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
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.
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.
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?
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.
(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.)
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.
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.
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.
Also published on Medium.