And sometimes this takes on a very politically squicky form that I want to talk about here: where the suffering of a male character is compared to that of a woman's suffering from sexism.
Maybe the male character is identifiable to female viewers because his suffering mirrors that of women. Maybe the male character is the victim of sexism because he is feminine, and therefore like a woman. Maybe because a male character takes on the "mom" role (whatever that means) within a family or group of friends, the ways this group mistreats him and takes him for granted is an example of sexism.
Oddly, I've only seen fans apply this version, where a male character's suffering is seen as like sexism against women, to the characters (or people) they really love. This is odd not because being compared to a woman or described as feminine is in any way a bad thing, but because people don't seem interested in applying this kind of gendered analysis to characters about which they feel neutral or negative. Whenever I see an argument that people only make when it fits their biases, I get suspicious.
But separate from that, I have so many problems with this analysis that I barely know where to start.
First of all: Feminine is not the same as female. Often this analysis starts with the argument that this male character has many feminine traits, and then jumps to the idea that this makes them like a woman.
I am like a woman. That would be because I am a woman. I also have many masculine traits. I hate clothes shopping, and I hate dressing for anything other than comfort. I've worn my hair consistently short since I was old enough to make my own choice about it. I only recently discovered that I actually like wearing dresses, that I think they feel good. People frequently assume I'm male or get confused about my gender.
Of course, I also have feminine traits, what with being a human being and not a cardboard cut-out. But my more masculine traits do not make me like a man or less of a woman.
One of the ways in which I am like a woman is that I do not benefit from male privilege. When people are aware of my gender, as they usually are once I start speaking, I experience the same kind of condescension and dismissal that any other woman would experience. My perspective on life is consistently female.
In the meantime, the male characters that fans like to claim are like women benefit from male privilege in a million ways, and have views on life that are distinctly male, usually including sexist attitudes. Yes, women can be sexist, but these attitudes are usually pretty distinctly male.
Recall, for example, Spike's rant in Crush, after he threatens to kill either Buffy or Dru and Buffy denies having feelings for him: "What the bleeding hell is wrong with you bloody women? What the hell does it take? Why ... do you bitches torture me?"
Or the casual way in which Sam Winchester compliments Charlie Bradbury, a grown woman, by saying, "Good girl".
I could give you many more examples, but moving on.
Another problem is that with this analysis, feminism is brought up in praise and defense of this less-masculine male characters (and people). But the same feminism is not used in praise and defense of characters (and people) who are actually of the female gender.
As a mild example, you get the fan who talks about how a certain male character's experiences are identifiable to female fans because they are similar to sexism against women. On a show that actually has many female characters whose experiences, one would imagine, would be even more comparable to sexism against women, what with them being women and all. And yet no one is praising the characterization of the female characters for being identifiable to women.
A more unnerving example might be a Beatles community I was once part of. Fans more often brought up feminism to defend Paul McCartney (straight white male beloved celebrity) then Yoko Ono (vilified Japanese woman). And this despite the fact that the community really was rife with racist and sexist comments about Yoko Ono. This is especially unnerving because one of the many reasons Yoko received and receives hostility is because she isn't feminine enough, and seen as too domineering.
Then of course, there's the male character who provides emotional support to his family or friends. Large parts of Supernatural fandom gush over Dean Winchester and the emotional care-taking he provides to others, especially his younger brother. His younger brother is deemed sadly unaware of Dean's sacrifices, despite such statements as "I owe [Dean] everything", and "You sacrifice everything for me".
Fans then go on to talk about how women whose emotional care-taking gets taken for granted can relate to Dean, without noticing the irony.
There is one last reason I dislike this tendency to equate feminine men to women: Not only does it trivialize women's issues, but it also trivializes men's issues. I've experienced enough harassment for not being sufficiently feminine, but I know that less masculine men have it worse. And yes, we can look at our pretty theories and point out that this is actually prejudice against women because female-associated things are seen as inferior. And this is true. And it's something to be aware of. But I don't know how much that matters on a day-to-day level to individual men and boys dealing with social pressure to be masculine.
Every male character or male celebrity who is mistreated because they display feminine traits is a man who is being mistreated because he is not sufficiently masculine. They are not women who are the recipients of sexism. They are men who aren't conforming to gender roles. Those are two completely different things, and completely different experiences.
I don't understand why that's not enough. I think it's fantastic when we have male characters who defy gender roles and have to deal with that. I think it's fantastic that fandom notices and loves that. But these are men. None of the people our characters who I've mentioned in this post ever give the slightest hint of identifying as anything other than men. Their experiences are unique to being male - no woman deals with those specific issues. I don't understand why it isn't enough to deal with them as men.
Why does it seem that we privilege and gush over male characters in so many ways - and then decide that to be male is such an insult that the best compliment we can our favorites is to say they are like women?