film Pop Culture Loves Gender War Stories. They Leave Something Out.
Darling, directed by Olivia Wilde, is a glossy period piece, set in a 1950s desert town where nothing is quite what it seems. It has opulent production values, plenty of well-known stars, and a premise straight out of a Black Mirror episode.
Barbarian, directed by Zach Cregger, is a pitch-black horror-comedy, set in a modern-day Detroit that is riddled with maze-like tunnels running underneath the city. For much of its run time, it focuses on just two actors, and its production values are meant to enhance the level of grimy thrills at its core.
Yet in many ways, the two movies are in conversation about the same idea: Men are monsters, perhaps on some deep, essential level. In neither film does a man become a literal monster, unfurling into a giant bug-like creature or revealing himself as a vampire. In both films, men are just awful because they build systems that oppress women — literally in both cases, as it turns out. They can’t help it. It’s just who they are.
Especially in the wake of Me Too, people telling stories across a wide variety of media have turned their sights toward stories about the systemic oppression of women, often reimagined in a genre context. Indeed, in Barbarian, one character is the subject of rape accusations that could have easily been the focus of any number of Me Too scandals.
As long as we’ve been telling stories, we’ve been telling stories about the fundamental differences between men and women. Yet the emotional tenor of these stories has unmistakably shifted in recent years. What might have been fodder for an observational comedy even 30 years ago is now grist for something grim and horrifying.
Even as we’re twisting these stories to make them darker, though, we struggle to open them up enough to encompass more complexity to gender than the scary movie equivalent of a “men drive like this, but women drive like this” joke. If we know gender is more complicated than a simple binary, why do so many of our stories still stubbornly fail to reflect that?
A brief taxonomy of gender essentialist storytelling
The “men are from Mars, and women are from Venus” plot has existed across all of storytelling history. These stories can be brilliant and thoughtful. They can expose things within society that would be harder to approach in the world of nonfiction.
Yet by their very nature, they traffic in gender essentialism, or the idea that there are certain things that are so inherent to being a man or a woman, so encoded in all of our biologies, that overcoming those qualities is all but impossible. What’s more, those biological qualities lead to fundamental differences in our personalities and temperaments. Men are like this, and women are like this, because our bodies make us so, and good luck changing that. For an incredibly outdated gender essentialist take, consider the infamous “sugar and spice and everything nice” descriptor of little girls and “snips and snails and puppy dog tails” descriptor of little boys from the nursery rhyme.
“It becomes really easy to attribute causality to that. If a woman is late, that becomes, ‘Oh, just like a woman, taking too much time to get ready!’” says Julia Serano, a biologist and trans activist who has written such books as Whipping Girl and Sexed Up. “Or if someone’s competitive, it’s like, ‘You know men are competitive and aggressive,’ even though we know there are aggressive women and men who are late.”
These gender binary bromides take many forms and bounce through many genres. They range from dark, epic tales of horror to any given rom-com that insists there are certain ways men and women behave, such as What Women Want or The Ugly Truth. They include hugely acclaimed works of art and laughably simplistic views of what it means to be alive and have a gender (any gender). Any attempt to categorize them in broad strokes will necessarily leave some examples by the wayside.
FX’s Y: The Last Man posited a world where nearly everyone with a Y chromosome died.
In recent years, however, these stories have tended to fall into three major categories.
The first category is the gender apocalypse, which is a story where all the men on Earth or all the women on Earth die. Despite the subgenre’s recent resurgence, with works like the 2021 TV adaptation of Y: The Last Man and Sandra Newman’s 2022 novel The Men fitting into the category, it is a very old type of story. In her 1915 novel Herland, for instance, Charlotte Perkins Gilman imagined a valley where no men live and women reproduce asexually.
This subgenre necessarily has to do some fancy footwork to avoid being overtly transphobic. In recent years, the stories that have bothered to worry about not being transphobic have accomplished that task by a focus on the kinds of biology we cannot see with the naked eye, as well as just how complicated that biology ultimately is. The TV adaptation of Y, for instance, posits the death of everyone with a Y chromosome, a category that includes nearly all trans women but also lots of seemingly cis women who were intersex and had XXY chromosomes without knowing it.
The second category of these stories is the “scary man” story, in which an abusive man — or series of men — possesses almost supernatural powers. These stories sometimes take the form of Alex Garland’s 2022 film Men, in which all men are the same horrible monster (played by one actor, Rory Kinnear). More often, however, they are about intimate, terrifying interactions between men and women, as in the 2022 horror film Resurrection, which follows a woman who comes back into contact with an abusive ex after almost 20 years. His hold over her seemingly still exists, and as she seems to fall back into his thrall, the viewer longs for her to escape, which she finally does, bloodily. (Without spoiling the film’s climax, Resurrection also takes some daring leaps in how it uses the imagery of pregnancy and childbirth to provoke horror.)
Barbarian largely exists within this space, though what makes it such a fun horror movie is how it gradually subverts audience expectations of the “scary man” story, while constantly reminding viewers of just how awful men can be. The story was born out of fear, specifically out of the book The Gift of Fear. As director Zach Cregger said to the Bloody Discussing Boo Crew podcast, reading it caused him to reconsider how often women in his life have to think about every interaction with a man in terms of red flags that might give them pause. Cregger said, “I just wanted to write a scene where I could load as many of those little tiny red flags into an interaction as possible. … I’ll make this guy really nice, but I will give him a ton of these little triggers.”
The third category can be broadly defined as the “men just want to imprison women” story, which usually takes the form of a commentary on heterosexual marriage. A healthy overlap exists between this and the scary man story, but the imprisonment story tends to center on existential, rather than physical or emotional, violence. It is often commenting obliquely on the idea that men would rather strip all of women’s freedoms away than let women thrive, and that commentary can sometimes be as subtle as in the 2020 remake of The Invisible Man, in which a successful woman has her life eroded by her abusive, invisible husband, whose presence is always lurking, even after he’s suspected dead.
On the more explicit side of the scale, Don’t Worry Darling fits most of the tropes of this subgenre to a T. (Spoilers follow.) The film’s glossy, 1950s community is revealed to be a computer simulation, where men following a Jordan Peterson-esque guru played by Chris Pine have imprisoned unwilling women to be their subservient wives. These women’s minds are essentially wiped, but memories of their former lives sometimes disrupt their consciousnesses, leading to the film’s protagonist doing anything she can to find a way out of her digital prison.
To be clear, some of the above stories are brilliant. Resurrection, for instance, has plenty to say about toxic and abusive dynamics that extend beyond the simplistic gender binary. Yet all of them have to be rooted in that binary to some degree. We know that gender is far more complicated than that binary, however. What happens when that knowledge bumps up against these stories?
Why we keep telling these stories — and why trans identities complicate them
If you are a storyteller, using a gender essentialist trope can also be an easy shortcut to helping an audience understand a character. We’re so steeped in stories that introducing a character who is coded as, say, a tomboy or a “strong woman” is a quick way to set audience expectations about what her story might be.
“A lot of basic ideas that there are particular types of people, and especially that men are one way and women another, are a very simple way to make people understand what’s happening [in a story] without having to spell it out for them,” Serano says, “even though a lot of these ideas are not particularly good, helpful ideas and can be very stereotypical, problematic ideas.”
Much of the first 20 minutes of Barbarian — before the real scares kick in — is taken up by a long conversation between a man and a woman, the scene Cregger says he filled with all those “red flags.” What’s notable about this scene, however, is the ways it might have been the first scene in a romantic comedy in the 1980s or 1990s. The two characters banter and flirt, with the man gradually wearing down the woman’s natural suspicions of him. There’s even a pretty irresistible “meet-cute,” as the two characters only meet because they’ve accidentally booked the same rental house at the same time.
Georgina Campbell stars in Barbarian, the kind of movie where there’s a scary basement.
Courtesy of 20th Century Studios
Horror and comedy are closely interrelated genres, since they both aim to provoke intense, gut-level emotional responses. Yet scratch off the surface of almost any of the premises above and you’ll find something that might have been a comedy in the late 20th century, whether a romantic comedy or a “gender role reversal” comedy like Three Men and a Baby or Working Girl, films where men take on a task stereotypically assigned to women or vice versa. For instance, Resurrection’s story of a bad ex-boyfriend returning to make the protagonist’s life worse could have easily become a rom-com for a Julia Roberts or a Meg Ryan.
Even as the comedic gender essentialist tales of the late 20th century rode high at the box office and in the public consciousness, they were being subverted, too. Plenty of mainstream stories of the era, especially in the world of horror, undercut America’s gender assumptions. (See also: The Silence of the Lambs.)
Online, however, that gender essentialism was being reflected and refracted in the form of free online fiction aimed at trans women and seeming cis men questioning their gender. In these stories, most published in the 1990s and 2000s and collected on online fiction archives like Fictionmania, “men” were often imprisoned in worlds where they were forced to perform femininity for the benefit of captors who possessed absolute power over them. (At times, Don’t Worry Darling seems like an adaptation of those stories.)
Almost all of these stories trafficked in the same baked-in sexism inherent to the other gender essentialist takes of the era. In their bones, however, they displayed the ways in which transness complicates the gender essentialist narratives of that era and our own. Once you accept that the gender binary is something that can be escaped, you have to get a lot more creative with your gender essentialist narratives.
Most of the tiny handful of stories featuring trans people focus on what are sometimes called “binary” trans women or trans men. Binary trans people are assigned one sex at birth, but their gender identity strongly correlates with societal expectations surrounding the other. Stories will often present them as, in essence, just another man or woman, the better to continue using the gender binary as a storytelling device.
But inherent to transness is the idea that gender is simultaneously knowable and malleable. You can be aware you are a woman and have the world perceive you as a man, but you can also eschew gender entirely and find the world insisting you fit into its preconceived notions. These ideas immediately complicate a gender essentialist narrative.
Serano says that the second you start trying to account for the diversity of trans experiences, which could include butch trans women or nonbinary people or agender people or any number of other folks, these presentations of transness fall flat. Just as storytellers have ingrained senses of who men and women are, they have ingrained senses of who trans people are, which are difficult to challenge.
“The way in which actual trans people subvert typical ideas about gender comes from the diversity of our experiences and our expressions of gender. In real life, that does subvert the idea that men are one way and women another,” she said. “But the way in which trans characters can be deployed within any given movie, TV show, or book can be used in a lot of different ways that might not resonate with trans people or be reflective of their diversity.”
Thus, the people telling stories that actually complicate our gender essentialist tales are often trans people themselves. One such writer is Gretchen Felker-Martin, whose horror novel Manhunt published earlier this year. The horror title explores a world where every human with a certain level of testosterone in their body turns into a slavering, ravenous monster. Already, Felker-Martin’s scenario is trans-inclusive, albeit in a horrific way. “A certain level of testosterone” leaves room for lots of people, including cis men, trans women who have yet to begin hormone treatments, some trans men, and even some cis women, such as those who have PCOS. It’s a gender apocalypse, but it’s one that acknowledges that what we think of as “gender” is complicated and messy and imperfect.
“The way men are raised is often destructive to themselves and everyone around them, but that’s in large part due to their cultural dominance,” Felker-Martin says. “There are always women who’ve been on the margins of that or who have even been in positions of power, who will happily and without a flicker of conscience step right into it. The organizations that shape public life in America — the police, the military, the Pentagon — these are already places where women hold powerful offices. We only need to spend a day watching them to know what they’re like when they have that kind of power.”
What’s most exciting and unnerving about Manhunt, however, is the way its real villains are TERFs, who want nothing more than to destroy the trans women who continue to suppress their testosterone levels via medical intervention. Felker-Martin says that’s key to her vision of a world where “all the men” are gone (even though they aren’t; one of her POV characters is a trans man, for instance).
The gender apocalypse subgenre “enables many women to act out this fantasy where suddenly they can stop being armchair quarterbacks and show they’re just as capable of ruling the world as any man is, that they would do better and fix all the problems,” Felker-Martin says. “White women love to sit around and imagine what we would do if we had any social power. But the reason this genre has come under such intense scrutiny is because in America, white women do have a lot of social power now.”
The secure status quo of the patriarchy drives many of these stories — and much of our lives
One notable quality of Don’t Worry Darling is how intersectional it thinks it is, all the while not being particularly intersectional at all. Its world is full of women of color, but within the film’s premise, their oppression is de facto the same as that of the white lady heroine. It reduces its one prominent Black woman character, played by Kiki Layne, to a plot device, a clue to help the white hero figure out what’s going on. Similarly, queer women don’t seem to exist at all within the movie’s narrowly defined gender rubric.
No story can successfully tackle all forms of oppression at once, nor should it have to. Don’t Worry Darling has chosen to put all of its chips on structural misogyny. This choice would feel less blinkered, however, if the movie so much as feinted toward understanding that those other forms of oppression exist. Don’t Worry Darling’s struggles in this regard nod toward a problem with the vast majority of gender essentialist stories: They are written with a limited view of women’s oppression, one that predominantly applies to white, straight, cis women.
Serano thinks the recurrence of this storytelling trope might stem from “cultural feminism,” a name given by critics to a tendency within second-wave feminism (which existed in the 1960s and 1970s and was instrumental in breaking down many of the walls keeping women out of existing power structures). Cultural feminism posited that the patriarchy stemmed inherently from men, who were horrible and oppressive, while women were their nurturing opposites.
“Women can be just as horrible as men in certain situations or contexts,” Serano says. “Cultural feminism was really a very white feminism. Obviously, whether it’s white supremacy or colonialism, white women have benefited from oppressive structures.”
Kiki Layne’s character in Don’t Worry Darling is reduced to a plot device.
We know intuitively that not all men are oppressive and not all women are nurturing, even if the patriarchal structures we exist within might say otherwise. Thus, cultural feminism is on the wane within larger feminist theory. However, a story where one group of people is inherently bad and another inherently good is a great place from which to tell stories. Thus, people who write fiction of all sorts keep going to this well again and again and again, simply because it offers a feel-good pop feminism and a way to comment on the issues of the day without having to really delve into them.
Stories thrive in a status quo. The status quo provides a secure place from which a story can build, and most stories end in a way that reasserts the status quo, with a few changes made to a character who exists within it. Within our own society, the patriarchy is the status quo, and as such, there’s a security to it that can feel unsettling even if you hate the ways you are oppressed by it. Within such a rigid system, we all know intuitively where we stand.
Thinking up a new system is really hard, which is perhaps why most gender essentialist tales simply put new coats of paint on the patriarchy while pretending to expose it. Thinking about the ways these stories might shift and change if they allowed for the full diversity of gender experiences that trans identities reveal to us can be exciting. It can also reveal just how wedded we are to old ideas and how threatening new systems can be as they struggle to be born.
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