Some time ago I wrote a blog post about perceptions that there was a demographic shift occurring in the readership of speculative fiction: a substantial tilt toward girls and away from boys, such that perhaps a genre that was once perhaps dominated largely by male readers is now substantially dominated by female readers.
The question of gender – of readers, of authors, and of characters – has been on my mind a lot lately thanks to a series of blogs and articles I’ve seen that address the topic.
First, there was an article on the Powell’s blog by author Jennifer Dubois in which she opines about the difficulty in our society of female protagonists and narrators in fiction – and the ethical need, in her opinions, for more such characters. The article is called “Writing Across Gender” but it isn’t really about writing characters of the opposite gender, really, as it is about writing female characters. It was an interesting place to get my recent thoughts on the subject jump-started.
The question was inherently interesting to me, naturally, because the primary protagonist of my current novel project WIP is a female character. I had a lot of trepidation when I began this project, I must admit. Jennifer Dubois thinks that because:
…First, the notion that women are essentially strangers, their consciousnesses wholly foreign; and second, that this foreignness, in addition to being unassailable, is also pretty limited and boring.
But honestly, I don’t think that’s terribly accurate, or true. The first notion is almost like the truth. To a male mind, women can seem difficult to fathom. But the real issue, I think, is fear. Fear of getting it wrong. Because whether or not that notion that the opposite gender is difficult to fathom is true, the fact is there are no shortage of members of the opposite gender who might happen to read the book and immediately key into the fact that you got it terribly wrong and forever after hate you because of it. It was the fear not just of getting it wrong but of getting found out and pilloried as a talentless hack writer. Which means, really, the whole thing was about my own insecurities moreso than the alienness of the opposite gender. One thing’s for sure: I didn’t think that women were boring.
That article, ultimately, was more than a little disappointing, mainly because it didn’t actually address the premise of the title in any meaningful way: neither from the perspective of a female author writing a male character nor a male author writing a female character. Luckily, on my part, I’ve seen quite a bit of other advice recently that did address these issues, and they really helped me to develop the confidence I needed to write the story I wanted to write. I can distill most of that advice down to a very simple formula: write about human characters, and don’t worry so much about gender stereotypes. Or, in other words, regardless of gender, give your characters passions, dreams, desires, fears, insecurities, strengths, and weaknesses. Our characters should be people first, their gender second. Treat them as worthy of protagonisthood, and they will be fine.
But the question of female characters in speculative fiction just kept coming up in more and more things I read, and I continued to think about the question.
On the Tor.com blog, there was a post pleading for more “female heroes for adults“. The article, by Emily Asher-Perrin, notes that there have been a lot of worthy female protagonists in YA fiction – among them, notably, Katniss Everdeen of the Hunger Games trilogy, but Katniss is really just the most recent high profile example of a long tradition of female protagonists in YA and juvenile fiction (going back to before “YA” was a category like it is today). Emily Asher-Perrin’s argument is that although young girls have good literary role-models in the relatively common YA female protagonists, the lack of such female heroes in adult fiction sends a profoundly negative cultural message: that it’s okay for young girls to dream of being the hero, of being important, but that when girls become adults they have to put away this childish notion because in the adult world women aren’t heroes. Men, on the other hand, don’t seem to have to face this cultural message.
And then, in another similarly-themed piece, author Misty Massey on the Magical Worlds blog also pines for more independently-willed female protagonists.
It certainly seems like a zeitgeist moment. There’s a lot of chatter and a lot of energy swirling around this topic. But in the same piece where Misty talks about the need for normalizing female protagonists, she drops some very interesting – and startling – statistics:
In 2009, 61% of fantasy readers were women. In 2010, that number jumped to 85%. Roc, one of the biggest fantasy publishers, has only one successful male series protagonist – Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden. I’m told by someone who has the inside word that they’re not even especially looking for male series characters at Roc. So with this kind of information at hand, why are we still looking at female characters the way we do?
I can’t speak to the validity of these numbers. But let’s assume they’re accurate. There’s certainly a lot of anecdotal evidence that supports these claims.
In a word: Whoa. Really, is it true that almost 9 out of 10 fantasy readers today is a woman? That’s a powerful and overwhelming sea-change. And is it true that some publishers aren’t even interested in male protagonists anymore?
It’s interesting, to me, that all of these female writers are crying out for more female protagonists, and yet if the trend of publishers shunning male protagonists continues, we’ll see not just an influx of new female protagonists, but a complete dearth of new male protagonists.
I suspect, however, that this is all in part due to the rise of the new Paranormal-Romance-flavored version of Urban Fantasy: the genre-within-a-genre that rose from the union of the Twilight-phenomenon with the pre-existing Urban Fantasy market. Where the growth of that market will end I don’t know. So it’s possible, I can imagine, that males haven’t abandoned Fantasy so much that many, many new females are reading Fantasy than ever were before. It’s possible that’s what’s really happening, I say. Of course, I really don’t know.
But regardless, it leaves me… worried. Worried about my own future as a writer. Because if this trend continues, I can also imagine that male writers might be crowded out. What room is there for new male writers of Fantasy when the insanely vast majority of fantasy readers are female? Female readers who are craving - if these various blog posts can be taken as representative of the feelings of female readers - more female protagonists.
As a male writer and aspiring fantasy author, I’m very glad that there are so many more female readers of Fantasy. I think it’s good for the genre as a whole. But I don’t want boys and men to stop reading Fantasy just because girls are reading it, too. I want the readership of the genre to be more equal.
And I want that because I think the genre needs a more equal balance of protagonists and heroes, too. As an aspiring fantasy author, I don’t want to be bound to writing only protagonists of one gender or another – neither only male nor only female. Right now my WIP has a female protagonist. But I have stories I want to tell with male protagonists, too. But if males abandon the genre, I fear the demand for new male protagonists will eventually dry up.
Perhaps this is another side to the problems of sexism in our society. Part of the growing pains, you might say, of growing beyond the patriarchal models of the past and into the equitable models of the future. But the sexism of the old patriarchy is hard to kill. I’ve heard of this sort of thing happening in other areas before. Something used to be traditionally associated with boys, and then girls come along and take up whatever it was, and then boys flee whatever it was because it now has a “feminine” association with it and our society wants boys to eschew anything remotely feminine. I say I’ve heard of this sort of thing… but really I can’t think of any real-world examples except a handful of names that used to be predominately masculine names but are now predominately feminine names (names like Ashley and Hilary and so on). Is this a real phenomenon? I don’t really know. But if this is a sort of phenomenon of the real world – if something like this could be going on in the Fantasy genres – I think that’s a distinctly negative trend.
Whatever the reality… to all the female readers of Fantasy, new and old: I’m glad you’re here, and I hope you’ll stay a while and enrich our genre. To all the old male readers of Fantasy: please, keep reading and contributing to our old beloved genre. To all the males who apparently aren’t buying into Fantasy: dude, there’s a reason your dad can’t stop talking about Lord of the Rings, there’s a reason your uncle is cosplaying at conventions, there’s a reason Game of Thrones is the biggest thing on TV these days, there’s a reason that every new Wheel of Time book is a humongous best-seller even though the series is like a thousand books long: It’s all because Fantasy is Awesome. And you should be reading it. Because you can be this awesome, too, if you read more Fantasy.
Sigh. Honestly, I don’t know what I’m going on about. I guess I just feel anxious. I’ve wanted to be a fantasy author since I was like eight years old. Now I’m seeing people roughly my age making it huge in the fantasy world, and I’m still dithering around trying to write my first novel.
So let me stop, now, and turn it back over to you, dear readers. What’s your take on these trends? Where do we go from here, and how do we simultaneously encourage the new influx of female writers and readers and yet also maintain a healthy population of male writers and readers? Share your thoughts, because on issues as complex as these, 200 brains are surely better than 1.
(Oh, who am I kidding? I don’t have 200 readers! I have like 5. Still. 5 heads are better than 1, too, right?)