It was only a couple years ago, and yet I may never forget the moment as long as I live. My extended family had gathered to celebrate the Holiday Season, which included my very young niece. One of the toys she had with her was a wooden train set with little train cars that would magnetically stick together and modular tracks you could arrange to roll them on. Of course not even a preschool style train set would be worth its weight without some accessories and scenery, though, so there were plenty of extra bits provided like trees and switching towers and various non-train vehicles to roll around outside of the tracks themselves.
It was the construction vehicles that got me in trouble. I made running narration as I took hold of a dump truck and moseyed it along: “Okay, here he comes to get a load from the train.”
My niece shook her head. “She. That’s Mrs. Truck.” Fair enough. Her playset, her rules. And then only a handful of seconds later, I described how “he’s heading back up the hill”. Just automatically, without thinking.
“MRS. Truck!” corrected my niece again, exasperated with her apparently deaf uncle.
I had never felt so much like a programmed drone of the patriarchal establishment. Okay, that’s exaggerating, I doubt my 3 year old niece was making any pronouncement on gender issues… but I had to admit that my brain kept wanting to think of the truck as male. And there was no rational reason for that. This wasn’t a Thomas the Tank Engine set where everything is anthropomorphized and things had faces and names, it was just a truck. I looked at the truck and saw it as male, while my niece looked at the truck and saw it as female. It was pure projection, and neither of us was really be any more right or wrong than the other… I just found it weird that despite thinking a lady dump truck was cool by me, my subconscious fell back on the masculine interpretation. Was it just more comfortable for me to narrate the truck’s actions as if it were Mr. Truck?
I’m reminded of my earlier blog where I mentioned Adilifu Nama and how important it was to him as a kid that The Falcon existed, representing the idea of a black man who could fly. The white heroes were cool, too, but there was something significant in seeing a guy who looked more like him being able to do awesome things. He identified with that.
How important is it that we identify with our heroes? That’s an interesting question. Take it to its extreme and you get the Hollywood problem where the Powers-That-Be claim we have to have a white male lead or the audience won’t connect… which I suspect wouldn’t be as prevalent an obstacle if the majority of high level studio execs weren’t (still) white men. The unfortunate implication of that attitude is that if you’re not a white male, apparently it’s either no problem for you to connect with a white male character, or you just plain don’t matter. It’s gotten better, but more often than not you’re just not even going to be given a choice.
It doesn’t even necessarily hold true for white males. Am I really expected to identify with, say, Rob Schneider? I don’t connect with Rob Schneider, not as he’s usually presented anyhow. I don’t feel inspired by his characters or want to live their lives. Now you could counter that I can afford to be choosy, since I get my pick of John McLanes and Han Solos and the like, but before I get too mired in objectivity let me just mention a couple very subjective experiences from my life in regards to this.
See, on the one hand, I think back to being a kid reading Charles Schulz’ Peanuts strips and watching the animated specials… for whatever reason I wanted to imprint myself on that little universe and its adventures, but… Charlie Brown? No thanks. Linus? Ugh. Snoopy? Not even human. No, out of all the kids the one I would have wanted to be my avatar was Schroeder. It wasn’t that he really looked like me that much, for example I’m certainly not a blonde. I wasn’t obsessed with pianos. But there was something about his attitude that just spoke to me… and the problem was, he was a support character. When Charlie Brown got to go to France or to the National Spelling Bee or whatnot, there were always excuses for Snoopy and Linus to tag along, but Schroeder was left back at the ranch. Most disappointing to my young self. The resulting adventures always rang a bit hollow because of my lack of caring for anyone who wasn’t named Schroeder. Bizarre? Irrational? You betcha. Truth? Undeniably.
On the other hand, around that same age I read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, and it made absolutely no nevermind to me that a girl was the protagonist. I didn’t feel like I needed to be her, but I did end up caring what happened to her and I loved the crazy world she was finding her way through. I would like to hope that there are many women and girls out there who have a similar love for Treasure Island despite its lack of much in the way of female characters. Maybe it’s not quite the same since Alice’s tales aren’t lacking for a male presence, kooky as most of them might be, but… I dunno, I just find Treasure Island pretty rad. Heck, a lot of ladies love The Princess Bride even though Buttercup (for my money anyhow) is kind of useless and annoying.
So perhaps the need for identification can be overrated, not to mention sometimes we connect not with the way someone looks so much as an attitude they have or a lifestyle they live. It’s probably nothing to base your fiction around. Just remember, never assume the truck is a Mister.