Men Are Generic, Women Are Special

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"If a smash hit has mostly male characters, nobody raises an eyebrow, but if it has mostly female characters, it's a Great Big Anomaly worth several trees' worth of shocked speculation."
Sarah Morayati, author of the Interactive Fiction work Broken Legs, in an interview discussing gender in fiction

In media, male is the default, "normal" form of humanity, while female is a special subcategory reserved just for women. This meta-trope is Older Than Feudalism and is found not only in fiction, but is ingrained into many human societies and cultures. The technical term for this is "androcentrism".

Take the English language, for example. The terms "Man" and "Mankind" are often used to represent humanity in general, whereas "Woman" and "Womankind" only ever refer to humans of the female gender. However there is an interesting twist in the etymology of man and woman. Originally men were 'werman', women were 'wifman' and man was the generic way of referring to people of all genders. Over time 'werman' became replaced with the gender neutral man while 'wifman' became woman and retained its exclusiveness. Our culture somehow lost the impetus to refer to men as their own gender and our language evolved to reflect that. Certain languages take this concept even further, such as French, which has two words for 'They'; 'Ils' and 'Elles' - being masculine and feminine respectively, but if there is a mixed group of men and women, 'Ils' is the default.[1]

This phenomenon carries Unfortunate Implications for both male and female characters when used in fiction. The problem for male characters is that maleness is not special in the way femaleness is, and is often undervalued to the point of being disposable. On the positive side their actions are less likely to be judged based on their gender, leaving them with more freedom to act. The implication for female characters however is that femaleness is special in a way maleness isn't, or, to put it more bluntly, being male is "normal", while being female is "abnormal" which can either mean superior to men or inferior.

This leads to the Smurfette Principle, in which a character's femaleness is the most important and interesting thing about her often to exclusion of all else. It also tends to result in works failing the The Bechdel Test, because if there's a potential character who doesn't have to be any particular gender, the role will probably be filled by a male character by default.

Likely caused by (or at least exacerbated by) the fact that Most Writers Are Male.

Examples of Men Are Generic, Women Are Special include:

General/Meta[edit | hide | hide all]

  • One of the most obvious consequences of this trope is the role of The Chick in the Five-Man Band. Males tend to have more diverse personality traits (The Big Guy, The Smart Guy) that may or may not fit the traditional defintion of "masculinity", whereas The Chick is often defined solely by her femininity/typically feminine character type.
  • The tropes Women's Mysteries and Wondrous Ladies' Room both depend on the idea that the female lifestyle is completely alien to men.
  • Uni-sex clothing has the same cut as male clothing, impliying that male is the default body type. Also, a woman wearing "men's clothing" is more socially acceptable than a man wearing "women's clothing".
  • Men Are the Expendable Gender.
  • Boys' toys will more often feature a girl playing with them in their advertising than girls' toys will feature a boy. One philosophy followed in the advertising industry is "If you have a product aimed at both boys and girls, and you can only use one child in the advertisement, you use a boy, because girls will listen to a boy, but boys won't listen to a girl."
  • Tertiary Sexual Characteristics are more commonly applied to female characters than males. The implication here is that viewers will always percieve a cartoon creature as male unless given plenty of evidence to the contrary. Non-Mammal Mammaries may serve a similar function. Additionally, androgenous or sexless beings will often be portrayed as having a masculine physique.
  • This trope also applies to sexual relations, where women are generally seen as "desirees" and men as "desirers". This has the Unfortunate Implications of goods (supply and demand) but it can also be described as follows: women "own" something special that men both lack and want.
  • Even in shows that have a roughly even gender split in their audience, the viewer is usually treated as if "he" is a heterosexual male, hence most Fan Service being of the Male Gaze variety, and the prevelance of attractive lesbians having a relationship over attractive gay men.
  • In advertising, when there's a generic couple considering buying a product, the man will often be too much of a stupid slob to understand how great the product is, while the woman is "special" enough to appreciate how very "special" the product is.
  • A philosophy adopted by some male writers and directors, such as James Cameron, is that the secret to writing a strong female character is to write her as a male and then change the pronouns. (Yes, we could talk about the Unfortunate Implications of that until the cows come home, but the ends justify the means.) What it means with regard to this trope is that it takes a lot of effort to write a female character that is free from all of these "special" characteristics associated with femininity.
    • Additionally, characters originally written to be male can be easily changed to be female with few alterations; however, a character written to be female has to undergo more significant revisions to be re-written as male. Otherwise he might come off as a bit... "special".
  • An unmet character turning out to be female can be The Reveal, but discovering that an unmet character is actually male can't. See Samus Is a Girl, Female Monster Surprise. The Reveal of a male character's gender is only a surprise when he has been previously implied to be female or if the character is in a role heavily associated with being female such a cheerleader.
  • Content ratings for media include 'Violence', and 'Violence Against Women', sometimes as two separate categories in the same work. Violence is expected in some kinds of work, such as action movies and most games, and it's expected it will involve men. Especially when Action Girls are not involved, violence against women is seen as a worse thing, and it's expected that men should be better able to defend themselves.
  • Many languages use different versions of job titles for men and women. Traditionally, the male version is the generic term.
    • In languages where nouns have a (grammatical) gender, this extends beyond professional titles. "Amigo" means friend or male friend, while "amiga" means female friend. If you had a room full of your friends, you'd refer to them as "mis amigos" unless you were sure that every single one of them was female—only then would they be "mis amigas". A room full of 99 female friends and one male friend? "Mis amigos," bucko.
    • Even in english "Guys" is a traditional male term, but you can say "You Guys" to your friends who are all girls, and even the colloquial "Dude" will work but try a female group term or even a female friend term. Won't work.
    • Interestingly in Irish the word for nurse literally translated as "female nurse" (beannaltra) but was changed to simply "altra" to make it more gender neutral.
      • In Dutch, the archaic word for "doctor" is "geneesheer", which approximately translates to "healing man". There is a gender-neutral word for it, "geneeskundige" ("healer"), but it's hardly ever used since people use the words "arts" or "dokter" instead... which are both masculine nouns.
    • In French, the word for doctor (« médecin ») is always written in masculine form, as « la médecine » is the name of the profession as a whole, not its practitioners.
    • Conversely, the word for nurse (f. « infirmière », m. « infirmier ») is gender-specific. Any group of nurses will likely contain little more than token male representation, but mixed groups usually get masculine plural grammar in French. The licencing body for Québec's registered nurses uses the carefully gender-neutral « Ordre des infirmières et infirmiers » but France uses the masculine « Ordre des infirmiers » despite the males being a negligible minority in the profession.
    • Many Russian actresses dislike the word "actress", prefering "actor" instead, even when they're speaking a language where it doesn't make much sense.
  • Male-to-female Gender Benders are far more common than female-to-males, and are portrayed as being far more difficult to adjust to because of all the "special" behaviours they now have to adopt, whereas a female becoming a male would have little trouble adjusting- there's no "special" behaviours to adjust to because being male is "normal"!
    • Of course, many female-to-male trans people who definitely argue against this. To expect strangers to immediately recognise you as male, it involves changes to your voice, walk, the way you stand, your clothes...
      • A woman went undercover as a male for several months as research for her book. She considered herself very butch, and her body type was fairly stocky, so she assumed she would have no problems passing herself off. All the men (and some women) she interacted with assumed she was an extremely effeminate male.
      • Norah Vincent was the author, Self-Made Man was the book. She also drove herself into a psychological breakdown doing so, changing her emotional stance on transsexual people - whereas before she had seen trans people as mere pretenders, she came to understand the pain and difficulty of living as the incorrect gender.
  • Played with in Real Life. Embryologically (in mammals), the genitalia of both male and female fetuses arise from a 'genital tubercle' that resembles neither. The deciding point is the presence or absence of the SRY gene (usually located on the Y chromosome, though there are individuals who have them on difference chromosomes due to gene translocation mutations). If the SRY gene is not present, then genital tubercle will become female genitalia. If it is present, then it will become male genitalia. The SRY gene does not contain "instructions" for making men; it acts as a biological switch that affects the expression of other genes (on other chromosomes). So the genetic material for making men and women are contained in everyone, but only men have the "male" switch.
  • A wife taking her husband's last name is considered normal, but her keeping her original last name is seen as something highly unusual and showing the woman to be dominant. The normativeness of the name change has shifted the bar so that what is essentially a purely equal thing, both people keeping their names, has become something seen as unequal in the woman's favor.
    • A man taking his wife's name is completely unheard-of. She can take his entirely, she can hyphenate hers, or she can keep hers, but his name must remain his name.
      • While rare, it's not impossible. The Ponds would like you to note this.).
      • Interestingly, a survey done in the last few years suggests that women who keep their surnames after marriage are seen as more empowered and women who change or hyphenate their names are looked down upon slightly (at least in the US where the study was conducted).
    • It's perfectly acceptable for women to keep their last names after marriage in the former Soviet republics, due to the Communist ideology that all people (men and women included) are equal and must be treated as such. This becomes more of a problem if they move to a country where it's not as acceptable. Even women who change their last name will have it spelled differently, for the most part, due to Russian language rules (e.g. "Ivanov" for male and "Ivanova" for female).
  • Most video games in which the player's character is a woman will have a third-person camera perspective, which distances the player somewhat from the character, (and allows the player to examine her voluptuous figure) , while most first-person games feature a male or ambiguous player character. This may imply that most gamers find it difficult to identify with being a female character at that level... either that, or the programmers decided that there's no point having a female protagonist if we don't get to ogle her.
    • This may be why Chell from Portal drew quite a lot of attention as a good female character, despite being a Heroic Mime with no definable Backstory or personality beside what GLaDOS told you - which could all just be lies.[2] She was a proactive character who could master all the problems she was faced with independently and was conspicuously designed in a practical way for her setting, rather than being sexy above all. The game also uses a first-person camera, although you do get to see Chell through portals fairly often.
  • Both Mooks and Red Shirts are nearly always male. Female characters in the military are nearly always officers and likewise it is very rare for a female cop to be below detective.
    • Female mooks do appear in fighting games like Streets of Rage, but they're far more likely to sport distinctive outfits and weapons (such as whips) rather than just trying to punch or kick you. They're also more likely to be mini-bosses.
  • Women have gynaecologists and men have urologists. Urology being a discipline that lumps the male reproductive tract in with the gender-neutral study/treatment of the urinary tract. In other words urologists treat both men and women, not men exclusively.
    • Biologically, this is partly justified. In males, the reproductive tract and the urinary tract exit the body through the same "hole," but females have separate "holes." The female role in reproduction is also more complex: gynaecology deals with pregnancy-related issues as well.
    • In another way, a prostate clinic is the closest you'll see to an andrology ward, suggesting that the "base" patient is gender-neutral or male, with gynaecology covering the parts where women differ.
  • In many jokes where the gender of the character does not matter, the protagonist will be male by default (i.e. "a guy goes to the doctor complaining of a cold..."), and female only if it somehow pertains to her being a woman (i.e. "a woman driving by a country lake decides to go skinny-dipping...).
  • Nudity taboos in general seem to represent this. There is something more pornographic about the female nude even in a completely nonsexual context, though in blatant Fan Service the female is more represented.
    • However, when it comes to full frontal, it is male nudity that is considered more obscene and as Fan Disservice.
  • The stereotypical Mary Sue is female for this reason.
  • Old books about How To Draw the Human Figure typically show a man's body first, and then "modify" the proportions to show a woman's body - for example, we learn that a woman has wider hips, narrower shoulders, and a lower centre of gravity in comparison to the "default" male body.
    • Also true of older medical texts, although current ones are trying to avert this bias by presenting equal numbers of male and female figures in illustrations.
    • Most model skeletons, muscle figures, and other anatomical models still use the male as a default design, possibly with interchangeable parts for the different versions of the reproductive system.
    • The famous museum exhibits "Body Worlds" and "Bodies: The Exhibition". has been accused of this. The exhibit features preserved human bodies, stripped of the skin but showing the bones and muscles. One complaint about both exhibits was that female bodies were only shown in "feminine" poses, such as those related to maternity, reproduction, and other poses and actions associated more with women. Male bodies, meanwhile, could do everything else. The complaints were not just about enforcing gender roles, but also enforcing this very trope: that men are the norm and women are something out of the norm.
  • Trans women are more likely to seek therapy to help them adjust than trans men.
  • Men's names occasionally become unisex, but the same cannot be said of female names. Examples include: Mischa (Russian equivalent of Mike), Sasha (Russian equivalent of Alex), Kim (The character who popularised the name was male, full name Kimball O'Hara) and Meredith (which is Welsh for "Great Lord")
    • A guy with a name that is considered nowadays to be a "girl's name" (even if it wasn't originally), such as Ashley, Leslie, or Marian is probably much more likely to be made fun of than, say, a girl with a masculine-sounding name or a masculine-sounding nickname like Alex, Sam, or even Charlie.
      • Or the above-mentioned Meredith. It's "Rodney", thank you very much.
  • Inverted with the terms used to refer to cattle, chickens, and ducks in English.
    • "Cow," the word used to refer to female cattle, is very commonly used as a gender neutral singular term for cattle, but "bull," the word used to refer to male cattle, is not.
    • Hens (as in female chickens) are often simply referred to by the gender neutral species term "chicken," while roosters (male chickens) are more likely to be called the masculine term, "rooster," than just a chicken (save for Chicken Boo from Animaniacs).
    • Female ducks are simply referred to as, well, "ducks," but male ducks are called "drakes."
      • Female ducks are also called "hens," but very rarely so.
    • "Goose" is female or gender-neutral, "gander" is male only.
  • Inverted: The German word for cat, "die katze," is used both generically and to refer to female cats in particular, but "der kater," the term used to male cats, is never used generically.
  • Inverted with lions; both sexes can be maneless, but only males have manes.
    • This means that a picture of a lion will almost always be a male, as a lioness could be easily mistaken for another big cat (by someone who is not an expert).
  • Happy face + lips + eyelashes = female happy face. The default is male or genderless; to make it female, qualifiers must be added to distinguish it from the default. Once you know this, you'll see it everywhere. Sorry!
  • There's a special word for gay/homosexual women, "lesbian", but not one for gay/homosexual men that unambiguously means only men (apart from various slurs).

Anime and Manga[edit | hide]

  • Cell in Dragon Ball technically has no gender, and is only referenced in the English manga as an "it", in the anime however, Cell has a male voice and is only called a "he". Though to be fair, the cells that make up its body are pretty much all male.
    • Similarly with Piccollo and the other Namekians, a One-Gender Race who reproduce asexually, but are only referred to as male.

Comics[edit | hide]

  • In |The Transformers, all the Transformers were considered genderless, but were referred to with masculine pronouns... until one story in which the Autobots created Arcee, who is considered female and is described with feminine pronouns.
    • In the above Marvel story, Arcee was actually created, in story, as female to respond to the sexism that people saw in the perception of the Autobots as male. When the same writer (Simon Furman) introduced Arcee into the IDW transformers universe, it was presented as an experiment by Jhiaxus to introduce gender into the formerly genderless species. The default remained 'male', while she got the female referents. She also went somewhat insane.

Fan Works[edit | hide]

Film[edit | hide]

  • Similar to the toy-advertising example above, the movie Rapunzel was renamed Tangled, with the marketing focused mainly on the male hero rather than the formerly eponymous heroine, in order to appeal to young boys. Nobody worries about alienating a young female audience by having a film named after the male hero in the same way that a female heroine supposedly deters young boys.
    • Of course, this should be taken in the context of Disney's princess fetish (see "Theme Parks" below for an example).
  • In fact, if you looked at all the mainstream animated movies (at least, those that got a theatrical release) from the past five years, you could probably count all the ones with female lead characters on both hands.
    • John Lasseter of the studio Pixar, responsible for a good third of those movies, has said that their lack of female leads (it took 13 films over more than 15 years for their first one!) is because they're "a bunch of guys".
  • Films that have an all-female cast will be praised for being innovative and fresh while a film with an all-male cast is considered normal.
  • The opening to Flashdance (1983) plays with this trope; as the welder is facelessly concealed by a light-attenuating mask, this person's identity is obscured – so the audience expects a generic, masculine tradesman until the welder removes the mask.

Literature[edit | hide]

  • In Going Postal, one of the golems gets named Gladys and given a gingham dress so that Miss Maccalariat will approve it cleaning the ladies' privies (prior to which, neither Gladys nor anyone else minded what "she" wore). In Making Money Moist compares Gladys to the generic "male" golems, and then has to remind himself that they aren't male, any more than Gladys is really female.
    • Something similar happened to Rincewind in Interesting Times. After his Luggage (a sentient trunk on legs) started following a more 'feminine' model (its toes are painted, etc), he is first bewildered at the general idea, then realizes that he's never really had a reason for thinking of his Luggage as male. "True, it had a homicidal nature, but so had a lot of the women Rincewind had met."
    • A similar point can be made with Discworld dwarfs. All dwarfs look like short, male Vikings. Male dwarfs in human society are content to look like short, male Vikings (except Casanunda, but he's a special case), while many female dwarfs are starting to adopt a "feminine" look along the lines of human society. (Dwarfish has no gender-specific pronouns, but their non-specific ones are generally translated as "he", "him", etc.)
    • As a twist, the Dwarf femininity issue is presented as cultural rather than sexist. It is simply considered un-Dwarfish and none seem to have a problem interacting with women of other races. A few dwarfs obliquely refer to the fact that dwarvish culture can look odd to humans, and they have no expectation that another culture to follow their rules... unlike humans.
  • Peter Pan believes one girl in Neverland is worth twenty boys, as they're much too clever to fall out of their prams and be sent there naturally.
  • In the Honor Harrington series, the convention is for individuals to use their own gender as a generic pronoun, unless there is some indication otherwise. Many characters still, however default to "men".

Live Action TV[edit | hide]

  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer - slayers are always female, implying that only women are able to have qualities necessary to save the world from demons. In Season 7, it is revealed that the origin of Slayers is that three men infused an ordinary girl with demonic powers, against her will. The question of why a girl (and not an adult woman, or a man, or a boy) is not raised, but it's suggested that they chose a girl as someone that was easy to manipulate for their own purposes.
  • Charmed played this straight at first as it seemed like only women could be witches. It's even mentioned by the grandmother that the entire Halliwell family line has all been female. An episode where the sisters meet their ancestor, they are taught about the "strength and power of women". Not witches or even humans, women, implying that only females have strength and power worth celebrating. They subverted this in the fifth season where the Chosen Child Piper was carrying turned out to be a boy, rather than a girl as expected. From the fifth season onwards, male witches appeared regularly on the show.
  • Many seasons of Super Sentai will feature only one female Ranger who will often get more development and chances to save the day because of her specialness as the only female ranger. The other male rangers will often be generic sidekicks with the Red Ranger taking the lead, giving the implication that the male rangers are all the same and that the female one is as special as the leader and is more deserving of focus and development than the others simply because she is a girl.
  • In the Star Trek: The Original Series episode "Metamorphosis", Spock modifies their Universal Translator to communicate with an Energy Being that has been maintaining the life and health of a man marooned on its planet. The device gives the Energy Being a female voice, which Kirk and Spock find worthy of note. (Perhaps the translator has a "gender neutral mode", but going by this exchange, it seems more likely that the crew would have considered a male voice "genderless").

Kirk: Feminine. No doubt about it, Spock.
Spock: Yes. The matter of gender could change the entire situation.
Kirk: I'm way ahead of you.
Spock: Then it is not a zookeeper.
Kirk: No. A lover.[3]

Tabletop Games[edit | hide]

  • Inversion: Some of The World of Darkness sourcebooks use female pronouns to refer to hypothetical characters of unspecified gender.
  • Dungeons & Dragons has done the above too, as well as other methods of avoiding bias like alternating "he" and "she" (in one infamous instance for the same character) or basing it upon the Iconic that best represents the situation.

Toys[edit | hide]

  • Bionicle in its first couple of years stereotyped female characters as the gentler, more peace-loving ones, and their worst faults were often just their stubbornness. Later they attempted to experiment with their character types—and unfortunately in most cases, this lead to them going from one extreme side of the spectrum to the other. Dalu, Gavla, Kiina and Chiara are all females written to be brash, impulsive and at times even thick-headed. There are thankfully a handful of aversions, but sadly not near enough to distract the attention from the more numerous "eccentric" females.

Video Games[edit | hide]

  • Gen IV in Pokémon introduced aesthetic gender differences on members of the same species. In most cases, the "regular" design (i.e., the one that had been used in previous generations) went for males and the females got something different. (One notable exception would be Xatu.) Although the gender differences are quite realistic and reflect gender differences in animals in real life. For example, female Bug Pokemon tend to have wider thoraxes than the males.
  • In most RPGs, there are more female-specific equipment, character classes, and/or abilities than male-specific.
  • In Mortal Kombat, one of Johnny Cage's moves involves him doing the splits and punching his opponent in the groin. It doesn't work on females. Or for some reason bosses. Though, this applies mostly to the older series, as newer games strive for gender neutrality, as well as gameplay balance.
  • In the Mass Effect series, krogan females are highly prized than krogan males simply for one reason: fertile krogan females are the only ones who are able to reproduce. While seemingly mundane, it's very useful when your entire species is dying from a sterility plague. The krogan are afflicted by the genophage, which only makes one in every thousand pregnancies viable, and as such, when players visit the krogan homeworld in Mass Effect 2, the fertile females and children are kept completely separate from the other clans.
    • The asari are a One-Gender Race, that gender being female. Due to their unique physiology, an asari can reproduce with a member of any species of any gender with the child always being a pure asari. There are no male asari. The three asari life stages (maiden, matron, matriarch) are all feminine terms. Interestingly, one character in Mass Effect 2 has the title of Patriarch, but that is a male krogan, and the title is given by an asari as a joke.
  • Nethack has the female-specific Valkyrie class. All the other classes can be initially created as either sex, though amulets of change work just as well on Valkyries as anyone else.

Western Animation[edit | hide]

  • In Nickelodeon's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Splinter wants to train April because apparently the most powerful ninjas were women. This is actually kind of a case of Did Not Do the Research, as while a number of the best ninjas were women, it wasn't necessarily because they were more powerful. It was because in Feudal Japan, men didn't have a high opinion of women, so woman ninjas had the element of surprise.
  1. In fact, in French grammar, this is correct to the point at which if there was a group of any number of women, and one single man, 'ils' would be the correct group pronoun.
  2. She gained a little more characterisation in Portal 2's promotional comic, but in the first game was pretty much a blank slate.
  3. (No, the marooned man's orientation had not been established as straight.)