On Crowd Scenes and Counter Examples

smurfs While scrolling through the internet yesterday, I stumbled across an argument that never fails to frustrate me. The "I can think a single counter example, so your point is invalid" argument.

This is a pretty valid argument if we're talking in absolutes -- suggestions that no-one does this, or every expert says that, or not a single example of something exists. It's not such a valid argument when people are talking about trends -- the "usually"s and "in general"s and "on average"s.

Yet it's still an incredibly common, and quite powerful, tool in discourse, especially online. Conversations about female characters in Marvel movies often come back to the blatant fact that there are now two female Avengers. Discussions about the lack of Black Widow merchandise are shut down with arguments that she's on this one lunch box. Critics of ageism in Hollywood are told that Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren exist. People can name one female fantasy writer, so there's no gender imbalance there. And on and on, in politics, in the business world, in science, in arts, and, of course, in fiction.

The worst thing about these arguments is how effective they can seem. We often feel like a water-tight argument about representation means that there's not a single counter example, in part perhaps because if a single counter example appears in the future, it's counted as a victory.

And I wonder if the explanation circles back to media itself -- most notably, crowd scenes. A study by the Geena Davis Institute in 2014 found that woman make up 17% of crowds in movies, a ridiculous, unrepresentative minority even in nameless roles. And when the number of women approaches 50%, viewers perceive the group as being dominated by women.

We're so used to seeing this breakdown of 83% male, 17% female that it begins to feel natural. As long as one or two women are present, it feels like natural and equal representation.

This is exacerbated among main characters through the Smurfette Principle, a term coined by Katha Pollitt all the way back in 1991 to describe the idea that there's always one girl in a group of otherwise male characters. Black Widow in the Avengers. Leia in Star Wars. Mako Mori in Pacific Rim. Tauriel in The Hobbit. One female Smurf, whose defining characteristic is being female, among a veritable army of male protagonists.

The Smurfette Principle is even more tangible than the problems with crowd scenes, because it is clearly and literally one female character for five or six or ten male ones. As writers become aware of the Smurfette Principle, TV Tropes also suggests the "Two Girls to a Team" trope, which, unsurprisingly, means that the "only one girl" problem is solved by having two female characters in a group of five or six or ten.

Is it any surprise, then, that people think that one or two counter-examples outweigh all other evidence when it comes to the representation of women? We're so used to seeing one or two women in large groups of men that we subconsciously think of it as "normal," and so if one or two women win certain awards or work in a certain field or are portrayed a certain way in fiction, all arguments about trends to the contrary start to seem invalid. We've been taught, after all, that one or two is enough.

And then there's the opposite problem -- the argument that one man faces what many women face, so both genders face the problem equally. It's things like "but Thor had that one scene where he was shirtless, so he's objectified just as much as Black Widow." Or "Alfie Allen was naked in one Game of Thrones scene, it's not just female characters who are naked all the time."

The frequency of these claims might seem to disprove the idea that this is a problem specifically with how we view women, as again, one is seen as equal to many, but I think these arguments come from both a very similar and very different place to the "one woman is enough" angle.

It's a strange reversal of the Smurfette Principle, where the experience of one man can be weighed against tens of women and found to be equal, and it comes down to the way the media trains us to see these issues. Such scenes with male characters are notably rare, and so they feel more significant, and are more memorable, when they occur. One moment where the camera lingers on Thor's biceps is equal to twenty moments where the camera frames Black Widow in a sexual way, because we expect to see a female character like that, but the male character comes as a surprise.

And then there's the simple fact that both perspectives put women on the least valuable side of the supposedly equal equation. Having protagonists of your gender (race, sexuality, etc) is a good thing, and this is where one female character is seen as enough, compared to several male characters. Having characters be objectified or abused is a bad thing, and so now one male example is too many, or at least equal to many female examples.

And of course we have to notice those words -- "enough" vs "too many." Women have enough of a good thing when they have a sliver of representation. Men have too much of a bad thing -- at least equal to what women face -- if they have a fraction of what they receive.

People talk about truth, lies and statistics, but this really is one place where statistics are incredibly important. Our sense of equal representation isn't just wrong -- it is wildly, harmfully, laughably inaccurate. We need figures and statistics to help us see the truth of these things and recalibrate our expectations. And we need to crush that irrational part of ourselves that thinks "well I can think of one counter example" is a good enough argument to make all those statistics fall apart.