Why do we ignore the female audience?

Fantasy – especially epic fantasy – has been long perceived as a predominately “male” interest, and perhaps prior to the past ten years the majority of fantasy fans were male. Most fantasy was marketed towards men, and sadly – it still is. It has only been in the past month that Marvel has announced female-led blockbusters Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel, where the past ten years they have been producing exclusively male-led superhero films. There are only two Avengers who have yet to receive a standalone film, and one of them is the franchise’s only female superhero, Black Widow (and there are no solid plans for this film). The opening weekend of this year’s Guardians of the Galaxy had a 44 per cent female audience, and yet the main female character in the film, Gamora, was the only main character to not receive merchandise.

It is only later this year that Marvel is producing a miniseries based on Captain America’s Peggy Carter. A female fan who attended the 2014 San Diego Comic Con related her experience asking for merchandise for the show on her blog:

“This was a t-shirt for their upcoming show Agent Carter, which will be their first and thus far only female-led property, and it sold out almost immediately. When my friend asked if they would be getting more shirts in, the attendant said no. “We didn’t expect them to sell out,” she said, as though baffled that their fanbase was not comprised solely of people who were or had once been fourteen-year-old boys in basements.”

Doctor Who is another fantasy series with a large female audience, and yet the show’s current head writer, Steven Moffat, has been criticised for his handling of female characters on the show. There is a noticeable lack of diversity in the characters’ personalities.

“River Song? Amy Pond? Hardly weak women. It’s the exact opposite. You could accuse me of having a fetish for powerful, sexy women who like cheating people. That would be fair.”

Additionally, there has not been one single female writer on the show during Moffat’s tenure.

According to statistics from Nielsen, approximately 2 million women are tuning in to Game of Thrones on average each week – about 42 per cent of their total 4.8 million viewers. A rather large number, considering its show runners draw female viewers in with promises of strong female characters while simultaneously including a large gender disparity with shown nudity, sexualised violence that is extraneous from the source material, and behind the scenes problems such as firing a recurring actress because she amended her contract to include “no nudity.”

Why don’t these franchises respect such a large portion of their audience?

It would appear that there is still a lack of awareness of the audience of science fiction and fantasy media, furthering a need to undertake more comprehensive audience studies in the area. Women make up more than half of the film-going audience, and yet only make up 15 per cent of leading roles – and this doesn’t even take into account the representation of women of colour and LGBTQ women (most female characters in mainstream film and television are straight and white). This misunderstanding of the audience’s desires is reductive both to the audience and to the profitability of the media itself.

Representation is also important to the audience on a personal level, as there is a noted link between self-esteem and representation. Whoopi Goldberg once spoke of her understanding of the significance of representation through her memories of watching Uhura, played by African-American actress Nichelle Nichols on Star Trek.

“When I was nine years old, Star Trek came on, I looked at it and I went screaming through the house, ‘come here, mum, everybody, come quick, there’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!’ I knew right then and there I could be anything I wanted to be.”

Studies have shown that correlations between self-esteem and media are reflected by the representations of the characters themselves. Coded messages within media helps young white boys believe that anything is possible, through constant depiction of white male characters as powerful main characters, while in contrast, female characters are portrayed as love interests. What results is white men having greater positive media representation from a young age.

All in all, it is evident that there is a long way to go before female characters and the female audience is afforded respect in what is perceived to be a male-dominated media.


Emma Watson and feminism

Emma Watson’s UN speech was wonderful. Here we have a young female celebrity who is absolutely not afraid to attach her name to feminism, someone who clearly understands its meaning and importance (unlike the likes of Lana Del Rey and Shailene Woodley, who have denounced feminism as “man hating”). Emma concisely explained the real meaning of feminism, that is, “the social, political and economic equality of the sexes”, and explained how men, too, can benefit from dismantling the harmful stereotypes that are perpetuated in the patriarchy. After all, the patriarchy is what leads to the notion that men have to be “powerful” and “commanding”, even “aggressive” while women are “submissive” “weak” and “emotional”. Both genders could benefit from feeling free to display any of the aforementioned qualities. Sensitivity is not weakness, men should be free to show that, and women should not be berated for it.

What really concerned me, however, was the response to this speech. On the one hand, some people took it upon themselves to say the speech was not valid because it focused on men, instead of women. While I understand that feminism shouldn’t and doesn’t have to cater to men, as it is primarily concerned with the improvement of women’s lives – if this speech is going to make even a tiny bit of difference, if it’s going to get men to quit that tempting knee-jerk reaction to lambast feminists as “man haters” and the misguided idea that feminism has no benefits for them, then it has to be a good thing.

My brother always rolls his eyes when I talk about feminism, but I linked him to Emma’s speech. Because he admires her, and a lot of young people have an attachment to her because of Harry Potter – we almost feel like we know her, there’s a familiarity and respect there. Emma is a perfect spokeswoman for this issue.

The main problem with directing this speech (and the He for She campaign) towards men is the response from 4chan and Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs). This morning, 4chan released a threatening message to Emma, saying, “Never forget, the biggest to come thus far” – many believing this has to do with the nude photo leaks that have been occurring for the past few weeks. Emma has gone out of her way to be welcoming and including to men in the feminist discussion, and what she’s gotten in response are threats. Even when the discussion is (at least partially) directed towards men, it’s not enough for some of them. Moreover, the response (if it is referring to nude leaks) is so intrinsically misogynistic, it only serves to prove that MRA is indeed a form of terrorism. Similar abuse was shown towards several high profile women in the gaming industry during #GamerGate, including vlogger Anita Sarkeesian, who has been the subject of rape and violence threats, breach of confidentiality and cyber abuse – simply because she created a series of videos about women’s representation in gaming. The fact is, there is an increasingly aggressive male online culture that will not allow women to speak about their own rights without risking retribution (in the form of sexist attacks, threats of rape and violence, and more).

Another response has been to put Emma down in comparison to women of colour being a supposed “better” example of spokeswoman. Intersectional feminism is a hugely important issue that needs to be discussed more in mainstream media. However, Emma herself talks about her “privilege” in her speech – a very self aware wording that lends even more certainty to the idea that she is a good spokeswoman for feminism. The best? Maybe not. Someone who has a lot of reach trying to do the best of her ability for a good cause? Yes. She says herself she doesn’t believe she’s the best person to be talking about the issue, but – “if not me, who?” She is not any less of a feminist because she is a white woman. When so many young stars nowadays are publicly aligning against feminism, it’s important to have such well known figures supporting it. Feminism is not a competition, it should be about supporting other women.