Gender Gap

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 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?)

26 thoughts on “Gender Gap

  1. This is an issue that I’ve taken to heart. The lack of female heroes in stories. When we do see them, they seem to be pale copies of the old male model. Men and women have differences and I believe that a truly female hero would not take on situations in the same way that a typical man would, but would still get the job done and save the world. It leaves much for writers to explore as we develop a new way for people to culturally express equality among the sexes. Excellent article. 🙂

    • I think that’s changing around very rapidly, though. Yeah you a lot Urban Fantasy ass-kicking uber-sexy ladies. But you’ve also got the model of Katniss Everdeen, now, (who felt very realistic to me) and others like her. I think that’s becoming more and more common.

      • I haven’t read the hunger games and don’t know about this character…frankly I’m hesitant to read the book because I am not sure I want to read a novel about children killing children. I did not like Twilight nor the Potter books either. I’m probably a hopeless case when it comes to this sort of thing. I do know of female heroes throughout fantasy of the 80s and 90s that I could sympathize with. Few of these more natural feminine heroes have gotten less press. I’d far rather see our new heroes modeled on Hari of The Blue Sword, Lessa the goldrider from Pern, or Del from Robinson’s Sword-Dancer series. Perhaps I’m old-fashioned that way. All of them kicked butt, but each also took on their hero role with a definite feminine outlook.

      • I haven’t yet read the sequels, but Hunger Games was a pretty good, tight, fast-paced novel. I don’t think it was ground-breaking in a technical sense, but it was certainly a big break-out, and was an enjoyable read. I’m somewhat ashamed to have to admit that I’m not familiar with any of the heroines you mention above… I’m forced to confront the fact that I’m a bit of a slowish reader and I’ve read significantly less at this point in my life than what I ideally would have if I read as fast as some people seem to. (I’ve been told multiple times I should read the Pern books but I just have never had time.)

      • If you had to choose among those that I mentioned, Anne McCaffery would be first. I concur with those recommendations. 🙂 Females heroes are not new to fantasy, but cultural understanding that it is OK to be a female and a hero is slower in coming. I think that we are getting there though. 🙂

      • Really, one day, I do think I’ll get around to reading at least the main cycle of Pern books. 🙂 (There are like a hundred Pern books, but I think I can at least manage picking up the original trilogy.)

  2. For whatever the opinion of me and my ilk are worth (whatever that ilk may be), I happen to like male protagonists. Certainly I find myself more inclined to write them, and I’ll not be turned away from reading them.
    Like you, I find the prospect of writing females to be a bit daunting, because there are some really, radically sensitive females out there, and I’d rather not get on their bad side.
    I worry that I try too hard, when writing girls. I wholeheartedly agree that it’s all about making the characters *people* first and foremost, and fussing about the female aspect has a way of distracting me from that. I’m hoping it’s something I’ll improve upon with continued practice. I’ve gotten some encouraging feedback regarding some of my more recent heroines, so maybe I’m moving in the right direction. (:

    • It’s funny, but I don’t think that’s an uncommon attitude. There’s a lot of ladies who’re just so used to male protagonists that they see it as normal. I don’t think that’s necessarily a good or a bad thing, it’s just a thing. But I would say, on writing female protagonists, just don’t worry about it – if you feel inspired to it, just do it. That’s what I’ve learned so far in writing my own female protagonist. She is just herself. And frankly, I don’t think I need to worry about offending delicate sensibilities. Because you know… if you worry about that, you’ll never be able to write anything.

  3. The male-to-female name is really just one aspect of men eschewing things seen to be too feminine now. Theater used to be an all-male thing. Nowadays, a young man interested in theater, especially musical theater, is assumed to be gay, because it’s seen as something feminine. Cheerleading actually started out as all-male, too. It’s not something that happens all the time, especially, I would suspect, in cases where there is segregation between the genders, like with the WNBA. This can, of course, also go the other way, with young women interested in sports, especially the “wrong” sports, getting labeled as gay, as well. I certainly hope the solution to such a disparity in demographics (assuming the numbers are true, of course) isn’t segregation of what is acceptable reading material, but I suspect we’re already at least partially there. How many guys feel shame when admitting to reading or even picking up a Twilight book?

    I would be interested to know if there are demographics by the sub-genres of fantasy, because the paranormal urban fantasy romance thingamajig is one explanation, but is it all? I dunno. I’m also somewhat curious to know what the ratio of readers is in general. How many guys are reading at all? What are they primarily reading? How do people even know the gender of readers? I mean, it could just be that it’s women buying books for their guy friends who are .. uh … too scared to be seen in bookstores? I dunno!

    One interesting aspect of this is that, in many case, female writers can feel more comfortable writing male characters, because this is what we’ve read growing up and in most cases–the male perspective. It can actually be more difficult and daunting to write a woman’s POV, because there’s less out there that contributes to things like tropes and other literary shortcuts. (Or, if they exist, they’re of the kind that like to shove women into the background.) I can’t recall if the study was on movies or games, but someone did one somewhere that indicated that, while women can identify with both male and female protags, guys have a harder time identifying with female protags, thinking of them more in terms of prospective mates (whether for a date or life I don’t know) than as a person who happens to have different plumbing. It’s an interesting problem.

    Um…I’m out of coherent thoughts for the day. 🙂

    • Yeah, I was thinking of your comment in my last post on this topic when I pointed that out – but except for that example of names, I couldn’t think of anything. The Theater is a really good example, though. As for Twilight, to be fair, I don’t think that book was written with a male audience in mind in the first place. But I fear you’re right, that there is some natural segregation occurring within the fantasy genre. My real fear, however, is that the segregation is going to lead to a male/female SF vs. F divide – with males fleeing Fantasy for the refuge of Sci-Fi. (Not that they’ll have any lasting refuge there. I think males are still dominant in the readership and authorship of Sci Fi, but I don’t think that ladies are shying away from that genre.) Seeing stats like this makes me sad because what I really want, and what I think would be best for the Fantasy genre in general, is a large readership of both females and males. I also think you’re write about the phenomenon of female authors finding it easier to write male protagonists than male authors writing female protagonists – but I think that’s something that will change in time. But really, it will only change if male readers stop fleeing genres in which more female authors are now writing.

  4. Just speculating here, but perhaps the dropping number of males isn’t because of a lack of interest in fantasy, but because overall fewer males are encourage to read or stay readers? All my evidence is anecdotal, so I cannot confirm that without doing a lot more research, but it might be worthwhile to do. Also, as you mentioned, the increase may be due to new genres (such as paranormal romance and urban fantasy). I still see a disturbing lack of non-token/sterotypical female characters in my old mainstays of fantasy and SF.

    I wouldn’t worry so much about getting it wrong. You will get it wrong! I will get it wrong (and I do, even if I’m a woman). Characters are imperfect, as are their writers. There’s no way to write one (male/female/poc minority) that will appeal to everyone or be accepted as ‘true’ by everyone. I agree with your approach. The character is the thing. Make them 3d and as real as you can, and try your best.

    • That makes some sense and I think you’re right about that. I suspect that overall there are fewer males reading in general these days than ladies – not just in Fantasy but across many different genres. To me, this is a problem that goes back to our schools, and the root cause lies directly in our education system’s perverse and harmful glorification of male athletics over just about any other pursuit. Whether through peer pressure, educator complacency, or active participation and encouragement of educators, young men are pushed toward athletic activities and their interest in academics is rarely if ever encouraged. This has been a long trend in our society over the last few decades… As for “getting it wrong”… I used to worry, but I don’t anymore. I feel so into this story and it’s characters that I just don’t have time to worry whether my protag is “female” enough. She is who she is, and that’s all there is to it.

  5. Assuming the statistic you mentioned is true, it doesn’t say anything about the total numbers of male or female readers. As you said, it could mean that a huge number of women are just now starting to read fantasy. The same number of men could be reading fantasy as before, but the ratio has changed.

    I tend to believe that’s the more likely scenario. I know a number of women personally who started reading fantasy for the first time in the past few years, thanks to big bestsellers like Harry Potter, Twilight, and the Hunger Games, along with the slew of urban fantasy and related genres. I think what’s happening is that fantasy is finally moving more into the mainstream, and there’s a huge and voracious group of female readers who are just discovering how awesome fantasy is, especially when it has an awesome female protagonist in it.

    That might be wishful thinking on my part, but it sounds good, anyway. In any case, I don’t think there’s any reason to believe fantasy is losing male readers. Male-oriented fantasy appears to be selling just as well as before, and there will always be a market for it even if some publishers are changing their marketing tactics to take advantage of the huge influx of female fantasy fans.

    • I’d like to believe that, too… but I’m not sure I do. Think of it this way: let’s assume that the number of male readers interested in the Fantasy genre has stayed roughly equal over the past twenty years. And let’s further assume that twenty years ago the balance of Male-to-female readership of the Fantasy genre was 60/40 – so that 60% of fantasy readers were male and 40% female. For the balance to now be roughly 10/90 in favor of females, and for that shift to have occurred primarily through the mechanism of an influx of new female readers into the Fantasy genre, then the overall readership of Fantasy would have to have grown by 600% over 20 years. I can believe that the fantasy genre readership has grown some over the past 20 years… but by 600%? I don’t know about that. So instead I suspect that there’s a combination of new female readership and attrition by male readers.

  6. I’m staggered by the stats on gender split you quote. I have mostly female friends and not a single one of them likes fantasy fiction; then again, I’m in my (ahem) senior years and so are most of my friends, so I’m guessing there is an age component to this as well.

    The female protagonist ratio does vary as far as I can tell with genre – Romance and erotic fiction having quite a few; crime on the up, but less so in thrillers and fantasy. perhaps we’ll see an evening out between the genres.

    The idea of less male readers I think does have some truth unfortunately, according to my daughter. Personally, I can’t imagine a world where I dont read a book a week, but that’s just me.

    As far as my own projects go, my current novel has a male protagonist, although he is anything but macho. I have a less well developed plot chugging along though with a real kick ass female antagonist – beacuse most of those that I read about just aren’t hard enough – and I dont mean that in a physical sense.

    • It would be interesting to see a more complete breakdown by age and other demographics. Some genres have pretty much always skewed heavily female (as you mention, Romance, for instance), but this influx of female readers into Fantasy and speculative fiction – at least at this dominant a level – is something new. So I imagine you’re probably right and that the age demographics have something to do with this, too.

  7. As far as male readership goes, there seems to be little room for and time for men to read fiction. Most of the men I know are almost exclusively non fiction readers. As they did in school, the continue to study and any reading that isn’t going to make them a better salesman, father, husband, manager, etc. is generally left out of an already packed schedule. Culturally, fiction is often seen as an indulgence. That said, some of them are rediscovering their love for the fantastic and stories now that they’ve escaped a university schedule that left no time for pleasure reading. They haven’t experienced the vast knowledge that can be found in well written fiction.

    As far as female protagonists, I enjoy well rounded, realistic female characters, but I don’t usually read stories in which they are the dominant main character. I just don’t identify with them. The exception to the rule is the epic fantasy model which has more than one main character.

    That said, I’m in the write what you want, be true to the story camp. I am not in the write for the market camp. To be honest, I’m growing sick of the sudden influx of, what I think are badly done, female protagonists in book and film that are there only because they want to write a ‘strong’ female character. I’m sorry, but do the 3 Musketeers really need a swashbuckling, butt kicking female counterpart? And is wielding a sword and sharp wit the only way we define strength? Not to mention that the ‘sexy’ is often dumbed down to mere physicality and animal attraction. Sadly, I’ve discovered that this isn’t just the fault of male ignorance. Many women are writing women in this way.

    There can be, and are, very powerful female characters that even within the hierarchy of roles in a patriarchal society. And if the story takes place in a patriarchal society? Not to mention that even in the realm of feminism there are those that believe a women eschewing the classic role of a woman, motherhood, are giving up the most powerful position of influence in the world. I wonder if these characters, well written, would be as well received? I certainly hope so, but I’m not certain.

    I’m of the opinion that we need to find a way to see beyond the ‘isms’ to the story. A weak character has a story to tell as well, and maybe that is the story the author needs to tell. Even if it pisses people off because she (or he) is weak or adheres to some model of society they don’t happen to like. Anyway, I’m rambling a bit. I think the root of it is well rounded characters as several here have said. Characters who have hopes, dreams, aspirations, desires, fears, insecurities, etc. To use T.S. words, “real”, “3D”.

    • That’s an interesting point of view about what men are more typically likely to read. I’ve never seen this idea that if men read it’s more likely for self-improvement than for pleasure. I’m not sure there’s really a stigma on pleasure-reading, per se, or rather that there’s no stigma on taking leisure/pleasure activities in general… I’ve always seen, rather, the assertion that men don’t read because they are increasingly drawn to other leisure activities that are less mentally demanding than reading – i.e. Movies, Television, and Video Games (although, to be fair and as a lover of many Video Games, there are some VGs that are quite mentally demanding; that said most point-and-shoot First Person video games, Sports Games, and Racing games, etc. aren’t exactly known for their cerebral depth). I’m sure the reality is a combination of a lot of factors… As this is probably the first time I’ve seen this idea that male-reading is generally self-improvement-focused, I’d be interested to see more on that. I’m cuious as to whether that might have any effect on the traditional male readership of SF&F genres, or if the two reading groups are more isolated. As for female characters, and identifying (or not) with them… I kind of think that’s one of the strengths of the written form. Reading stories allows me to get inside the heads of characters I otherwise would never be able to relate to, and in so doing, get to know them better and grow to identify with them. I’m not comfortable, personally, excluding myself from experiencing the perspective of female protagonists simply because I’m not female: that’s a whole half of humanity whose experience I’m ignoring if I do. (In a somewhat non-sequitor, this is why I’m not able to read Nabakov’s Lolita, for instance. I read the opening page as something of a challenge, but I felt totally dirty being immersed in the mind of the narrator, and couldn’t stomach reading more because I have no desire to understand his point of view.)

      • I don’t know how extensive that aspect of male readership is, it is simply from my own limited experience. I agree with you in regard to other, often less strenuous, activities taking precedence over reading. We might add an overall aside to the transitions in our society away from print, and the low rates of literacy prominent in certain parts of our society. If it’s difficult to read, then I’m going to have a hard time enjoying it for leisure. And I think the bigger problem in fiction from a female perspective is that I don’t find it done well very often. Though that reminds me of my friend Jackie Gamber’s series which I truly enjoyed and it’s main characters are female.

  8. The central characters of my stories tend to be female. This wasn’t a plan; it just worked out that way — though I think another factor may have been a desire to write the stories that I wanted to read and wasn’t finding anywhere else. As I think about it, for example, the three main female characters in my second novel are a very cerebral amateur detective, a mass murderer, and the head of state of a small country. Those are job descriptions that are usually filled by men. Though, as I say, this wasn’t a plan.

    I’ve never felt intimidated by writing about women. I used to suck at it, but my writing used to generally suck anyway. 🙂 I worked at it, over quite a few years, and I got (at least a bit) better. Most of my characters are and do things that are pretty far from what I am and do. My writing would be pretty boring otherwise.

    The main character in my current story is a teenage girl, and a major plot in the story is a love story between two women. The latter is particularly interesting because I’d tried to tell their story a couple of times before and it hadn’t really worked (or it hadn’t worked to the level of what the characters deserved). I found that to really tell their story I had to get inside the relationship, rather than observing it from another character’s first person POV. I had to show what the relationship was like when they were alone together. When I did that, it finally worked.

    I have never written a first person female POV, so maybe that’s where I get intimidated. That being said, I only ever write in one first person POV (my detective character has a “Watson”). Other than that, my stuff is third person, because I tend to cover a lot of characters and places.

    • That’s a rather enlightening way to think about it: if I my female characters suck, it’s probably because my writing in general sucks. Taken to it’s logical end, that would probably mean my male characters sucked, too. I’ve never written a first-person female POV, but then again I’ve written very few first-person POVs at all.

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