Gender, Gender, Who’s On First?

15 May

I have read a lot of kerfluffles about gender stereotyping, the need for “nerdiquette” panels, and the general unfairness of women being expected to take an essentially defensive stance in the face of offensive behavior–by which I mean that we’re supposed to expect it and learn how to handle it, rather than declaring it unacceptable and working to make society change its tolerance of said offensive behavior.

Full disclosure: I’m a semi-rabid feminist. I totally believe in changing the social mores, the overwhelming acceptance of stereotype, rather than telling women to learn karate, carry pepper spray, and guard their drink at parties, because “that’s just how things are.” When a guy routinely has to go through a party with their hand over their drink every time they look away from it, and keep a “buddy” along to get them pried out of a corner when some drunk has them pinned down, and a dozen other social hazards women face, then I’ll feel like that’s just the way things are. But I digress. This is a post about gender roles in writing, and how you as a writer–and an artist–can fight to change society’s mores.

Awareness always comes first, of course. Blog posts like “Striking A Pose” by Jim C. Hines, takes a pretty straightforward look at the problems with how women are routinely posed in genre book cover art, as opposed to the guys. Others take a more lengthy examination of overall stereotypes, as in the Fantasy Faction 3-part series on “Writing Fantasy Gender Sterotypes“. (In part two of the series, there’s an excellent question raised: How can you avoid writing stereotypical men or women if you’re not sure what the stereotypes actually are?)

And discussion only expands awareness. So I’m going to cheat a little on this post, and throw open the door to comments and discussion…instead of saying anything myself. What are you doing, in your writing, to avoid stereotypes? What research are you doing to be aware of the issue, and how severe do *you* think the problem is, across various genres? Could it be argued that, no matter what book one picks up by which master-of-the-trade, eventually anything can be lumped into a “stereotype” category, although it was perhaps shiny and new at the time of printing? When does a certain depiction become a stereotype as opposed to a bold new way of writing characters, and should we, as writers, actually worry about that–or just concentrate on telling the best story we can and let the sterotyping take care of itself?

*sits back to listen*….:)


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9 responses to “Gender, Gender, Who’s On First?

  1. katkasia

    May 15, 2012 at 2:32 am

    It’s fairy obvious to me that there is still a problem – but that is perhaps because the characters we create are from our own imaginations, and so can be hurdled with our own prejudices, however hard we want them to be liberated and independent beings.
    I do think it’s slowly improving though – just read an Ian Fleming from the 60’s and 70’s to see how far we have come in terms of sexism and racism. They are still a fun read, but the stereotypes do date them terribly.

    • Leona Wisoker

      May 15, 2012 at 9:19 am

      Katkasia: Interesting point about building the characters from our own imaginations. I agree that things are improving–some of my favorite books from younger days haven’t dated well at all (*coffcoff* Nero Wolfe *coffcoff*) … and yet they offer great examples of skillful writing and a good guide as to the pitfalls to watch out for in our own, “modern-liberal” writing.:) Could the slow progress be due to a lack of education on the subject among readers, or do you think there’s a resistance to the basic notion of writing/reading really gender-equal stories? Is it really possible to write a “realistic” gender-equal story that resonates with a reader, given that our experience has all been about bias? …Thanks for joining in the discussion! I love hearing from folks on topics like this.:)

      • katkasia

        May 15, 2012 at 11:31 pm

        Interesting about whether or not it will ‘ring true’ – but there are always some exemplary examples out there, as well as all the bias.
        As I write mostly sci-fi at the moment, of course I can make society any way I choose, so there isn’t as much need to make it ‘true’ to today’s rules, which is a delightful freedom.:)

  2. Linda Adams

    May 15, 2012 at 6:54 am

    The biggest issue I see is that women can be smart, but only up to a point. It’s also very, very subtle. I see it all the time in books — particularly ones with romantic elements in them — where the woman protagonist looks competent throughout the book, but then she gets into trouble and can’t do anything to help herself at all. In one book, the author built the character up as knowing karate, being expert marksman, and yet, when she got caught by the bad guy, did she use any of these skills? No! She had to be rescued by the male romantic lead. Sometime it’s blatantly obvious, and sometimes it’s so subtle it’s easy to miss. The worst part is the women writers are going this, too!

    • Leona Wisoker

      May 15, 2012 at 9:14 am

      Linda–is it always a case of the woman having to be rescued *because* she’s a woman, at the critical moment, or is it sometimes a case of the woman being a flawed human being and making dumb mistakes? I wonder if at times we don’t jump a little too fast to see bias where there’s just ordinary plot mechanistics in progress. How do we tell the difference? What makes it one way and not the other? What do you think…?:) Thanks for answering this post! I love starting conversations.

      • Linda Adams

        May 16, 2012 at 5:46 pm

        A flaw I could accept because that would make sense and be believable. But that’s not what I’m seeing. It’s more like someone in a burning building sitting on the floor and waiting for fate to happen instead of at least trying to find a way out. We’d never see that in a book with a male main character — but it turns up rather frequently in the ones with women characters.

      • Leona Wisoker

        May 17, 2012 at 10:20 am

        Linda: Actually, to be totally fair, I have seen that helplessness in male characters. I agree that it’s much more commonly depicted amongst female characters! — but it’s not a “never” situation. And at times, I think, it may simply be poor writing skills as opposed to true gender bias–i.e., whoever the protagonist is, they’re a helpless tool of Fate and moved by events. Passive writing, I believe it’s called. Howefffahr… I also know that my perspective may be skewed because of my editing background. I have a fractional notion (not a euphemism, but honest assessment) of just how bad the slush pile is, as opposed to what makes it to official Print–and even the worst of the (non self published, non vanity press) stuff far, far outshines the stuff that hits the slush piles every day. (Self published being a topic for a whoooole ‘nother post.) Back on topic: I tend to throw up a red flag whenever someone uses “always” and “never” in conversation… but it’s a valid point all the same. I’ve seen the issue you’re talking about. Drives me bonkers. I’ll scream at books if I get mad enough. “Get off the damn couch-that’s-on-fire and jump out the window, you idjit!” Yeah. Irritating stuff…. lol:)

  3. Leila

    May 19, 2012 at 10:09 am

    To a certain extent, I think all characters should be ‘flawed’. Wanting to create a hero is natural, but sometimes unrealistic and can veer into caricature territory. I hate it when the female character in some of the urban fantasies I read has more ‘balls’ than the men in the story or the male characters exhibit traits that feel wrong to the reader.

    I do my best to create characters who are real to their situation. I love it when women are in strong roles, but being ‘muscle bound’ in their actions and thoughts can be annoying. These characters have to be in context of their setting and/or world they live in. If the world we create is solid, all characters can act realistically in their context, growing and performing unexpected acts of heroism or cowardice in the course of their journey.

    A male or female who is always the ‘hero’ can’t go any where in development. They become furniture in the story. I don’t want any of my characters to be props. If they can’t contribute to the story, male or female, they’ve got to go.

    • Leona Wisoker

      May 19, 2012 at 10:29 am

      Excellent point–and especially the point about context. It’s a powerful vehicle, context–and starting out with a character who’s a shallow, useless sack of fluff and turning her into someone determined and strong is a fascinating process all on its own. Is the inner strength always there, or does it develop as the crises pile up? How much room does the character have to make mistakes like the rest of us, even when they have “super-powers”? What tolerance does *their* community have for their flaws, and where do the spots where we want them to be strong diverge from where the character’s community wants them to be strong? Those are the fun spots to explore, imo… does our perception of a character change with the understanding that within *their* context, they are appropriate/inappropriate in their behavior?


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