Thinky Post: Heart over Head for Female Characters, Head over Heart for Male

No particular reason for this thinky post, or at least no more than usual. There’s always stuff about female artists, actresses and writers and everything, that frames them as “intuitive” and “feeling” instead of thinking. And conversely, a man can’t make an emotional decision EVER, we always have to search for the “logic” behind it.

I randomly stumbled across two different comments about Florence Nightingale from two different sources, both saying the same thing. She was a terrible nurse, that is, terrible at actually giving care to people. She was a brilliant statistician who founded the field of health statistics by which we have been literally living and dying for the past 2 and a half years. She was a protected upperclass woman who chose to go to a war zone and care for dying men. There’s this whole beautiful fantasy of her lovingly going about and gently soothing troubled brows and blah blah blah. I learned the fantasy as a child, from children’s biographies of her and references in other books. And then in early adulthood I started running across cynical snarky commentary about how actually she was really really bad at her job. The death rate in her hospital was higher than in most other field hospitals, you were better off being cared for by anyone else EXCEPT Florence Nightingale. But she was youngish, and upperclass, and a little pretty, and she made a really good symbol for the new generation of nursing that came after her, the upper middle class women who learned nursing as a science and a profession. That was kind of good, I guess, we do need nurses, and by the early 1900s there was enough scientific knowledge around that it was good to have nurses who went to school and got degrees and things instead of just picking it up by apprenticeship. And school and degrees means it had to become a higher class profession.

What I didn’t know until I ran across it twice in the past few weeks is that it is what Nightingale did after the war that contributed the most to healthcare. She knew her patients died at a higher rate and she wanted to learn why. And in order to learn why, she realized she needed large amounts of objective data, quantified and analyzed. And thus, Florence Nightingale stopped treating patients, but instead worked at a higher level understanding the logic of healthcare and the hard choices people have to make. That’s not very “girly” is it?

Swinging around to a totally different topic, let’s talk about the TV show “Sabrina the Teenage Witch”. 90s/2000s show aimed at children and teens, fun and goofy and with a killer female cast. There was really just ONE male regular on the whole show, plus of course a talking cat. We get to see our teenage heroine by raised by her brilliant scientist aunt, and sort of goofy experimental aunt, and make friends with multiple interesting girls in high school (one who is too shy and embarrassed all the time, one who is a trainee witch, etc.). And the through line is that our heroine is unembarrassable (because she has witchy powers and has gotten past worrying about weird things happening around her), and also really really loves science and math classes which is a problem when she has to balance it with her witch studies. Alllllllllllllllllllllll through high school, this is her stable character. And then she gets to college, and all of a sudden she wants to be a writer and is desperate for approval in her new career. What happened to my confident independent math loving teen? Where did this insecure writer young adult come from?

Society doesn’t like it when women relate to logic and thought. It’s “cute” when you are little, but you have to outgrow that kind of thing. Florence Nightingale was all caring and feeling and loving, and then that was it, her life and career stopped! The whole nursing profession is sold on this “be a Florence Nightingale, be loving and kind” because it’s up to the male doctors to make the hard choices and do the hard things. But really if nurses were “Florence Nightingales” they’d be out there gathering statistics and data and using it to order the doctors around.

And the opposite is true too, isn’t it? Men aren’t allowed to be emotional? I read a personal editorial years ago that made me really angry. It was about a high powered Washington Woman who ended up giving up a job she loved because she was so miserable spending days at a time away from her kids. What made me angry was this tone of “this is a new horrible thing with women in the workplace, parents being separated by demanding jobs for days at a time from their kids”. But, NO! Fathers also shouldn’t be forced to be separated from the kids by their jobs! Men can also be miserable and dying inside and choosing a different career path just because they want to be home to have dinner every night. But you aren’t allowed to say that, right? You say “well, I gave up that job because it made more sense for the family” or “it’s my duty as a father to attend school plays” or that old standard “my wife insisted”. You can’t say “it hurt my heart when I was working until 10 at night and came home to find my children already asleep” or “I would have cried if I couldn’t see my son recite a poem in the school play, a video just isn’t the same”. Because you are a MAN and all the feelings you feel have to be turned into something else.

The movie parenthood is surprisingly good, and Steve Martin’s character is frustrated by being passed over for a promotion at work because he sacrificed time with his kids to be in the office. It’s a constant tug between the two, even though he is a “man” and shouldn’t care.

I don’t really have a point here, just that it frustrates me. And I think identifying this trope in both how we talk about real life people and how characters are written is important. I do see it regularly with how industry figures are talked about in Indian film. Actresses pick films because they love the role, or produce a movie because they believe in the message. Actors do it because it is a good career movie, or a technical challenge. Not always of course, but there is still a bias there in how things are reported and presented. The biggest thing I see is that the talking heads about the industry tend to have a hard time believing that a man is telling the truth when he gives an emotional reason and think there is some secret plan behind it. Like, is that actor REALLY doing that movie because it is produced by his best friend? Or is that just a story he is saying to cover his real reasons?

Okay, that’s it! Done with the thinky post for the week!

5 thoughts on “Thinky Post: Heart over Head for Female Characters, Head over Heart for Male

  1. I didn’t know Florence was a bad nurse! I never thought she was super good and caring either, though. She was just a nurse. Horrible histories has a few sketches about her and they are hilarious – and really emphasize the stats part of her!

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  2. As a child I learned Nightengale was a famous nurse, but I never knew why – as and adult I learned it was because of her advocacy for changing medicine and focusing on preventing infections through keeping things clean. But I guess I never knew she was a “bad” nurse.

    My spouse and I were just having a disagreement about the show where people are dropped off alone in the wilderness and the one who lasts the longest wins money. One season had this professor from Prescott who was killing it, she knew all the plants to eat and was doing well. But about three months in she missed one of her kid’s 8th birthday, and a couple days later she called it quits because she wanted to see her kids. Spouse thought that was totally lame. And I tried to point out his bullshit to him as he has never gone three months without seeing his kids. ONce he went almost two weeks, and was miserable. I wouldn’t go three months without seeing the kids AND it would be traumatic for the kids! I think of this because the idea is that if you are STRONG you ditch the kids!! Recognizing and respecting emotional obligations is seen as weak.

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    • Yes! Why isn’t anyone allowed to miss their kids? Especially Dads? And to expand a little, there are also exceptions. So many stories of soldiers missing their kids and we all cry and feel bad. But somehow if you heard the same story about someone on a reality TV show, we go “lame! Suck it up!” Maybe because soldiers are already soooooooooooo macho that we allow them to have this bit of emotion? But if you are separated from your kids for any reason short of military service, society doesn’t let you acknowledge that you miss them, ESPECIALLY men.

      On Sun, Jul 3, 2022 at 12:30 AM dontcallitbollywood < comment-reply@wordpress.com> wrote:

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  3. Thanks for sharing the bit about Florence Nightingale – her story is so much more interesting than what we regularly hear about!

    And your point about men not being allowed to have emotional responses to things is also spot on – especially the point about fathers feeling sad that they can’t spend so much time with their children! One of my favorite songs about being apart from your parents is from the dad’s point of view – I listen to it all the time! I think I relate so much with this particular song because it’s from the father’s perspective – kind of unexplored!

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