Default Settings

August 20, 2007 at 1:17 am (feminism, random thoughts)

Something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit lately are my personal default settings.  By this I mean, what does my mind automatically think of when I read something, hear something, etc.  I think that everyone has defaults, and a lot of them are common among individuals in a society.  For example, when I pick up a book to read, unless explicitly told or indicated otherwise by the author, the characters default to Caucasian.  Its something that I have pondered before, but I was reminded of it when I read this post on a blog that analyzes female characters in fiction/film/TV.  It was pretty eye opening that some animated films failed the simple test of whether 2 female characters conversed about something other than a male character.  Man that’s sad.  That’s what I mean by default:  main characters in these films are always male, while the female characters are relegated to side-kick, mother or love-interest.  It would certainly be a novelty, something the film would be marketed for, if the main character were female.

These defaults apply to race, gender, sexual-orientation, and religious beliefs among other things.  I don’t believe that they are quite the same at stereotypes, because they don’t necessarily deal with characteristics of a certain group of people or idea, but its similar I guess.  What I have personally noticed most are the patriarchal-based defaults.  Men are the head of the family, the churches, the government.  Americans (myself included) can barely wrap their heads around the idea of a women being president.  When you picture a CEO, a surgeon, a scientist, isn’t it usually a man?  And those aren’t even the stereotypical “male” jobs like police and firefighters (or policemen and firemen).  When couples go to buy houses and cars, who does the salesman (oops, I mean sales person) address regarding the financial nitty-gritties of it?  People definitely default to men as the person in charge.

One of the funnier defaults is one my fiance has:  all cats are girls and dogs are boys.  Is this because cats are seen as feminine (think the crazy cat lady) and dogs are more masculine?

I think its very interesting to go through your day being aware of what defaults your mind is going to, and maybe trying to switch them up.  I’d also be interested in what defaults other people can think of.



  1. C. L. Hanson said,

    I think this measure was first popularized on a comic strip here: Mo Movie Measure.

    Ever since I read that, I’ve measured practically every movie I watch with it because it’s such a simple thing, yet you might not notice it if you’re not on the lookout for it. The fact that female characters hardly ever speak amongst themselves about their own interests shows dramatically how female characters are rarely at the center of a story (but rather play side roles in stories about males), since it’s rare to find a film that would fail “reverse Mo” (i.e. almost every film contains scenes of male characters talking amongst themselves about their interests, their plans to save the world, etc.).

    Regarding racial and cultural defaults and assumptions, at least there’s always the possibility of reading stories by people from other countries. I’ve just been reading Persepolis, which is a fantastic story and quite the opposite of the generic same old same old formulas you see everywhere (here I discussed Persepolis, the movie). It challenges your defaults right from the start as you see a clever young girl being raised (naturally) with pride and nationalistic feelings about her homeland, which just happens to be Iran. It’s a simple and obvious thing that a lot of people in the world are raised with pride in their Persian heritage, but it’s weirdly jarring to see such a protagonist because it’s something we’re not used to in the west.

    In my own novel I think I did a good job of coming up with a range of different female characters (including some in roles that might normally default to males such as the director of a play or manager of a restaurant). I didn’t deliberately set out to do that — I just wrote the story that came naturally. It’s a little different in film and television though because you have to get past some big hurdles in terms of getting a piece produced, and apparently producers aren’t interested in seeing anything other than the standard male-centered formula (which I think is the whole point to the blog The Hathor Legacy). Of course my story suffers from the usual assumption that essentially everyone is white — and I noticed that as I was writing it — but since the whole story is about Mormons, it was hard to avoid doing that…

  2. mysterybea said,

    Yep, that comic strip really sums it up! Definitely from now on I’ll pay attention to this in movies. And regarding your point on books, that’s true. I tend to read novels by Indian authors quite a bit, as well as Chinese and lately the great novels by Khaled Hossenei (Afghani) so that’s a good way to expose one’s self to other cultural experiences. I also very much gravitate toward authors who write strong, intelligent and leading female characters. Barbara Kingsolver is who first comes to mind but there are a bunch of great ones out there.

    Oh shoot, you know what I just realized? I bet the entire Harry Potter series would fail the “Mo Movie Measure” – that’s so sad.

  3. kugreg said,

    Well in a way, wouldn’t any story told from the first person perspective fail this test? I mean when the entire story revolves around a central character you would think that it would fail this test.

    I think what we need are more stories, movies, books, and especially TV shows. I can think of a few that stand out… Of my favorites is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. All failures (like Angel) aside Joss Whedon is one of the few male writers I know who has been able to build strong central feminine characters who don’t have to sacrifice there own sexuality in order to be strong.

    The other special situation is the “ensemble, subject drama”… by this I mean pretty much anything by Aaron Sorkin. This would include Sports Night, West Wing, and Studio 60. In a great ensemble cast drama the characters should never mull about and discuss “central” characters. The females are just as involved in the central plot subject as the male characters and they are equally distributed.

    I think there are many cases where the “Mo Rule” fails, but I don’t think this is a failure in making the stories “balanced” or more importantly I don’t think that this makes the authors male biased.

  4. mysterybea said,

    Well, I think the point here is that most of the stories/tv shows/movies that you’re referring to that are in the first-person revolve around male “heros”. True there are a smattering of shows like “Buffy” that have strong female leads, but in general, males take the lead character slot. Even in the shows you refer to (The West Wing, Studio 60), male leads dominate at least the top two roles, with maybe only 1 strong female character in the top 5 lead roles.

    I am not meaning to criticize the specific portrayals of women in these shows, just the fact that they are MUCH less numerous than their male counterparts.

    And the original posting that I saw the “mo rule” in was an article on animated/pixar type movies marketed towards kids, and they almost all failed miserably. I won’t argue about movies in general because I know you know way more about them than I do, but I would still maintain that there is a great discrepancy between male and female leads (especially if you remove the whole “Romantic Comedy” genre) and I don’t think anyone can dispute that fact.

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