shazamI am not a feminist. I am not even remotely close to being a feminist. I don’t consider myself a misogynist, and I’m down with Mary Wollstonecraft, the women’s suffrage movement, etc. I think that the fact that women are human beings and should be treated like human beings kind of goes without being said. However, I also don’t have a problem with Men’s clubs, boy’s schools, and books with no significant female characters. Men and women are certainly equal, and should be treated that way. However, while there are certainly exceptions, men and women think differently, often have different interests and concerns, and also often have different strengths and weaknesses. While I have no problem with women serving next to men as soldiers, police, or firemen (seriously… do you really want me to say ‘firepeople’? It sounds stupid), anyone who thinks that women should have lower physical standards in order to do the same job isn’t pushing for equality. Physical jobs have physical requirements, intellectual jobs have intellectual requirements, etc. Anyone who meets those requirements should be a viable candidate for the position, and anyone who doesn’t meet those requirements shouldn’t regardless of race, creed, or gender. So, now that I’ve firmly established my position, let’s talk about the way women are treated in fiction.

On Sunday I mentioned an article that I’d recently read on the over-sexualization of women in comic books. This is something I agree with completely! Where male heroes have enhanced muscles to emphasize strength, and strong costumes to emphasize power and authority; female characters have enhanced sexual features (often exaggerated eyes, lips, breasts, and buttocks) and skimpy, revealing costumes to emphasize their sex appeal. Where male heroes are often drawn is strong poses with body language that speaks to their authority, female heroes are often drawn in poses that one might find in Playboy or Hustler. While some have argued that the way men are drawn can be directly compared to the way women are drawn as an emphasis on sex appeal, I don’t think this is true. Honestly, I think its ridiculous. If it was true, I expect there would be a lot more female comic nerds.

However, I do think that the message sent by each can be compared. The message sent by male superheroes is that, to be taken seriously, men must be striking and physically intimidating. To be a man means to have big muscles, say pithy things, and not take crap from anyone. Rather few male heroes don’t fit this mold. The message sent by female superheroes is that, to be desirable, women must have perfect beauty and parade themselves as fleshy meatsticks for men to gawk at, and in some cases use at their whim. I don’t think that either of these messages are good. There are some heroes who break the mold (Superman [sometimes], Captain America, and Ms. Marvel all come to mind), but most reinforce unhealthy and disturbingly physical images of masculinity and femininity.

I'm not really sure why she's fighting crime in a bathing suit.
I’m not really sure why she’s fighting crime in a bathing suit.

However, we do something similar in fiction as well. While I don’t have a problem with books that don’t have any significant female characters, I do have a problem with books that don’t have any strong female characters. Similarly, I have no problem with a book that has no significant male characters, I do have a problem with books that don’t have any strong male characters. This is a key difference. Personally, I’m not likely to read a book that focuses entirely on its female cast, nor do I expect a lot of women to read books that focus entirely on a male cast. However, too often books emphasize male or female views not by focusing on one gender over the other, but by depicting one gender as significantly superior to the other. This is a problem.

When we write in such a way that we cast women as playthings or servants we do a disservice not only to women, but to ourselves as well. The failure to see the opposite gender as fully human deprives us of the unique qualities of that gender. As I said above, men and women generally think differently. That different perspective can be a great blessing, as long as we aren’t too afraid to seek it out. However, if our writing devalues the opposite gender and casts them simply as weak or merely as useful or fun, rather than as fully human, we not only put down every member of that gender who reads our work, but we distance ourselves from their ideas, emotions, and perspective on life.

So, we must be aware of the messages that we send through our writing. How do you portray your own gender? How do you portray the opposite gender? Why? It’s certainly something to give some thought to.

9 thoughts on “The Treatment of Women in Fiction

  1. I think, in the realm of pseudo-medieval fantasy, there’s some wiggle room with this concept. One of the big mental differences between men and women is that men relate much more easily to THINGS and women relate much more easily to PEOPLE. In modern society, this easily explains why women are rapidly taking over jobs like psychologist, lawyer, doctor, etc., and why they’ve always been strong in jobs like teacher and nurse, all of which are very focused on people. In medieval society, though, few of those positions existed (some kind of healer, ok, and maybe negotiators in the rare situation those are called for, but that’s about it). In real medieval history, and the millenia before, women were ‘strong’ in that they wove the web of social interaction that made society SOCIETY. Men did most of the work that KEPT it society, but women did the work that MADE it society. That doesn’t put them in strong positions in most fantasy literature, however. Women may be the powers behind the throne, if your in for some political fantasy, or wise elders to guide the hero, but I have no problem with fantasy literature that doesn’t have women swinging big swords, or even sneaking in the shadows with bows, and especially plotting military strategy. It takes a rare society, with a lot of resource excess, to be able to generate women like that.

    Basically, what I’m saying is that the concept of a ‘strong’ character needs to be just as flexible as the differences between men and women. This is something that’s sometimes hard to remember.

    1. Colin, I agree here. Too often we think of a ‘strong’ character as a character who is in a position of power, or a character who is really good at hitting things. However, this isn’t what I mean when I say a ‘strong’ character. I think the Lady Catelyn Stark is a good example here. In the Game of Thrones series, while she is a noble lady (and thus in a position of power), she is rarely powerful compared to the rest of the characters in the novel. She doesn’t lead armies, plan military strategy, and usually doesn’t do much at all in the way of giving official orders. However, she is a very strong character.
      It is the inner strength of a character that makes them ‘strong’ or ‘weak’. While Catelyn Stark may not be a fierce warrior or general, I can’t see her waiting patiently for someone to come and rescue her, or bowing subserviently to whoever happens to be around either. This inner strength is what I men when I speak of a strong character.

      1. I think Colin hit it on the head with the comment that women are strong because they weave the web of social interactioin that makes society. Yet you almost never see that portrayed in fantasy literature. Powerful women are portrayed as ‘kickass’ or political manipulators. When do you see the strength of a woman in raising her children in an unstable world. The strength of sheltering frriends and loved ones, of instilling key character traits in those they nuture. If the men fight an epic battle, how often do you see all that women must endure to pick up the pieces and recreate society once again. Great thread.

  2. I agree. A very good post. Superheroes are ridiculously sexy or muscular: unrealistic images for both men and women. Also, not to be picky, I’m not trying to be rude, but the gender neutral term is firefighter. I agree, it is hard to find some gender inclusive terms that don’t sound silly. I used to work for a newspaper so I have a list. : )

    1. Thanks for the comment! I couldn’t actually remember the proper gender neutral term. I don’t generally have a problem with gender neutral terms that make sense (like police officer rather than police men). However, I don’t really like Firefighter because it isn’t actually a universally accurate description. Firemen include firefighters, certainly, but also fire marshals, arson investigators, and specialists who actually start fires for a variety of purposes. So, Firefighter only really describes one particular subset of firemen, where as Police Officer effectively describes uniformed officers, detectives, swat members, negotiators, commissioners, etc. All of the above are actually Officers of the police department.

      1. In the news business, we often use the term “fire officials” to include those other jobs. I have heard of “fire people” before as well, which I always assume refers to a magical race of people made out of fire.

  3. Very good post. Remember that historically it is only very recently that we have had a population explosion. In the mediaeval societies women were idealized and cherished theoretically because they carried the children. In fact, except in high society, women worked just as hard often on the fields as did men and kept house and raised the children. Remember also that, until recently, childbirth was the primary cause of women’s premature deaths. There was no guarantee that the mother would survive childbirth. This creates a very different set of societal assumptions than we have today.

  4. ” To be a man means to have big muscles, say pithy things, and not take crap from anyone. Rather few male heroes don’t fit this mold.”

    I’d like to assume that you don’t know comics, but frankly I’ve heard the same stupid comment from people who are life long comic book fans.

    Firstly, there are plenty of characters who do not fit in that mold, from the classic Mr Fantastic & the thing, to frankly about 90% of character.

    “The message sent by female superheroes is that, to be desirable, women must have perfect beauty and parade themselves as fleshy meatsticks for men to gawk at, and in some cases use at their whim”

    Again that’s bull twaddle: The overwhelming majority of superheroes are sexually attractive, it is after all escapist fantasy at its purest. This is the same reason why romance novels, romantic comedies, and pretty much every book with a female protagonist (regardless of the gender of the author) all contain sexually attractive protagonists.

    Secondly no one is “parading” around female characters, nor are men sitting around gawking at them. This idea that male comic book readers are purchasing comic books to gawk at drawings of women is a silly one, especially in the age of high speed internet access to free porn.

    As for using at their whim” I don’t even know what you are alluding to in that statement: it very much seems like you started from the position of “its sexism” & then went to find things that would support your view, selectively ignoring anything that didn’t substantiate your pre-existing views.

    so back to books in general, where you say: “When we write in such a way that we cast women as playthings or servants we do a disservice not only to women, but to ourselves as well.”

    WHO, exactly do you think is doing this? I’m sorry but as a librarian, I’m not seeing what you think is present.

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