By Katherine Arrington
Art by Sabrina Eager and Sophie Williams
Is it relatable? That is the question we often subconsciously ask ourselves when reading a book or watching a film. We want to empathize with the protagonist; we search for ourselves in their thoughts and actions. At least, as a child, that was what I did. I read every Nancy Drew book, devoured the Harry Potter series, and was enthralled by Ben Ten. As I have matured, my taste in books, movies, and television shows has evolved. I still look for the relatability component in whatever I am currently absorbed in; now, however, I find it in the argument of Outliers, the themes of The Kite Runner, and the emotion of Wuthering Heights. Relatability, for me, hinges on the ideas, thoughts, emotions, and aspirations of the author or protagonist.
My dad shares my love of literature and, in a conversation with him the other day, the topic progressed to women writers. I brought up my love for Ayn Rand, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Christine de Pizan, and Emily Dickinson. My dad, however, could not name a single woman writer that he had read in the recent past, let alone at all. The more I thought about this interaction, though, the more I realized that my dad is not the exception: he is the rule.
Of the top ten highest-grossing movies of all time, nine of them have male leads. Of the bestselling books of all time, eight of the ten were authored by men, and all of them have male protagonists. These facts are telling of a greater issue in our society: the relatability, or rather unrelatability, of women. Is the female experience really so different from the male experience? Is gender identity prevalent over shared humanity?
Our society teaches men to consume only films, books, and television shows with male protagonists; men are not taught to relate to women. Empathizing with a woman is seen as emasculating and degrading, so in every realm of media — sports, movies, television, books — men almost always consume works written by men, starring men. Women, on the other hand, are taught to absorb media with both male and female leads.
In addition, when female characters are consumed by men, it is often not their inner characteristics that are noted, but their outer appearance. Women are often depicted hypersexually: their appearance, clothing, and body shape is fixated on. A study by the Geena Davis Institute found that women are five times more likely than men to be shown in revealing clothing, three times as likely to have a thin figure and small waist, and three times as likely to have an unrealistic body type. These findings are problematic because they suggest that when women do have major roles in films, they are objectified rather than personified.
When men are taught only to see themselves in other men, fifty percent of the population is being silenced. Valuable experiences and perspectives of womanhood and femininity, and of humanity more broadly, are not being heard. This socialization of men to differentiate in the consumption of men and women — from male characters, ideas and learning, and from female characters, merely sexual appeal — also hurts men. As a human, some of the most life-changing works I have read have been by women. They have altered the way I see the world and how I view my place in it. And those are moments that many men will never share with me because those works are dismissed as “chick flicks” or “sappy romances.” By neglecting to consume women the way they consume men, men are robbed of crucial ideas and important experiences.
At the end of the day, the only thing that any of us can do is be aware. We should take stock of the media we consume, considering if there are any perspectives we are not hearing, and ensuring the characters we are absorbing are not problematic. We need to read women, but we also need to read people from every culture, individuals from differing national origins, authors with different sexualities, and so on. We have to start consuming women for their thoughts and ideas, for their emotions and experiences, and for their perspectives on the world. At the end of the day, it is shared human experience that should determine relatability, and nothing else.
 Clark, Travis. “The 10 Highest-Grossing Movies of All Time, Including 'Avengers: Endgame'.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 22 July 2019, www.businessinsider.com/highest-grossing-movies-all-time-worldwide-box-office-2018-4.
 “List of Best-Selling Books.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 7 Nov. 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_best-selling_books.
 Smith, Stacy. “Gender Stereotypes: An Analysis of Popular Films and TV.” The Green Davis Institute, 2008, seejane.org/wp-content/uploads/GDIGM_Gender_Stereotypes.pdf.