Characters and Gender Roles

I recently have been thinking about gender roles, both in real life and in fiction. 

Like many, I grew up watching children’s programming – for me it was the early and mid-80s programming.  I watched Sesame Street, Smurfs, J.I. Joe, Transformers, Duck Tales, Chip and Dale’s Rescue Rangers, Inspector Gadget, Scooby-Doo, Scooby and Scrappy Doo, Ewoks, and Richie Rich.  My babysitter’s daughter watched Care Bears, so sometimes I saw the intro of that cartoon before heading to school.  What I can’t help but notice now is how many male influences there were in those cartoons and how few females, and most of the females were in traditional roles.  I had even started to notice this ‘conditioning’ by the age of 12 or 13.

I also read many of the classics as an adolescent.  Once again, most of the major characters were males.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago, I saw an article talking about driving and genders.  The article was quick to point out how many more accidents men get in compared to women, yet the article didn’t talk about the amount of driving men do compared to women.  I posted a question: “How many accidents do men get in per mile compared to women?”  It was an honest question, but it turned some people into very mean (evil) posters.  I was accused of being a sexist who belongs in the 60s, I was told to shut up, I was called things I won’t repeat here, and yet I was praised (maybe that’s an exaggeration) by some for bringing to light the real issue.  But I hadn’t said anything; I only asked a question.  Only one person tried to answer my question; the rest thought my question was a statement, reading more into what I had asked than what I meant based on their stereotyping and prejudices – and their assumptions about my stereotypes and prejudices.

People understand gender roles now in more complex and confusing ways than they have in the past.  Women are often expected to work outside the home but are still expected to take care of the same chores they always have had in the home.  A man’s role in children’s lives is starting to become acknowledged, yet the man is rarely the one blamed in child neglect cases.  More women are in college now than men, but the term “CEO” still brings a man’s image to most people’s minds.  Women are starting to make careers out of athletics, but if you turn on a sports channel you probably expect to see men’s sports.  Women have made up 60% or more of the voting public in the USA for the last 20 years, yet we still haven’t had a woman president or vice president.  What does all that mean?  I don’t know.

I have heard someone say, “Beware making a woman weak in fiction unless you also have an equally strong woman with a larger role in your manuscript.”  And you can add, “Don’t have a working father who does both dishes and laundry unless you can handle people saying, ‘This isn’t realistic.’” 

In reality, there is still a large group of people who see traditional gender roles in their daily lives, or people, like me, who grew up watching 80s cartoons or other programming that conditioned thought patterns.  There are also people who have no idea what ‘traditional gender roles’ means, people who have never known an outdoor dad and indoor mom.  How do you write to both groups?  I don’t know.

Like with the responses to my question about driving stats, readers will bring their own personal biases and make assumptions when you challenge what they see or desire in regarding gender roles.  You must think about how you want to approach your characters.

This post isn’t about telling you the solution, but to get you to think about the questions:

  • How do I want to portray gender roles in my manuscript?
  • When is my manuscript taking place and how should my characters reflect that?
  • Who is reading my manuscript and what are they expecting?  What do I want to tell them?
  •  How does my handling of male and female characters reflect on me?

About R. Garrett Wilson

I am a member of the Stanislaus World Builders writing group and have participated in the FSFW writing group. I have written one drama that was based on the book of Mark and performed at my church in 2007. My story, Journeyer, is published in Analog Magazine and a novelette, The Bakrra Encounter, in the FSFW 2010 anthology, I Dreamed a Crooked Dream. I also took part in the community novel project, Stanislaus Reads and Writes, and have a chapter in their novel, Ashes in a Teardrop. Beyond writing, I enjoy road trips, photography, woodworking, watching tennis and cycling, and reading.
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6 Responses to Characters and Gender Roles

  1. For me, I don’t see it as being conditioned to force genders into roles via media, rather, I see it as the media is different per gender as that is who it is trying to attract.

    I am willing to bet that, before media influence, girls have liked to be clean and play dolls, while boys liked to get dirty and play rough. The bottom line is we AREN’T the same, and due to severe hormone differences, we will naturally be drawn to different things.

    This doesn’t mean that you can’t have a girl who truly enjoys getting dirty and hauling concrete, or a boy who truly enjoys baking. There are always exceptions, and we are not simply products of our hormones.

    All that being said, I am not one for writing a “role breaking” character just to prove a point. Likewise, I am not one to write a “role controlled” character, either. I develop characters personalities in my head first, then their life circumstances are dictated by what type of person they are… not what someone (including me) thinks they should be.

    And for the record: if I could stay home with the kids and take care of the house instead of work, I would so be there! :)

  2. PD Wright says:

    I think gender roles are hard to do right. Honestly, no family is the same and now a days, things could be completely backwards from what life was like in the 1950′s. Conversely, there are still many traditional families where the mother (or father) stays home and takes care of the house and children, and there are families with two working parents and children in daycare.

    I think that worrying too much about those gender roles will bog down your writing. Of course, not worrying about it at all may lead to major rework in the editing process. Honestly, I think a writer should think through every character, should thoroughly understand their motivations, and then should make sure their motivations are clear enough to the reader that even a character with unusual gender roles will be believable to the reader.

    There is no need to write a traditional character just because that is easier for a reader to accept. BUT, if it’s a throw away character who the reader will never get a chance to understand, it does help to make the character something expected.

  3. David Oliver says:

    Gender roles represent a very pervasive form of stereotyping that few people actually give much conscious thought to. The reason is simple; gender roles are taught to us at a very early age through guidance, (such as a parent might give,) observation, (such as one the child might perceive with friends and family,) and the world, which includes media. These lessons are learned and then never really thought about; they become part of our cultural doxa and are only really challenged in activists movements such as the feminist movement. The nature of this particular doxa for the common person is that have certain expectations regarding people, their relationships and their roles. Writers, the purveyors of facts and fantasy to the common man, perpetuate this role with their own creations, and the perpetuation of these roles are not due to some great design, cultural blindness or just plain laziness; the characters the writer creates are shadows of the writers own expectations as well as their own observations of the human condition. Gender roles may be changing in these modern times, and they may have been changing for the last several decades, but superficial observation will still show these roles and expectations in abundance.

    So the question then becomes how to play the issue of gender roles in your manuscript? If you stick to traditional gender roles you will make the character easier to relate to for many of the readers, but if you blindly stick to gender expectations you are limiting your characters depth and options. If you have your character break traditional gender roles, you may open an entire world of options to your character, but risk damaging that characters believability.

    On a personal level, I have read books where the characters have been very stringently encapsulated in their gender roles. In these books the hero is always the male, who goes out and makes a living, (sometimes by finding adventure,) answers many of the problems with violence and is portrayed as a paragon of wisdom and maturity. The women in these books are often times weak; they may excel in some small area but that excellence seems like a consolation prize. In these stories when the conflict reaches climax, it is the hero that must save the damsel. To add insult to injury, it is often the woman’s inability to really understand the full situation which leads to the climax of conflict. In these stories I find myself getting irritated at the writer, sometimes declaiming them a hopeless misogynist. On a less vehement level I do complain that such stories have created flat, two dimensional characters.

    On the other hand I have read books where the main character(s) have broken free of traditional gender roles. In these stories the protagonist is usually a female and usually espouses a doctrine of crudity and/or violence to solve their problems. When I read these stories I find myself picturing the writer sitting at their computer wearing a shirt that just says “girl power.” In other cases the protagonist is male, but usually “gentle” to the point of being useless. Often times he has to be saved by the violent or outspoken female lead. In both of these cases I believe that the writer has created flat two dimensional characters as well. A woman does not need to emulate the worst elements of masculinity to prove herself separate from her preordained feminine role, just like a man does not need to immaculate himself to move beyond societies expectations of his gender role. While there are many exceptions to this rule, like all rules, it seems to me that most writers that actively try to maintain gender roles do so by killing part of their characters personality, just as when the writer tries to break gender roles, they usually do so to the point of caricature.

    So what is the summation? I think both C. Michael Fontes and P.D. Wright had the correct idea; ignore gender roles, or at least don’t let your writing be bogged down by trying to fill (or break) expectations. To the writer the characters are not stick figures, they are people and it is the writers job to make the full reality of the character clear and believable to the readers. This is simple, really, it is something that all of us should be doing anyways. Flesh out your characters. If you have a wife that stays at home, explain why she chose or was forced to stay at home. If that wife decides to be the bread winner, explain that motivation as well. Don’t simply write about a flustered, strung out single mother simply to be gritty, show us the satisfaction she gets every time she cashes her paycheck, or the loneliness she feels every time she goes to bed alone, or whatever else. Your characters are a world unto themselves.

    I agree that the writer needs to know his world, its time, and his expected audience. If you write a story that takes place in the late 19th century, the reader will expect almost all the characters to fill gender roles. If a character breaks this role, this is important and must be fully explored. In this regard, it is important to be aware of gender roles, but I believe that it is more important that the writer, and hence the reader, knows and understands the character(s) enough that gender roles represents only one thread in the tapestry of the characters lives. In this I believe that the writer will find the most believability in his world and characters.

  4. roh.morgon says:

    As a girl, I spent my childhood climbing trees and catching lizards, and wouldn’t have been caught dead playing with dolls. My two brothers and I took turns doing dishes and cleaning bathrooms. I wasn’t aware of gender inequalities until I was nearly an adult. So my views on gender roles have always been a little outside the norm.

    In thinking about the female characters I’ve written, they are all strong and independent. My guys are no pansies, either. After all, they need to be able to go toe-to-toe with my gals!

    But I write urban fantasy. More realistic settings, such as historical fiction, definitely need to take into account more traditional roles. However, writers need to be careful of stereotyping. Even a “weaker” character can have strengths that give them depth and realism. And strong characters should have weaknesses that make them more human.

    Nice topic, Ryan!

  5. Very interesting essay. People do get pretty uptight when men’s and women’s roles are mentioned. There has definitely been a shift from when I was a kid (I watched those same cartoons), and not all of it for the better.

    Boy, I could go on for a while on this subject, but for me . . . I am happy with my role. Not in the least jealous of my husbands demanding work schedule.

  6. Myrna Foster says:

    This is a great post, Ryan. I’ve worried because the boy kind of rescues the girl in my novel. I worried enough that I tried to turn the main character into a girl, but it didn’t work. I think the story is more important than making a statement about gender roles.

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