“You only like that character because the actor who plays him is hot.”
Oh, how that set of words makes me burn with the fury of thousand pissed off volcanoes. Or something like that. Apply the comparison of your choice here. Metaphor, simile, whichever you like. The point is, these words make me upset, and hearing them is like setting off some kind of alarm system inside me somewhere to which my first response is a simple but perhaps slightly terrifying:
It’s a “no” edged with ice and probably a glare, because I am so seriously tired of hearing it.
The number of times I’ve heard this string of words are many and varied, said by a great many people: men, other women, people I didn’t like, people for whom I hold a great affection. But regardless of who says them, my reaction tends to be the same. The substance of this post arose because of a conversation with my intern a couple of weeks ago: she was talking to her brother about the new Captain America (which this blog will tell you I’m a fan of), and she was telling her brother (who thought it lacked a solid plot) that I’d liked it enough to see it multiple times, to which he responded with the hated words:
“Well she’s probably only seen it so much because she thinks Chris Evans is hot.”
As Cap himself says in The Avengers, “Son, just don’t.” I don’t spend money on movie prices in the DC area because I think an actor is pretty, okay? It’s pricy. If I want to look at pictures of pretty actors I can go on my tumblr or any other various place on the internet. I pay DC area movie prices because maybe, and bear with me here, actually like the film a lot. I’m known for seeing movies multiple times in theaters, it’s a thing I do. (Phantom of the Opera, Les Mis, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, The Avengers, Captain America: Winter Soldier, and Lion King, as it happens, are the ones I saw the most. Perhaps now someone will go back and tell my five-year-old self I must have had a crush on Simba, or something.)
This guy doesn’t even know me and yet he’s already assuming things about me, already assuming that because I am, in fact, a woman, that I could not possibly like a male character for reasons other than his physical attractiveness. I’m not sure what people think when a lesbian woman likes a male character. Do they also assume that she only likes him because he’s hot? When by warrant of her sexual orientation she is not attracted to men? What about bisexual women, who are attracted to both sexes? Sort of muddles the argument a bit more doesn’t it?
(I’m not arguing the fact that Chris Evans is pretty. HE IS. He is a very lovely man whose asthetics are something at which to marvel. His jawline is WOW and his smile is wonderful. This does not mean I want to jump his bones. It also does not mean that this is the inherent reason WHY I like the character he plays. Chris Evans also happens to be, as far as I can tell, a truly fantastic human being, all his physical loveliness aside, and his words on how he deals with anxiety issues are incredibly touching.)
My new love of Captain America is not the first time I heard this sentiment. I got flack for it over my love of Will Turner from Pirates of the Caribbean, over Raoul de Chagny from Phantom of the Opera, over the Barricade Boys from Les Mis, over the newsboys from Newsies. Every time I’ve liked a male character, his physical appearance comes up. I am, for some reason, allowed to like female characters for reasons apart from their appearance, but not male characters, no. I must only like male characters because I think they’re pretty. I couldn’t possibly relate to a male character because I’m a girl, right?
Let me be clear here: when a guy I know says he appreciates or relates to a female character, I don’t question it, I don’t suddenly say “well you only like her because she’s pretty” because I have more respect for complexity in people than that. I am not, of course, implying that it is wrong to like an actor/character because of their physicality. It’s not. I’m expressing a frustration at the idea that it has to be the only or main reason why I like a male character. I happen to think Keira Knightley and Emma Watson are very pretty (Elizabeth Swann and Hermione Granger are two of my favorite female characters of all time) for instance, and yet no one storms in, flipping over tables and shouting YOU ONLY LIKE THEM BECAUSE THEY’RE HOT.
(There is not always table flipping or unfounded accusations of being a shallow woman, sometimes it’s just endless teasing that while yeah, it’s not intended to hurt, it does, after a person hears it long enough. “Do I only like that male character because they’re pretty?” I ask myself.)
Because why would they? They’re women and I’m a woman. So apparently there’s no threat there. But if I like a male character well WOE BETIDE I must be intruding on something or be reduced to a hormonal puddle of sex drive. Somehow in the minds of many, whether unconsciously or not, it is not possible for a woman to appreciate a male character’s personality, it is not possible for a woman to relate to a male character’s struggles or journey that might have nothing to do with gender. (Some journeys do, of course, but certainly not all!) Perhaps I like Steve Rogers because he fights for the little guy, because he was an underdog, because he’s this truly incredible person that is just so good. Perhaps I like Will Turner and Raoul because they were willing to sacrifice themselves for the women they loved, because they were brave, because they didn’t underestimate said women. Perhaps I like the Barricade Boys (otherwise known as Les Amis) because they picked up and fought a damn revolution to try and better the world. Maybe I like male characters I admire for the same reasons I like the female characters I admire: because of who they are, regardless of gender.
(Aw, look how pretty they are together, even! But I wouldn’t like them if their characters were assholes, now would I? Physical appearance alone is not enough for me to fall in love with a character. In fact, crappy characters, no matter how physically gifted, actually seem much LESS attractive. These two though, are pretty fabulous in my opinion.)
It’s assumed I like female characters for their personality or relatability, it’s assumed I like Elizabeth Swann for her courage and her spunk, it’s assumed I like Hermione Granger for her intelligence and loyalty, for her status as a bookworm and library goer. It’s assumed I like Peggy Carter and Black Widow from Marvel because they kick serious ass. It’s assumed I like Christine Daae of Phantom for her coming of age story. All of these things are of course, true. But within this ridiculous notion that gets passed around about girls only only liking male characters because of their physicality, rests the idea that female characters are only for girls, because why would a boy be interested in a GIRL character? Just as women are shut down so often when expressing admiration for a male character outside his physical appearance, it is not so quietly implied that men should have no other interest in female characters other than their sex appeal. Such is the patriarchy, damaging men and women both based on ridiculous gender lines.
(I could go on a fairly long diatribe here about how there aren’t enough female characters in media that aren’t watered down to sex appeal and serving no role other than being a love interest, but that is a separate rant for a separate post. I will, however, mention once again how excited I am for Marvel’s Agent Carter, featuring Peggy Carter of Captain America fame and her life after WWII, struggling for acceptance in her field after all the men come home from war, and her crucial assistance in starting up the SHIELD organization we know so well from the Marvel verse.)
Maybe this issue seems small in the larger scheme of things. Certainly I can shrug it off, certainly I can roll my eyes at people who say these words and move on with my life. And I do. Other people are not allowed to dictate what I enjoy. But the crux of the matter is the fact that this is yet another thing that invalidates women’s voices. Women are told, in essence, if not in direct words, that they are not allowed to like male characters for anything other than sexual reasons. Indirect meaning, or direct meaning under veiled words and centuries of social conditioning have a whole hell of a lot of impact. In 2014, there is still push back against women entering certain spheres. I’ve met countless women who fear going into comic book shops for a real, legitimate fear of hearing accusations of “fake geek girl!” or the very accusation I have pointed out so thoroughly in this post. Women post opinions about comics on the internet and get smacked down, treated in an utterly inhumane way with the threat of sexual violence:
Women get harrassed in online gaming forums and XBOX live. Girls who game are not so rare, they exist in plenty, and men treating them as creatures to be flirted with and leered at when they just came on to play a game, is unnaceptable. It’s not cute. It’s not “boys will be boys” or “lighten up, he’s just flirting with you.” It’s seriously uncool. I work, for instance, in the field of librarianship, where there are more women than men, and I do not leer and flirt with every librarian who happens to be a man when I see them simply by warrant of the fact that he is a man and I am a woman.
In so many venues, at so many turns, women’s voices are consistently invalidated. Hillary Clinton was recently asked if having a grandchild would affect her political plans. Do male politicians get asked that? Decidedly not. Women get emotional or upset? Well then they must be on their period! How could they possibly have legitimate emotions that are not driven by a once montly hormone cycle? Women who want kids are harassed about not having a career, women who have careers are called heartless for not having kids. Women who want both are called selfish. Men who want both are called admirable. Women in charge are called “bossy” and men in charge are called “leaders.” The very word women chose to use for their movement, the word “feminist” or any variation thereof, is dragged through the mud and treated like a dirty turn of phrase. As a younger person I myself refused to identify as such because of all the negativity society associated with the words. Because wanting equality and fairness is bad? Because wanting things like equal pay is so much to ask? Female voices are consistently told to quiet themselves, are told that they’re crazy or making it up or doing it for attention. Why? Because the people in power want to keep the existing power structures in place, and the best way they can think to do that is by making the people who stand up sound insane.
Well, I can pretty safely say no woman I know brings these things up for attention, they bring it up because they are tired of being aggressively silenced.
Yes, it’s 2014 and we have made great progress. Which is wonderful! But that does not mean the battle is over, it means that we must speak on these issues, these things that maybe make us uncomfortable, because complacency, well, it never really did get anyone anywhere. The immense progress in our society does not mean peak equality has been reached, and we need to keep looking toward that horizon instead of moving back, and especially instead of insisting that no more change is needed, that ultimate equality exists. Dismantling and fixing power structures is tough, it’s messy, and it makes enemies, but it doesn’t mean we don’t try anyway.
Katie the Proud Angry Feminist Out.