I was thinking about this as I emptied the dishwasher.
Say you have a story like Star Wars, in which a male warrior main character fights the bad guys and saves the female. And gender-swap it. A female warrior main character fights the bad guys and saves the male. The second feels awkward to me. What guy wants a warrior woman to save them?
I’m not talking about the “female action hero” trope in general, I’m talking about female action heroines whose roles in their stories involve saving a male by physically defeating enemies that the male character is too physically weak to fight.
I think it feels awkward because, in the real world, males are generally naturally physically stronger than females. This is simply reflected in stories.
I think the problem with this silly talk and others who analyze gender roles in stories is that they look too much at the method of saving.
Can a female character save a male character?
Of course. And it happens all the time.
Only they usually don’t do it through superior physical strength. Because that’s awkward and unrealistic.
For example, look at Mary Poppins in the classic Disney film, and notice how she saves Mr. Banks. Look at the problem Mr. Banks has relating to his own family, what Mary Poppins teaches him, and what sort of man he becomes by the end of the film. And notice that Mary Poppins didn’t have to use any superior physical strength to do it. (Meanwhile, look at the sort of woman Mrs. Banks is, and notice why she can’t save her husband.)
Other examples are some of the films from Studio Ghibli, such as Castle in the Sky, Spirited Away, or the more recent The Secret World of Arrietty. Notice how, at times, the male characters physically save the female main characters at certain parts of the story, but in the course of the overall story, the female saves the male without using superior physical strength, but with empathy and wisdom.
I think the mistake comes from looking at a male action hero, and guessing it’s his physical strength that makes him a strong character. But it’s the other way around. When a male action hero raises his sword on the morning of battle, we are not celebrating his physical strength, we are celebrating his moral principles through his physical strength. His physical strength becomes a symbol of his virtue. This makes sense for male characters, because males are naturally physically stronger. So it’s often pretty awkward to celebrate a female character’s virtues through her physical strength. Rather we do it through her physical beauty and nurturing empathy.
Neither physical strength nor beauty and nurturing empathy are “better” than one another. So even though they are “unequal” in that they are not exactly the same thing, they are not “unequal” in the sense that one is worth more than the other. So having these differences naturally reflected in our stories and art makes perfect sense; it is not some strange ignorant sexism to fight against or compensate for. (Nor is it some arbitrary cultural phenomenon.)