Some stories are clearly marketed at men, while some are clearly marketed at women, but it’s only that second category that’s ever mentioned out loud. Everything else is assumed to be for everyone. Why is that? What is it that characterizes stories aimed at women, and how can we normalize it so these stories aren’t stigmatized any longer? We talk about all that and more, plus the story of how Supernatural got its fanbase.
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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.
Generously transcribed by Innes. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.
Chris: Welcome to the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Chris and with me is-
Wes: Wes and –
Chris: And this time this podcast is for me. For me and other women, that’s right.
Oren: Oh dear.
Chris: We’re not going to think about guys anymore on this podcast. It’s just going to be for the ladies.
Oren: [sarcastically] But what about the men?
Wes: [more sarcastically] Yeah. What about the men? What could I possibly have to gain from listening to this?
Oren: [in a curmudgeonly voice] I don’t know. It seems very low brow. Very unsophisticated. Yes….[Chris laughs]
Chris: This time we’re going to talk about stories that are written for women and targeted towards women, which shouldn’t really be a special thing. I think we’ll find that in a lot of stories that it that are now popular it’s not a big deal, necessarily. But of course we have a lot of movies that are advertised as being for everyone that really are by four men. I thought it was worth talking about what it looks like when stories are written for women and talk about some stories that have women in mind and that kind of thing because it’s not always what people think.
First, what qualifies as written for women? I’m not gonna go with actual intent here. I’m not going to try to mind-read storytellers and figure out because that is really hard. You’d be surprised. Storytellers never seem to intend the impressions that they made after the fact. Generally it looks like – to us or to me – that there was some level of priority put on what women want to see in the story. Maybe it was just because there were women as writers on staff or somebody else higher up or maybe it was because some marketer decided that this show – women are our target audience.
Oren: I love it when it happens by accident. That’s my favorite.
Chris: Generally that means that the women in the story are given some level of empowerment and there’s sometimes wish fulfillment. Ideally, I’d like to see it being intersectional. Ideally it’s not just for white cis straight women. There are definitely some popular stories that fall into that, of being for an exclusive group of women. They’re not necessarily comedies or dramas. Not that there aren’t a lot of women who like to see in-depth characters with relationships. Lots of women do like that. Of course women are individuals and like a whole range of things. So it doesn’t just mean that we’re talking about romantic comedies here. There definitely should be a space for women to write about issues that are specific to women, like pregnancy and menstruation, things like that – or unique to people who have wombs – but it definitely doesn’t have to be something that is specific to women, right? Whereas men tend to make the mistake of, ‘oh, it’s for women, that means we’re talking about babies. ‘
Oren: Just nothing. That’s why Boss Baby is for women.
Wes: Right. Yes.
Oren: Just nothing but babies.[All laugh]
Oren: Obviously we’re talking about very broad trends and generalizations, some of which are based on actual statistics, some of which are just based on things that we think that may or may not be true or true to a certain degree – we don’t know. For example, it’s a pretty commonly held belief that women tend to be more likely to like stories that focus on relationships. That’s something I think a lot of people would tell you. It certainly has held true in some circumstances, but I don’t know of any study that says that. I don’t know if anyone’s ever done a scientific investigation to find out if that’s true and to what degree it’s true.
Chris: Another thing that I really wonder about with things like that is how many men are interested in it, but don’t want to say so?
Wes: Probably far more than we think because quality stuff is quality stuff. If you’re just getting – from my perspective – just yet another show that is an example of ‘this is for men and it’s what men want and this hamburger now doesn’t have any bread. It just has more meat.’ I’m just like, ‘No, please.’
Oren: It’s what men specifically on the keto diet wanted.[Wes and Chris laugh]
Wes: Oh my gosh. Yeah. Yeah. That’s a very true point.
Oren: One thing that I find interesting is watching as a story, or in some cases an entire genre, that was clearly written with women in mind, becomes more successful suddenly we don’t talk about that part of it anymore. Very interesting.
Wes: [sarcastically] Yeah surprise.
Oren: The YA genre is kind of in the process of that at the moment because right now some people will still tell you that YA is for women. Certainly there are a lot more women writing YA than in other genres. I believe in fact the majority of published YA authors are women. I could be wrong about that; that’s just what I think I read. As YA becomes bigger and more financially viable, we’re hearing less and less about how it’s a genre for women and I wonder why that is? What possible reason could that be for?
Wes: It’s fascinating to because that’s just exactly history repeating itself. Turn back the dial, in the 18th-19th centuries men wrote poetry and did research and ‘oh those novels? That’s what women write.’ It’s literally the same thing right?
Oren: Get out of here all you weird men writing novels. What’s your deal?[Laughing]
Wes: Yeah. It’s just mind-blowing. We don’t learn anything.
Chris: Before I go into specific stories, which I want to talk about, I also think it’s worth talking about the difference between [stories] for women versus starring a woman.
Wes: I like how you said a woman right there.
Chris: Hey! That is one obvious distinguishing factor: are there other women? You can obviously tell a distinct difference between a story that is written targeting men but has a woman in the starring role, because it’s all about how sexy she is.
Oren: [sarcastically] Is that not empowering? I thought that was empowering. No?
Chris: There’s usually no other women in the story practically, and usually there’s a relatable male character that’s been placed somewhere in her proximity that she will probably date. Oh my God, it’s almost like it was planning for men to insert themselves in the story about this hot woman, straight men.
Oren: Why would you personally attack Underworld (2003) like that Chris?
Chris: Yeah, I was definitely thinking about Underworld. I love Underworld to be fair. I really do love that movie. I love Selene. I think she’s a great character even though they put her in this super tight cat suit.
Wes: Wasn’t it directed by Kate Beckinsale’s [the actress playing Selene] husband at the time?
Chris: Was it?
Wes: I think I remember hearing that because I remember thinking, ‘is this whole movie just her husband’s fantasy? Like what? What is up?’ I mean, I too really like that movie but I remembered, I need to be fact-checked please, but pretty sure that her husband was the director. When I learned that I was like, ‘ah, okay.’
Chris: Right. You could tell that Michael is the wish-fulfillment character, because Michael is the love interest and the guy who is half-vampire half-werewolf stronger than both and also gets the hot lady.
Wes: Through no real effort of his own. He just gets dragged around.
Chris: Yeah. Yeah through no effort. It’s funny because they continue the Underworld movies, and then I think it was the third one that didn’t have Selene in it and there were riots. People did not like that. They had to bring her back.
Oren: Interestingly, Wes, you were correct.
Wes: Okay, thank you.
Oren: The first Underworld movie was directed by Len Wiseman who at some point becomes the husband of Kate Beckinsale, who plays Selene. It is not clear to me that they were married at the time Underworld was filmed.
Oren: Looks like they got married after that.
Chris: Whoo, our podcast has live fact-check.
Wes: That’s awesome. We really upgraded.
Oren: Yeah live fact-checking. Thank you internet.
Wes: Sacrificing to the podcast God clearly is paying off.
Chris: Hopefully we will stay in your good favor. Tomb Raider is also the one that’s been notorious for doing similar-
Oren: A lot of video games do that, right? It’s like, ‘Hey, it’s a hot lady. Look at her. She does the sexy fighting and you can make her do that by pressing these buttons.’ And it’s like, ‘There’s something unsettling about that. I’m not super into it.’
Chris: You look at this video game animation where her boobs bounce when she runs.
Oren: [sarcastically] There were a lot of people worked on that, that was very difficult work Chris. Why would you disrespect them like that?
Chris: Okay, back to popular stories. The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins). It’s probably one of the biggest ones that is the most obvious. The Hunger Games has a really obvious trope that is clearly wish fulfillment for straight women, which is the ‘there’s two hot guys, which one will she choose?’
Wes: The Hemsworth. Right?
Chris: It also just has a really empowered female character who goes and does cool things and is badass and there’s a mother and a sister right? It’s not just her and her dad.
Oren: The president of District 13, I think, is another woman. There are just lots of women in The Hunger Games. They’re just around. They exist. Benchmark reached.
Chris: This other one, I didn’t even think about it until Oren mentioned it to me, definitely has its intersectionality fails unfortunately. The 100, which is also based on a YA story that definitely was targeted at women, but it’s so far removed from the original YA novel that it’s almost hard for me to remember that those are technically sort of the same story. They have some characters with the same names even though they’re not really the same characters very much. The thing that really is noticeable about The 100, unfortunately again it was clearly intended with straight woman in particular in mind and they inadvertantly got a whole bunch of fans that were queer women just by having lots of women.
Because that’s the thing that you notice about The 100’s setting is there’s just lots of women around. In particular, there’s lots of women leaders, and you’d be surprised how many stories written by women with plenty of women characters still don’t have women in leadership roles. The 100 flips that in a lot of ways where it almost feels like the default leader is a woman. There’s men too, but there’s a whole society on Earth that maybe are slightly matriarchal because you see so many women or maybe there’s just lots of women. Maybe there’s just lots of women.
Oren: Claire is the main character and she-
Chris: Claire? You better read it again. You’ve been watching too much Outlander. It’s Clarke.
Oren: Clarke. Eerugh. Yeah. Okay. Clarke is the main character. There’s obviously that connection. Clarke’s not super sexualized really at all, and her relationships are important and that’s enough to get a show branded as being for women. Especially since again very often if there’s something that you don’t like it’s more likely to be branded as being for women because we deride things that are for women and the first season of The 100 is a little rough. That seems to have earned it a lot of ire.
Chris: It also has teen drama and a lot of people really hate and deride teen drama and I’m wondering to what extent this is because teen dramas associated with women or young women in particular?
Oren: We do hate teenage girls with a fiery passion.
Chris: Considering that YA, the young adult genre – although it doesn’t really feel like it’s for young adults anymore – is also associated with women, I have to wonder how big the connection is there. The first season of The 100 also has its fair share of teen drama. Many teen dramas that are dark grow out of the teen drama quickly, The 100 certainly does but it’s there.
Oren: I mean, I think it’s all just a giant conspiracy theory corkboard. There’s strings connecting everything.
Chris: Yeah. They did attract queer women and they were clearly excited to have queer women fans, but then they did not do their homework and did not treat them well, which led to the little notorious killing off of Lexa in season three.
Oren: It was not good.
Chris: Not good. Yeah, not good. You could still tell with the female main character Clarke, who is clearly not designed to be sexy. She’s a very kind of ‘take charge, get things done’ character, and all of the women in the surroundings. They [the writers] were least thinking about women as audience members.
Oren: Right. There’s also women in roles that you wouldn’t expect women to be in a lot of stories. In the later seasons, the big bad leader of the ruthless criminals is a woman and that’s just not a super common role for women to be in. She’s older. She’s not super skinny and way hot. Again just kind of an unusual role for a woman to be in a story like this. The 100 also – I’ve noticed this very particularly – it’s subtle but it doesn’t do what most stories do which is assuming that men are better at fighting. Most stories assume that, even if they don’t say it out loud. You can see that there’s sort of an assumption that the male characters are better at fighting and if a woman is good at fighting that’s the exception. A lot of stories just do say it out loud. The 100 doesn’t. Most of their really good fighters are women just because that’s how the story turned out, and when Octavia fights a man you never get this feeling of, ‘Oh man, she’s in extra trouble because she’s fighting a dude.’ It’s not the way the story pitches itself, and I think that really helps. It’s not a single thing. It’s just a mindset that [the story] has.
Chris: It is definitely one of the best shows as far as saturating the setting with women, and making them feel equal in the setting. So many writers, I think, by default make their settings prejudiced and oppressive. It’s a Chicken and the Egg problem, that people make their settings oppressive leading them to exclude women as characters in the setting. Or is it that they don’t want women as characters the setting and then they’re using the oppressive to as an excuse? Or both? Possibly both. I’m reading Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods right now, which I really like, except for there’s just no women anywhere and it does feel like the oppression in the setting is almost an excuse that holds up the exclusion of women as characters in the book.
Wes: I just finished reading Monstrous Regiment (Terry Pratchett) so pick that one up next if you would like to fix that.
Oren: But- But- Chris there is a goddess of love in Small Gods. Is that- how would you- is that not enough?
Chris: I know there’s a goddess of a prostitute.
Oren: I actually like that, but it’s a bit of a problem and that’s the only woman you’ve got.
Chris: It’s not that I object to having a goddess of prostitutes. It’s that when the only presence of women anywhere in the story is a goddess of love and a goddess of prostitutes. There is one goddess of wisdom to be fair, there is a goddess of wisdom in there and a goddess of the ocean so there’s a few more goddesses, but certainly male mindset happening.
Another Story, another show. I really do think The Good Place is doing an excellent job. It helps that Eleanor, the main character, is a woman. But the thing is that I really love it when I see women who are breaking out of the roles that women are usually allowed to play within big-budget media. The fact that Eleanor is selfish, but also allowed to be a likable protagonist, that’s something that is usually only given to male characters.
Wes: Yeah, that’s a really good point.
Chris: Usually only men are allowed to act out and behave in that manner and the writers still expect the viewers to like them. Woman almost never get that part. If she’s gonna be selfish, she’s antagonistic. We’re going to hate her and all those things. I actually find Eleanor’s selfishness in The Good Place to be pretty empowering. She’s also not the only woman in The Good Place.
Oren: The Good Place also cares a lot about relationships and about people’s mental health. It’s weird but stories that care about character’s mental health are assumed to be targeted at women. The Good Place has a big audience in general just because it’s so good. But I think that that’s one of the reasons it has attracted such a high percentage of women in its fanbase.
Chris: Did either of you want to bring up a story?
Oren: Well, I would like to talk about Supernatural if I may.
Chris: [joyfully] Yes. Let’s talk about it. Supernatural is so weird because it treats the women terribly, the worst. But it has many women followers because of the hot guys.
Wes: They are super hot!
Chris: So what is happening with this show Oren, do you have a theory?
Oren: Yeah. This is a whole thing. There were articles written about this because it’s such a weird phenomenon. We don’t actually know exactly what percentage of the supernatural fan base is female. All we can say for sure is that it’s a lot and that at conventions it tends to be about 80% women that go to Supernatural conventions. The writers, who are both women incidentally – the two main writers apparently they weren’t the original like showrunners, they were just the head writers – hey talked about how this show was originally meant for guys. It was supposed to be for guys. It was about muscley men with guns and knives and cars killing monsters. That’s all it was supposed to be.
But their take on why it attracted a women fan base, and I agree I think this is probably very likely, is that the first thing it did was drive away a lot of the worst guys because the first few episodes have so few women in them that a lot of guys didn’t want to watch it because they thought it was gay and guys are homophobic and terrible. So they left and this actually created some space for women to watch the show as weird as that is. Then it’s a show about hot guys talking about their feelings and that was not intentional. Every episode having the brothers and then later on the brothers and Castiel talking about their feelings happened by accident. That was originally just supposed to be character development because the characters have these arcs, but then they were like, ‘Hey people really like this, so we’re going to keep doing it.’ And they did. In their words, they also tried to improve the actual representation of women in the story and they did a little. I’ve only watched eight seasons of it. My God, there’s fifteen. There’s seven seasons of it I haven’t seen so I can’t tell you what happens in the 9th through 15th season.[Wes and Chris laugh]
Oren: I can only tell you that in the first eight seasons they did somewhat improve the representation of women. There were more of them and they were a little more interesting. They all still died pretty quickly though, that was the thing. To be fair, a lot of the guys that the main characters met also died, but it was pretty noticeable that the men had a much higher survival rate and lived for a lot longer on average. It was amazing when Felicia Day’s character lived more than two episodes. I thought for sure they were never going to kill her because she’s Felicia Day, but apparently they did so I’m guessing Felicia Day and other obligations. That’s probably what happened. That’s that’s why supernatural has such a big such a big female fan base and it only got more intense when they added Castiel because now we have someone to ship who’s not a biological brother.
Chris: Not that that stopped that many people.
Oren: It did. I mean I’m not saying it stopped a lot of people but it was certainly more palatable for some. I’ve talked to a number of women who watch the show and asked them about their opinions on it and they acknowledge that it has problems. I’m sure there are some who defend it but most of them are like, ‘Yeah, I don’t like the way the show treats women but I like other things about it enough that I watch it.’ There’s a lot of shows I watch for those reasons, seems fair.
Chris: It is strange to me that they didn’t do a faster pivot towards treating the women on the show better once they realize that their primary fanbase seemed to be women. Add in some more quirky women that were not designed to be sexy. It sounds like there’s been a lot of one-off love interests that die. Is that accurate?
Oren: There are a lot of those. Yes, that happens a lot. They did eventually add women who were not one-off love interests who died. They were women with their own thing going on who died.
Wes: Quite a lot of death.
Oren: They all still die. Usually fairly quickly. We had some brief hope for Wayward Sisters, that was going to be Supernatural but with women and it sounded fun and because there is no god, they didn’t pick it up.
Chris: It’s that they decided to do a spin-off of a spin-off of, was it Vampire Diaries?
Oren: Yeah. A spin-off of a Vampire Diaries spinoff. I already said there was no god. I think that covered it.
Chris: I saw the first few episodes and it was not good. That’s what they decide not to do Wayward Sisters for so that was sad. I do feel like the inability of Supernatural to pivot its strategy does speak to a lot of probably entrenched tropes in popular media that are not friendly towards women. Otherwise, they would have done a better job of that.
Oren: Right. I think it was that Supernatural didn’t ever lose it’s starting ethos, or at least it didn’t in the eight seasons that I watched. I have to caveat that there’s almost half of the show I didn’t see! After eight seasons my god…
Wes: So much.
Oren: At least what I watched there was – because the show was originally created by one guy who had a very specific story he wanted to tell and he had a very specific idea of what that would look like. Even when the show outlasted that story, it kept most of his ideas and I suspect that’s where a lot of the dead women came from. That would be my guess. Just some hypothesizing there.
Chris: Wes, did you have a story you want to bring up?
Wes: I was thinking about just- I knew were going to talk about stories for women, so obviously we brought up novels from previous centuries and the things that they were writing about. I find it kind of interesting looking at that stuff that the 19th century gives a pretty good example where you have, for example, a well-known play called ‘A Doll’s House’ by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen and he writes a story about Nora and she’s married and has some children but basically the play ends with her leaving her family and choosing to become her own person and leave. I was like, ‘okay I jammed on this story,’ and then I read some other stories from around the same time frame that are written by women about women and empowerment as well. But for a lot of those other stories, they don’t make that kind of decision, they end up married or dead. I thought that I know that like Kate Chopin comes to mind, the Bronte sisters were all about broken relationships, Perkins Gilman, there were several of these others. I thought, ‘what’s going on with this if this is a story by a woman and obviously trying to get a woman audience?’ I was just wondering what steps a man feels like he could take with his female characters that a woman writing a similar story is like, ‘No, that’s not what I want to convey. I want to convey a different sense of entrapment or let my audience know that this is the boat that we’re all kind of in.’ Which for a particular class of people is fairly common. A good example of this: we’ve brought it up before but Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is a phenomenal short story. Everyone should read it. When it got published a bunch of men read it and said, ‘What a delightfully spooky ghost story!’ and-
Oren: Oh goodness.
Wes: And every other woman on the planet was like, ‘Wow, here’s a great story about why rest cures are terrible and the reality is the postpartum depression.’ I think that there’s really key elements there that if your stories are controlled by a group that’s not even deigning to acknowledge the needs of another you’re missing so many important things. Reading that story in high school for me was like, ‘Oh my gosh, like what is this?’ (a) It’s an excellent tightly crafted short story and then (b) what is the rest care? What is this? It was my first exposure. I first learned that postpartum depression was a real thing. Maybe I wasn’t the target audience but I benefited from learning from reading that story.
Chris: I do have to wonder about the story that you read about a woman leaving her family. There are definitely some things that people who are not part of a group, people who are privileged, can get away with writing that a marginalized person can’t. I don’t know. It is quite possible that all of the women of the time were like, ‘No we wouldn’t want to leave our families. We want to tell people what’s wrong with our current situation.’ There also could be an element of women often being demonized for that. That’s the kind of thing that is expected for men. Just watching Outlander, even just watching Outlander.
There’s a statement in the TV show where- okay what happens in Outlander is the main character is married, but she goes off to these standing stones and then she gets transported back in time. She randomly disappears and she’s left her husband behind who presumably will wonder where she went. She has this thought that ‘He’ll be wondering what happened to me I could have died. I could have been kidnapped. Worst of all, what if I ran off with another man?’ Worst of all! It’s very weird. It’s like that is the biggest thing? He should prefer that she had been kidnapped or died rather than she chose to leave. For some stories like that I do wonder if a man is allowed to write that story whereas a woman would be demonized for writing that story.
Wes: Yeah. I think that that happens all too often, because I know when that play [‘A Doll’s House’] got published he got immediate push back. I think in one of the first shows the actor who was playing Nora refused to do it unless they would alter the ending where she wouldn’t do that, but he basically said, ‘It’s my play. I’m not changing this.’ I think that some productions did do an alternate ending but it still got published. If a woman had tried that at that time probably people would be like, ‘No! We’re not doing that.’
Chris: Or it’s possible at the time that people interpreted that story as demonizing the woman who left?
Chris: And so it’s demonizing women by having the woman leave her family. There’s some complicated things involved with that.
Oren: Even today if a woman writes a story about a badass woman, she will be called a Mary Sue. If a man writes a story about the exact same woman doing badass things and people know a man wrote that story, they’re probably not going to call her Mary Sue. They might still find reasons to criticize it, the female characters in Star Wars were invented by men. It’s not like we’re free of that problem, but it’s just less likely. It’s kind of interesting that the rampant misogyny around the Star Wars films is that they think that these characters were created by Kathleen Kennedy, because the actual creative minds behind these movies they all hate for being so sjw and feminized are all men. And they just don’t know how to focus their hatred on men, so they’re like, ‘it’s Kathleen Kennedy’s fault.’ Kathleen Kennedy didn’t make either of those movies.
Wes: So silly.
Oren: It’s amazing. I love it.
Oren: We are out of time. We have to call this podcast to a close. Thank you everyone for listening. Before we go, I just want to thank two of our patrons first is Kathy Ferguson who is a professor of Political Theory in Star Trek and of Women’s Studies. She could probably have told us more about this. The other [patron] is Ayman Jaber, who writes urban fantasy and knows all there is to know about Marvel. And if anything we say piqued your interest you can leave a comment on the website at mythcreants.com and we will talk to you next week.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?