Friday, December 4, 2009

Gender Identity vs. Overt Misogyny

I wanted to post something funny but alas, alack, I lack the anecdote. Perhaps tonight's holiday office party will provide fodder for the next post. So instead, here's what's on my mind:

Is it misogynistic to have a male character who is bigger/better/faster/stronger than the female protagonist?

I keep reading book reviews by people I deem superior to me in literary taste, social consciousness, and basic coolness. They don't like the pop culture books that I enjoy and the reason that crops up with the most frequency is that the book is antifeminist in some way. And no, I am not talking about Twilight, although its popularity demonstrates a personal conviction of mine.

Evolution trumps social consciousness.

We are all descended from hunter-gatherer societies with division of labor based on biological necessities. Women bear children. Human children require a lot of time and attention, with one of the longest and most intensive juvenile periods in the animal kingdom. It might be possible, or even advisable, to be a single mother these days but for most of human history it would have been a very difficult prospect. I propose, therefore, that most women exhibit a genetic preference for a male who can provide and protect. This gives offspring the greatest chance at viability. It is a documented reproduction strategy called "sexual selection by female choice" and is most notable among species with concealed ovulation, or a fertile time that is not advertised to the male of the race.

Whether or not a gal wants children odds are good she will find her sex drive still dovetails with those traits her progenitors required.

Men who want the choicest females look for one who is likely to produce healthy offspring. i.e.: They like their ladies hot. While facial features and coloring vary by race, some indicators of "health," like figure, are nearly universal. An "ideal" female body shape, for example, demonstrates proportions that cross culture and race. The preferred ratio of a model's bust, hip, and thighs are the same on every continent. Except maybe Antarctica but there is no population to speak of there.

Then begins the demonstration of masculine desirability. This can be physical superiority but because we are social creatures other forms of power, such as wealth, can compensate. Hence, the "howcome men can get older and still be sexy" lament. Older men have amassed more wealth as a general rule. Nobody thinks the salt and pepper silver fox with food stamps is a catch. If he's driving a Mercedes, however, swoon.

I'm not saying this is universal or that we can't get off the reservation, just that it is already hardwired in a spectrum pattern with extremes at both ends. But it would go a long way towards explaining why we return, generation after generation, to stereotypes that most of us agree are outdated.

So, is it actually misogynistic to recognize these distinctions and stereotypes in our writing? I think no. Unoriginal, but not misogynistic. It crosses the line into anti-feminist when the characters are punished in some way for breaking out of traditional roles and I don't see that much in current fiction. Writing within a traditional role isn't the same thing as rejecting a non-traditional or even counter-culture one.

The biggest complaint about YA books is that most often the male character is the vampire, werewolf, supernatural whatever and the hapless damsel is either at his mercy or under his protection. In reality, the "supernatural" is just a crutch for "supermasculine." Most of the traits that come with the title are exaggerations of physical qualities we consider male: speed, strength, and sometimes aggression.

The uber masculine hero and the heroine who values strength and loyalty in her man are not going away because they lie at the center of the spectrum and appeal to the greatest number. Or lowest common denominator, if you want to look at it that way. As a value judgement, it seems harsh to hold it against society in general that we tend to look for our ideal mate in a romantic figure. We can stretch things a good bit- look at how many more of our heroines get to do a lot of thinking and even some saving (yay!) and how many emo vampires (boo!) are out there- but trying to reverse the role altogether and still produce a commodity that resonates is tricky business. No matter how much I tell myself I should, I really don't want to read the love story between the 98 pound weakling and She-Ra.

This is what the romance industry has known for years. It's also why they are growing while almost everyone else is not. The rare books that appeal to the mainstream without alienating the academics blend the lines but they don't completely erase them.


  1. Very well thought-out and we;ll written. It's too easy to apply labels incorrectly, and general political correctness has overgorwn reason (in more ways than just this, that's for sure). To mention race in any form can easily be called racist...but is it? In most cases, no. It may be racial, but not racist, i.e. if there is nothing derogatory and the statement is made as a matter of fact or clarification. the same goes with gender differences. Men and women are different.

    In writing, I try not to focus on the confines of the gender, but the depth of the character. If I have a character that toes the line of a stereotype, I better have a damn good explanation as to why.

  2. This is interesting today--as my current wip pokes fun at fairytales and the whole damsel in distress thing.

    But, I think it is a bit of natural law that men are bigger and stronger than women, and to ignore that is to...write fantasy. Which I do.

    To always have the girl saved by the guy gets my hackles up. As my four-year-old daughter once said to her brother: "I don't need your saving!"

    But, I also think that when we write we reflect our time, in all its imperfection.

  3. Hey, Rick! Ditto on the writing to the character. If you already know the character it usually works itself out but if you build a character to fill the space- "I need a minority kid in this story"- you run into trouble.

    Heather: I read a great book years ago by Alison Lurie, a Cornell English professor, called Don't Tell The Grown Ups: Why Kids Love The Books They Do about the subversive nature of children's literature. She offers some very compelling arguments about the way fairytales empower the female character and kids in general. Many feature not only a powerful female villain but the protag is female as well. Very prevalent in Hans Christian Anderson stories. The Snow Queen, for example. She actually tallies female and male characters in about seventy classic fairy tales, if I remember correctly, and you'd be surprised how the numbers stack up. We always talk about Snow White and Sleeping Beauty but it is a very small sample of what's really out there.

    I totally agree the it is annoying for the girl to always be the one getting saved. I think we've got some knee-jerk critique out there, though, that if the girl ever needs saving it is anti-feminist if a dashing fellow gets to do it. My favorite stories have some back and forth. It's fine for a girl to need a guy every now and then, just not for everything and he better need her, too- and not just for gratification purposes.

    Speaking of the somnolent, passive heroines, have you read any Jim C. Hines? It sounds similar to your WiP. The Stepsister Scheme was great!

  4. the "supernatural" is just a crutch for "supermasculine."

    Wow. Hadn't thought of it that way before, but you are so totally spot on.

  5. We are SO GOING to have an impassioned conversation about gender essentialism and gender biases in "scientific" studies of evolution if you are ever in New York, young lady. But it will be an awesome conversation, because you are clearly very smart.

    We don't find it any more useful to reverse those roles without thinking about them; we just want EVERYBODY to have the change to be tough, bossy, and crazy sometimes. You know, human.

    Sorry about Shiver. We really didn't like that book (just read a super-hilarious review where the reviewer was all like, "Why didn't they just throw the damn werewolf in a hot tub?") but we will give something else a try based on your recommendation if you have one and promise to be open-minded about it.

  6. Also, NO JEFF GOLDBLUM? Are you sure you married the right person?

  7. Le R: I totally married the right person. Check out the anniversary post.

    And I would adore a gender issues discussion with the esteemed Le R. Over sake, of course! As far as the crazy sometimes, I might be cornering that market.

  8. Entertainment, escapism - shouldn't it reflect the fantasy? And if the fantasy that sells is the super masculine hero, then there you go. But is it the fantasy that sells or is it that more books follow that plot line?

    I look at what I grew up with and know that this is cultural and maybe changing. Maybe. Look at Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. The dad goes after Rudolph and company because it's a man's job.

    On one hand, it could be a woman's job just as easily. Ever seen a woman when her child is threatened? Yeah. Don't get between her and the one threatening her baby. But letting the man take on the danger and risk his life seems to be the norm culturally.

    So are we women risk averse? Are men risk seekers? Do we women decide that if he wants to go and get hurt, then let him? I doubt it's that cut and dry.

    I know I used to bristle when a man offered to lift something heavy for me. Now I just say 'thank you'. Seriously, if he wants to go to the trouble, I'm good with that.

  9. Sarah, if I ever get to California I am so looking you up. I relish your perspective as someone who approaches problems with the notion that logic should hold sway over emotional reaction. I consider myself classically "masculine" in this way...even if it is not a gender specific tendency.

    I think, from observation and research background, that risk averse is part of the XX makeup. It's the reason women are less comfortable asking for raises and responsibility they deserve. The aggressive nature of females defending their young that you cite is also biological in nature and proof that while the female human may not typically seek risk, she rises to the occasion when risk is present. Military research has also revealed that you absolutely do not want to tangle with a gal who is defending her own family.

    Tendencies toward masculine and feminine do spread over a spectrum, just like anything else in science, and some women seek risk while some men seek security. This translates into socially accepted norms, which is not exactly fair if you approach it from the "if a man said this it would be fine but since I said it I'm a high strung b*tch" perspective.

    In social and professional interaction, I believe both men and women owe it to society to overcome evolotionary perspectives in the interest of outcomes. Regardless of the gender of the person presenting the idea/approaching the problem, the value of the idea should be evaluated on its own merit. i.e.: If your testorone bathed physiology enables you to lift this with greater ease than I then go for it. Alternatively, if my superior intuitive abilities allow me to tell you that we really need to show an interest in someone's model plane hobby to close a deal, then respect that, too. Obviously, there are circumstances that arise when the roles might be reversed and it shouldn't matter if the outcome holds sway over the process.

    In guilty pleasure, however, it's a free for all. Hence, the commercially succesful books that make us crazy. The question is, are they propogating unhealthy stereotypes or are the stereotypes already hardwired into our DNA, making us susceptible to them in our alone time? I tend to think the latter is true, based on my own acquaintance (not a scientific sampling, obvs).

    Among my friends who loved Pretty Woman, Twilight, et. al.,:

    Lawyers (One who started her own firm)
    U.N. Official
    Surgical Sales Reps (highly male field)
    Stay at home moms

    The only thing they have in common is estrogen in higher levels than their male counterparts. Nature is what we are, nurture is what we can become. Breaking with nature entirely is not likely but overcoming it in our actual reality is not only probable but valuable. Both for personal growth and society. After all, nature endowed us with intellect.

  10. During the hunter-gatherer years of our species, it was the gathering (by men AND women,) that brought in most of the food, so labeling men of that era as the "providers" is somewhat off the mark.