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. [↩]