The debate surrounding the solution to violence against women has lately shifted to a conflict between those who think the goal is increasing women’s safety and those who think the goal is raising children who aren’t going to commit these acts in the first place. Both are important considerations but the latter must be the desired endgame. And then I came across Colin Stokes’ TED Talk titled “How movies teach manhood”, which raises a series of interesting ideas even if its depth is somewhat limited, such as its passing reference to the Bechdel test.
The talk arose from seeing the impact that a brief glimpse of Star Wars immediately had upon his 3-year-old son. He felt that its themes of “courage, perseverance and loyalty” are good, but a universe that contains only two women cannot provide any useful context for navigating a “co-ed” world. This kind of failing, he suggested, is actually true of vast swathes of the media to which we subject children during their formative years.
The issue I find most interesting, however, is the use of the relationship as a reward in our fiction. The hero successfully defeats the villain and wins the girl by demonstrating his strength or skill in accomplishing the feat. The kiss or the relationship come right at the end of the story. This instils the notion that a relationship is less a choice by two people fuelled by a mutual desire, but rather it is a reward for performing an act or, perhaps, for living by a certain code. This can easily breed a misplaced sense of entitlement, which is arguably at the core of what others describe as the “nice guy” mentality, a belief that one deserves the object of one’s affections by virtue of one’s decent actions.
The issue is starker in videogames in which, as a less mature medium, the writing generally requires more development. Even with the nuanced relationships between Shepherd and his crew in the Mass Effect series, with hours of dialogue as you learn about them and often help them through deeply personal issues, sex is ultimately reduced to a “reward” for having selected the right series of dialogue responses over the course of the game. The issue, in part, is reserving it until the end. Arguably one of the best written relationships is with Jack, a strong-willed tattooed girl with dangerously powerful psychic abilities who is not afraid to show off her body. Early on, Jack challenges Shepherd confrontationally by offering to sleep with him. Accept and she will follow through, but at the expense of any future relationship with her as the dynamic between you is permanently altered by this choice.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the prime example of twisting the stereotypical approach comes from the pen of Neil Gaiman in Stardust. Yvaine, a fallen star, is literally a token gift, being recovered by Tristan in order to win Victoria, with whom he is infatuated, as a reward for this quest. Over the course of the story, the ridiculousness of this juvenile notion becomes increasingly apparent and a far more natural relationship develops between Yvaine and Tristan. In fact the relationship between them is ultimately the reason for their victory rather than the result of it, and that must be a better message for everyone.