This month I’m tackling the topic of gender. In this post, I’ll address representations of women, and in my next post, I’ll talk about representing transgender and non-binary characters.
To get started, here’s a quick and useful feminist glossary for words like “feminism,” “patriarchy,” and “internalized sexism.” Check it out if you aren’t familiar with some of these terms–and even if you are! It’s helpful for identifying and framing our ideas about gender.
Identifying the Problem
For much of human history, our species has operated within patriarchal systems of power (i.e. the men have held positions of authority over women). And our literature has reflected this inequality. In most books, even contemporary ones, male characters significantly outnumber the female characters.
Check out this video that demonstrates just how many children’s books don’t include girls at all! And for an interesting examination of the unconscious biases that influence our depiction of gender, listen to this podcast (Writing Excuses, Episode 11.22).
As a writer, I’ve found that I’ve so thoroughly internalized this lopsided view of reality that when I’m writing a minor/ background character, I almost always default to making him male. In my current projects I’ve been working to combat this tendency by deliberately making the majority of my background characters female. The results have been so liberating! And you know what? The gender representation doesn’t feel skewed. It feels accurate.
Underrepresentation isn’t the only problem women face. In fiction, many female characters are defined merely by the fact that they are female. Consequently, they lack complexity and depth. As A. Lee Martinez writes,
Fiction is full of different types of male heroes because volume forces them to be different to stand out from one another. When you have only a handful of prominent women, it’s easy for them to fit into a one-size-fits-all dynamic. Who is this character? She’s the girl. He’s the black guy. Characterization done.
This is an even greater problem for women of color, who are much more likely to be excluded and stereotyped. (See this series about tropes of Women of Color in Sci-Fi.)
As a “real world” example of how these biases play out, consider the TV show The Voice. I’ve always been bothered that the show consistently employs two white male judges, who have stayed on for every season of the show (Adam and Blake), and then rotates out the other two positions, which are always filled by a Black man and a blonde, light-skinned woman, as if the artists who fill these categories are interchangeable. Finally, for this current season, they’ve hired a judge (Alicia Keys) who is both black and female.
The white male default that informs so much of our entertainment absolutely bleeds over into literature, which means that, as writers, we have to be conscious about how we’re gendering our fictional worlds. Gillian Polack writes,
If we don’t build women in and other genders and different sexualities then they don’t exist for the reader. It’s no use telling me at conventions (as many writers do) “I live in a complex world: I know these things” – if you have a single default position for most of humanity in your novels and you don’t have a clear reason for such a thing, you’re not living in a complex world. You’re not living in this world, in fact. You’re living in a simpler more straightforward world of gender dominance and heteronormativity.
Unfortunately, when female characters are present, they’re frequently victims of rape and violence or used to prop up the male characters (i.e. “a woman is introduced as a potential love interest for the hero and then killed so he can be sent off on a quest or spurred to seek revenge”). These harmful representations do a serious disservice to half of the world’s population, and they need to stop.
So how can we fix this? The answer is pretty simple. As Kate Elliott puts it, “Write all characters as human beings in all their glorious complexity and contradiction.” She offers three guidelines:
1. Have enough women in the story that they can talk to each other. (See also the Bechdel Test.)
2. Fill in tertiary characters with women.
3. Make the women active participants, not merely passive adjuncts whose sole function is to serve as a mirror or a motivator or a victim in relationship to the male.
It’s not enough to say “let your female characters do everything your male characters do” because that can feed back into the idea that the lives of so many women across time and cultures are important only insofar as they are congruent with or participating in “men’s lives” or “men’s activities”…If you so wish you can visualize a kaleidoscopic palette of women and populate your stories with a range of fascinating characters. The limits arise from within ourselves.
I highly encourage you to read her full article here.
Call to Action
In your current writing project, make a list of all of your characters. Count how many are male and how many are female. Now ask yourself if some of your male characters need to be male. What happens if you were to write them as female instead? Try changing the gender and see how it affects your story. What biases does this bring up for you? What plot changes does it prompt, if any, and why?
As always, feel free to comment with your thoughts and suggestions! Thanks for reading.
January: Understanding Identity and Representation
February: Acknowledging (and Battling) Colonialism, Marginalization, and Erasure
March: Writing Race and Ethnicity
April: Writing Gender
- Improving Female Representation