Aug 26, 2011

Gender Double-Standards

In my last blog post I asked you all to share some of the "no-go" elements that put you off a book or a movie. As turnabout is fair play, and since Ellen Brickley discussed her issues with particular use of offensive language,  I thought I'd share one of my biggest bugbears in fiction: Double standards.

Now to clarify, I'm not talking about characters who apply double-standards to their outlook on life. I have no problem reading about a male chauvanist or a woman who believes that men only think with their genitals.

When it becomes a problem is when I feel that I'm not expected to see these as negative character traits.

Now, double standards exist in many different forms. Not all of them inherently bother me, depending on how they're used. The ones that will turn me off a movie or book, almost immediately and without fail, are the ones where one form of behaviour is clearly acceptable and rewarded in one case, but punished and reviled in another. The most common form this takes in fiction, is related to gender. Whether a character is male or female can have a huge bearing on what actions seem to be permissable.

To give an example:*

Chris and Alex are married. Chris has a good, but demanding job and works long hours. Alex is resentful of this, while Chris doesn't appreciate Alex's lack of support. Chris also doesn't like Alex's friends and objects to them coming over to their house all the time, especially when coming home from work to find them there chatting.

One day, Alex meets George. George is exciting, sexy, and seems to care about Alex's interests. The two become close and start an affair. When the affair is finally revealed, Chris is outraged, but Alex decides to stay with George, leaving Chris.

Who is in the right?

In most cases, it largely depends on whether Chris is a man or a woman. If Alex is a neglected wife whose husband spends all his time working and complaining about her girlfriends, then Chris is the bad guy. If Chris is a hard-working career woman whose husband wants her to spend more time at home, then Alex is the bad guy.

Movies such as It's Complicated or The Devil Wears Prada portray women who are shown as being within their rights to engage in behaviour which, were it a man going the same, would be criticised. Situations where the woman's choices are automatically right seeimingly because she is a woman completely put me off the story and the characters.

Of course, the double standard applies both ways. While it's considered right for a man, especially a younger one or a teenage boy, to bed many women, when a woman behaves similarly, she is often criticised or outright insulted for it.

While I'm not saying that promiscuous behaviour, cheating on a partner, or neglecting other committments for your job should always be treated as good or bad, I would rather see some consistency and logic in the consequences of these actions.

The one double standard, however, that literally sickens me every single time I see it, is the one applied to sexual assault and rape.

In the majority of books and movies, the rape and sexual assault of a woman is treated as the most vile and reprehensible thing a man can do. Rightly so. I personally feel that the subject of sexual assault is sometimes treated too lightly and applied too readily by an author as a method of quickly creating shock, revulsion, or sympathy. In some cases it's almost become the new "they killed my parents" motivator for a character.

However, then the victim is a man, there are three general ways the matter is treated:

1: It's not an issue. Movies such as Swordfish and The Rookie have instances where a man is forced into sexual acts without his consent, but the men in question don't seem bothered by it.

2: It's the man's fault. As seen in 40 Days and 40 Nights and Ricochet, if the victim is in a relationship, or trying to start one, and is raped by another woman, the act is often revealed to or witnessed by the love interest. However, even if the man is drugged or physically restrained, he will have to apologise and try to make amends, while the perpetrator typically receives no punishment.

3: It's comedy. The Wedding Crashers, Taxi 3 and even The Nutty Professor 2 both feature scenes where this is played to uncomfortable comic effect, with the victim in The Wedding Crashers eventually marrying the woman and ending his womanising ways, almost portraying her behaviour as a cure for his own flaws.

It tends only to be the darker, often less-commercial, films that try to show a man being raped as something devestating and traumatic. Even in Disclosure, whose plot is entirely based around the issue of female-on-male sexual harrassment, the protagonist's struggle is not against any feelings of violation or trauma, but the fact that he has been wrongfully accused of harrassing his co-worker.

To varying degrees, seeing these double standards crop up can put me off not only the book or movie in question, but further titles by the same author or director. It's just something I really cannot stand experiencing when I want to be entertained.

* I can't take credit for this example, I originally found it on TV, but it seems to have vanished, so I've retold it here, likely with some changes.

Edit to add: George's gender in the story is dependent on Chris and Alex. If Alex is a man, George is a woman (Georgina) and vice versa.

What about you? Do these kinds of double standards ever bother you? Have you noticed them before? Or do you think I'm taking some it a bit too seriously?


  1. Agh! The 40 Days & 40 Nights thing really pissed me off. I couldn't believe he APOLOGISED! Then again, it's not always cut and dry with women either. On Tru Blood Tara was held captive a lovesick vampire who'd tied her to the bed. She had sex him because she was scared not to, and plenty of people online have argued that wasn't raped because she didn't fight back and he was deluded enough to think she wanted it.
    And, yes, it pisses me off no end when girls ditches the nice sensible guy to follow her 'passion' for the dude she just met. In Sleepless in Seattle, Meg Ryan's frustration is shown when she's sitting up in bed looking annoyed as Bill Pullman snores. Because, you know, perfect passionate relationships don't have to deal with mundanities like snoring or dirty socks. Yet when Daniel Cleaver dumps "adorably ditzy' Bridget for the super-hot Stick Insect (who, it's established, he's known for quite a while) - he's a dick!

  2. Yep with you on this one Paul. There is definite double standards in a lot of movies and books, but unfortunatly I think sometimes thats because there is still a lot of double standards in the world. For example if I decided to teach Preschool, then thats perfectly ok, you decide and some people will think you're there for a whole more sinister reason. I work 80 hours a week then I'm a maneater and probably a bitch, you do it you're providing for your family. etc etc

    I think what annoys me most is the like of sex in the city, which sell themselves as breaking boundaries and double standards but really are reinforcing them. 4 successful well off women in New York, what do they talk about, shoes and men and sex! Ye real ground breaking stuff.

    And seriously why can't I comment with my google account grrr!

  3. Back when I was in college as an adult student studying Sociology, during one of the debates during class, a 16ish year old girl said rape was an act used by men to oppress women.

    I pushed my chair back, stood up and said "What about female on male rape? Or female on female? Or even male on male?"

    "Women can't rape men, and the other two don't count." Was the gist of the reply.

    Cue eye twitching and a rather terse explanation of some of the darker aspects of human nature.

  4. Aislinn: Yeah, I'd consider your True Blood example as rape. Consenting for fear of reprisal is the same as non-consent.

    Another great example of double-standards is Only You. Bonnie Hunt's character -thinks- her husband is having an affair (he's not, he's just clueless and a bit insensitive, nothing a few decent arguments won't solve), so she considers having an affair of her own. However, Marisa Tomei's character is considered justified, by both her portrayal and by Bonnie Wright's character, in potentially leaving her nice, hard-working fiancé for a man who's name came up in a ouija board.

    SJ: Yup. Now there's nothing wrong with a show where the women honestly do want happy relationships, but it's not a new angle.

    Ellen De Tarrier: You know, even accounting for everything I've spoken about on the double-standards issue, it still truly frightens me when I hear of a specific case of a person who believes that.