For a while now I’ve been thinking about how many readers seem to hate female characters more than they hate male. Or rather that the same behaviour from a male character is okay but someone inexcusable in a female. Sarah Rees Brennan has written about this phenomenon most eloquently:
Let us think of the Question of Harry Potter. I do not mean to bag on the character of Harry Potter: I am very fond of him.
But I think people would be less fond of him if he was Harriet Potter. If he was a girl, and she’d had a sad childhood but risen above it, and she’d found fast friends, and been naturally talented at her school’s only important sport, and saved the day at least seven times. If she’d had most of the boys in the series fancy her, and mention made of boys following her around admiring her. If the only talent she didn’t have was dismissed by her guy friend who did have it. If she was often told by people of her numerous awesome qualities, and was in fact Chosen by Fate to be awesome.
Well, then she’d be just like Harry Potter, but a girl. But I don’t think people would like her as much.
To which I say, indeed. I am noticing this somewhat acutely right now because quite a few people are hating on Micah Wilkins the protagonist of Liar. Now, I will admit as how Micah has rather more flaws than HP. Even aside from being, you know, a liar. But I happen to love Micah, as I do all the characters in my books.1 I’m well aware that I’m not an impartial observer, but I have a sneaking suspicion that were Micah a boy even with all the same flaws s/he would not be attracting such hate. I suspect that there would be a fair few crushes on Micah-the-boy. That he would be considered hot.
As evidence I offer the fact that I’ve already been told by a few people that they have a crush on Zach, who a) is dead and b) is, um, perhaps not the most reliable boyfriend in literary history given that he had an official girlfriend and an unofficial girlfriend. I.e. there’s a strong argument that’s he’s a cheating dog. Yet there are crushes.
Now, what I want to know is how to go about being part of the process of changing this kind of thinking. I was talking about this with a friend and she said I should write books that unpack it. To which I umed and ahhed before realising hours later that I already do. I have worked very hard in all my novels to unpack assumptions about what girls and boys can and can’t do. I have written female jocks, boy fashion obsessives, laconic girls, garrulous boys. I have tried to work against stereotypes at all times.
So does pretty much every working writer that I love. Yet still readers call Isabelle (of Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments trilogy) a “slut” and have crushes on Jace who’s much more slutty than Isabelle. What can we do to shift such sexist assumptions when they’re so deeply ingrained in so many of us? Because even when we write books that challenge such stereotypes, readers put them back into the text by reading Isabelle as a slut and Jace as Hotty McHott Hero. I have done this myself both as a reader and a writer. Our prejudices are so unconscious that they leak out without our knowing it.
Hmmm, I find that I have no cheering conclusion. Feel free to provide one in the comments.
- Yes, even Jason Blake and Esmeralda Cansino in the trilogy and Dander Anders in How to Ditch Your Fairy. [↩]
It’s been suggested to me several times that the reason some readers really hate my cranky, tactless, blunt, sometimes nasty character Marla Mason is because she’s a woman — that a male character with such traits would be considered tough and gritty. I dunno, but it seems plausible. I agree it’s troubling, and I don’t see a solution, except a combination of education and attrition (teach the young while the old and set-in-their-ways gradually die off). Which isn’t very cheery, as far as solutions go.
I’m taking a lunchbreak at work just so I’ll have enough time to reply to this…
I think a lot, though goodness knows not all, of the problem comes from female characters being looked at through a lens of how they relate to male characters and not much else; but people rarely do the reverse with male characters. So people crush on Zach despite him being a cheater but don’t like Micah for being the other woman in that situation. (Completely unfair. Gaaah.) That’s actually why I get irritated when I run across reviews of the Hunger Games/Catching Fire that are about Team Peeta vs. Team Gale (and, on occasion, reviews of the Uglies trilogy that are about Team David vs. Team Zane). Because as much as I enjoy all of those potential love interests, Katniss and Tally are awesome characters in and of themselves, doing important things that have little or nothing to do with their love lives. I enjoy the romances, but I feel like focusing on them often just misses the point, and reduces awesome female protagonists to… Well, just the focal point of a romance.
(Though none of that exactly adresses the Harriet Potter problem. I do think there are series out there with super-special, super-awesome female protags [Tamora Pierce’s Alanna series comes to mind] who are really embraced — but I think the books themselves are often written off as being “for girls” because the wonderful, powerful character happens to be a girl.. And gosh, no one wants cooties from reading something for girls, huh? So I also think the problem is part of a much wider issue — things for and about girls just aren’t valued the way things for and about boys are.)
For what it’s worth, I think your books — and, generally all books with dynamic female characters — do help. I’m pretty sure that when I reviewed Magic or Madness awhile ago, the very first thing I said was that I loved Reason for being such a wonderful, active, awesome female character.
I think that this is a problem writers need to be conscious of and try to dispel, even if it alienates some readers. Kristin Cashore did a good job of this in Fire, her most recent book. She examines the double standard in place for men and women (yes her character is a monster, but why is a female monster so much more vile than a male monster? Especially one who is evil?)
I don’t know that there is an easy answer to this. It requires changing hundreds of years of programming (where daring boys=good and daring girls=upsetting the social paradigm and therefore dangerous). All we can do is be conscious of our own reactions, and try to change them.
Just zooming by fairly quickly so say I ADORE Micah (and while I am not a HP fan, I was quite a Hermione, and McGonigle, and Tonks fan until imho the novels treated the female characters badly)–I think that while writers have their own responsibilities, there are many women readers and probably many men (I don’t pay much attention to what men say, so I don’t know) who do not unpack/think about the characters, the stories, their own reactions (as my students keep telling me, “I want to read for entertainment, not have to thiiink.”
P.S. I read LIAR a week or so ago and immediately put it on my booklist of required reading for my graduate Texts and Genders course which I’m teaching next spring.
It is INCREDIBLE.
My own brush with this way of thinking came from the TV show “Saving Grace.” The first few times I saw it, I didn’t like it. Actually, I hated it, hated Grace. I refused to watch it for a while. Then I caught a rerun and found myself wondering “What if Grace was a guy?”
It almost felt like being struck, realizing that I wouldn’t have an issue with the show if it was about a man. After that I made myself watch it and really came to appreciate Grace’s character- what made her that way, how she was growing. I was so surprised to find those kinds of assumptions about who I thought she should be in my own mind- I’ve taken Women’s Studies! Shouldn’t I know better than this?
And I should. Everyone should. But I think a lot of people are still trying to learn to get over that kind of thinking. And it might take a while, but as long as writers are writing girls/women like Micah, Isabelle, Mae, and having these kinds of conversations, I think we’re taking the right steps.
I’m with Tim Pratt: Try to change everyone, but pay special attention to changing the minds of young people. Cultural change is slow but it’s happening.
It may be necessary to not just contradict these prejudices in the text but to confront them in the text. People like ithiliana describes, reading for entertainment, may not stop to think about this sort of thing on their own, but if the material itself that they’re reading brings it up, they can hardly avoid it. If you have a female character who’s catching flak for behavior that’d be lionized in a male, why not give her an antagonist who voices exactly this sort of bigotry, and let her face and deconstruct it herself?
For bonus points, make that person deeper than the Person Who Is Obviously Wrong, or replace “antagonist” with “friend”.
THANK YOU. Ugh. As someone pretty deeply involved in fandom, this double standard ends up coming up around me on an almost daily basis, and it makes me despair for women – especially since it’s mostly women doing the hating! People! Do you not see how self-defeating this behavior is?! And I have never, ever encountered the person who gets this pointed out to them and realizes their error. Defensiveness and justification rule the day. (Although to be fair, I have met a few people who said, “Yeah, I used think stupid things like that, but now I know better.”)
Um. Yeah. I have no idea how to fight against it, but I’m glad you’re talking about it, at least.
I think part of it is that we tend to judge our female characters based on their interactions with men. Even in real life, how popular a woman is is not based on how nice she is or how many people like her- it is based on how many MEN like her. We constantly judge the women around us based on their interactions with men and that just gets even worse when we are expected to place ourselves in the shoes of another woman in a book and her interactions with men don’t match what we think they should be. So if they have many more men who like them than we have that like us- like the female Harry Potter would- then we would instantly categorize them as a “slut” like the “popular” girls and instantly hate them.
On the other hand, we don’t tend to judge men based on their interactions with women. Instead, we completely ignore how they treat the women in their lives and judge them based more on other aspects of their characters.
I know that’s just a part of it, but I still think that until we teach girls to stop judging whether or not they like another girl based on whether or not boys do, I don’t think this is going to get much better. We just have to consciously check ourselves while we read to make sure we aren’t holding any characters up to double standards.
And that kind of makes me sad. So now I’m going to go get some popcorn and play light-sabers with my brother.
I think that also… If Harriet Potter existed, she would be written off as a Mary Sue. Now, I’m not saying that Harry is a Martin-Sue, just that I think that female characters are often more depth-y than male characters… Because people think that boys want their protags to be killing people, or having sex etc, not exploring themselves or developing as a character- not because it reflects real life. Female protags/characters are under a lot more scrutiny in books and the writer is criticised much more often for writing ‘bad’ female characters, especially when the , y’know Slut Factor is mentioned.
I’m with Chaos. Implicit challenges to these sorts of assumptions are great, but we also need texts that explicitly confront the double standard.
This topics has made me think of both Jo in Little Women and Harriet in Harriet the Spy. I’m not sure what I want to say about them, or how they relate to the topic.
I guess I just want to point out how long this issue has been around and that some progress has been made. It’s been some time since I read Little Women, but as I recall the attraction of Jo is that she behaves much like a boy and insists on getting the same opportunities and treatment men do. By the end of the books she is married and in charge of raising children, true, but she does become a new kind of female heroine in children’s literature.
Harriet goes even further. Harriet is put back inside a family structure at the end of the book, she is reunited with the friends her journal had alienated, but the implication is that she’s going to continue on with her spying, writing, and generally acting exactly how she pleases the way a boy would do.
How does this apply to Harriet Potter? I think you’re right, unfortunately. But what to do about it. Create the world you want to see, I guess. I think that’s what Alcott and Fitzhugh were doing when they wrote Little Women and Harriet the Spy. And it sounds like it was what you were doing when you wrote Liar.
Rosa Taylor said:
Even in real life, how popular a woman is is not based on how nice she is or how many people like her- it is based on how many MEN like her.
I am curious about this statement. Can you expand upon it? I have not seen this in action, outside of the general realm of women that are popular with women are not as popular as women who are popular with women and men. Which is a subset of “it’s okay for girls to like boy things but not for boys to like girl things.”
Which is why no one has a problem with girls reading a book about a boy written by a girl (Harry Potter), but people think it’s cool and different if a boy reads a book about a girl written by a girl (Twilight). And why Nora Roberts is not the same household name as Stephen King.
I also agree with Chaos.
I think I’m an equal opportunity hater when it comes to male vs. female characters, so I can’t really comment on this. I mean, yes, I love Booth on Bones, but I also really really love Brennan and Cam and Angela. Then again, I feel like these characters’ flaws are addressed in the text, so that may have a lot to do with it. Don’t feed me vinegar and tell me it’s honey, etc. (For example, McDreamy on Grey’s.) I find it easier to like characters whose flaws are addressed in totality. Which is why I can love Harry and Ron and Hermione equally. Okay, not equally, but I think the series is pretty good about addressing both their pros and cons.
I thought a lot about this when Sarah Rees Brennan first posted that, but I didn’t comment there (although, there are always so many comments on her posts, who would read it anyway?), maybe because I didn’t think I HAD any suggestions. I still don’t, but the one issue that has stuck out for me the most in the end is not why so many people hate on the girls, but why so many people LOVE the Bad Boys. Not so much why do people hate the traits in females that they lionize in males, but why don’t they hate them in males, too? But I know I’m apparently a minority, being a girl who DOESN’T like the Bad Boys*– who, to stick with the Cassandra Clare references, totally crushed on Simon and would have run far far away from Jace– and maybe I can’t talk because I just don’t understand what it’s LIKE to desire that Danger or whatever. But that’s my point. I don’t understand it. Maybe if I did understand it I’d have some answer to this question, instead of posing new questions.
*though this really doesn’t answer the Harriet Potter question,** since Harry isn’t really what I’d call a Bad Boy. The DRACO lovers I wonder about.
**but hey, I was a huge Nancy Drew fan in my childhood. No one can beat her at that Perfection stuff. So I guess Harriet Potter wouldn’t be too bad if her adventures were cool enough.
I have just been thinking on this … partly driven by all the awful representations of women in hollywood (which, I know is a whole other hill of beans) … I think the answer is only to just write like it isn’t happening… I despair thinking there would be no more harriet the spy girls – and blogged about it here: http://postteentrauma.blogspot.com/2009/04/why-we-write-about-what-we-write-about.html
on my first edit of nftu the editor wondered why gem wasn’t thinking about boys and some crit I have of that book is that there is no romantic resolution and I feel the assumption is that all readers (and most YA readers are girls) want romance in their novels … I also thought I’d point you to this book http://pennytangey.com.au/books because it has a female protag who loves science – more of that please …
I really loved this post and no, I don’t get it either.
A NYT bestselling romance writer I know once said to me that she could have her heroes do anything — absolutely anything — and the readers (overwhelmingly female) would forgive him and love him. But have her heroines make any mistakes at all and she would be deemed unworthy.
It’s a truism in the romance industry that readers want to “relate to the heroine and fall in love with the hero.” I wonder if that means they want the heroines to be perfect/blameless — as they view themselves — and to be the one who turns the bad boy onto the right path.
I am grateful for every strong female protagonist I come across. An author whose books I enjoyed said she started making all of her main characters boys because teachers have told her repeatedly that boys will only read about boys but girls will read about both boys and girls. I felt short-changed when I read that. It came across as such a cynical marketing decision (“Hey, girls will read anything”) as opposed to a genuine desire for boys to read more. As a teen growing up in the eighties, I sought out strong female protagonists in stories and generally found them in fantasy novels like those of Marion Zimmer Bradley and Anne McCaffrey. I’m glad to see that my favorite kinds of characters are more prevalent across different genres now.
Justine, of your books, I’ve only read Liar and How to Ditch Your Fairy, but they’ve both stuck with me long after the last page. I’m so glad you’re doing what you’re doing. Thank you. I look forward to your Third Place Books appearance next Tuesday.
That’s probably true, though I haven’t though much about it. I don’t know how I feel about Micah, I loved the ending though, if it can be believed. (But I don’t really care – it’s good enough for me, whether or not it’s true. I’m just going to pretend it is.) I felt more sorry for Micah than I probably would for a boy (which of course comes from other stereotypes…).
I am curious if you have noted a trend in these comments to be from girls vs guys. I feel like this trend has a lot to do with sex appeal vs self imaging, at least from the female perspective. Sticking with The Mortal Instruments example, I know a lot of my friends looove clary/Jace. They see themselves as clary the sort of archetypal heroine (because were all the centers of our own stories) and then Jace as the hot rebel boyfriend they can fix. It’s a very classic teen scenario. Personally I’m always the outcast because I think incest is gross (lll admit I was spoiled before I read the books) and looove Isabelle/Simon. Because I’d rather be the talented hard core useful even if slightly bitchy one than the wide eyed new commer who everyone loves, and geek chic is hotter than emo-rebel in my mind. People want the charcters to be people they want to be or people they want to be with (that’s how it seems in the teen romance-esque genre at least I find).
On a similar note I’m bi, which I find means I find a different set of traits attractive in both male and female characters. Again I’m very interested in the guy vs girl opinion
This whole thing reminds me of a conversation my friends and I were having at school a while ago: a girl will be shunned by the public for being a “slut”, but guys generally don’t get the same treatment for the same type of behavior. Why is that acceptable?
And I completely agree with the Harriet Potter thing- just reading the description Justine gives makes me not want to read it. Something is wrong with that.
I’m very glad you brought this up.
I agree with this so completely. As well, you know, but I thought I would just pop in and say this was an excellent essay. I hear/read people saying that they do not like girls in fiction, and am overcome with how troubling that is.
Girls are caught in a trap, I feel. I’ve had people criticise the heroine of my book in the same breath for being ‘too perfect’ and for all the flaws she has. Perfection is unrealistic and disliked anyway, and yet women’s faults are unforgivable. They have you coming and going.
For the record, I love Micah and find her fascinating, and find Zach to be kind of lame, though admittedly he does get ripped apart, which seems a harsh punishment for lame. My favourite character next to Micah is Sarah, and the interaction between Micah and Sarah grabbed me the most of any in the book. I love Isabelle in Cassie’s books, and like the interaction between Clary and Isabelle a lot: I like how those books address the issue of a girl with only male friends and then fix it by having these two girls bond.
I have no solution for the short-term, other than that we all try to examine our prejudices and knee-jerk responses, try to both create and *appreciate* interesting, well-rounded girls.
But that is hard, and it’s such a shame we have to. It would be lovely to just be able to celebrate awesomeness in a character and not be dismayed by seeing her torn down at every turn.
I think these ideas that readers have cannot be changed by how you write the characters. These ideas don’t exist in a vacuum and are influenced by the sexist ideas in our society, so the conclusion, and it’s something really achievable in the short term, is to break down sexism in the real world.
Yes, yes, I totally agree. This is a very interesting subject and issue indeed … and I’m too rushed to make a complicated comment but the fact that readers seem to dislike Micah only makes me want to read about her more! I’m obstinate that way. 🙂
Excellent and true post. Thanks for quoting the always-wise Sarah Rees Brennan.
Strange. This always baffles me. I believe everyone that this is an issue, but I have such a hard time seeing it because I have no gender preference in protagonist nor do I think I hold different standards for them. At least I don’t think I do.
I don’t know why, but I sort of think of Harry Potter as having feminine characteristics, maybe compared to Ron, I think.
This isn’t something I have put a lot of thought into. I am probably incredibly wrong here and not contributing to the conversation. Sorry.
For a lot of readers, attitudes about fiction are a reflection of attitudes about real life.
There was a conversation recently on a librarian’s list about what books to recommend to a female teen reader who wanted books with lots of darkness, sex, and violence. Several of the titles suggested by some were dismissed by others because they belonged in the adult section and contained explicit sexual content (titles of the romance novel type). After the conversation was over, I found myself wondering if the same conversation would have happened if the teen reader had been male. Would as many adults have jumped so quickly to declare a particular book (or, say, a movie) as too sexual for a teenage boy to indulge in?
Girls get their impressions of “sluttiness” from the world around them, from how boys brag about conquests (real and imagined) while girls have to hide their sexual activity or be ostracized by both boys and girls. High school’s messages are either reinforced or countered by teachers and parents. How many parents talk to their teenage girls about the word slut, what it means, who it’s applied to at their school (and if it’s used on both genders), what the consequences of such labels are, and — perhaps most importantly — how many teachers and adults give teenage girls the message that females are not sluts for having a sexual nature?
Likewise, if a girl is violent or “flawed” in some way culture doesn’t approve of, how many parents sit down and talk about how it’s no different when a girl is violent than when a boy is? Or are the gender issues never directly addresses, even when they are clear as day to the teenager in trouble?
Readers bring their assumptions about “reality” to the books they read. If they have the impression that a girl who makes out with more than one boyfriend (or makes out at all) is a slut, they apply that impression to female characters. Unless the book, knowing this might happen, gives them a reason not to.
(Re: Fire. I LOVED how that book handled female sexuality, and the character herself was amazing. Her “monster” nature was a challenge, but it never stopped her from having complex sexual relationships in which her sexual desires were not treated as shameful.)
I believe it’s still true that most readers are female. If that’s the case, isn’t it possible that they judge female characters more harshly than male characters because they’re trying to see themselves in the female characters? If a female character is very different from the reader, she might judge that character more harshly, even seeing that character as a repudiation of the kind of person she is.
I certainly saw this dynamic in some of the reader responses to my book Cycler. Jill was judged much more harshly than Jack, despite the fact that they’re the same person. Most of the readers were female.
I take notoriously long times to respond to issues that you bring up on your blog, but I’m going to try and string together some thoughts now. It IS a troubling issue you’ve brought up, and one that I’ve admittedly not noticed until recently. I think a related issue is how similar fiction should be to reality, and whether people read fiction for its verisimilitude or to escape from real life. If the former, then they’ll really appreciate flawed characters like Micah, who’s complex and has both redeeming and condemnable qualities. If the latter, then we sink into some stereotypes in fiction, the most common of which relates to the guys. Girls often have the “bad boy” dream, that they’ll meet a troubled guy and be the one who convinces him to change for the better. Therefore, fictional bad boys are quite likable, when the other end can’t be said to be true for girls. As someone mentioned earlier, “Fire” by Kristin Cashore does an incredible job of bringing up the issue of double standards in beauty. I’ve also always loved Robin McKinley’s books, mainly for their strong heroines.
It’s great that you and other authors are aware of this double standard between male and female characters, and are actively striving to attempt to change these attitudes. Of course it’s not an overnight fix, much like how no serious issue is. But the fact that you are aware of this and are bringing it up in your blog is seriously commendable, and just one of the first steps that will help bring us into a new, well, generation of thinking, I suppose. I’m not sure how long it’ll take until flawed female characters will be liked just as much as flawed male characters, but I know that it’s something I think about when I write my own stuff, as well as something I consider and respect when I read it in others’ works.
I think that its because people have the deep ingrained image that girls are really nice and sweet and feminine under what ever skin they have. Mr McHottie can gat away with anything because he’s A) The only one to really crush on, and B) We expect guys to be jerks. Plain and simple. So when we see a woman trucker or a male scrapbooker, all of our comfy sterotypes go our the window, making us think harder. And that could be the reason of hate, “You’re not normal and you made me think!!”
Audry, that’s interesting about the responses on the library list. Since RAMPANT has come out, I’ve noticed that some of the reactions have been diametrically opposed — i.e., this book is pro-abstinence, or this book contains a lot of sex (There was actually someone who said that they wouldn’t give this book to a teen they wanted to be abstinent!) I think there’s definitely a double standard when it comes to girls’ reading material — and has been since the invention of the novel. Girls are so weak-minded and impressionable. Giving them books, books that might put *ideas* in their empty little heads… well, it’s a dangerous proposition.
Lauren, I’m astonished! That cracks me up. I found myself disliking Jack more than Jill, though, and that was because Jack was a victim — he was imprisoned — and Jill, a co-conspirator, didn’t see anything wrong with that.
Fantastic dialogue so far. I genuninely do feel like there’s been some progress on this front, thanks to all of the authors and books referenced above.
Case in point – I’ve recently been re-reading the Nancy Drew series. I still love it, but it’s now obvious that while Nancy made some real advances for female characters (the girl is seriously brave and off the charts intelligent) she’s not a whole person. No one could ever call her slutty – hand holding and dancing is as far as she goes with boyfriend Ned – and she’s perfect at everything but excrutiatingly humble about it.
I think that more recent female protagonists like Katniss/Isabelle/Micah/Hermione are a big step in the right direction. I’ve certainly found myself checking knee-jerk reactions to female character’s actions.
As I’ve said before, this drives me up the wall. I especially with the commenters who note that this problem is not going to change until the problem is addressed in our society. The message is everywhere: boys are better than girls. Boys are held to a different standard than girls. Girls are supposed to be soft and sweet (which is fine, but that is not all they are or should be, and why is that not okay for boys to be, too? We all have both masculine and feminine qualities) and silent and “pure,” whatever that means.
If a girl speaks up, she is a bitch. (Girls are meant to be seen, not heard.) If a girl likes rough-and-tumble play, she’s a tomboy. Interesting, that. (When she’s older, she’s immediately labeled a dyke, and that’s said with a knowing jeer.) If a girl enjoys her sexuality, she’s a dirty slut, while a boy is encouraged to do so. (Boys will be boys, boys sow their wild oats, etc.) No one ever stops to think that it takes two to have sex, not to mention there is nothing dirty about the act. Or if it is, then both partners are dirty. Nope, the girl is slutty and the boy a stud.
Bottom line: A girl is less than a boy. She should be made aware of this feeling and wish to be a boy. Heck, we even have Freud’s crackpot penis envy theory to support that! Her job is to be pretty and let the boys ogle her. (I heard more evidence of this just today on the radio; the DJs were babbling about the men they’d like to meet and talk to and the women they’d like to sit in a room with and stare at. They also have a hottie cam just for women, of course.) Her ideas and thoughts and accomplishments mean nothing and are easily brushed aside in favor of the boys’.
How do we deal with this? Education, I suppose, and concentrating on teaching children to respect each other as equals. But for that to work, we have to get their parents and authority figures to go along with it instead of conditioning them to believe in and internalize this false dichotomy. We also have to stop reflecting it in the media. Until then, nothing will really change.
I’m glad you as a writer are trying and talking about this. You, too, Sarah Rees Brennan! That’s what we have to keep doing, even when it gets really discouraging.
Oh, and I should note that women are the background DJs for that show I mentioned.
Thats an interesting point actually and i havent ever really thought about it. I think it has a lot to do with the female – male attraction of it all. Male characters always hold something we as women may look for in our ideal mate. So we tend to be more forgiving to there faults..reading with rose tinted glasses.
I personally havent disliked a female character in a book just to “like” the male character. I didnt think of isabelle as a slut in mortal, i loved her! However thats down to each reader and I think everybodies views are different.
I have noticed what you are talking about ESPECIALLY in the sense of women disliking a female character for reasons not even to do with the role she plays in the story… for example Jase being to “hot” for clary, same thing for edward and bella. Ive actually read pages of comments about it… some women take things a little too far thats for sure lol.
As for women being less then men? i dont think so because look at J.frost night huntress books, Cat is kick ass shes amazing and strong..
Honestly i dont feel its the writters fault and whether its something we can actually change? i think it has more to do with a readers personal views, people will find what they want to in each book and story.
@Kel-wa, if you were indeed spoiled, you would have realized that Clary and Jace are not related.
I think there are two ways to address this kind of thinking: obliquely and head on. In your writing I think you’ve done a great job with the first. Many writers working in YA right now are are subverting the stereotypes, and it’s a delight to see. It makes a delightful change from the two biggest series of the past decade. The world of Harry Potter is a Patriarchy-approved sort of 50s fantasy where everyone marries their true love just out of school and starts making babies OR lives a hard-working, asexual, closeted life. It’s every bit as regressive as the Twilight books, although less discussed.
I can only think of two writers who’ve addressed sexism directly. E. Lockhart and Meg Cabot go at it from different angles, thought. Lockhart’s heroines are suffering from the label of slut (thrown by other characters) or from even more insidious assumptions. Cabot amazes me by letting Mia have modern notions of equality intermingled with old-fashioned notions of romance, which she finally realizes are stupid, but Mia discovers the stupidity WITHIN the context of a classic romance. It’s like magic, really.
So, maybe the answer is for writers to keep on with the subversion, but also to sometimes let their characters acknowledge the double standards, the harassment, the rape culture that surrounds them. It’s not that I want writers to write problem novels about sexism (how ghastly would that be?). And I like novels set in some alternate place where the sexism we know doesn’t exist. But I’d love a little more consciousness-raising slipped in wherever it feels natural.
Fascinating conversation! Certainly I have seen the occasional reviewer complain that my wife’s main character, Laurel, is unlikeable because she knows she is beautiful.
I think you really nailed the challenge when you noted that “readers put them [stereotypes] back into the text.” Continuing with the example of Laurel, with the pervasive YA trope of “homely intelligent girl beats the vapid pretty girls at their own game… and then becomes pretty herself,” how do you write a beautiful female character who readers won’t reflexively hate? Is it not okay to be beautiful?
But–to really compound the problem–is it also not okay to be stereotypical? The trap of “bucking stereotypes” in your work is that in our postmodern world, even bucking stereotypes has become clichéd. Girls are presented with an impossible challenge: to be sassy, yet demure; to be unbending, yet pliant; to be a revolutionary nonconformist, just like everybody else. (And though it is not the topic at hand, I can assure you from experience that males–real or written!–face analogous, if less well-explored, challenges.)
So if I might suggest a moderately cheering conclusion, then: read carefully Neal Stephensons Diamond Age and contemplate the three girls-then-women who receive the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. Rarely in fiction will you see such an astute evaluation of the relative values of conformity and rebellion–which, I believe, is where all struggles against stereotypes must inevitably lead.
how do you write a beautiful female character who readers won’t reflexively hate? Is it not okay to be beautiful?
I would argue that many, many female protagonists are beautiful. What I think is more controversial for readers is a female character who is self-aware of her own beauty–in part because vanity is something that readers accept in male characters but judge harshly in female characters.
Once a character knows she’s beautiful, the writer is tasked with exploring what it means in our society. The aforementioned The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks is a wonderful example of a book with a girl who knows she’s beautiful and becomes aware of the power that comes with beauty, who that power comes from, and the cost to her. Beauty, for women, is seldom uncomplicated.
But–to really compound the problem–is it also not okay to be stereotypical? The trap of “bucking stereotypes” in your work is that in our postmodern world, even bucking stereotypes has become clichéd. Girls are presented with an impossible challenge: to be sassy, yet demure; to be unbending, yet pliant; to be a revolutionary nonconformist, just like everybody else.
Maybe I’m not sure what you mean here by “okay to be stereotypical” – I think as writers we have to write about real women and real women are never stereotypes.
So if I might suggest a moderately cheering conclusion, then: read carefully Neal Stephensons Diamond Age and contemplate the three girls-then-women who receive the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer.
While I love me some Neal Stephenson, I think that it might be more useful–although possibly less comfortable–to first look at some of the explorations of this particular subject written by women.
It is certainly the case that many female protagonists are described as beautiful, if not obviously from the beginning of their stories then frequently by the end, and if not physically than in some other way, sometimes as validated through the eyes of another, sometimes not. However…
…the writer is tasked with exploring what it means in our society.
Perhaps now it is my turn to misunderstand, but are you suggesting that the mere presence of an attractive character forces the author’s hand in some way? “Tasked” is a slippery word but typically imperative. The word I use for books that put ideology over art is “preachy.”
Maybe I’m not sure what you mean here by “okay to be stereotypical” – I think as writers we have to write about real women and real women are never stereotypes.
I mean “be” as an active-verb rather than in some identity-engulfing sense. Perhaps it would have been more clear to ask, “is it ever okay to make the stereotypical decision?” Sometimes the road more traveled is more traveled for a reason. Is it ever okay for a character to realize that?
I think that it might be more useful–although possibly less comfortable–to first look at some of the explorations of this particular subject written by women.
While I see no need to discount explorations of the subject written by women, by giving female authors primacy on the question you’re playing right into the problem, viz. “men and women are perceived differently even when they do the same things.” Your stated position is that women who write about gender perception are (or at least “might be”) “more useful” than men who write about gender perception. Perhaps even regardless of the quality of their work, as you appear to also appreciate Stephenson’s work.
But this is a perfect inverse of Justine’s dilemma! For ideological consistency, you cannot preach “equal perception” only when one sex or the other is disadvantaged.
Anyhow, it turns out I was not actually suggesting that Neal Stephenson’s portrayal of female characters teaches us much about stereotypes. Rather, I had in mind a certain passage. When one of the girls, now grown, is asked whether she will “conform or rebel,” she answers, “Neither . . . . Both ways are simple-minded–they are only for people who cannot cope with contradiction and ambiguity.”
Justine appears to lament that she cannot seem to fully jettison her (or her readers’) stereotypes, even in the act of subversion. But a stereotype is just a heuristic gone bad, and heuristics are part the scaffolding we use to build ourselves as people. (Borrowing my own metaphor, here.) You can never really escape your foundations, as a person or as a society. But you can excavate them, some, so long as you don’t undermine the structure entirely, and you can make above them grand edifices to human achievement. In other words, I think Justine contributes marvelously, even if she struggles, at times, to reach the cheery conclusion she craves on the matter.
One other thing, forgive the absence of a graceful transition. I have read a lot of “strong” female characters, and not just in young adult fiction. Many of them were even written by female authors, and (if you can believe such a thing) it wasn’t even uncomfortable to read them. d^_~b I think a lot of authors are very, very good at delivering supremely “kicking” female protagonists, showing our young women exactly how strong and independent they can be. But I worry that they spend too much time extolling the finish line and not enough time detailing the track. If subversion of stereotypes is what we’re after, it’s not enough to preach to the choir. One must reach out and win converts–and tell stories, not about strong women, but about average, unremarkable women who become strong. I don’t want my daughter to mistake attitude for independence, or sass for being well-spoken; but that means she needs to be able to see not only the promised land, but also the road that will take her there.
Of course, such books do exist. But I don’t think they represent a majority, certainly not in contemporary YA literature, and I’d like to see more of them.
Related to this, prizes for YA literature in Australia in the CBC awards favour novels with male protags over female ones of any stripe – see http://magiccasements.blogspot.com/2009/04/invisible-girls.html . I believe it is internalised misogyny, as most judges are women – a bit of a strong term, but accurate.
I wonder if the same happens in the US?
I wonder if the same happens in the US?
Probably, sometimes. But at least one study suggests that Newbery Medal winners have achieved relative balance in terms of protagonist gender. Though (somewhat off-topic but apropos of Justine’s recent experiences) Newbery race issues appear to persist. Of course it is possible that a wider survey of YA awards would yield different results, but perhaps the same could be said for an evaluation of Australian awards?
I have been thinking about something else related to this that I think only one person so far has addressed, but. I wouldn’t much fancy the Harry Potter described in the passage by Sarah Rees Brennan if that were how the books actually are. What I mean is, the description is true, but I don’t think the execution of the books lends itself to that description. Harry is not loved by all, nor do all the teachers worship him, etc. I think the portrayal of Harry is more balanced so that we see that though he is The Chosen One, he has lots of flaws, his friends have flaws, the grown-ups in his life have flaws. The Harry Potter as described is a Mary Sue, but the books as executed don’t make him one. If that makes any sense.
I get that it was oversimplified for the purpose of argument, but if HP were described to me like that and written like that, then no. I wouldn’t want to read the books (whether her were a male or female protag) at all.
I do have a friend who says she hasn’t read HP because she’s read lots of fantasy and the idea of another coming of age of a boy through magic doesn’t appeal to her at all. She would be much more interested in the series if it were, indeed, about Harriet Potter instead.
Wow, so many amazing comments. Seems to have really struck a nerve with a lot of people. I hope those of you haven’t are also reading Sarah Rees Brennan’s most excellent post that inspired me in the first place.
ithiliana: So pleased you liked Liar. I’d love to know how you go about teaching it and how your students responded.
Laurie: As someone pretty deeply involved in fandom, this double standard ends up coming up around me on an almost daily basis . . . I have never, ever encountered the person who gets this pointed out to them and realizes their error. Defensiveness and justification rule the day. (Although to be fair, I have met a few people who said, “Yeah, I used think stupid things like that, but now I know better.”)
I know what you mean. Though I do think defensiveness is the automatic first response. I have been extremely defensive many many times when called on my own bad behaviour and unconscious prejudiced thinking. I’ve learned each time it’s happened but it takes me awhile. I have great hopes that that’s how it goes for many people. They’re errors are pointed out to them, they react badly, but then they go away and start thinking about it.
Diana Peterfreund: A NYT bestselling romance writer I know once said to me that she could have her heroes do anything — absolutely anything — and the readers (overwhelmingly female) would forgive him and love him. But have her heroines make any mistakes at all and she would be deemed unworthy.
*Sigh* That is depressing. But, hey, at least the writer has noticed and is figuring what to do about it. And a lot of people are reading her. Maybe she’s slowly slowly part of breaking down the double standard?
Kel-wa: I am curious if you have noted a trend in these comments to be from girls vs guys. I feel like this trend has a lot to do with sex appeal vs self imaging, at least from the female perspective.
I think most of the comments are from women but I can’t always tell judging from people’s pseudonyms. I did notice that a couple of the commenters I know to be male were more interested in talking about male characters & writers than the topic under discussion, which is why I love Tim & Benjamin’s comments—they never do that.
I think you’re right that straight female desire has a lot to do with this dynamic. I suspect that as you suggest lebians and bisexual women are less likely to have the same responses. Though this comment thread shows that plenty of heterosexual women are not falling into this double standard either. Yay, all of us fighting double standards!
AudryT: Girls get their impressions of “sluttiness” from the world around them, from how boys brag about conquests (real and imagined) while girls have to hide their sexual activity or be ostracized by both boys and girls.
Yes, indeed, that dynamic remains ridiculously strong. It’s so hard to combat. *sinks back into despair*
Holly Black: Wow. Great comment. I especially agree with this:
The aforementioned The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks is a wonderful example of a book with a girl who knows she’s beautiful and becomes aware of the power that comes with beauty, who that power comes from, and the cost to her. Beauty, for women, is seldom uncomplicated.
Julia Lawrinson: I wonder if the same happens in the US?
Actually in the last few years the Printz & the National Book Award have been pretty awesome on that front. But those committees change every year. That may have a lot to do with it. I get the feeling that there’s been a lot of effort to have a more diverse range of judges in terms of genre familiarity (so fantasy & sf don’t keep getting overlooked), age, background etc. I may be wrong about that but the last few years lists have been really cool and interesting. I can’t wait to catch up with this year’s National Book Award shortlist.
Your post has left me with a ton to think about (they always do!). And of course, I’ve been thinking about my own books with what everyone’s said in mind and it’s left me with a question… I get a lot of reviews that call my main character, Mary, selfish (in a negative way). I’m guessing they say that because she spends a lot of time thinking about herself, her goals and her survival. I wonder… if Mary were male, would she be called so selfish? Would readers expect that she put her own desires/goals/wishes aside to tend to those around her?
I don’t know and I prob won’t know. Should it change the way I approach writing characters in the future? I don’t know that either – I just wrote Mary the way she was, flaws (perceived or real) and all.
Carrie: Actually, I think that some readers might call “Marty” the male Mary selfish if he left his girlfriend to pursue his goals, out of resentment over his breaking up a relationship. Or they might find it very romantic. The thing about a book in which the driving force is NOT the romance is that some readers don’t want to reach any deeper than an ending where two people get together and live dreamily ever after. I imagine you also get some criticism for not sticking with that formula.
I loved Mary’s drive. Loooooooved it. Some might see it as a flaw, but for me it was her best feature and elevated her above the boring, predictable, “Is ‘ambition’ the name of a perfume?” girls you see in so many books.
DianaP: RAMPANT takes virginity head on as a theme, doesn’t it? (I’ve only just started it, so don’t know the answer.) I imagine that gets a lot of readers thinking the writer is either pro-this or anti-that because in some minds just *mentioning* the virginal status of a girl is equated with being political and trying to push/promote an opinion about girls having sex. Meanwhile, very few writers that I’ve read answer the question of whether or not their male characters are virgins, and even when they do, how often does the reader care?
“Oh, he’s a guy. Of course he’s ‘done it.'”
“Oh, he’s young and dorky or too busy defending the universe so I see why he’s still a virgin, but that won’t last forever. Whatever.”
How many books center around the loss of male virginity and make it the cause of an epic battle? “Oh noooo, if Fred has sex, we are all going to dieeeee! Oh, and he’ll be ruined so no one will want to marry him.”
Justine: Re: guys wanting to talk about male characters/writers/issues when the subject is female characters/writers/issues. I know a lot of great male feminists, but I also know a lot of guys who think that proffering advice to the female sex is the same thing as feminism. I also know guys who take a conversation about writing for females or female characters and try (often subconsciously) to change the subject to men by insisting that men “also have problems” or that male writers “also write great female characters” — both of which are true, but which have a way of sidetracking the subject and making it all about, well, men.
When you’ve been in the treehouse for so long, it’s hard to make room for anyone else. Or to realize that maybe they don’t even want to be in your treehouse.
(I should probably emphasize that those comments are not aimed at any person or post in this conversation, but are based on some non-internent memories that popped in my head while I was reading Justine’s comments. My brain, er, wanders a lot.)
Correction: …writers WHO I’ve read…
Great post and I very much agree.
I’ve noticed the double-standard in judging male and female characters, too. Partly from hanging around with romance readers who will frequently complain about the heroine for being “too bitchy”, “too feisty”, “too shallow” or “too stupid to live” and lament how they are sick of all those kick-butt women in urban fantasy, yet who will put up with absolutely horrible behaviour from heroes, sometimes even down to rape and abuse.
I’ve also noticed this phenomenon in a lot of fandoms, where female characters are automatically disliked and sometimes rapidly hated for doing exactly the same things that the male characters do. There is one fandom I actually left because the majority’s rapid hatred of a main female character became too much for me, particularly since the hatred suddenly seemed to vanish once the hated female character started feeling really sorry for her sexual transgressions (which were no different from what any male character had been doing) and became the utterly devoted and codependent girlfriend/wife of a boring and unlikable male character. Yet that Stockholm syndrome relationship was somehow seen as a happy one and the best the female character could aspire to.
I am not immune from the double-standard myself and sometimes find myself irrationally disliking a female character in situations where I probably wouldn’t have disliked a male character. What is particularly troubling to me is that it seems to happen frequently with female characters of a certain ethnicity. I suspect it’s due to a bad childhood experience with a real life woman of that ethnicity which left me with a subconscious prejudice. But if you recognize personal biasses, you can at least try to combat them.
I always find it interesting when boys read Hunger Games/Twilight because they are not worrying about who the girl ends up with but rather looking at the bigger picture. An author creates a world not just a love triangle.
Two more thoughts I’ve had over the weekend.
I finally got around to reading The Shadow of the Wind which is a fun puzzle about books and an unexamined look at the Patriarchy. The whole gothic aspect is based on males being sexual actors and females passively remaining virginal and owned/protected by their male family. But no where is this acknowledged or clarified by any character. The contrast between males seeking love and sex and the females passively awaiting love/sex is striking.
My eldest daughter was speaking of magazines at the school. While there are magazines aimed at a boy audience, apparently being a boy is so easy a default, that there are no magazines specifically telling boys how to fulfill their cultural role. There are at least two magazines however devoted to teaching girls how to be the right sort of girl. The feminine is so harshly judged by our society, and always found lacking, that it takes two magazines devoted to explaining the problem in elementary school. It’s a wonder girls find the time to do anything, although it’s not surprising that they would judge fictional females as strongly as they judge real ones.
Oh, I’m afraid I come to the discussion a little late, but this subject is so close to my heart, I must add something!
I’d like to make a parallel with the television world, where we’ve seen a bunch of kick-ass heroines that have caught the imagination of both girls and boys. Think Harriet Potter can’t exist without being loathed? I present you Buffy, a beautiful girl (she’s blond AND has blue eyes!), popular with the opposite sex, who can kick major ass, has saved the day numerous times AND is a the Chosen one. Remind you of someone? And what about Max, in Dark Angel? And Sydney Bristow, of Alias?
I’d like to point that all these characters have been written by men.
I think part of the girls problem in the literary world come from the fact that the publishers don’t know how to market books about girls in ways that will appeal to an audience of both boys and girls. It’s still a very old fashion industry.
So I think what writers can do is continue to write kick-ass heroines, the world will eventually follow 🙂 Also, I’d like to read more deep and sisterly friendship between girls. I like to read about girls who admire and respect each other (instead of envying each other). I’d like to think enough of myself to be able to do that naturally… That’s one thing I always found beautiful and touching: male friendship (I started to like war movies for this reason alone).
Finally, I’d like to add that one thing I like about Buffy is that she is a girly girl. I like tomboys, I was one when I was young, but I wouldn’t want little girls to think that the only way for a girl to be cool is to be “like a boy” and do “what boys do”.
That’s it, thanks for this great discussion 🙂
well, I find all of the above comments interesting and thought-provoking. Grown-ups (that is, adult type people) who teach/work w/kids, etc need to speak up and do DISCUSSIONS about these vary things, stereotypes, etc. The double standard of Girls are trash, etc, vs Boys are cool/hot if they…and all the other stereotypes. if you get a discussion going, even though readers have “put” the bad back into a story that you carefully “left out”…well, just talking w/kids (people in general) makes little dents in these walls which need removing.
Even though I enjoyed the Harry Potter series, I always thought he was a bit of a prat. Yeah, I know he’s had it tough — all the more reason not to dump on the ones doing everything they can to help you, yet time and again he dumps on Hermione or Ron for some stupid thing or another. One of them should have knocked his block off at some point.
I suppose I may be in the minority, but I prefer characters (both male and female) with flaws. Makes them more human and much more interesting. (Which is why I could enjoy the HP series without being overly fond of Harry himself…)
I agree that readers do bring in their own perspective and stereotyping into the story. The general girl!hate seems to be more of an American thing. As someone who was brought up in a culture that encouraged gender equality, who grew up reading Nancy Drew and Malory Towers, I find it not only effortless to love female protagonists, regardless of their flaws, I find it very hard to read books that do not have female protagonists or at least a dominant female perspective. As someone whose dislike of Harry Potter as a character, grew stronger and stronger with each publication, I can honestly say that my dislike of Harriet Potter would have had nothing to do with the fact that she was female. However, I would have loved Nellie Longbottom and been more interested in her story; I would have cared more for Siri Black than I did for her original portrayal – I found Sirius Black an overgrown man-child with a malicious streak.
Kenneth Pike: But I worry that they spend too much time extolling the finish line and not enough time detailing the track. If subversion of stereotypes is what we’re after, it’s not enough to preach to the choir. One must reach out and win converts–and tell stories, not about strong women, but about average, unremarkable women who become strong. I don’t want my daughter to mistake attitude for independence, or sass for being well-spoken; but that means she needs to be able to see not only the promised land, but also the road that will take her there.
I completely agree with this. To use the example that Justine gave, while Isabelle from MI was my favourite character, I had problems understanding or even liking Clary. Both girls start off from the same position as the only girl in a group of boys and used to having all the attention on herself. But it is Isabelle who grows out of this mindset and embraces Clary as a friend.
Diana Peterfreund: I think there’s definitely a double standard when it comes to girls’ reading material — and has been since the invention of the novel. Girls are so weak-minded and impressionable. Giving them books, books that might put *ideas* in their empty little heads… well, it’s a dangerous proposition
I remember thinking this when I come across another nasty little dig on Twilight, or its author or its fans in the blogosphere. The word “twifan” is synonymous with “stupid teenage girl (or bored, stay-at-home middle-aged mom) who can’t distinguish between fantasy and reality”. No one ever seems particularly concerned when comic books or superhero movies portray unrealistic expectations in life and romance for little boys. But when a female wish-fulfilment fantasy is written, a fatwa is declared on the author for putting feminism back by a century.
How to fix it? Any better than the gradual weening out of Damsels in Distress? Hmmm…
Personally, I would like to see a Joan of Arc type of story, but from another perspective. Say, Sally is dressing as a man to accomplish something or other. The book is told from Billy’s point of view (although to the reader it’s clear that this is Sally’s story, and Billy is just an onlooker.) Billy has no idea that Sally is actually a woman. It’s part of the big reveal at the end of the book, after readers have had a chance to bond with boy!Sally. Then they have to confront the fact that they liked these kinds of qualities in a female character. Really, you could even do it as the beginning of a series, so that after people have come to know and love boy!Sally, they get to continue loving her as she really is. Though I feel it would be vitally important not to involve her in a romance, for perspective issues.
Mind you, I have no idea what this book would actually be ABOUT. I’d write it if I could, but I’m not an author. I’ll leave it to those that are as a jumping off point. I’d like to read it, and I think other people would to.
This is very interesting to think about. Being a fairly strongly minded girl, I tend to hate most female characters in literature and the media. They don’t feel like real characters. But more than that, I hate the idea of the girl subsuming her personality in her male counterpart’s as a desirable goal (see Twilight). As a teacher, I especially hate it because I can see how it shapes my female students’ reactions with boys and kills their self-esteem. No one thrives under a policy of nihilism. However, this take on female characters is very interesting and definitely something I will have to look at further.
It’s sad to realize I do it, too. To continue with the Mortal Instruments comparison, Magnus (my favourite) would have likely annoyed me if he was a girl. And Alec probably would have seemed b*tchy. But since they’re both boys, I drooled over them.
I’ve read before that most YA readers are girls. Maybe that has something to do with it—we’re critical and jealous of the girls subconsciously, but our hormones make us more accepting of anything male? That’s a horrible idea. Girls, especially, should be rooting for the female characters. Feminism, and all. Breaking down sexist ideas. All the stories I write tend to have very strong female characters, but most of my favorite characters in all books are male. Kaye Firch, from Holly Black’s Tithe, is a female character I adored, though. She was tough, spunky, and still extremely sexy. She got a bit blown about, but by the end she kicked some a**.