Men Are the Expendable Gender/Analysis
Male Death is More Numerous
When it's time for a character to hit the big one, either by a freak accident or by nobly sacrificing himself, writers go about the situation as if it were a pickle jar: get a man to do it. If the entire cast has to die, men will go first. However, this phenomenon is much more noticeable with extras; if large amounts of anonymous people have to die to demonstrate the severity of a threat, they will be men. Armies of Mooks are almost always populated solely by males.
Children of both sexes are even more sympathetic by default than adult women, and their deaths are almost invariably treated as deeply tragic. However, girls are still considered more dependent, and therefore more sympathetic, than boys of the same age. Typically, a girl stands a better chance of surviving a horror movie than a boy does. If the plot requires adults to be motivated by the need to protect or avenge a child, the child is much more likely to be female.
Women do get killed in pointless ways that serve only as a plot device, usually simply to provide a conveniently sympathetic motivation for a male character. Killing a man does not work as well precisely because the audience does not view the death of anonymous men as tragic or horrifying. Which leads into:
Death as Emotional Torque
Because the victimization of female characters has more emotional impact with audiences, their deaths are often used to drive plots, motivate protagonists and present touching denouements. Male characters may also serve this purpose—after they've earned audience sympathy—but expect a far higher proportion of anonymous and meaningless male death for every one inspirational male death. In general, if a female character dies, it emphasizes the tragedy or horror of a situation. If a male character dies, it emphasizes the danger or functions as Gorn.
When the nameless masses die off, a character will often comment that the villain killed innocent women and children. Male deaths seem to be considered regrettable but not nearly as tragic, as though men are automatically considered to be combatants who died in battle - even if they were actually innocent bystanders who had absolutely no chance to defend themselves. Sometimes villains will defend themselves by saying that they only target men, as if actions that result in the death of men are morally neutral. (Note that being wounded, disabled or very elderly trumps being a man, as it takes one out of the "combatant" category.) Wouldn't Hit a Girl, Wouldn't Hurt a Child and Would Not Shoot a Civilian are closely related tropes.
A male character can elevate himself to the status of a female extra through sympathetic characterization—thus earning himself a noteworthy death—but female characters always start with audience sympathy. Conversely, a female character can lose audience sympathy through actively unsympathetic characterization. Even so, villainous female characters are often treated as less genuinely evil than male villains, scoring more Get Of Jail Free cards and convenient redemptions. Female characters also have to act far worse to lose this kind of sympathy, and are more often given an excuse for their bad behavior. Namely, a female character only crosses the line if she targets children for death, especially if she does the killing herself, or if she openly admits to have had an abortion and isn't constantly angsting about it.
Death as Gorn
Media in which death is unrealistically sanitary—any death that involves no wounding, little blood or is offscreen and only alluded to—may approach a 50-50 gender split for deaths as these deaths don't involve Gorn. Female death in these series will be often be long, tragic, noble, meaningful and/or beautiful - sometimes in sexualized ways - but always unblemished. Male death will often be atmospheric and mostly unremarked upon.
The more realistically brutal a work's portrayal of death is, the more the death toll will skew toward adult men. Part of the dramatic impact of these deaths is in watching a human body being dismembered, brutalized, hacked apart or otherwise treated like a piece of meat. However, mainstream audiences generally do not want to see this happen to sympathetic characters, which excludes women and children by default.
Media with Gorn will still kill off female characters, except in far more sanitary ways. Men may be being hacked apart by the Big Bad, but women will simply scream and slump over. Or scream and the scene cuts away. Or if men are being brutally beaten to death, women will be strangled instead. Female characters will die, on screen, in a way that will not result in a closed casket funeral. If there is female Gorn death, expect it to be described or implied rather than shown.
A subset of this trope relates to the treatment of male vs. female bodies. It is more acceptable to show all aspects of male death, from brutal mutilation to the corpse itself. It's also more acceptable to manhandle or disrespect a male corpse. Lighthearted jokes from morticians, detectives and coroners are more common with male rather than female corpses.
On the other hand, and related to the above "Death As Emotional Torque" point; a woman's gorny death will usually be considered worse than if a man were killed in the exact same manner (even if it is only the audience that considers the scene more harrowing).
Death, Violence and Characterization
Villains who target female characters for death, even anonymous female characters, will be viewed with far less sympathy than villains who target male characters, even important and likable ones. Sympathetic male characters will lose audience sympathy if they target women. Women lose no sympathy for targeting men, and only a little if they are targeting men out of misandry. Men will be cast into the role of irredeemable evil if they target women just for being female.
Females who target other females have to be unusually brutal in their violence to lose sympathy since the audience often considers female-on-female violence (and sometimes even rape) as sexy and enticing or as a cute Cat Fight, thus not worthy fretting over. On the other hand, a woman who is unable to defend herself unaided against another woman will often lose audience sympathy for being that weak. Only if she targets young children may a woman be considered irredeemable.
Protagonists and antagonists can thus be easily determined from any scene of violence, without any context, if the actors are of different genders - women fighting men are usually the good guys, men fighting women are usually the bad guys. After all, if he was really a good guy, he Wouldn't Hit a Girl. Also (occasionally) a cunning and cruel Dangerously Genre Savvy villain, especially a female one, can take advantage of this trope and mindset, threatening, hurting and even killing women and children to emotionally destroy males, thus losing their ability to fight.
Female characters are also expected to treat themselves as less expendable than male characters. Female characters do not lose sympathy for preserving their own lives or safety at the cost of adult male characters' lives and safety. (They are sometimes expected to do so to protect children, however, if there are no male characters available to take care of it.) Male characters lose considerable sympathy if they don't at least try to bend over backwards and help save female characters' lives, even if the cost is their own. (Imagine the climactic death scene in Titanic with the genders reversed.) If the woman is or might be pregnant - or if she even has older children - this can be brought forward as an excuse, softening the trope: she must save herself to protect the child. Fathers much more rarely bring up parenthood as a reason to avoid putting themselves in danger when they would otherwise be morally obligated to, although a childless male character might invoke it as a reason why the father should allow him to sacrifice himself instead.
This can also extend to male characters protecting female characters not just from actual physical danger, but also from unpleasant knowledge, as they would children. Note that this completely ignores the possibility that, as an adult with experience, the female character might have valuable insight into solving the problem if she only knew about it. This fact is rarely brought up, even if the female character later learns that the male character was hiding information to protect her and becomes angry about it.
Being viewed as less sympathetic than women by default has obvious Unfortunate Implications for men: in general, it is more socially acceptable for women to seek help or support from others, and they're more likely to actually get it. More than that, though, this trope contributes to systematic social problems that disproportionately affect men. Men are more likely than women to be homeless, to be victims of violent crime, and to be injured or killed in workplace accidents. Many countries, though no longer all, refuse to officially assign female troops to combat units (although non-combat troops frequently do end up in combat anyway); not only is every army in the world willing to put men on the front lines, men are often considered to have an obligation to defend their country in combat and may be pressured to join up, or even conscripted. Outside of war, men are often viewed as cowards if they shrink from fistfights, and if a man and woman are attacked by a criminal, he tends to be viewed as responsible for protecting her, regardless of whether she's actually more capable. A man who faces a problem like Domestic Abuse is often either actively disbelieved if he goes to the authorities, or told that he ought to be able to handle it on his own; if he does get help, he's likely to feel ashamed of it. This leads to the Fridge Logic of an abused man being expected to take care of himself, but if he does, and he defends himself, then he's a total bastard for raising a hand against a female, and if he doesn't, then he's a coward and doesn't deserve sympathy. And good luck drawing attention to these problems; advertising a social issue by pointing out how it affects women is more likely to draw public sympathy and inspire action.
However, the trope also has subtler Unfortunate Implications for women. Women get automatic audience sympathy for the same reason children do: they're viewed as fundamentally helpless, passive and innocent as well as incompetent and ineffectual in any given situation, not as adults who can take care of themselves. Crimes against women are considered especially horrific because it's assumed that female victims could not possibly have been capable of defending themselves. Similarly, female villains are viewed as redeemable because they often aren't really taken seriously as villains in the first place – a woman can't possibly pose a real threat, or be truly accountable for her actions. And since male characters must get the chance to earn audience sympathy by proving how capable they are, female characters are rarely given the same narrative opportunities to be heroic. This is one reason why male protagonists are much more common in many genres: male characters are more likely to have agency, personal conflict and capacity for growth, whereas female characters are often two-dimensionally perfect, static and passive. Thus, the female characters are reduced to plot devices that inspire male characters to action – they get killed off, giving men a reason to prove their manhood by avenging them; or they provide sage advice about being in touch with one's emotions; or they serve as trophies to reward male characters who've proven themselves worthy. In Real Life, this trope can also be outright nasty and demeaning to females in the same fashion as males, as it can prevent women from getting jobs and being taken seriously in risky ones, leaving them, essentially, in "feminine" jobs.
There are a lot of related tropes:
- Abuse Is Okay When It's Female On Male
- Always Save the Girl
- Closer to Earth
- Disposable Woman
- Damsel in Distress
- The Dulcinea Effect
- Her Heart Will Go On
- High Heel Face Turn
- Missing White Woman Syndrome
- Sacrificial Lion
- Stay in the Kitchen
- The Unfair Sex
- White Knighting
- Women in Refrigerators
- Wouldn't Hit a Girl
You can also see a somewhat similar dynamic playing out with portrayals of racial and other minorities, who, like women, are often portrayed as perfect politically correct saints and victims, and are therefore reduced to passive props in stories about more dynamic white/able-bodied/middle-class/heterosexual/etc. protagonists: compare Token Minority, Magical Negro, Magical Queer, Black Best Friend, Gay Best Friend, Going Native, Inspirationally Disadvantaged, Positive Discrimination, Disposable Woman and Mighty Whitey. However there is a subtle distinction with the portrayal of minority characters: if they are male they still aren't afforded the same physical protections as female characters. See Black Dude Dies First.
Apparent aversions of the trope often aren't. Remember, a real aversion requires not just showing lots of female deaths - that's actually fairly common - but treating those deaths as no more tragic than those of male characters. In older works (especially films and TV shows) that do avert it, it's often because the plot required meaningless deaths, but the director wanted to portray those deaths in sexualized ways to appeal to Perverse Sexual Lust without making straight male audience members feel uncomfortable. See Monster Misogyny and Male Gaze.
However, since the feminist movement took off, there has been a gradual but genuine shift in attitudes. Audiences today are more likely to deride female characters who don't put themselves at risk for their allies as The Load or a Damsel Scrappy. Modern works are therefore slowly becoming more likely to depict female characters who go into dangerous situations alongside their male partners, or even who are physically protective of their male partners, without portraying this as making the male partner in question less manly and sympathetic. They are also becoming more likely to portray male characters who aren't traditionally manly as sympathetic characters.
Fun questions to think about
1. Is the dead female character an anonymous extra?
2. If so, was her death considered no more noteworthy than the deaths of other anonymous male extras?
3. Was the female character's death classifiable as Gorn? Was it on screen?
4. Was her killer a male protagonist and did he retain audience sympathy?
Answer 'yes' to all four, and, congrats, you've got a complete aversion.