As of 12 February over 6.8 million people have watched a “debate” about gender politics between clinical psychologist (and YouTuber) Jordan B Peterson, and Cathy Newman, a Channel 4 news presenter. Jordan is a clinical psychologist in Canada who 4 years ago started putting his lectures on YouTube, whereas Channel 4 News is a mainstream broadcaster, known for having more “lefty” beliefs.Together, Cathy and Jordan cover the gender pay gap, Jordan’s recently released book, and the politics of campus protestors.
Yet this was no debate, and it does not deserve the views or the acclaim that it has been getting. It is an embarrassment.
First; Oxford Dictionary Online says a debate is:
So this formal structured discussion, featuring arguments from only one side, Jordan’s, and questions only from the other side, wouldn’t count. Not only this, but in the description itself the segment is described as a “fiery interview”, despite Cathy confusingly calling it a “spat” and a “joust” on twitter.
Born Sexy Yesterday is a trope building on the born yesterday naïve character, normally found in sci-fi and almost inevitably the main character’s love interest. Here’s the video if you haven’t seen it, which excellently presents and explores this concept:
One of the issues raised in the video is that this trope is rarely reversed; rarely does a naïve male creation become an object of desire based on his pathetic-ness or childlike-ness. This is what I wanted to explore more.
The Easy Answer?
The explanation the video is that it is a male power fantasy, of a generic everyman character becoming the most impressive and most wonderful man and subsequent love interest of the Born Sexy Yesterday woman character. The video goes on to look at the reverse, in which women find the naivete unhelpful and unappealing, and fall in love with the male character despite his childishness.
I think this is too simple, and there is more to it than that.
For one thing, there is multiple layers involved in any piece of media.
First, the story layer, where the characters live, and make their choices and have their own preferences. This is the in-world perspective.
Second, you have the viewing layer, people watching the show and making their judgements on it, and paying money to see it.
Third, you have the production team, the writers and directors and actors and camera people and the whole crew, who hold their own individual and group vision for the media and what story they want to tell.
To truly undress this trope and why it fails to work in reverse, you need to look at each individual layer. We’re gonna start with the character layer, because it is the simplest.
The characters are the simplest layer because they are fictional, even though they are the part people tend to focus on and argue about the most when talking about media; it’s easy to focus on the character’s and their motivations because they are what is right in front of you on the screen. But whilst it seems to matter whether Korben Dallas (by Bruce Willis) fancies Leeloo (by Milla Jovovich) because of her innocence or because of how it makes him look by comparison, it’s ultimately impossible to answer. Fictional characters can’t have a real or genuine motivation, except that which is created by the production team, which means you aren’t really analysing anyone unless you look directly at the production team. (incidentally this excellent video summarizes this more eloquently thna I ever could)
This is also what leads to the “empowered bikini battle woman” trope; if a character loves her metallic bikini armour, that’s fantastic and great and there’s nothing we can do to argue with that, or analyse it, or tell her it’s problematic, because she is fictional, as is her desire to be almost naked, so she’s not going to change her mind, because she is nothing more than her creator’s vision.
With that, we need to turn to the production team:
“Production team” is hugely oversimplifying the process of creating media, I know. There will be creatives and there will be market analysts and there will be producers and everything in-between in the creation of a blockbuster film, I know, but one thing everyone in this section has in common is being part of the process of creating the film, together, as a team.
Coming back to Born Sexy Yesterday, there will be plenty of production reasons for the trope coming into being. One could be that the lead writer thinks it is cool, they want their main character to have an interesting love interest and also to have that reciprocated, and this sexy android programme is the perfect solution to that! It solves a problem of developing another character, because there’s inherently no real back-story, the lack of backstory becomes the character’s sole characteristic, and it is an interesting thing to see, you could argue, because fully grown but completely naïve characters don’t happen much in real life. (I say “much” because amnesia exists, but I doubt it’s usually as cute or adorkable as the Born Sexy Yesterday character is.)
Or perhaps it’s the marketing team’s idea, perhaps they’re onboard pushing this concept, because it’s been proven it works really well with the audience, it’s a popular proven plot mechanism, so knock yourself out with it! Maybe it’s the actors, they may have played this style before or they might find it interesting and moving and romantic, so they’re always happy to work on a story with this trope.
At this point it’s worth pointing out how male-dominated Hollywood is.
You can figure out for yourself how that might bias production towards representing male fantasies over female fantasies, or prioritising male characters development and characters over female ones, which leads to the same result. Looking back at the writer, if they are writing a story that is totally about a female character, are they really going to want to skimp on her backstory, or make her a blank slate? It would limit the direction of a character, at least at first.
But the elephant in the room and in the marketing figures is yet to be addressed. Let’s rectify that.
Finally, the audience.
The complicated mass of humanity that gets translated to a box-office grossing number and targeted demographics and genres by the production team, that gets to interpret the characters however they want and argue about it until the cows come home …*Harry+Hermione vs Hermione+Ron war flashbacks*…
These are the part of the puzzle that drives production companies and define what works and what doesn’t.
These are the part that decide whether Born Sexy Yesterday is an entrenched part of pop culture or a gross creepy romance in one piece of failed media; no matter how romantic or entertaining the writer thought it was when they wrote it.
And this is ultimately why “Born Sexy Yesterday” doesn’t work the other way around; it doesn’t “sell”, however you put it.
The Problem The Other Way Around
Born Sexy Yesterday as a phrase probably makes you feel uncomfortable, the related suggestion of paedophilia is obvious when the trope is pointed out. And as pointed out in the video, the depiction of a consenting relationship is debatable if “she” is really a 2 day old computer programme; unable to realise that undressing in public is generally inappropriate; can we really assume she is capable of informed consent?
Of course, we can’t. Because that’s decided by the writer, or the audience, as they watch it. The character has no true consent or obstacle to consent, because they are fictional, so it’s impossible to definitely answer this question, which is complicated enough to define with real-life human beings.
So what do the writer and the audience decide as they watch it?
Generally, that it’s okay. Films like “Big” and “Fifth Element” and “Tron” work, even with these plot lines, and the ratings and the sales and the reputation of these films speak for themselves about how audiences received them.
So why do audiences say it’s okay?
A variety of reasons spring to mind. Reasonable suspension of disbelief; it makes for a far better film if this is a consensual relationship with a quirky character, rather than a perverted abuse of a vulnerable child-like creature (or, in the case of Big, an actual 13-year-old child).
Or perhaps plot-based explanations, such as a drastically accelerated learning process in a computer-generated programme compared to human learning, making her an equal intellect and non-problematic romance option, hooray.
Or perhaps it’s about what you see, what looks good must *be* good, if the character is represented *by* an adult then they *are* an adult, so it’s all fine and good. (Consent education is poor enough in most parts of the public that this works in real life too; drunk people are nowhere near as competent as a sober adult, but they *are* an adult, so it’s all fine and good, according to some schools of thought.)
The Gender Problem
So, finally, why doesn’t Born Sexy Yesterday work in reverse?
An audience fed on a diet of male main characters and quirky female sidekicks/love interests, excluding chick flicks which are a whole genre of their own, are unsurprisingly accepting of male main characters who meet quirky naïve female sidekicks who are literally “born yesterday” into human society. Like the video mentions, Born Sexy Yesterday can be seen as an extension of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, or the Exotic Savage character, just another in a line of male power fantasy tropes.
This same audience, seeing it in reverse, would be expecting to see things from the male point of view, especially if you stick to the same genre, science fiction and fantasy. Seeing it from the Born Sexy Yesterday’s point of view, the consent issue becomes more obvious, and for most people, would taint the experience. If the Born Sexy Yesterday was the main character, it would only make it more obvious.
But none of the male fantasy tropes are exclusively or intrinsically male. People of all genders like all different kinds of people; dominant or submissive, stupid or smart, strong or delicate, although the media presents it as if these are intrinsically gendered preferences, they do not have to be (although, due to the magic of media influence, they do get disproportionately represented that way in reality too).
If media was truly gender equal, and reflected people of all gender’s desires for power and submissiveness equally, perhaps it would work in reverse. Unpacking sex and relationships as a power dynamic in which male must be strong and the female must be submissive would change the popularity of this trope; perhaps by making people more aware of the hugeness of the imbalance in gender representation, or by making people more sensitive to issues of power and consent in context of relationships between true equals.
Alternatively, perhaps there would be an outpouring of demand for story’s about strong sensitive women, who have lost their way, become grizzled and hardened by the gritty world of work they live in, who meet beautiful and delicate and semi-erotic man-children type-creatures, with long eyelashes and curious naivete about the big wide world, and open their hearts to loving and protecting them before the action sequence where the woman beats everyone up and is rewarded with awe and adoration from her sensitive creature-mate…
…Or maybe not. But it’s worth thinking about how we as the audience shape what is acceptable, and what becomes prominent in media, and it was fun to explore the gender constructs behind this interestingly gendered trope. Thanks for reading!