Stay Pretty or Die: Gender Dynamics in Geekdom

Sexism is something all of us here at LGG&F are familiar with. Positive gender dynamics, or the relationships between people of different genders, is an important component of feminist storytelling. We all know that the messages we consume in our favorite media will normalize positive behaviors and ideas, or negative ones. That’s why it’s so important that everyone gets fair representation, and everyone gets treated like a human being, not an object. Unfortunately, that’s not usually the case, even in geekdom. More often than not, men are treated like people and women are treated like objects: by the plot, by other characters, and in real life. Recently I stumbled upon a particular trope that is especially good at articulating this double standard: “Men get old. Women get replaced.” Not only do some of the most popular geeky stories take this trope for granted, but incorporate it into the basic plot structure.

Spoilers for the Captain America movies, Doctor Who, and The Legend of Korra after the jump.

The basic concept with this trope is pretty self-evident: male characters are allowed to age, while female characters are killed off or replaced with a newer, prettier model. This particular trope demonstrates many other common ways sexism permeates gender dynamics in our media. For example, one especially popular trope is “Men act, but women are”. Here, men are defined by their actions, while women are defined by some innate quality they’re usually born with. It’s problematic in two ways. First, if human worth is defined solely by one’s actions, then we immediately run into problems when we think about disability. And while it may not be so bad if a human’s worth is defined by the mere fact of their humanity, if another less universal quality is used as a measure, we begin to reject those who don’t measure up. Specifically, a popular measure of a woman’s worth is either her beauty or her (sexual) purity. Our trope, “Men get old; women get replaced”, is a specific manifestation of “Men act, but women are”. You’d think that geeky media would do a better job of challenging this, but it’s the skeleton of most traditional storytelling (see: men saving princesses locked in towers), and geeky stories are no exception.

One of the worst offenders and best examples is Doctor Who. The premise of the show is this very trope. An ancient humanoid alien, who so far has always been male, travels through time and space with a series of almost exclusively female companions. The companions are almost always young and conventionally beautiful. At least in New Who the companions tend to serve as audience stand-ins, so it makes sense that we’d swap them out on a regular basis. After all, isn’t Doctor Who really about the companion’s story nowadays? Well, yes and no.

s4_08_river-song

Don’t get me started on River Song, who supposedly “ages backwards”.

Most of the companions only spend part of their lives with the Doctor, so in some ways it makes sense that we don’t really see them age. Rose and Martha have stories about personal growth that end with them leaving the Doctor, one way or another. Even Donna, while no spring chicken, had a sort of immaturity about her life before meeting the Doctor. But Donna was never really allowed to permanently grow as a character; her mind is wiped of her journeys at the end of her run. Amy grows into middle age at the end of her run, but she stays beautiful. Amy does die an old woman, but the only evidence we see is her gravestone after she’s transported back in time to live out the rest of her days. Clara never ages, whether she appears as Clara or Oswin or whomever Jenna Coleman is portraying. Clara ends her story by being snatched from her own timeline, rendering her eternally youthful until she decides to come back to the moment of her untimely death. Both Amy and Clara get an episode where they become old women, heavy wrinkles and all, but both instances turn out to be alternate timelines.

Even the Doctor himself plays into the “Men get old; women get replaced” trope. The Doctor is played by both young and old male actors. The youngest-looking Doctor to date, Matt Smith, gets to sport the thousand-yard stare of a person who’s lived through it all. At the end of his story, he gets to sport the old-age makeup without the benefit of an alternate timeline. When Smith’s Doctor gets old, he stays old. He’s then replaced by Peter Capaldi, the oldest actor to date to be the Doctor.

Marvel’s recent Captain America movie series plays with this trope too. Steve Rogers falls in love with the beautiful and capable Peggy Carter. When Rogers wakes up from the ice, Carter is an old, mostly bedridden woman. At first the plot looks like it’ll survive the trope. Rogers stays young and still deeply cares for Carter, who’s basically the age of his grandmother by now. We see and hear of him visiting her a couple of times and even see her funeral. While living in the modern era, it seems like Rogers might be falling for his gorgeous blonde neighbor. Nothing weird about that, right? Oh, except she’s not only a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent (Agent 13) but Peggy Carter’s niece, Sharon, a.k.a. Peggy 2.0. Steve may not get old (old man jokes aside), but Peggy definitely gets replaced.

The Legend of Korra is one of the few stories that really subverts this trope. As the sequel to Avatar: The Last Airbender, it ages up all of the main characters from the previous show. Aang has died and the Avatar is reincarnated as Korra. We never see Aang get old, but we can presume he did. Korra is a fierce young woman who is more powerful than beautiful (her friend and eventual lover Asami is the truly pretty one). Sokka, from the original series, has died at an unknown age. His sister Katara is alive, though, and is able to give Korra sage insight into her Avatar abilities. This isn’t because Katara’s finally unlocked the “old wise woman” achievement; it’s because Katara is Aang’s widow and close friend since childhood. We eventually meet Toph, an old woman but just as powerful an earthbender as ever, and Korra takes Toph as her earthbending master. It’s only because Toph has lived so long and experienced so much that she’s able to help Korra master metalbending, something Toph’s grey-haired and middle-aged daughters couldn’t teach Korra. The way The Legend of Korra treats Toph totally subverts this trope. We meet her daughters first, both incredibly capable benders and leaders in their own right, but once Toph returns to the story, it’s obvious that they don’t hold a candle to her abilities.

Old Toph is Best Toph

Old Toph is Best Toph.

While The Legend of Korra proves that it’s possible to have compelling storytelling without indulging in the “Men get old; women get replaced” trope, more often than not it shows up in our most popular forms of media. The scariest thing about this trope is that it’s happening in real life, all over Hollywood. In 2015, Vulture had an unfortunately titled article about how young (and not so young) women in Hollywood are consistently paired with older men. Unless you’re Meryl Streep, it’s hard for a middle-aged women to land any major leading roles. A huge part of that problem is the kind of stories we’re writing. Geekdom, particularly science fiction, has long been the realm for pushing society’s boundaries. If juggernaut geeky shows like Doctor Who and movie franchises like Marvel’s Captain America aren’t particularly thoughtful with the way they portray gender dynamics, even in small roles, there isn’t much hope for the rest of the industry.


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One thought on “Stay Pretty or Die: Gender Dynamics in Geekdom

  1. There’s this little scene from the vampire flick “What We Do In The Shadows”:

    …but it’s funny precisely because it breaks the trope.

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