Tag Archives: gender norms

Dude thinks like a lady

“Why is it scientifically impossible for a man to put himself in a woman’s shoes, even for one second?”

–Jane in Masters of Sex


Buffy Summers. Enid Coleslaw. Frances Halladay. Claire Fisher. Serena Pemberton. April Ludgate.

Question: What do all of these ladies have in common? (Besides the fact that I’ve written posts about all of them.)

Answer: They were all created by men.

Lana Winters, the de facto protagonist of American Horror Story: Asylum, is another member of this club. She is the only character to survive the entire season in Asylum (quite a feat in the AHS franchise) and is, without question, the strongest female character to appear on the Ryan Murphy/Brad Falchuk production, not to mention the rest of television. Here’s the rundown on the horrors Lana overcomes in a mere 13 episodes:

  • She’s a lesbian in the early sixties, which is tantamount to being crazy. So she is held against her will at the Briarcliff asylum to be treated for her homosexual predilections
  • Her lover (along with many others) is killed by a psycho dubbed “Bloody Face”
  • This same person captures Lana, keeps her hostage, rapes her and gets her pregnant in the process
  • Lana kills Bloody Face in the most epic scene of the series
  • Lana cannot bear to have an abortion, but also cannot bear to keep the child, so she puts him up for adoption
  • Said child develops an abandonment/mother complex and grows up to be Bloody Face II and makes it his personal mission to kill Lana
  • She is forced to choose between giving her son the one thing he wants and letting another maniac live; Bloody Face II is killed at the same hands as his father

So there are several ways to process this information:

  • Murphy and Falchuk created one of the most badass women ever!
  • Murphy and Falchuk maybe have a mother complex of their own and are a little too interested in depicting a woman going through psychological and physical torture
  • This is just another example of how men control everything. Lana might be “strong,” but her very existence is still at the hands of two dudes. Women can’t even tell their own stories about rape, abortion, childbearing, sexuality and defying gender roles
  • We’re in a society that is questioning the very distinction of gender more and more. Does it even matter that two men created Lana? At the end of the day, we’re all just people
  • What, men can’t write about women? You’re being a sexist! Michelle Ashford is telling the story of William Masters and Virginia Johnson and no one is questioning whether she is doing the male sex justice. You call yourself a feminist?!
  • Rachel’s really into bullets today

As much as I consider myself to be a bullshit detector and somebody who is just right all of the time, I’ve got to say that I don’t know what the correct reaction is. I think all of those points are valid; I think that they’re all broad generalizations. I will say that I think it is an issue that there so few female directors and television showrunners. No matter how well-meaning or feminist male artists are, their version of women will always be skewed, if not completely inaccurate. I guess more than anything else I think that women need to be consulted in these cases, if only for research purposes. But I also respect men who make it their goal to present three-dimensional female characters with their own agency and perspective. Those are the kind of men I’d like to hang out with. But I’d probably be working for them, not with them.

I’m not really shedding any helpful light on this, am I? I guess that’s the point.


Let’s turn to Roxane Gay–author of Bad FeministOutlander fan; my personal nominee for Time Person of the Year–sees this issue as starkly black and white (in contrast to my gray bulleted list). As Gay argues in “Beyond the Measure of Men,” if Lana’s story was a female creation, it would be taken less seriously solely because it came from a woman’s brain. As Gay explains, “Narratives about certain experiences are somehow legitimized when mediated through a man’s perspective. Consider the work of John Updike and Richard Yates. Most of their fiction is grounded in domestic themes that, in the hands of a woman, would render the work ‘women’s fiction.’…These books are allowed to be more than what they are by virtue of the writer’s gender, while similar books by women are forced to be less than what they are…”

To sum it up neatly: “When did men become the measure?…Excellence should be the measure” 


As Gay sees it, the reason Lana’s story is told by men is because they are the only people our society deems fit to tell anyone’s story. I’m inclined to agree with Gay that this is why the Buffys, Enids, Aprils and Lanas are products of the male imagination. But I don’t know if it necessarily lessens any of those characters or what they try to accomplish. I suppose this particular post asks more questions than it answers, but that could be alright. I think it is better to think about these matters and discuss them than to never give them a second glance. What I can tell you definitively is that Lana Winters is one of the best female television characters in recent history and is definitely the best character (of any gender) in AHS‘s universe. That means something, no matter who created her.

(Images #1 courtesy of tumblr.com; #2 courtesy of americanhorrorstory.wikia.com; #3 courtesy of fanpop.com; #4 courtesy of weheartit.com; #5 courtesy of artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com)

The children’s hour

“Instead of making me docile, Lucinda’s curse made a rebel of me. Or perhaps I was that way naturally.”

–from Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine

There are several reasons that I am fond of Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted. First, it was one of the first books I read in the wake of my father’s death. Reading was a major way I was able to cope with the loss. The protagonist, Ella, was especially comforting because she knew how it felt to lose a parent; the catalyst of her story is the death of her mother. Disappearing from reality and delving into a good story helped me focus on something other than my grief.

Second, the story is a retelling of the classic Cinderella fairy tale. I don’t know if this type of narrative is a genre, per se, but I adore literary retellings. The process of taking characters and plot lines we’ve known our entire lives, turning them on their head and making them modern and relatable is brilliant. Ella’s curse of obedience is a hell of a lot more intriguing than the damsel in distress-and-rags act that the traditional Cinderella has going on.

Finally, I love this story and find it enjoyable even as an adult because it is an example of the hidden depths children’s literature provides. Yes, Ella’s adventures are an entertaining story for a little girl in the midst of bereavement. But they are also critiques of gender roles, patriarchy and personal autonomy. Not exactly child’s play, is it?

Unlike the Disney version of the fairy tale, Ella is not compliant or accepting of her misfortune. And she damn sure is not sweet in the face of adversity. Instead, baby Ella receives the “gift “of obedience from the fairy Lucinda. As anyone with half a brain would realize, this is not gift at all; it is a terrible curse. Ella has to do as she is told, no matter how humiliating, unethical, silly or just plain evil the command. She has no real free will, choice or personal autonomy. Even her thoughts can be controlled. If someone tells her to be happy, her mood automatically brightens.

Tellingly, Levine often depicts Ella’s forced obedience and actions in terms of gendered behavior and social institutions. For example, after her mother’s funeral, Ella’s father decides that she will attend finishing school. Thanks to the curse, Ella excels in etiquette, because she is literally educated against her will. As Ella recounts, “My progress in all my subjects astounded the mistresses. In my first month I did little right. In my second I did little wrong. And gradually, it all became natural: light steps, small stitches, quiet voice, ramrod-straight back, deep curtsies without creaking knees, no yawns, soup tilted away from me, and no slurping.” 

Yes, on the surface this is a tale about hardship, perseverance and magic. However, if you compare Ella’s newfound skills with the contents of a Women’s Studies textbook, you will discover the real world themes throughout the narrative.  Ella is learning to be a lady, learning how to perform her femininity. In her essay “The Social Construction of Gender,” Judith Lorber argues that gender is learned and “creates the social differences that define ‘woman’ and ‘man’.”  She further describes how “gendered norms and expectations are enforced through informal sanctions of gender-inappropriate behavior by peers and by formal punishment or threat of punishment by those in authority…” 

In this case, Ella’s punishment for deviating from the mistresses’ wishes would be nausea, migraines, dizziness and the inability to breathe. She is physically obligated to obey every command; if she doesn’t, the curse provides consequences. Acting like a socially acceptable “lady” is not something that comes to her naturally; it is something that she is forced to learn. If her story lacked a curse and took place in our world instead of the land of Frell, then Ella would probably shunned, mocked or verbally abused for rejecting the standard gender norms.


Just as the curse of obedience trains Ella to be someone she is not (and has no wish to be), it also takes away the little power she has under the patriarchal thumb of her father. When Sir Peter makes a bad investment and is forced to auction off all of his belongings, he sees his most valuable asset in his daughter. He tells Ella, “I shall have to sell you, in a manner of speaking. You must marry so that we can be rich again.” Even if this story is meant for children and takes place in a fantasy land, this scenario is completely reality-based. Throughout history–and even in contemporary times–daughters have, in effect, been traded for cash. This is disturbing enough in and of itself, but Sir Peter’s plan is even more sinister because Ella cannot resist. Of course, all the daughters that have been sold have little choice in the matter. If they run away, they could face a life of poverty, social ostracism and violence. Unfortunately, Ella does not even have that dismal option. The curse gives the patriarchy even more influence over her life.


This is all a really in-depth way of saying that children’s books are not without their own metaphors, messages, social commentary and complexity. Ella Enchanted is a delightful spin on a fairy tale that everyone in the Western world knows by heart. It’s funny, interesting and upbeat. But Gail Carson Levine’s writing style provides so much more than a story about magic, fairies and the power of love. Her prose is also an astute analysis and indictment of the way we train girls to act a certain way and how the institution of marriage still has the potential to be an economical, patriarchal ritual cloaked in the charade of romantic love. After reading between the lines of this particular interpretation of the classic fairy tale, one thing is definitely clear: It puts Disney and that Anne Hathaway piece of crap to shame.

(Image #1 courtesy of goodreads.com; #2 courtesy of gailcarsonlevine.com ; #3 courtesy of paperdollromance.blogspot.com; #4 courtesy of jaime-morrow.com)