role be interpreted as the smart, resourceful, problem-solving hero I love, or would the stereo-types I have grown up on twist that narrative into something else? The truth is we’ll never know. Now that the story has been told as a male narrative it is too late to present it as any other way. We will always compare it to Watney’s experience. The bias for the tale has been set, reinforced and immortalised both in fiction and on the big screen.
It would be simple to argue that this is just a story – a fiction. But the truth is, the writing out of women in the narrative of hero and their oft relegation to supporting role (even if she is a Commander of a Mission to Mars) shapes our perception of reality and is, in as much, detrimental to us all.
All of this should worry you, whether as the woman whose story is untold, or as the father, brother, husband or friend of that woman, because our future is a shared one. We need heroes in all shapes and sizes, faiths and nationalities, sexual orientation and gender. We need the Marie Watneys as much as we need the Mark Watneys. And until we truly realise that, perhaps we need them even more.