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?