The Expendables: death and gender on TV Tropes

TV Tropes could easily place amongst the greatest contemporary tools of media criticism, especially with regards to portrayals of sex, gender, and sexuality. After all, TV Tropes is the place to go for a quick summary of ambiguously gay or hide your lesbians (or even the old favorite heterosexual life partners). But the combination of crowdsourcing, obsessive fan behavior, and the increasing prevalence and acceptance of media criticism as both academic and entertainment practice have banded together to identify any number of tropes and catalogued examples across media (literature, film and television, graphic novels, videogames, et. al.). It is the collective documentation of the nagging suspicions and memetic discoveries that plague any regular consumer of narrative media.

Generally, TV Tropes has felt like a haven of good humored, progressive commentary in a sexist, and heteronormative (as well as increasingly violent and vitriolic) media culture. At their best, discussions or critical engagement with representations of gender and sexuality in film and television (the bread and butter of TV Tropes, as one might guess from the website title) are sent into the void. At their worst, in the course of addressing these questions, women–and only women–are chased out of their jobs and their homes by threats of violence, stalking, and public smear campaigns. Meanwhile, possibly due to TV Tropes’ public and semi-anonymous set up (by no means a neutral or objective system, as shown by WIKIPEDIA), has allowed the identification and dissemination of critical tools for addressing the stilted gender representations pervasive throughout the media industries.

On a recent visit, after an unnecessary character death on Hawaii Five-0, I was searching for the article on stuffed into the fridge to send to a friend. This particular trope is close to my heart. It refers to the death or assault of a (usually female) character for the sole purpose of motivating another (usually male) character. It may seem like an unnecessary term, after all, everything in a story happens to motivate the characters so that the narrative can move forward and evolve. But, as the article explains, this particular form of plot development is so easy as to be considered “lazy writing”. Or, in a more political context, it can be considered “institutionalized sexism.” The characters being victimized are usually female and, for the trope to be applied, are not developed enough for the audience to feel pain on their behalf, instead, the audience is empathizing with the impact the event has had on a more developed, more central, usually male, character.
We do not mourn because the victims are dead or violated. We mourn because their death or violation has caused emotional distress to their husband/brother/boyfriend/uncle/male associate.

All of this sets the stage for the disappointment I felt in seeing the link to Men are the expendable gender. The gist of the entry was that, actually, the death of female characters (prominent, recurring, anonymous, or otherwise) is played for emotional effect. Male characters, especially the nameless and often faceless ones, get their tickets punched more often and to less emotional effect, therefore proving that male lives are valued less female ones.

There is nothing, superficially, wrong with this argument; with only the facts presented above, the conclusion is not unreasonable.

Unfortunately, the argument is an outgrowth of the sexist logic that already governs our commercial narrative media. First, because of statistics. Second, because of the implicit sexist assumptions. Third, because of the explicitly sexist arguments put forward.
Statistically speaking, of course there would be more male deaths on television, and in film, because there are more men on television and in film.

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From the New York Film Academy blog, November 2013.

It is impossible to make a value equivalency between the genders when they are not equally represented. In terms of pure visibility, male lives are valued more highly, because they are represented as existing in all capacities (as captains, doctors, engineers, plumbers, heroes, villains, extras, red shirts, science officers, Pirates, etc). Meanwhile women can only be found when the lack of diversity would be otherwise overwhelming, or when someone needs to die, so that the hero can go kick some bad guy ass. It matters more when you kill a woman, because there are so many fewer of them (about 1 to every 2.25 men, according to the New York Film Academy). It is, in fact, possible to make films that barely feature women at all (see: The Eagle, a film of which I am actually quite fond).

However, the actions of the film industry operate on an implicitly sexist logic, one unaddressed by the author(s) of the expendable gender entry. Men are the human “default”. Women are cosidered a deviation from the norm. When male extras die, the audience is seeing the death of “people”. They are undistinguished, and undifferentiated, it is true, but we are seeing large scale violence, not the interpersonal kind. The emotional impact of those deaths depends entirely on how you, as an individual, view the redshirts or the henchmen, and if the death of innumerable, anonymous people is something you find affecting.

The death of a woman, by contrast, is the death of the Other, the death of something we treat as different from the death of “people”. (See: Men are generic, women are special.) At this point, the author(s)’s argument takes an explicitly sexist turn. Furthermore, the choice of evidence–or, more accurately, assumptions–is more pernicious than willful ignorance of pure statistical probability. It concerns what the difference between the male “default” and the female “Other” is determined to be.

The author(s) argue that the value of female human existence comes from their ability to produce offspring. “In purely biological terms, men are more expendable than women because in the event of near-extinction, one male and ten females can produce ten times the offspring of one female and ten males.” This argument is part of the sexist philosophy prevalent in many internet communities, and has encouraged the violent reactions to female critics.

You may be familiar with its kissing cousin: “There are no girls on the Internet” (here on TV Tropes, or Know Your Meme). Though it hails from the early days of the internet, it was 4chan, a undisputed bastion of incivility and child pornography, that codified it for the present generation. Many would argue that any major association with 4chan so fundamentally undermines legitimacy that it neither bears repeating nor address. However, the cross pollination of 4chan with more legitimate communities, like reddit or imgur, mean that it has participated in the codification of cultural and social norms and behaviors online. “No girls on the internet” (or “Tits or GTFO”) appears without fail when a unique female perspective is articulated in an Internet forum, comment section, or message board.

At its most fundamental level “No girls on the Internet” asserts that women are accustomed to receiving preferential treatment in social and intellectual arenas because of their sex. Specifically: because people (read: men) wish to sleep with them, women are given undue respect, attention, or concurrence in social situations.

In an ironic twist, the people who say that sex appeal is a means of getting others to submit to your opinions, are often the very same ones who will threaten to come to a woman’s house and rape her for daring to express an opinion with which they disagree, or if she wins in a video game.

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(a softer world: 914)

To say that female lives are more valuable because of their ability to produce offspring is to reduce the woman, as a social, political, or narrative actor, to a walking uterus, perhaps with some caregiving abilities. (Nevertheless, more sympathy or nobility is bestowed on single fathers than single mothers.) The argument attempts to naturalize the view of women as sex objects by tracing their “Otherness” and their social value to their reproductive abilities, while simultaneously, couching the assumption in biological/evolutionary, and therefore presumably “scientific” or “objective,” terminology.

The larger effect of the argument is how it undercuts the potential for women to be seen as rational, independent agents, particularly with regards to public political and/or social transformation. It supports a reductive view where “women’s issues” are limited to topics like birth control (or not), abortion (or not), child support (or not), rape, and domestic violence. This largely ignores that women also have a stake in how poverty, access to healthcare, the rising price of college tuition, the stock market, fair trade goods, the second amendment, the price of oil, and the deaths of family members and beloved family pets are addressed. (It performs a further occlusion of male investment in “women’s issues,” by implying that men have no stake in the debates about BC/abortion/child support/rape/domestic violence, et. al.)

Most disappointing is that of course we know men are the expendable gender, there was a major motion picture about it. It starred Sylvester Stalone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jet Li,  Dolph Lundgren, Jason Statham, Terry Crews, Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis, and Randy Couture. The second one had a slightly different cast, the third another different one again. Yet, all of these men can be “expendable” and we will still know their names. But the girl who is raped or killed at the beginning of the Criminal Minds, or Law and Order (any of them), or CSI (any of them), or the death of the girlfriend or wife or sister or mother that propels the hero into action, can be nameless, and faceless, and the actress will be quickly or easily forgotten.

Which leaves the question less about who is or isn’t expendable, but who will be mourned by the audience, and who will be remembered for their participation.

(This essay is limited to a binary gender system, but there is so much more to be said on the propagation and reification of the gender binary by the media establishment.)

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