Gender Roles in Literature

Do Female Characters Get the Short Shrift?

55be0-comicbooksA friend of mine turned my attention to an article by Sophia McDougall in the New Statesman entitled “I hate strong female characters.” In truth, Ms. McDougall doesn’t really hate them; she just dislikes the use of the word “strong” to describe them. She’s upset that this seems to be the only adjective available, while male characters get whole slews of them. Moreover, she feels that this promotes having two dimensional female background characters when men are front and center, and getting all the juicy qualities.

When it comes to action films and TV shows – which is the focus of this article – there is little to object to in this premise. But if we widen the genre circle even just a little a bit, we see that this argument has its flaws. Although I can’t say that total equality has been achieved between the character sexes in all of Hollywood’s endeavors, there certainly have been vast improvements in the area over the past several decades.

But in literature, I don’t think this applies at all; at least not in the books I read. Yes, in the comic book world, female heroes are few and far between, as McDougall has competently pointed out. As for other genres, I’m not much of a science fiction or fantasy reader, nor do I go in much for action, crime or mystery novels. It could very well be that in these spheres the female protagonists are also less rounded characters than their male counterparts, but I wouldn’t know.

However, I don’t see women portrayed as simply ‘weak’ or ‘strong’ in most literary fiction at all. If anything, the women I read about are highly complex people who completely defy one-word descriptions, even when they are minor characters. Granted, I tend to radiate towards books that are female centric. That probably comes with the genetic territory. And, if I look over all the book reviews I’ve written, I can see that the majority of them are by female authors. However, if I look over all the books I’ve ever read, I’d say that this evens out somewhat. There are excellent examples of multi-dimensional women portrayed in literature in almost every century.

Here I would like to return to McDougall’s reference to Shakespeare. I’m not sure how she was able to compare master spies and superheroes to Richard II, but I think this is exactly where her premise fails. She says that the many evolved action men mirror the intricacies and that even the Bard included in his male protagonists. However, she forgets that his women were equally, if not more well-rounded. Characters such as Lady Macbeth, Ophelia, Juliet and Viola come to mind, just to name a few. Not one of those women could be pigeonholed solely by her hated monosyllabic ‘strong.’

It seems to me that even though the women of today’s action and fantasy films are rarely more than cardboard cut-outs, this isn’t some plague that’s infecting all of Hollywood, and is certainly no more than a blip on the radar when it comes to general fiction. Perhaps the problem is the people making these movies and TV series. They are catering to an audience that wants sexy females that can be easily pushed away from danger and forgotten until he succeeds or needs distraction. No one is going to change that any more than Mills & Boon will begin publishing Harlequin romances with frumpy, studious girls who fall madly in love with bespectacled pale scientists, and have wild, passionate, lab-coat-ripping sex.

Sorry, Sophia, but if you want to see female characters that run the gamut of personality traits, you’re going to have to look elsewhere.

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