On Thursday I wrote about the need of having a female superhero portrayed correctly on the big screen. I did not talk about a strong woman, but a real counterpart for the superhero: a real female superhero who stands alone and has the same status among her peers, male and female. (You can read the post here.) I focused on was the portrayal of women in superhero movies, which happen to be based on comics. As usual, I posted my ideas in my Facebook page, my wall, and to a new group that I created on Thursday, so that I had a space to discuss comics, movies, geek/nerd culture, etc, comfortably, from an anthropological point of view. Hours later, I got some interesting comments from different men, one of which could be interpreted as the Test.
First of all, what is the Test? If you are a geek girl you might have been subject to the Test, which can come in a subtle way (lists or references to what the male considers you do not know because you are an outsider), or a direct way (a bunch of questions about the geeky topic you’ve talked about and surely you don’t really know). In both cases, the Test happens when a geek male resists to believe that there is a true geek girl in front of him.
There are two possible interpretations that can be applied to the comments that I got:
- The Test. It came in shape of a link to Wikipedia stressing out the existing female superheroes. This could be considered as a subtle way of subjecting someone to the Test.
- Lack of understanding. The person who commented did not read or understand the post.
The one that interests me is the comment which shows up the Test. Why? Because it shows up the problem existing in the Geek/Nerd community when a woman expresses openly her geekiness. Stereotypes surrounding women make it difficult for them to comfortably enter and enjoy the same status into the geek/nerd subculture as their male counterparts do.
Stereotyping is a common technique used in comics and movies to quickly portray the characters and pass along a pack of information as quickly as possible to the readers/viewers. In comics stereotypes come in handy when encapsulating the story. Since the story has to be conveyed in a few pages, the creators of the comic need to rely on shared ground with the readers. Thus, encapsulating is a reductive process in which information is hidden, using stereotypes and other techniques. It is the readers who will add what it’s missing according to their personal experiences and the shared culture with the creators. Thus, the same comic might change meaning when read by different readers from different cultures, and with different life experiences. The same happens with movies. In the movies we are presented a set of scenes which encapsulate the view of the creators. The viewers will expand what it’s not shown in the film, in a similar way comic readers do. Of course, movies give us much more information than comics do, but the processes of reductive encapsulation and expansive closure are similar.
Because stereotyping is a good technique to convey information within comics and movies, it is not a surprise to find out all types of stereotypes, both for men and for women. Since superhero comics have been a realm for males, it is not surprising to find that most of the female portrayals are accommodated for a male public. Since this public is still the majority and it is the great part of sales for creators, there is also no surprise to find out that the image of women is highly sexualized. This tendency has also jumped on the big screen with superhero movies. Though we can see some strong women in recent films, women that are taking male roles successfully, we have not yet seen a female superhero of her own, portrayed in an equal way on the big screen. Usually we see women in supportive roles aiding the superheroes, but they are still isolated despite being strong, intelligent and independent. They are still highly sexualized, and are still not good candidates to be examples of equality for women.
Stereotypes cannot only be seen in movies, but also in sitcoms. In the Big Bang Theory, we need to wait till the 4th season to see more types of women in the show. Penny is the stereotype of a sexy woman who needs help, who doesn’t know at all about comics, and who would never take notice about the geek, Leonard. This stereotype reinforces, in a way, that which is found in comics and movies: women orbiting male figures, like Pepper Potts, Black Widow, Lois Lane… Even strong characters are presented as second-class citizens, always aiding some central figure, who happens to be a man. For the most part, what you get are more or less needy females who see their lives orbiting around some male figure. In sitcoms like the Big Bang Theory it is even worse: even geek women, at least the ones presented in the show, have no idea and are totally uninterested in comics and superhero movies. That kind of female seems not to exist at all. It is like women are interested in women stuff only. (According to the Big Bang Theory: beauty, their carrers and men).
So what happens when you have grown up with a bombardment of these stereotypes? What if you have been fed the idea that you are the one who does something and some female will enter your orbit? What if you have been convinced that women cannot be real geeks? What if you have grown up with the idea that beautiful women are dumb? Are only men those who have these stereotypes in their brains?
According to Jeff Hawkins, our brains work as hierarchical machines, based on an economy principle. Patterns are learnt from a young age, reinforced by culture and used hierarchically by our brains. When presented with certain environments, people and situations, our brain will choose quickly those patterns which are more suitable to what we are confronted at the moment. Patterns allow quick responses, much in the same way stereotypes allow quick closures for comic readers and movie viewers. When presented with something that does not fit a rooted pattern/stereotype the brain reacts with resistance. To change the pattern/stereotype means that the brain needs to use lots of energy in creating a new pattern/stereotype, something that the brain is not so willing to do since it works based on an economy principle.
When I shared my post about the need of female superheroes what I did was to challenge a pattern/stereotype deeply rooted in our brains, the one that states that women do not like those kind of topics. Since our brains try to predict what is going to happen, and use patterns they already have in storage to do so, it is possible to encounter resistance from someone when their rooted patterns in the brain are challenged.
The Test might appear when the pattern rooted in the brain pops up without the person realizing it. The brain makes a prediction based on an existing pattern, and will color the results accordingly. The person does not even need to really read all the contents of my post, for example, to have a pre-made idea of what the contents might be. So the process might have been like this:
- a female wrote the post
- the post title is “we need a female superhero”
- first few sentences: “where are the heroines with superpowers? Where is the female superhero? How is she portrayed in comics? How do you think she will be portrayed in movies?”
- there might have also been a quick view to the images posted
Only knowing that a female wrote the post makes the brain choose quickly a pattern related to females, thus coloring what the person reads next. Since patterns/stereotypes for women are still “not to know about superhero movies and comics,” it is therefore normal to understand in the wrong way the first part of my post, or even the whole contents of it due to the pre-made idea with which it is read. Hence, a test comment is but a normal response of the person’s brain using the available pattern/stereotype rooted within. The resistance to accept arguments about something this person knows by heart from those who are supposed to know nothing is a normal response from the brain, not eager to create a new pattern.
Men and women are fed, from childhood, patterns that the brain internalizes to predict as quickly as possible what is going to happen in our surroundings, enabling quick responses trying to foresee what’s going to happen next. This also means, that undesirable patterns are hard to change due to the resistance of the brain in taking in new patterns that challenge old ones. This doesn’t mean that these patterns/stereotypes will be hard to kill, this only means that the only way to force them to change is to challenge those patterns as much as possible. Those who have internalized those patterns/stereotypes deeply might find it extremely difficult to believe that something not accommodating those patterns/stereotypes might be possible. In those cases resistance can be harsh, even ending in harassment towards women. That is precisely why I consider it crucial for media to change the portrayal of women, specially in superhero movies. Since superhero movies are having a great success nowadays, they are a great means to challenge old stereotypes and patterns. We are too used to see women in supportive roles, but, what about a solo in a movie, portrayed in the same way a male superhero is, no more, no less, just as an equal?
Meanwhile, geek girls will challenge the patterns/stereotypes in male brains just by being themselves. It is our intelligence the tool that might help us make the process of changing the patterns/stereotypes easier. Thus, instead of assuming that the one who presents the information, talks about a geeky topic or wears a geeky t-shirt is a fake geek girl, wait and listen what she has to say. It will be the contents of her speech and behavior, and not her sex, what will make of her a real or a fake geek girl.