As the advancement of gender equality has permeated creative industries, male-fans of films like Star Wars have protested this cultural change with sexist laments. We spoke with experts of masculinity to understand what happens to male ego in fandom.
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"Feminism has taken over Star Wars." Such was the cry of one man in the comment section of a YouTube video featuring a trailer for the latest installment in the Star Wars franchise: Rogue One. The user was referring to the fact that the leading character in this new movie is a woman, as was the lead in the 2015 Star Wars release, Episode VII: The Force Awakens.
Much to this internet-user's dismay, the iconic series he so loved—a series which has historically centered the stories of men—had become unfamiliar to him. His opinion is far from unique; in fact, many other male YouTube users posted comments expressing the exact same sentiment. Another user wrote, "I don't like this female main role they are taking. Star wars, weather [sic] you like it or not, was a man's world and a man's movie."
This cannot really be argued; artistic works have long focused on white men's stories. This tendency is so commonplace that, in 1985, the cartoonist Alison Bechdel created the Bechdel Test, which measures female characters' involvement in film plots using two pitiful criteria: whether there are at least two women in the film, and whether they talk to each other about something other than a man. According to data collected online, roughly half of all films fail to meet Bechdel's standard—so it's fairly unsurprising that adamant Star Wars fans see a female protagonist as a threat to the status quo.
To understand the way that gender inequality in art affects male socialization, Broadly turned to sociologist, gender scholar, and masculinity-expert CJ Pascoe, whose award-winning ethnography Dude, You're a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School, investigates the way that social standards of masculinity affect teenage boys. When we teach men to be "masculine" in the traditional sense, Pascoe explained, we socialize them "to be unemotional, heterosexual, competitive, and dominant."
In an interview with Broadly, Pascoe shed light into the way that masculinity operates within fandom cultures. While some men excel at masculinity to the point they become popular and respected—by being athletic, for instance—others may be ostracized for failing to conform to the demands of their gender. Enter fandom culture. "When we talk about fandom, usually we are thinking about non-sport fans, instead thinking of fans of cultural or artistic productions," such as films, music, literature, and video games, Pascoe said.
Though this sub-group of men find camaraderie together, being a "nerd" has not, historically, been socially advantageous. "Certainly, forms of more cerebral masculinity have been denigrated in recent American history. Nerds and intellectuals are seen as profoundly un-masculine," Pascoe said. "They fail, in many ways, to engage in the sort of dominance practices we require of young men." This can be remarkably discouraging to men who are member to fandom cultures, because society "thwarts their claims on masculinity," Pascoe explained.
"Young men lob sexist or homophobic epithets at one another in order to remind them what it means to be a 'real man,'" Pascoe said. In order to prove they are "real" men, boys must first prove they aren't "fags"—a term that Pascoe says refers to weakness as much as to sexuality—and, following this, men must prove that they are heterosexual and "that they [can] exercise dominance over a woman's body."
Tristan Bridges is another sociologist and masculinities scholar who co-authored a recent book with Pascoe. In an interview with Broadly, Bridges made a point to clarify that nerd culture has gained mainstream credit in recent years; the idea of nerds being emasculated in contrast to dominant male social groups is no longer totally accurate. "Television shows like The Big Bang Theory and nerdish masculinities necessary to save the day in films like Live Free or Die Hard illustrate that nerds are both teased and afforded new forms of status today," Bridges explained.
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According to Bridges, nerds are simultaneously emasculated and aggressive. "Nerds are, as a cultural 'type,' emasculated," he explained. "But it's also true that there is a lot of toxic masculine behavior in nerd cultures. Think about it: #GamerGate happened among the nerds, not the jocks."
Sometimes, Pascoe said, men who fail to conform to the traditional definition of masculinity transfer their failure onto people who are deemed culturally inferior to themselves. These groups of men often participate in homophobic, sexist, transphobic "practices in fandom cultures," Pascoe added. "In fandom cultures—where men who have been denied traditional routes to stereotypical masculinity congregate—increasing equality and visibility for women and queer people and characters threatens a sphere that these men see as being the one place where they can be dominant, where they can be recognized as masculine."
If Star Wars is canon to 20th century nerds, then the Matrix series is that to nerds of the 21st. Perhaps unsurprisingly, so-called men's rights activists (MRAs) self-identify with "the red pill," a term pulled from the Matrix mythos. It references a scene in the first Matrix movie, in which the protagonist is given two choices: to consume one pill, "the blue pill," which will allow him to continue living somewhat happily in a false reality, or to swallow "the red pill" and realize that he has been living in an elaborate lie. To "red pillers," the real-life equivalent of swallowing the red pill is coming to the realization that we live in a society in which men—not women—are systemically disenfranchised.
However, the sibling creators of these beloved films, have both abandoned manhood since the release of the Matrix trilogy and chosen to live their lives as their true selves: women. They now go by Lana and Lilly Wachowski. "There's a critical eye being cast back on Lana and I's work through the lens of our transness. This is a cool thing," Lilly recently said as she accepted a GLAAD Media Award for Sense8, a new series by herself and her sister. "It's an excellent reminder that art is never static."
"MRAs often highlight events and issues that present men's collective power as unfairly reduced in some important way," Bridges said, adding that this is based around the idea that men are losing whatever privileges they once had. "As societies redistribute gender privileges that had been largely reserved for men, it's not uncommon to see spikes in violence against women as an early reaction." He added that people like to think that social justice is a steady, constant progress. "But research on inequality has shown that it doesn't work like that," Bridges explained. "Sometimes when we take one step forward, we take two steps back."
As their fantasy worlds are being taken from them, the men in fandom culture who hate women are fighting back in desperation. On YouTube, user ArcadeGoon commented on the trailer for Rogue One, stating "White males are not allowed to be good guys anymore it seems." Another user, JACKO-LANTERN cried, "They did this just to appease the feminists," echoing the red pill belief that our society unfairly caters to women.
"In many ways, MRAs highlight the same problems those of us who are concerned with gender inequality care about—that contemporary socialization processes for young men are deeply deeply problematic and take a toll on young men," Pascoe said. "Where MRAs go wrong, however, is that they set up gender inequality as a zero sum game—one in which gains for women, trans folks, and queer/gay/lesbian/bisexual folks mean losses for men."
This is sad because men need feminism, too. "Increasing gender and sexual equality is good for men, because that sort of equality means that the way we socialize men to be unemotional, heterosexual, and dominant has to change," Pascoe explained, adding that men are not considered fully human in our society unless they force themselves into that ill-fitting box of masculinity. "While MRAs call for a reassertion of a stereotypically homophobic, sexist, and transphobic masculinity, those of us who care about gender and sexual equality would suggest that perhaps increasing inclusion and visibility of women, trans folk, and LGBQ folk in fandom communities will result in less damaging gender socialization for everyone—men included—and will help to change the way in which nerds themselves are placed on the bottom rung of some masculinity hierarchy."