Outside of my experience as a student at Wellesley College, where we loved discussing gender issues, I’ve found that talking about gender is hard. And discussing gender in literature is definitely not wildly popular. No one wants to call out T.S. Eliot for being sexist (even though he kind of was) or reprimand a bunch of dead old white men who contributed to the vast majority of our Western literary upbringing. But I think it’s important to talk about these issues. That’s how we help society move toward a future where it won’t be as hard–because we’ll have forced solutions as a result of discourse.
So today’s topic? The distinct imbalance between male and female protagonists in literature: specifically, the stark inequality when you take literature where the protagonist is involved in romantic or sexual plotlines out of the equation.
Let’s start with a couple quotes to get us in the mood.
From Kelsey McKinney’s article on ‘gender in literature’ in The Atlantic:
“Of the 100 Best Novels compiled by Modern Library, only nine have women in the leading role, and in only one of those books–The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark–do the leading women strive to do more than find a husband or raise their children. Statistically, one percent of the Best Novels are about women doing something other than loving.”
“This study, just published in the sociology journal, Gender and Society, examined gender representation in approximately 5,000 books published between 1900 and 2000. Male title characters outnumbered their female counterparts by a ratio of 2:1. Overall, males were central characters in 56.9 percent of the books; females, in only 30.8 percent. [Animal characters made up the rest.]”
I could go on (or you could go Google), but the point is the imbalance between male and female protagonists in influential Western literature exists—and even more alarmingly so when you discount literature with romantic plot lines.
I don’t know if I noticed the ‘gender in literature’ inequality when I was growing up. I enjoyed it all, everything from Jane Austen to Arthur C. Clarke. I loved imagining being a pirate, a genius scientist, or a hero or heroine with the burden of saving the world in the nick of time. Even so, it had an effect on how I was socialized differently from my male counterparts. The message was clear: my life story needed to have true love. The books I grew up reading told me that because I am a woman, no matter what I want to be or what I accomplished, it is normal and even desired to be entangled in some unique or intense or crucial life-turning romance (and of course a heteronormative one at that, but let’s save that for another blog post).
Let that sink in for a bit.
An overwhelming majority of relatable female role models in Western literature teach female children (and adults) that romance, finding the “right man” and/or being a nurturing partner is the road to happiness—or at least to a life worth living and writing about.
And just to be clear, the apparent requirements of love and romance go even for the badass, “strong” female protagonists. More often than not, even alternative, modern literature with strong, independent-seeming women end up having to be involved in a romantic subplot.
This is where you’re all desperately trying to think of books or stories you’ve read with female leading roles who weren’t associated with romantic plotlines.
Well, yes, hooray! There are a slim number of stories written by female authors or about female characters that have nothing to do with romance.
For the Sci-Fi/Fantasy lovers, I came across a fun thread in Reddit about finding a book with a female leading role and absolutely no romance. It wasn’t easy, but at least they found some recommendations!
And as for mainstream classics? Or for the books that are part of the core curriculum of most children these days? Good luck. (Charlotte’s Web comes to mind–but the female protagonist isn’t even human or the leading role in the book, but hey, we’ll take it).
The point is, they are the exception.
Why is this the case?
- Not all female authors are writing female protagonists. Even though it seems there is more of a balance between female and male writers these days, many female writers still write stories focusing on male characters. It sometimes baffles me when I read books by female authors that are centered around male protagonists (Harry Potter, anyone?). But I realize that, just like the old adage “write what you know” goes, it’s possible that women are writing what they know: favorite characters and character arcs they internalized from what they read growing up… which unfortunately were mostly male-centric.
Since writing female protagonists practically requires writing romance, it’s almost natural to turn to creating a male character when what you want to write about has nothing to do with romance.
- Male authors are discouraged from writing female characters. “How can you possibly empathize with the condition of being a woman,” a thousand angry, probably non-existent women scream.
It seems hard enough trying to write a story about a complex issue or your inspired message to the world without having to deal with the ticking timebomb of writing a female character that will eventually offend, elicit some controversial blog commentary or fall victim to the politically correct gender police, simply because of her gender.
An unfortunate side effect of all the wonderful literature out there that talks about the subtleties of gender discrimination, gender microaggressions and the general call for all sexes to step up and help solve these issues is that it may seem safer to those who may not feel qualified due to a lack of a gender studies degree..to just avoid it all together.
“Why tackle writing a story AND creating a female protagonist? Why draw attention away from what I’m really trying to write about?”
- Romance sells. There’s little incentive to write a story about a woman without a romantic plotline. Might as well, since you’ll increase your reader base and make it easier to market. Your editor and publisher might even encourage it.
- We don’t realize it. This pattern is so pervasive in the history that surrounds women, what we associate with women, and how we’ve all grown up reading about women in literature that we don’t even realize there’s any sort of inequality in the first place. Or that anything could be so very wrong about it.
Imagine for a second that Mark Watney in The Martian was a woman. Imagine Bilbo Baggins being a female hobbit. What if Catch-22 was about a squadron of women? Or even if just the captain was a woman? What if Meursault in Camus’ The Stranger was a woman?
Note any cognitive dissonance you feel and embrace it.
What’s wrong with reading a story about women that has absolutely nothing to do with love or romance? What’s wrong with absorbing science fiction literature, contemplating philosophies of existentialism and human morality, the parody of life, or epic quests to save the world… through characters who happen to also be female? We are, after all, people too. Would it be so bad if we presented women in literature in context of a wider breadth of subjects and a deeper spectrum of the human condition, without also forcing the notion that love, romance or sex is a plot requirement for female-centric stories?
By not doing so, we subject women to a social construct from the moment they can read. We are socialized to prefer different activities, topics, emotions, and even a different moral compass!
My goal is not to discount the amazing amount of work and all the leaps and strides male and female authors have made to improve diverse representation in literature. It has been fantastic! Instead of being an entrepreneur and solo female founder, I probably would be married with multiple kids and with no job or property had influential literature not progressed much in the last hundred years!
Women in modern literature may not all fret about and chase future husbands (I do love Pride and Prejudice, but unfortunately, yes, that is basically a plot summary), but the grand burden of finding love, finding companionship, dealing with sexual issues, or fulfilling a nurturing role is still very much entangled with the literary lot of most of the strong female characters we read about today.
The solution, of course, is not to stop writing any and all love stories. I don’t want to devalue or ridicule the desire to write about female characters who find themselves crossed in love every now and then (yes, I couldn’t help it, another Pride and Prejudice reference). And I certainly don’t want to discourage writing about the importance of romance, love or sexual issues via male or female protagonists, especially since it is a large part of our daily lives and an important part of the human condition. But I do want to bring awareness to an imbalance, to a pattern that I strongly hope will change so that influential literature many years from now will treat male and female consumers of literature the same. In time, I want to see the lessons and power that literature has over society also play a role in bringing about equality in gender—so that every little girl, just like every little boy, can shape her life as she chooses, knowing she can find fulfillment without a Darcy.