Genders Aren’t Defining Features: Why I’m Tired of Seeing Female Characters Described as Weak and Male Characters Hardly Being Discussed at all.

14 Jun

First, thank you so much for supporting the eBook release of Seconds Before Sunrise on June 12. I wanted to remind everyone that you can get my latest novel for only $0.99 on Smashwords by using the code – BW58C – but you can also go to Amazon and various websites.

Secondly, thank you to Jonas Lee for showcasing me on his website.

And lastly, I have a disclaimer: Today is obviously going to be a heavy discussion. I am not going to pretend that I could cover every little detail that I wish I could discuss. I couldn’t. Not even close. And I was quite sad to see the amount of information I had to delete just to have a reasonable blog post instead of a practice dissertation. That being said, I do plan on sharing more in the future if you would like me to continue this conversation, but I want this to be a positive place on the internet to discuss this topic. From the research I share below, I know how this topic can become highly sensitive very fast. Bullying, stereotyping, name-calling, and other spiteful comments will not be tolerated. I would also like to apologize to those who do not define themselves as male or female. Instead of discussing specifics, I will be discussing the beginning of my research and how the most popular results reflected my frustrations with judgment in literature.

Love,

SAT

Oh, no. I pulled out the gender card. I’m going to be one of those hardcore feminists – (whatever that word actually means ::sarcasm::) – and yes, I will be ranting about the stigmas of today’s world. Watch as people come running, some with popcorn, others with absolute disdain.

What else is new?

It’s a sad fact that I even struggled to write this piece. I’ve been working on it on-and-off for weeks now, wondering what was appropriate, how best to word it, and where to begin, but I should’ve been asking myself one thing: why censor myself at all?

The publishing industry isn’t new to this conversation, so I’m not going to bother with specific character examples. No matter what kind of reader you are, I am sure you’ve heard the debates over various female protagonists being “weak-minded” or “submissive” or “incapable.” In contrast – yes – there are conversations about male leads, but I do not believe they are nearly as judgmental as the discussions that go on and on about female leads.

What’s my proof?

Since I cannot go on forever, I found these two lists:

Yep. The stats for judging females are tripled, if not more, compared to their male counterparts, and that is only one set of lists on Goodreads alone. Even more unfortunate is how much these conversations continue through the depths of the chaotic Internet waves, never-ending, always judging.

Before I continue, I want to clarify that I am not blaming any specific person for this trend. I am not attacking men. I am not attacking women. I am not attacking any of the participants on voting lists or the writers of the articles I am about to share. I simply want to discuss how we – as readers – are judging women in novels more harshly when we shouldn’t be judging any gender at all.

I decided to start where most Internet addicts go – Google – and I knew I wanted to focus on how male and female leads in literature are judged, so I read a few articles here and there when I kept coming across something along these lines: “Author A should be ashamed for creating a character like this for girl’s (or boy’s) to look up to.”

Every discussion generally came back to the author, including an author’s history, religion, or other personal information. As an author myself, this disturbed me because I am adamant that authors are NOT their characters. Yes, some use real-life inspiration but that does not mean that the author intends for a young girl or boy to look up to a fictional character so much that they start repeating their actions. It’s important for readers to separate themselves from characters. (Ouch. I know.) I love characters, too. Some characters I’ve read have helped me through many difficult times in my life, and they will always be close to my heart, but I wouldn’t dress in a green dress to fight demons and fall in love with my enemy just because Serena does that in Daughters of the Moon. And I doubt Lynne Ewing wanted my 12-year-old self to sneak out of the house to fight paranormal crime anymore than my parents did. I am not saying you cannot look up to characters. You definitely can. But there’s a difference in looking up to a character and allowing a fiction world to dictate your decisions in reality.

But I’m moving on from that—(I could talk about that all night)—I want to talk about the next piece of research I did.

What does it mean to be a “good” male or female character?

mint-male-symbol-hiThis is when I returned to handy-dandy Google. I’m about to share the results that bothered me, but I need to take a moment to clarify that this isn’t going to be about how to write that character that will never be judged.

A)   Every character will always be judged

B)   The results are what I’m focusing on because they show how we focus our judgment in gender roles.

Here are pre-typed suggestion results:

When I Googled “How to write a good male character”

  • Pre-Typed Results: How to write a good male dating profile came up first. (Followed by social media profile, THEN character, and then a personal ad)

When I Googled “How to write a good female character”

  • Pre-Typed Results: How to write a good female protagonist came up first. (Followed by female lead, villain, and THEN dating profile.)

It seems we are more nervous writing about a female character than a male character in literature. We’re also curious about villains and leads. But these did not show up in the top four for males.

As frustrating as this was, I continued to Google anyway. I wanted to see the articles. I wanted more insight. I wanted to see what authors “should” be doing and what readers think, so here are the top articles I found: (these articles are informative and amazing pieces. My point is NOT against them, but how we view writing female and male characters in general.)

I Googled “How to write a good male character” These are the first articles that pop up:

Here’s something you should know about me. I HATE the words masculine and feminine. Perhaps because I have constantly been told that I’m a rather masculine girl, “one of the boys”, part of the gang, a “cool” girl. This generally happens because I drive a manual, collect knives, and have seen more dead animals than I would care to admit. I hate makeup, and I wear combat boots every day. I’m used to it. Whatever. What I hate is that these things are “masculine” – that if I do it, I am “masculine” – but so are female characters. In fact, I was reading an article that told female writers to stop having their female characters driving sticks, because it is a lazy attempt to get her to seem deep.

What the actual hell.

red-basic-female-symbol-hiFirst of all, driving a manual isn’t deep. (I should know. I drive one.) It’s learning how to press an extra pedal and move the gears around. Second of all, whether a female is driving a stick or a male is driving a stick, it shouldn’t be seen as masculine or feminine or a blatant attempt to break some weird social stigma we deal with every day. Third of all…UGH. In this belief, there is no winning with female characters. You lose if you use stereotypes and you lose if you don’t because you’re seen as purposely trying to stray away from “realistic” expectations. (This is also where I would like to point out that there are many articles complaining about the various dystopian novels and their female leads being so capable with weapons… I don’t even live in “dystopia” and I have weapons. Try me.)

In case you want the other results, here are the top three articles I found when I Googled “How to write a good female character”

  • How to Write a Main Female Character: this article actually begins stating that female characters are the most complex characters, but I have an argument. We need to stop thinking of women as more complex than men. We’re human. We’re all complex. And a good character – no matter the gender – will be complex.
  • Overcoming Object Love: How to Write Female Leads Who Are People: The title sounds horrible, but the writer does tackle another issue: female characters being treated as “objects, objectives, or incentives.” But it’s terribly sad that we live in a world where we have to CLARIFY that woman are people, too, so female characters should reflect that. I definitely did not see anything close to this on the male results.
  • On Writing Strong (Female) Characters: Again, nothing against the articles. I just dream of a day where articles are based on writing strong characters without focusing on what gender they are.

Just a quick summary: when I research male characters, the results were directed on how women can write them as masculine, and when I searched female characters, I was exposed to objectification. Both of the results revealed gender stereotypes I disdain – both in society and in literature. This isn’t just an article about how we need to stop judging female characters. We need to stop stereotyping male characters, too. But here is my main question:

Can we please stop judging all of our characters based on their genders?

When we do this, we are teaching young readers that they won’t be safe – not even in fiction. That might seem extreme to some, but let’s look at the widely popular complaint: “That female character was weak because of x, y, and z.”

A weakness should never be based on the expectations of a gender, but I would even go so far as to say that we need to stop calling characters weak in general. One (wo)man’s weakness is another (wo)man’s strength, and sometimes, they are the same thing. That is the complexity in literature. That is the complexity of life. And gender shouldn’t devalue the moral ambiguity displayed in various novels in a world filled with so many genres and eclectic tastes. The physical description should be the last thing we mention.

Genders do not define us. They shouldn’t define our characters either. 

~SAT

men-women-holding-hands-hi

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25 Responses to “Genders Aren’t Defining Features: Why I’m Tired of Seeing Female Characters Described as Weak and Male Characters Hardly Being Discussed at all.”

  1. thebookheap June 14, 2014 at 2:11 am #

    This discussion wins all of the awards, Shannon! On my goodreads, because I read mainly a lot of YA, I’ve actually created two shelves “Female/Male protagonists” purely because I wasn’t sure whether I was imagining how rare it was to come across a male protagonist rather than a female protagonist.
    Despite this, with so many authors writing female protagonists only, it’s shocking that hardly any of them seem to be able to write a female character without either defining her as “timid” or “stubborn/strong”. It’s like we can’t just assume that female characters are strong or determined, like we do with male characters, we have to be told constantly. Another thing I hated is that this occurred all through the hunger games, we are constantly hammered with comments on how “strong” Katniss is, and then come the final book, when it understandably gets too much for her and she can’t quite handle it, most of the internet took to whining about how “Weak” she was!! I couldn’t believe it, I felt like they hadn’t actually read the last 2 1/2 books of the series and hadn’t actually remembered any of the many traumas she had been through!
    (that made sense in my head, I hope it makes sense here too!)

    • Shannon A Thompson June 14, 2014 at 2:18 am #

      Your comment made sense. :) It’s rather interesting to see how many YA books are female leads now, considering how scarce they were a decade ago. (Maybe that’s why we judge them more, but I think it’s about more than that unfortunately.) I love how you discussed how a male’s intentions are understood but a female’s intentions have to be explained over and over again. It’s almost like authors do that out of the fear of judgement that is circulating around female characters. Thank you for reading and commenting!
      ~SAT

    • debyfredericks June 14, 2014 at 11:49 am #

      May I observe, by the time they get to be teens, the readership is strongly (if not overwhelmingly) female. Most females will relate to a female protagonist better than a male. So then you get those super-competent women like Katniss (everyone’s favorite example) and the men characters are there as beefcake.

      And then of course you get the backlash by people who are so into stereotypes that they refuse to believe either Katniss or Peeta could ever be real. Or, as you cite, those who slam any sign of humanity as “weakness” in either a man or woman character.

  2. alexicon1 June 14, 2014 at 4:02 am #

    Okay, this will be a lengthly comment, I’m going to lend my thoughts as and when they come to me while reading, some will support, some will oppose the argument, but I hope they add to the discussion!
    Your pre-typed results could easily mean that females aren”t so interested in online dating as men are, which in my opinion is a good thing, it shows more self-confidence if anything. The fact that how to write female characters came up first is purely subjective with regards to the number of females having trouble with dating profiles.
    I agree totally with the use of Masculine and Feminine, I have just finished a degree in Creative Writing where we have had the phrase sex is not the same as gender repeated a lot over my time there. Sex is biological and gender is a choice. I don’t know what driving a manual has to do with it, it’s just good sense to… Maybe that’s an American thing, but manuals are not at all masculine in the UK. They are genderless like cars should be.
    The view that males are less complex than females is antiquarian. If you are writing anything an engaging character will be complex regardless of what sex they are. Uncomplex characters are wooden and lifeless. But I personally see a difference between a strong character and a deep character. A strong character is more along the lines of tough, a fighter, either physically, emotionally or mentally. A deep character is someone who is interesting to read about.
    Excellent article and it’s good to see a two sided discussion here, because there are so many male characters who suffer as a result of their supposed strength. And there are female characters who need to b not pigeonholed into the category of weak at the slightest break of the theme of ‘strength.’
    Anything you publish from now on, I’d be interested in checking out, I am certain your characters would be full of intrigue!

    • Shannon A Thompson June 14, 2014 at 4:11 am #

      Very true on the search results! I think I was only surprised considering those are the results with character typed into the search engine, but yes, there are many reasons those can pop up. I liked to mention them since that is where I began. And I’m glad you mentioned the manual cars! The article I mentioned is actually the reason I decided to post this. When I was talking about it to a friend of mine, they also mentioned that – originally – driving a manual was the only option, so both women and men drove them. I also agree on drawing a line between “strong” and “deep” (or “round”) because I like to draw a distinction between “weak” and “flat” characters. I am so glad you read this article, and I enjoyed your comment very much. Thank you.
      ~SAT

  3. Charles Yallowitz June 14, 2014 at 7:55 am #

    That’s a very thorough argument and I agree. It’s something that I think about a lot because I get the ‘strong’ or ‘weak’ female character accusations hurled my way. I rarely hear about the male characters unless I specifically ask.

    I wonder if this is because the female protagonist is a fairly new concept for the types of stories we have today. So you have people being hyper-judgmental for various reasons. Some want that perfect character and refuse to have a female hero show any weakness. Others don’t like the rise of female characters and will tear into them for any reason. It’s almost like every female protagonist is examined and judged to be a symbol/role model for girls. The only time I’ve seen a male character get similar treatment is when he isn’t the stereotypical tough, confident, serious hero. As you said, every character is going to be judged.

    I’m hoping that this is nothing more than growing pains for the idea of a female protagonist beyond romantic lead. Eventually, gender will fall by the wayside and a warrior woman being the center of a book will become commonplace.

    Think I ran out of steam and lost my thoughts at some point. I do have an example of the headache with gender-focused people. In my series, I have a love triangle that involves an open relationship. Might have mentioned this before. Well, one of the women comes from a culture that encourages dating multiple partners prior to an unbreakable marriage and it is revealed that she slept with someone. Her fiancee takes it in stride because it’s part of her culture and he was told it could happen. Also the guy who claimed to be with her is a jerk and he’s waiting for her to confirm when they meet again. Anyway, a reader was livid that this woman did this and ‘got away with it’. They wanted her to be punished in some way even though I established that this would happen and it wasn’t a sin like our culture perceives. Part of the argument was that the male character should go around sleeping with every non-related female character as revenge. This is apparently acceptable behavior for a male, which tells me that people have different rules and morals for each gender. Wolverine loses his temper and butchers a bar full of bikers and he’s a badass. Wonder Woman gets angry and attacks a man that pinches her butt and she’s a bitch. Just wake me when gender is no longer an issue.

    (Very cool about the knife collecting.)

    • Shannon A Thompson June 14, 2014 at 8:01 am #

      As usual, you blow me away with your comments! I completely agree with you on everything you said, and I found your personal experiences really interesting. I do wonder if the judgement of female characters is so incredibly high because they are very new to many genres in literature, but they are extremely new in how they also being presented (like kicking butt instead of wearing a bonnet – or hell, how about both? Kicking butt while wearing a bonnet.
      I also hope the judgmental side of all of this tones down, and I hope it does so soon.
      Characters can be strong, capable, stubborn, angry, sad, deep, and weak – all at the same novel (no matter the gender.) That’s what makes them more human.
      I’ll have to talk more about those knives in the future. ;]
      ~SAT

      • Charles Yallowitz June 14, 2014 at 8:17 am #

        I have the urge to write about an Amish super heroine now. The Black Bonnet? Man, I go crazy without a book project.

        Maybe the judgement has a silver lining. It shows people are paying attention and these characters have impact. We can see a variety of archetypes appearing and how they’re accepted across demographics. Like you have Hermione who is popular across various groups and Bella who seems to be a more focused age/mentality character. It reminds me about how everyone loves Wolverine (seem to be stuck on Xmen) and only a niche group prefers Cyclops (yo!). Both have uses in a story and can carry a plot line, but their personalities create different fan base styles. Female characters never really had that decisiveness until now.

      • Shannon A Thompson June 14, 2014 at 8:19 am #

        Great examples! I love Xmen. You can never go wrong with Xmen examples.
        ~SAT

      • Charles Yallowitz June 14, 2014 at 8:33 am #

        It’s definitely a series that you can use for every discussion. :D

  4. Jordan (BookBetch) June 14, 2014 at 8:30 am #

    I think part of the problem is that like you said we are so focused on gender. We expect something from female protagonists, we want them to be strong, to overcome their gender stereotypes and when we feel (by we I mean some readers) they are being too cliche gendered it’s time to get disappointed. Why do women only need to be strong now? Why do we define strength by being loud or forward or a fighter? When a female character is upset about something why is she weak? Is a woman crying or complaining no longer acceptable or seen as a sign of being a poor female protagonist? Why must everyone either be lumped in outspoken or the infuriating oh I’m so concerned about my average appearance no hot guy could ever like me and I’m in an outcast social group because I’m soooo different than the bitchy popular girls?!!! This kills me. It’s like a pattern every time. I read hundreds of YA books a year and it’s getting harder for me to rate them as this gets more irritating. This is another reason why readers are calling for diversity in books. I write posts on YA tropes. My next two are on the average or insecure female protagonist (though this is not only a gendered problem there are just less male leads) and the popular bitch squad. Why are these necessary? Sometimes it’s almost like they’re fillers. Do characters need this personal attack on their image to prove their moral strength or that they’re a good person?!! I’d rather see it in more constructive ways. And what’s the problem with being a popular girl? Why all the hate? Ughhh. I really enjoyed this, it just reminded me of all the thoughts I’ve had about YA lately.

    • Shannon A Thompson June 14, 2014 at 4:17 pm #

      Thank you for reading and commenting! You brought up so many specifics that I am dying to write about on here, so thank you for posting about them. I agree with you on many of them, especially the “bitchy” and “popular” girl – she’s ALWAYS hated, almost always written off as this thin, pretty girl that is cruel for no real reason. She’s almost always flat. Or only becomes rounded out at the last minute with no warning or prior growth hints. (At least, that’s what I’ve seen.) It isn’t only gender and sex that pressure characters – it’s also these stereotypes of young-adult life. And I loved how you talked about the specifics of females. Why are they weak the second they cry? Doesn’t everyone cry? It’s like we are so afraid of them being seen as weak that any moment of emotion becomes a weak-trend. The Book Heap commented above, using a great example of this from The Hunger Games.
      Great comment!
      ~SAT

  5. Bethany Hatheway June 14, 2014 at 9:23 am #

    The problem isn’t dividing traits into masculine and feminine, it’s saying that all feminine traits are bad. Everyone has a mixture of both traits, but both men and women would rather have more masculine traits than more feminine traits because the traits listed under feminine are things like “quiet, submissive, bad at math, kind” and so on while masculine traits are “brave, aggressive, cunning” and things like that. If we could stress that feminine does not mean “female only” and masculine doesn’t mean “male only” we’d be good on that front.

    • Shannon A Thompson June 14, 2014 at 4:18 pm #

      That is very true! I was just reading up on that. Thank you for pointing that out.
      ~SAT

  6. debyfredericks June 14, 2014 at 12:06 pm #

    I love this topic, because the physical attributes and sexism are much more visible (see the Hawkeye Project) than the invisible assumptions we grow up with. And don’t you hate it when an author spends paragraphs detailing every shining hair on a woman’s head while leaving the men characters as faceless blobs (who nonetheless make all the decisions that drive the plot)?

    The thing is, once we publish our work in any form, we open ourselves up to all kinds of reactions. Many will be positive, but some will be negative, and some will not be just negative but blatantly offensive. (The ability to comment anonymously can do weird things to people.) As writers, we all work our way through this. It’s similar to having your story critiqued, in that you have to listen and try to decide what’s worth incorporating into future work.

    So the battle is endless, but I think it’s always worth mentioning inequality, whether male/female or racial or rich/poor. When no one mentions the problem, others who see it may feel like it’s only them noticing. Thanks for the topic and the careful exploration.

    • Shannon A Thompson June 14, 2014 at 4:20 pm #

      Thank you for bringing up the physical details in general (like how females are described to the T but males often aren’t.)
      I will definitely go check out that project!
      ~SAT

      • debyfredericks June 14, 2014 at 8:21 pm #

        Get ready for a belly laugh. And if you remember Hawkeye’s old costume from the ’70s, you’ll get that “belly” reference.

  7. Susannah Ailene Martin June 14, 2014 at 1:05 pm #

    I think you hit the nail on the the head, my friend. Although, obviously, gender is part of the character and often an important part, it should never be the defining feature of the character. I find that the instances where that is the case, the characters are flat and boring. Excellent post.

    • Shannon A Thompson June 14, 2014 at 4:12 pm #

      I wanted to say that you added a fantastic point I failed to mention. A gender can be an important part of a character. It can. It’s not a bad thing when a gender is important. I failed to mention that in the middle of explaining why it shouldn’t define characters or our expectations of characters. Thank you for reading and commenting!
      ~SAT

  8. Alastair Rosie June 15, 2014 at 8:50 am #

    Interesting and thought provoking article. I’m a male writer who is uncomfortable writing strong male leads but very comfortable writing strong female leads. The women in my next book Angel of Mercy don’t even seem to need men. It’s not that they’re asexual but like REAL women they have other issues in life that are more important than finding a man. I don’t know if I could write a strong alpha male because I find that character to be repugnant and usually a villain in my mind or at the very least easy to kill off :-)

  9. jameslantern June 15, 2014 at 11:32 am #

    tell me you are kiddin!

  10. Mirren Jones June 15, 2014 at 2:09 pm #

    Gender can be a complicated and contested topic and there’s a great deal of food for thought in this article! Whilst writing our first novel, ‘Eight of Cups’, where the six main characters are all women, we did not give gender a second thought writing as women about women, assuming we had knowledge enough to write authentically. Yet we did have some confidence issues starting the second novel ‘Never Do Harm’, where the two main characters are men but did not take to the internet to research ‘women writing as men’. Having read this post we’re glad we did not! However we have enlisted the help of several men as sounding-boards for character development. So far, so good!

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