I recently watched The Lego Movie. I enjoyed The Lego Movie because it’s hard to actively hate a movie about Legos, because they’re a bunch of toys, but also I was like, damn, Lego Movie, first of all I just watched a whole movie that was an ad for motherfucking toys, and second of all, why are the Legos a tool for some dumbass to go on his Campbell’s Journey and seduce his infinitely superior lady companion with the power of being A Protagonist? I get that this movie is mainly an ad for older guys to buy their kids Legos, but damn, does it really have to end with the main female character being handed from her ex to her current boyfriend because that is her fate?*
I am being harsh on The Lego Movie, because it is not the only film that follows this plot. Plenty of movies out there star a male protagonist who is thrust into circumstances in which he is massively inferior to his peers, especially his female peers. Yet he manages to save the day after all others have failed, and the most attractive, most skilled woman inevitably falls in love with him.
Back in the day, male characters were just smarter and stronger than female characters. Mighty swordmasters saved maidens whose main talents were hair braiding and turning up their pert noses at anything not hot pink or sparkly. When faced with any sort of problem, these ladies started trembling and shrieking for help, fulfilling their destiny as living, breathing, fuckable proof of the male protagonist’s awesomeness. That was just The Way it Was.
In the name of “role models” and “strong female characters,” these creatures have mostly disappeared. Today’s maiden can wield a sword, build an airplane, cast spells, and do god knows what else. Yet she’s still not the protagonist and often has to be saved by a much less competent male. The unfortunate message is that a girl’s efforts don’t matter because however good she is, there’s inevitably a prophecy floating about and that prophecy only applies to the Bepenised Ones.** The man will earn the recognition and the glory, while the woman earns said man as her reward. He’s the “hero she deserves,” but she still can’t be the hero herself.***
One genre exists in which girls without any particular talent or beauty are protagonists: young adult fantasy literature aimed solely towards females, where “nobody” girls are chosen to save the world and also score hot, mysterious men. However, these stories are classified as childish, silly fantasies–guilty pleasures at best, mind-warping at worst. I can’t remember how many times I saw women vow to keep their daughters, real or hypothetical, away from Twilight or some such series because they’re afraid that said daughters will start thinking that they, too, are special snowflakes and run off with vampires or sexy werewolves or whatnot. All right, these women probably don’t actually believe that vampires are real, they just don’t want their girls running off with the first boy they meet. But fangs or no fangs, these women thought that girls couldn’t handle these books, that they would affect the girls’ real-life behavior in a negative way. Women need strong female characters so they will grow up to be strong females themselves. So if a girl is watching The Lego Movie, she is receiving the wrong lesson.
But nobody thinks of keeping boys away from stories about insipid young men who, despite their lack of learned skills or innate talent, save the entire world and earn the praise of adoring masses of people. These stories teach boys that they can be the biggest idiots possible, completely uninterested in their surroundings or improving themselves in any way. As long as something glowing/an old dude full of wisdom/a glowing old dude full of wisdom “chooses” them for some mysterious task, they’ll become mighty warriors who save the world and get the girl.
Sometimes it’s a glowing old black dude full of wisdom and also he’s a Lego
If you’re one of those people who believes that stories have effects on readers, this is a lesson that is dumb as hell, unless you want your boy to grow up to be Babycakes, waiting on the ditch wizards to take him to the hidden land of awesomeness accept treasure and accept love.
Love is a spell
But there’s two assumptions here: first, that the idiot storyline is an OK storyline for boys to process, and second (and this is perhaps the more interesting assumption) that boys grow up to be what they are without storytelling getting through their thick skulls; if a girl sees a Strong Female Character, she’ll use her as a positive role model for the rest of her life, but a boy can see a male character do practically anything and not identify with it in any way, good or bad. So even if a future guy sees a male character succeed through no positive action of his own, it’s ok. Manhood is innate, womanhood is learned.
Do men have a stronger moral compass (for lack of a better term)? Do they have a greater field of action (the range of action for a “good” woman is smaller than that for a “good” man, so it’s OK to have a range of character flaws in a male hero)? Do boys need better role models? Do girls need to rely less on role models?
* And Will Ferrell and his sad-eyed son hugging it out in their basement full of toys while their wife/mother cooks them dinner?
** This raises the question: Why not just shriek and pout like a ninny? It’s less work and the ultimate outcome is the same.
*** Tasha Robinson has a good article on part of this problem over at The Dissolve, although I’m not sure why female characters (or male characters, for that matter) have to come up to an aspirational standard–does every protagonist have to be a cutout for the viewer and their desires? Is every viewer supposed to have the same aspirations?