I’m not a very confrontational person, but there are things I believe and stand for which don’t allow me to yield. Some of these are listed below.
Science-fiction is called visionary for a good reason. It challenges us to recognize and admit the faults in our current mentality and social models, to consider where technological and sociological development might take us in the future, and to tackle delicate issues of morality, politics, and science in a creative way. Because of its bold nature, science-fiction lends itself perfectly to confront the most critical problems that female protagonists—and by extension, women—still face today (not that it needs to be a sort of sacred mission, or anything, it’s just a good opportunity).
Sexism and stereotypes
The fiction writing industry is still mostly sexist, whether we’re directly affected by it or not. It reaches down from overt sexism against female writers, to the blatant discrimination of female characters compared to their male counterparts.
Female protagonists still carry the stigma of being more emotional and impulsive than men because they have a vagina, or being hard-knuckled butches because they’re compensating for having a vagina. Well-balanced female protagonists that display rationality, determination and skill are rather rare compared to the huge mass of stereotypical ones.
While male stereotypes are considered a mere nuisance in fiction (such as the manly man, the ladies’ man, the compulsive savior type or the long lost heir claiming his rights), female stereotypes are treated as damaging, and will likely raise hell from the online community. This different treatment of stereotypes themselves based on gender is also part of the sexist undercurrent still pervading modern mentality. You can even make a conscious effort not to be sexist and still feed stereotypes based on gender, so it’s important to pay attention to them—not so much for the sake of not setting people off, as for clearing your work of unethical clutter.
Writing about physical or intellectual inferiority to men, about gender based professions that are below the manly pride, and having your characters make decisions based on a rigid, sexist prioritization (like valuing marital duties over her own interests, sexual attractiveness over intelligence, etc.) can result in serious shitstorms that might even lessen your chances to a prosperous career. Of course there are examples of novels that have made it big despite ostentatiously feeding these stereotypes and setting the struggle against sexism back by a decade (like Twilight and 50 Shades of Gray), but I would still advise to be apprehensive of supporting such damaging values.
There are also stereotypes that appear positive, but are sexist nonetheless. Such as: women are better care givers or diplomats than men, they are more attuned to nature than men, “objectively” better suited to perform certain duties, have more empathy, a better sense of art and beauty, and so on. This kind of stereotypes are influenced by the moral and social environments in which they develop, and not by objective research.
Here’s a quick test to figure out if you’ve unwillingly used sexist stereotypes:
Would your exact plot work just as well with a protagonist of the opposite gender, and would the conclusion have the same power? If yes, you’ve written a strong protagonist, period. But if your theme would be radically different and the protagonist seem ridiculous if you changed their sex—and the reason is not related to physiological differences such as child bearing or gender related illnesses—then you’ve fallen prey to stereotypical thinking. (And yes, of course there are differences between men and women in certain aspects, but neither party is worse off because of them.)
Gender self-perception mistakes
This is particularly directed at male authors writing female protagonists in first person POV.
Women have little knowledge of how men see themselves in the privacy of their minds, and vice versa. But when it comes to writing fiction, there are a few mistakes of perspective that appear far more often when men write female characters than the other way around. And since we’re talking about female protagonists, I’m only going to mention these.
Here are the three most common mistakes:
- Female protagonists written by male authors have a tendency to see and describe their own bodies in an provocative way. Classic science-fiction is particularly famous for two-dimensional incarnations of male sexual fantasies, but other genres are also affected. Every self-conscious person finds flaws in the way they look. A woman would never examine her body head-to-toe when she’s feeling confident, only if she suspects illness or is trying to conceal perceived flaws. Female protagonists who see and describe themselves in first person POV in an overly flattering, visual way, are simply unrealistic.
- Most men don’t have an accurate knowledge of how certain female body functions actually feel like, such as menstruation, the different types of orgasms, pregnancy and childbirth. It’s very easy for them to make mistakes when they try to describe them and their effects. So just be mindful of gender-related experiences that you have never had yourself, before having your protagonist experience them.
- Men rarely understand the love-hate relationship that female friends have with each other. This type of friends (so aptly called “frienemies”) will constantly envy each other and compete in even the smallest things (not just when they want to “get” the same man). Yet they will instantly unite when an outside force challenges either one of them. It’s a paradoxical relationship, but if you’re having trouble understanding it, just remember that guys have their own weird friendships. They can play painful pranks on each other and insult each other to the brink of harassment, but will still step in on each other’s behalf in the face of danger. My word of caution: if you’re a man writing a female protagonist, try to refrain from having her instantly befriend and/or never think evil of another woman. It’s naive and highly unlikely.
[For a clarification of the effects of good vs. poor use of stereotypes, check out How To Use Stereotypes In Writing Fiction]
Differences are just differences
“Equality” is one of the most misused values of modern humanity. Women and men are not inherently equal—there are objective, realistic differences due to gender which account for many of the excuses to devalue one gender or the other. These differences are genetic, physiological, psychological and sociological, but they are just that, differences, they are not gradients of worth.
For example, strength is only one physical ability. Men are stronger than women because their bodies build more muscle mass than women when the same effort is made. But just because women can’t easily lift the same weights, doesn’t make them weaker. They have physical abilities to compensate for this difference which are less developed in men, such as flexibility and hand-to-eye coordination. There are plenty of other examples where men and women differ, but the gap is not detrimental to either one since they compensate with abilities and skills in other areas that are just as important to survival and a fulfilling life.
In fiction, such differences can be used to create amazing protagonists and terrific conflicts, without ever implying that they devalue one gender over the other. Pay attention to how you use and justify them, and make sure the counterpart character has their own “differences” to work in their favor.
There is a lot of creative freedom in writing. Especially in science-fiction, where societies are created which are different than our own, writers have the liberty to write characters any way they please. I believe anything goes if it’s used smartly in the service of good storytelling. It’s part of our freedom, and I wouldn’t sacrifice that for political correctness in a million years. I don’t mind reading stereotypical and even sexist characters, as long as their mentality has evolved in an understandable way in the context of the story. But when there is no story-logic to a protagonist’s gender bias, it’s fairly sure to assume the author is the carrier of those beliefs, and it makes me wonder how many susceptible readers it will affect.
I’m not a “raging feminist” (whatever that is), and attribute more value to other aspects of a person than their perception of gender roles. But the fact remains that there is still a prevalence toward misogyny in today’s fiction, and I most certainly don’t want to contribute to it. I’d love to see more writers be mindful of the potentially sexist implications when they write female protagonists.
And I hope to read many more formidable female protagonists that are first and foremost STRONG PEOPLE before anything else.
What is your opinion about sexist stereotypes and gender bias in fiction? What bothers you the most—and what are you committed to do better?