Writing Women.

Let’s talk about lady protagonists.

No, this isn’t another rant about needing more strong female characters, nor the problems with Strong Female Characters (TM). (That’s an easy problem to solve, really: you write good characters, and some of them are female. Done. Not every character needs to carry the impossible weight of universal representation.)

No, I’m going to talk about just the number of females, and my own part in the current state of affairs. Yes, this was partly prompted by Jo Eberhardt’s “The Problem With Female Protagonists,” but I think I’m going to add some additional data and personal takes.

First, let’s look at a statistical truth: There are more books and films with male protagonists than female. (The very fact that we call out but-look-a-female-lead! is proof of it being outside the norm. Nobody needs to point out gravity, because we’re all used to it.) But because we’re all neurologically programmed to notice the abnormal more than the normal, when we do start seeing “diversity,” it feels bigger than it is.

This is why research shows that if 17% of a given group is female, the men in the group report an equal number of men and women, and when the number of females reaches 33%, the men report a majority of women. The “excess” of women over the “norm” is what’s perceived, not an actual count.

That 17% is a particularly interesting figure, in my observation, because it seems to be fairly constant. Consider the 5 Man Band, an ensemble cast trope seen in everything from the Robin Hood legend to The A-Team to Guardians of the Galaxy. The roles are familiar:

  • the Leader
  • the Lancer
  • the Smart Guy
  • the Big Guy
  • the Chick
Children's Place defended this male-only design by saying that Gamora couldn't be fit on the shirt -- insulting their designers -- and by saying that boys only wanted more-identifiable characters. Because saying a boy is more like a barely-verbal plant or an escaped lab animal than a competent woman is not insulting AT ALL.

Children’s Place defended this male-only design by saying that Gamora couldn’t be fit on the shirt — insulting their designers — and that boys only wanted “more-identifiable” characters. Because saying a boy is more like a barely-verbal plant or an escaped lab animal than a woman is not insulting AT ALL to boys and women alike.

Yes, we have representation! There’s 20% of the team with two X chromosomes! (But sometimes even that is too much, as the infamous #WheresGamora fiasco revealed.) But just one-fifth of the characters in this iconic and popular ensemble trope are female. And roughly one-fifth of the characters in a typical film crowd scene will be female (Geene Davis Institute for Gender in Media). One-fifth of Hollywood protagonists are female (source).

And curiously, just one-fifth of surgeons today are female (AMA). And the US Congress is one-fifth female (CAWP). And remember, one-fifth of a group is where most men perceive equal female representation. I could go on.

Are we inadvertently training ourselves to see one-fifth as normal or equal?

Eberhardt points out the excellent podcast Stuff You Missed In History Class gets a ridiculous number of complaints that it talks “mostly” or “only” about women, with an actual calculated rate of only 21% of stories about female subjects. Again, one-fifth.

crowd of business people and the woman in the red dress, from the Matrix

First Google-returned screencap from the Matrix’s iconic crowd scene: 8+ identifiable males, 2 identifiable females, and one intentional female sex object. One-fifth. Check.

So, okay, we need to normalize female protagonists. And we’ve got some successful titles to point at, including the new Stars Wars: The Force Awakens, which somehow made money despite having both a female and a person of color in the lead roles. (/sarcasm) And don’t get me wrong, that’s a good thing. Mike Adamick published a great blog post last December when TFA released, but he didn’t get it quite right. Let me explain.

Adamick wrote:

Because the thing is: My daughter, her friends, their circle — and millions like them around the country — they already know.

Do you think in their play time and imaginations that they’re not the hero?

Please.[…]

Do you think in their play time that girls don’t fly the Falcon?

That they don’t beat up jerks with their staffs?

Or tinker, engineer, fly, run, jump, call lightsabers, become the chosen one, and save the universe?

No, Rey is not the perfect role model for little girls.

Adamick argues that Rey is not a role model for little girls because little girls are already pretending to be the heroines, but an example for the rest of us who need to see a female protagonist. It’s a great argument! But correction and confession time: that’s not how it works, at least not all the time.

When I was the age of his daughter playing my own games, yes, I absolutely was the hero. I flew, I fought, I saved the universe and everyone in it. And I did it all while pretending I was a boy.

Because I had to be a boy to be the hero. Because that’s how stories worked.

And that wasn’t just me. Nearly two decades ago, as we were walking through the woods, a friend told me she used to love to go outside and make up stories and act them out. Like every other kid, you know? And then she dropped her voice, and she hesitated, and she finally confessed, in part-guilt, part-defiance: “Only, I pretended I was the hero.”

Because she knew that wasn’t the way she was supposed to do it.

It astounds me now to think of how thoroughly we absorbed that social dictum despite our separate, balanced upbringings. Neither of us grew up in men’s-rights households or weird hyper-conservative communes or anything. We would have told you, if asked, that women are just as valuable as men and have just as much potential. And yet our actions revealed that we had internalized the opposite.

young boy looks at poster of all-female Presidents of the United States and sighs with discouragement

Unintentional messages still matter.

(Does this really matter, when we’ve grown out of make-believe? That same friend told me a few months ago she feels trapped and limited in her life and her roles. That’s not a statistically valid sample, but there it is.)

And Me

Fast-forward to my adult life and writing, and I realize that I write a lot of male characters. A lot. Some of them need to be male for story purposes, but some are male because… because that’s how I learned stories work.

I’m working on that in myself. Yes, a lot of my male protagonists need to be male for story reasons — often because the setting does not allow the same agency for a female character (Kaede would never be able to travel as Tsuguru does, not without becoming a completely different type of character). But they don’t all have to be.

I’m currently working on edits for a big and very male-intensive novel. I paused just now and counted, and major speaking/motivating parts fall pretty much 8 to 2 in favor of males. Hm, that 20% again. Now, there are good reasons for some of those to be male, and I’m not going to rewrite them — but maybe my next one will have a few more female characters.

And that’s not so hard to do. In one work-in-progress, I realized there was no good reason the local sheriff who meets with the two protagonists (one male, one female) couldn’t be a woman. It’s not hard to balance the ratio.

But if we’re counting protagonists…. /counts on fingers/ Two of my last five short story sales feature female protagonists, two have male protagonists, and one is equal time between male and female (it’s a romantic short). Whew! I’m not contributing too strongly to the problem. But it’s something I should keep in mind, given what I’ve learned about myself.

Further Diversity

Now, let me very briefly address something I’m less qualified to talk about, and that’s diversity in race (and more). I’m a white girl. My name is Dutch, my skin is cave-fish pale. I can’t pretend to speak to what it’s like to browse books when the majority of protagonists are a different color than me. I will say I personally have little trouble identifying with a well-written character who doesn’t look like me, and a lot of the books I read are set in times and places where a white suburbanite of Dutch descent would make no sense. I recently finished a novel set in the first-century Middle East and it never occurred to me ’til just now that I was reading “outside of my race.”

But I will quickly add that I am not the person to ask about appearances. (I’ve relatively recently discovered I have prosopagnosia, or face blindness, which may explain not only my constant embarrassing inability to identify people I’ve met and my distinct lack of character facial description, but also the instances where I have actually failed to identify differing race.) And so skin color may be a heroism hurdle for someone else just as gender was for me.

Obviously, if there’s a kid out there who has to imagine herself as white in her playtime, well, that’s wrong, too. We should all be able to be our own heroes.

Normalizing

I obviously think representation is important, but we still need to focus on story. Normalization doesn’t happen if we’re focused on “diversity!” exclusively or even emphatically. At bare minimum, consider the inherent subtext of, “That’s a good film” versus “That’s a good female-lead film” or “Out of films with a black protagonist, that’s a good one.” Ouch. I for one don’t want to be invited to speak as a “special guest female writer,” but as a “special guest writer.” One of these says I’m pretty good for a girl, and the other says I’m pretty good. Big, big difference.

Persistently pointing out diversity can actually take away from it, putting “diverse” works in their own, separate compartment to be appreciated for their progressiveness but not really consumed and internalized like mainstream media. Instead, we should create work which is great, and which also includes those who might need to see themselves. Female protagonists should be as normal and unsurprising as male.

So while Mike Adamick was wrong that little girls already see themselves as the heroes, he is spot-on dead-right about us all needing to see girls as the heroes.

One-fifth is not enough. Let’s aim for one-half.

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17 Comments

  1. I love reading your posts. Your line about there being a big difference between being pretty good and pretty good for a girl is exactly the sort of thing I rail against.

  2. Okay, so that study on actual number of women vs. perceived male/female balance is reaaally interesting. And scary.

    I don’t ever recall pretending to be male while I was the hero. I actually did a lot of pretending to be a flying cat…not sure what that says. :P Whereas now I much prefer writing males, as a kid I had a distinct preference for female characters (e.g. I was obsessed with Wendy from Peter Pan for a while, and Kimberly from Power Rangers), and the first hero I wrote was female (and also a unicorn). Perhaps it’s that my writing/creating juices started flowing at the same time as boys developed cooties. :P

    Now, though, I have a much stronger association with males as heroes, I prefer reading male protagonists, and I find writing men easier (even if I’m doing it wrong :P). I have to wonder if I was exposed to more and more male protagonists and bad/sexualized/unrelateable female characters as time went on and therefore developed a stronger liking for male characters overall.

    • I often say that I cosplay male characters more than female because there are more good male characters to choose from. I definitely think there’s something to seeing/reading the poorly-written female character and that making it harder to want to write them later.

      I also frequently pretended to be an animal, though sadly without flight capability.
      Laura recently posted…Writing Women.My Profile

  3. Tell me about it. I collect action figures. I like to have figures of the main cast of my favorite shows. It’s next to impossible to find an action figure for The Token Female for any show. Sometimes if one is lucky, one can find a non-posable statue… For three times the price, and she’s wearing some skimpy outfit that she never wore in the show at all…

  4. All right, since facebook is being a bunch of fascists, I’m commenting here, per your request!

    I agree that this was a great article. You mentioned that a sheriff in one of your WIPs had no reason to not be a woman. I had a similar realization a couple months ago: there’s no reason my villain can’t be a woman.

    I may be in an odd situation as a male writer though, as there is an even split 50-50 between male and female characters, with the main POV character in my book being female. In fact, the heroine is an intelligent strategist, she makes friends with a tough-as-nails young woman who wants to be career military, and the male character that tags along is the airheaded eye candy. I’m going to actually have to watch out to make sure my MALE character doesn’t fail the Bechdel Test.

    As far as “diversity requirements” go, the only thing that may still be counted against me is that my heroine is a ginger. The rest are of various skin tones and what not, though that’s honestly irrelevant to my story.

    • I read a lot of authors writing other-gender POVs. Just get some female critique partners to nail the weirder bits (panties before bra, always, though we have no idea why) and go for it!

      I have a secret soft spot for male airhead eye candy characters (/cough/ Gourry from Slayers /cough/ Kronk /cough/), though it’s worth noting they’re nearly always comedic. Do it!
      Laura recently posted…Writing Women.My Profile

  5. Love this post! It’s so true! I was thrilled when the New Jedi Order series came out, because finally I could be a girl while being a hero! (yay Jaina Solo!) That was huge to me, to have someone I could identify with who was what I wanted to be.

    My best friend at church has gorgeous dark chocolate skin. And she’s a mom with a daughter who is very similar in skin tone to her. I deliberately made several of the characters in my upcoming series dark skinned, so when Livy grows up, she’ll have book characters that look like her and are dynamic, awesome and kick butt. I’m not great at diversity (yet), but I want all the kids we know to have someone they can identify with and cosplay as.

  6. I write the characters who show up, whether male or female. Depends on the story. My fantasy novel (which is under consideration by 2 houses right now – yikes!) has a female protagonist AND a female villain. That’s the way they came to me.

    My short story in the Realm Makers anthology has a female protagonist. My WIP fantasy novel has a female protagonist. Another fantasy novel in progress has a male. Again, I tend to write ’em as they show up, although I’ve been known to switch things around for diversity. We live in a diverse world, right?

    Most of us spec lovers/authors have been inspired by LOTR, which is predominantly male and I never thought about it until now. Is that because I’ve been conditioned? Or was it such a marvelous story I didn’t notice? Not sure. Same with stories of people who are a different nationality than me (not race – we’re all in the human race). If I love the story and the characters, I could care less what color their skin is. I have a Filipino niece and nephew, and my daughter’s boyfriend is black. I love them for who they are. And I would hope all my friends feel the same, though I know all too often, that’s not the case.

    Thanks for an interesting post, Laura!

  7. I love reading about books centering on women. And when I say women, I mean strong, independent women, not whiny ones. That’s annoying in my book.
    Harry Ramsey recently posted…fitathome.com – Spartan Fitness and Health Program deal – $37My Profile

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