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  • Writer's pictureJeunese Payne

Male Norm, Female Form

Updated: Mar 9, 2022

[Original post was published January, 2014]

I'm starting this blog post with a geeky fact:

In 1987, the producers of Star Trek: The Next Generation made the decision to be more politically correct by changing the words in the opening titles from, “where no man has gone before”, to, “where no one has gone before”. This seemed to tackle issues of implied sexism by replacing "man" (to mean “human”) with a gender-neutral alternative.

Problem sorted, right? Arguably not.

Psychology research suggests there is a tendency to see men as the prototypical “human” and women, the variant. This has a long history that is obvious, for example, in the genesis stories of the Abrahamic religions: God created Adam, then Eve from Adam.

Men are the “default” and women are the “other”. As Simone de Beauvoir, an existentialist French philosopher and second wave feminist, wrote in her seminal book, The Second Sex:

“[H]umanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being. … [S]he is the Other.”

The male = people hypothesis, introduced by Silveria (1980) explains the unequal use of “he” and “she” in the English language, where “he” is more commonly used as a generic term to refer to people of unknown sex or gender (Hegarty & Buechel, 2006). The reverse, the people = male hypothesis (Hamilton et al., 2006), explains how, even in the absence of gendered information, a person (e.g., a student, a voter, a prisoner, a patient) is more likely imagined as male (the human prototype), unless that person is described in a female-dominated role or context (e.g., as a care-giver, nurse, or receptionist). Thus, even in the face of non-sexist alternatives to masculine generics, such as ‘person’ and ‘one’, male bias persists (Hamilton, 1991).

This is evident even in childhood. Genderless soft toys, for example, are seen as "male" more often than "female" (Hegarty & Buechel, 2006) and characters in children’s books of indeterminate sex are often referred to as male by adults reading them (Deloache, Cassidy & Carpenter, 1987). Unless characters are overtly feminine, deviating from the male norm (e.g., by being heavily styled with long eye-lashes, jewellery, pink attire, a bow, etc.), they're automatically considered male.

The phenomenon is explored in one of a series of videos (by Feminist Frequency) where a tendency to create a female version of a male character by “sticking a bow on it” is described. I can quickly demonstrate this phenomenon with Mr Men and Little Miss characters.

Naturally, the Mr Men series was released first (in 1971), followed ten years later by the Little Miss series. Along with bows (appearing on over half the Little Misses), these female characters donned pigtails, freckles, heels, and flowers. Two of the 47 Mr Men characters also feature flowers, but the names “Mr Funny” and “Mr Wrong” reveal the perceived inappropriateness of this. Cues to maleness are much less prevalent, and, when present, are less overt and more generic (e.g., top hat and darker colours).

The unconscious bias that underpins the positioning of males as the norm in our socially constructed world results in a tendency to attribute gender differences to a disparity in females – deviations from the “male norm” (Hamilton et al., 2006; Hegarty & Buechel, 2006).

This isn't an argument for removing men from the centre to replace them with women (that would be another version of precisely the same gender problem), but an attempt to bring attention to the existence of a centre and a periphery, and the problems this creates, such as the way we frame human rights for men and women, and the ease with which we objectify women.

Consider what issues you think of when you hear the term “human rights”: Genocide? Wrongful imprisonment? Torture? Perhaps that's because these issues (more so than, say, birth control, gender-based violence, the gender pay gap, and rape) violate human rights that challenge “prototypical” members of society – men (Diaz-Veizades et al., 1995). This means that, often, human rights are upheld for both sexes only to the extent that women’s needs are similar to the needs of men (Winter, 2006).

Simply adding women's rights to the existing male-centric idea of human rights doesn't solve the problem because it perpetuates the idea that women's rights are a special case. When things like gender equality and birth control are labelled "women's rights", appended to the broader concept of human rights, we also deem them less important than "real" human right issues.

Just this week, on the BBC's Question Time (23rd January, 2014), allegations of sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour against Lord Rennard were played down as less important than other "problems facing humanity" by Jim Sillars. This is despite the fact that, as Kezia Dugdale pointed out, women face this type of inappropriate behaviour in the workplace every day, and that it's not until they're willing to expose themselves in front pages of newspapers, with specific details, that they can hope to have their voices heard. The same is not seen, for example, in a case of general physical assault.

This is just one recent and small example following a history of debate that minimises the experiences of women and resists acknowledging the relative importance of women's rights.

Worse, the reproductive and health rights of women are repeatedly treated as though they threaten human rights more generally. At ICPD in Cairo (1994), demands for women's reproductive rights and health were met with strong opposition from fundamentalist Islamic and Catholic countries because they undermined heteronormative concepts of family and tradition.

Meanwhile, healthcare that is specific to male anatomy, like the diagnosis and treatment of testicular cancer, is implicitly included in our notion of the human right to health, even though it affects only males.

By representing females, and not males, as a variant, we're failing to understand and acknowledge the diversity of humanity and thus the true diversity of human rights, rather than human plus female rights.

Humanity consists of a wide variety of people and social groups; many require more or different care than other groups of people, but are no less human. Children, for example, require more protections than most adults and have a list of rights that apply specifically to them, such as the right to be born well and to be cared for in the absence of their parent or guardian, but their rights are still included under the umbrella of human rights.

Defining men as more "human", and women a variant, encourages us to limit representations of women to their "deviating" (gendered and sexual) features. A woman's sex often becomes the most important aspect of her character, to which all other facets of her personality and appearance relate.

Consider, for example, how we would have reacted to the film Taken if the main character had been female: a mother on a mission to save her son (and his virginity) from being sold to the highest bidder, thereby proving she's better than her ex-husband's new woman. The movie would then become about a "strong female character".

How might we have described The Avengers movies if most of the superheroes had been female, with one token (but very attractive) male inserted in there? Even if the story didn't change, it would now be a 'feminist' movie, one that invites ridicule of the one man "reduced" to fighting alongside a band of women.

[2022 update: since writing this post, such controversies have actually arisen, with Ghostbusters, despite there being no shortage of remaining male-centric movies to choose from.]

Consider, also, the tendency to introduce a single female character amongst a band of men in television (e.g., The Big Bang Theory), films (e.g., Star Wars), and computer games (e.g., Halo). Often this female character (maybe two) is either a romantic interest or a tomboyish “affirmative action girl”, with masculine traits that are acceptable because she has cool skills and/or because she's really really hot. [2022 update: having just seen it in the cinema, I'm reminded of Cat Woman in the most recent Batman movie.]

Also known as the "Smurfette Principle", inserting one female amongst male characters further highlights the sex and gender-identity of the female character, making her sex the more important and interesting thing about her.

By reducing women to markers of femininity, overt deviations from the male (human) norm, we hyper-focus on the appearance and youth of women. William Leith writes:

“I've never heard any woman say anything negative about George Clooney's grey hair. And I can't imagine John Inverdale ever making a comment about Andy Murray being a normal-looking bloke."

This objectification is one of the primary ways in which women are dehumanised. The disproportionate focus on the visual assets of a desirable woman to the heterosexual male viewer situates men as the buyers, women the commodities. Men are the central, active observers, women are the passive observed.

This isn't to say anything about individual intent but, rather, to highlight the customary and legal constraints inherent in culture and the political system. To view men as the human norm and women as the secondary (often, hyper-sexualised) form can be the result of both conscious and unconscious conformity to social norms.

Women, themselves, see other women according to the ideals presented in media. Women are encouraged to perceive and assess their own value based on them. This results in a disproportionate focus on the visual assets of a woman to the heterosexual male “default” audience. As a consequence, and to minimise further marginalisation, women hyper-focus on appearance.

This is explained by “Male Gaze” theory (Mulvey, 1975), describing the tendency for media, typically movies and adverts, to assume the heterosexual male viewpoint, presenting the female form as the subject of male appreciation.

This is the case even when products and movies are directed at women, or where women are protagonists. Perfume adverts and the stories behind them are potent examples. The female protagonist representing the concept behind the fragrance (e.g. “Pretty” by Nina Ricci, “Be Delicious” by DKNY, “Beauty” by Calvin Klein, and “Miss Dior: Chérie” by Dior) is the ideal observed – a standard to which other women are encouraged to reach to be seen in a similar way by men.

In this way, women "internalise" the male gaze, seeing themselves as men would see them, and judging themselves as a man would judge them (self-objectification).

The female gaze is the male gaze (a "mirror effect"), where women see themselves through the eyes of men, and in so doing, strive to buy the product that will gain them male attention.

What is particularly interesting about this whole phenomenon, however, is how the ideal of the active, strong, assertive male observer also has its own negative impact on men. Men, too, can be disadvantaged by this social narrative and structure, with many, for example, turning to steroids and body-building to meet unrealistic macho standards.

If we use perfume ads as an example again, this time directed at male consumers (as aftershave, cologne, eau de toilette – whatever you want to call it), we see that the male models and actors depicted aren't passive, but in charge, dominant, and successful (e.g. “The One Gentlemen” by Dolce & Gabanna, “Boss” by Hugo Boss, and “Bleu” by Chanel).

[When did perfumes stop being named after actual fragrances?]

Even ads in which barely clothed men are depicted, the protagonist is strong, in a position of power (physically in body position and gaze, and in terms of social status), and in control (e.g. “Cool Water” by Davidoff, “Man” by Calvin Klein, “Spice Bomb” by Viktor & Rolf, and “Joop Homme” by Joop) –– how men would like to see themselves rather than what women necessarily find attractive. The take home message for male consumers is: this is what it means to be a man, and this is how you make women amenable to you.

A simple way to expose yourself to this is to reverse the male and female roles you see in adverts. All of a sudden, men dressed in revealing clothing with exposing body postures and facial expressions that imply sexual readiness become overt, often seeming funny or disturbing, instead of normal.

Gender equality hasn't been reached until this gender-reversal doesn't evoke controversy or comment.

Gender equitable societies are healthier for men and women; challenging restrictive ideas of gender and, as a result, seeing improvements in women's access to health care, reproductive rights, and protection from violence (human rights) positively affects life expectancy and well-being, for all, including the children that a disproportionate number of women around the world must disproportionately care for, due to necessary differences in our biology, as well as how societies portray, value, and treat these differences.

Being aware is one of the first steps in approaching truer equality, with a direct affect on the way we live: discouraging girls and women from objectifying themselves, and minimising the pressure that men and boys feel to fulfil the role of a dominant male consumer.

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