Gender Representation in Fiction

There is a difference between ideal gender representation in reality and and ideal gender representation in fiction.

In reality, you want men and women to be treated equally in professional settings. For example, a female doctor should be paid equally as the male doctor doing the same job, receive the same amount of respect from nurses, technical staff, and patients, face equal amount of obstacles as well as access the same opportunities, and if you should ever have conflicts with her, it should be conflicts with her as a doctor or a personality in a working environment, nothing more. In fact, her place should be interchangeable as that of a male doctor to the point that if you wrote her story and switched the names from “Mary” to “Joe” you would not notice anything out of place. And the same should apply to every profession, be it a lawyer, a plumber, a soldier, or a corporate executive. That is how ideal gender equality should play out in real life, and in real life we should try to get close to it as we possibly can. And hopefully, do it better tomorrow than today.

In fiction, you could simply write a story about “Joe” and use the editing function of your word processor and switch the name to “Mary”. But that is not gender representation. That is just lazy writing. It is called “slapping on a skirt”. A good female character is not a male character with a skirt slapped on.

Once again, we are faced with the reality that what is ideal in real life is not ideal in fiction. In reality, we want to see a world where “Joe” and “Mary” are interchangeable. In fiction, we do not. A story about Mary must be fundamentally different from a story about Joe.

Anything can happen in fiction. Actual female warriors in Medieval Europe may have been few and far between, but in fiction there can be lots of them. Female professionals of all professions have appeared in fiction long before such opportunities were open to women in real life. Because it is so easy to create female characters in fictional stories, just injecting the opposite gender is insufficient in creating a fictional character.

An exceptionally good example of a well-written female character is Ripley in the movie “Aliens” (the second movie in the Alien franchise). The movie opens with Ripley learning that her daughter, who was waiting for her on Earth, had died of old age in the decades Ripley had spent in cryosleep. Then in the second act, she discovers a little girl in the wreckage of a space colony who was the lone survivor of a xenomorph attack. She shelters the little girl and becomes her surrogate mother. In the climax, Ripley, in order to save her adopted daughter, battles the queen xenomorph which out to avenge her destroyed eggs, an epic battle of two mothers. Ripley was already a strong female protagonist in “Alien” (the first movie in the franchise), but in the second movie she is organically elevated to a leadership role for a platoon of hardened Space Marines. To underscore that she is a female and not a man in a skirt, Ripley is not only given a role as a mother, but the story introduces another strong female character called Private Vasquez. Vasquez is a female soldier who is more masculine than her male peers. Her function is to contrast with Ripley and to make her stand out, so as to direct the audience’s attention to main theme of the story.

Best selling author James Patterson tends to pepper his stories with females in minor roles – a military escort here, a helicopter pilot there – few of whom even speak at all. But he also introduces actual rounded characters who are neither femme fatales nor damsels in distress. He also makes them self-conscious about such things as the shoes they are wearing. Somewhat shallow, but it seems to be working. His thrillers are overwhelmingly consumed by women.

Patricia Cornwell, who writes somewhat similar, if less derring-do, thrillers also consumed predominantly by women tends to bring female characters more to the forefront. Her most famous Scarpetta series features a female medical examiner who is at the same time a tough professional and a female in dangerous American society concerned for her personal safety, a mix of a strong female protagonist and a damsel in distress. She frets about her appearance often. When she is stalked by a dangerous killer and her police detective friend offers to stay at her house for extra security, she cringes at the thought of someone being in her house who might leave the lid up. Thrillers are evidently not the best vessels of female representation, but Cornwell’s best selling series is said to have influenced a slew of medical examiner stories in novels and television.

J. K. Rowling’s Hermione Granger, a darling of female representation enthusiasts, is an exceptionally intelligent and extremely capable character, especially as she grows older in the later volumes, and it is hard to pin down what her female attributes are. She is empathetic and, despite her academic achievements, very insecure about her scholastic performance. But those characteristics can be seen in males also. Her most female attribute is her disgust with boys in general and their obsession with sports in particular. This does not stop her from dating a series of star quidditch players, which does not escape notice of her peers. She is female mostly in the pressures she must deal with, such as expectations from teachers, boys, and peer pressure from other girls. Hermione is an integral part of Harry Potter’s adventures and an obvious romantic interest. (Who she would eventually end up with was one of the biggest controversies as the series progressed.) She grows too powerful to be a damsel in distress, too focused to be in a romantic quandary, and too involved to be a pretty ornament. She becomes a central character almost by default. Her greatest enemy is a sexist society that tries to box her in. Even the underlying theme of inclusion (Hermione being muggle born) seems to take a backseat to her conflict with male dominated expectations. She may not be an exceptionally good female character, but she is central to the plot, is not just an object of romance, deals with pressures specific to girls, and battles constrictions of society against her gender. That is probably more than you could ask for.

The point is, in fiction, a good female character is not interchangeable with a male character. A female character must represent themes and problems that females face. If that criteria is not met, and your character is just another “Joe” switched to “Mary”, then that is not gender representation at all.

The same principle applies to racial representation and other minority representations in varying degrees. The complete interchangeable sort of equality that is the ideal in reality is not necessarily the ideal representation in fiction. A lot of people who criticize fiction do not seem to understand this. But writers must.

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