Do literary characters need genders?
There has been a lot of talk recently about the need for greater diversity in literature (and other entertainment).
This is especially true in the geek community (of which I am a proud member), but has also been a topic of discussion for children’s books, and for books in general.
While issues of race and other elements are also important, let’s take a quick look at recent gender controversies in the geek community:
- The lack of a female-led superhero movie in recent years
- A bizarre comment by a videogame maker that they didn’t have a playable female character because women were too hard to animate
- A powerful and important female character in the Ant-Man movie being diminished to motivation for the male hero (diminishing might be appropriate for Ant-Man, but not in this case)
- The initial lack of female characters announced for the new Star Wars movie
- In my own review of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, I noted the lack of strong female characters
- The paucity of Gamora (a female member of the Guardians of the Galaxy) merchandising
That’s just a sampling.
Female-led movies and books have, of course, done very well (Lucy, The Hunger Games, Bridesmaids)…there just aren’t that many of them compared to male-led works. In case you are thinking that might be because the audience is predominantly male, that’s not the case. Besides, that suggests that men wouldn’t appreciate works where females are the driving characters, and I don’t think the evidence is there for that.
That gets me to the point of a little game I did recently in this blog. Let me explain a bit more first.
One response to the above complaints is to flip male characters into female characters. Marvel Comics’ Thor is going to have a female incarnation. Ghostbusters is reportedly going to be rebooted with all female leads.
Does that solve the problem, though?
If the problem is that people won’t empathize with characters who are fundamentally different from themselves, aren’t you just going to discourage the other gender from embracing the new versions?
We recently did something at work where we tied into heroes, and people came as their favorite heroes (fictional or historical…no family members/friends, no one living). A lot of people seemed to take it to mean superheroes, although that hadn’t been the point. One person who got it, for example, came as Clarence Darrow.
In the discussion, one of my co-workers said that the heroes “…didn’t look like me”, and that explained why that person hadn’t chosen someone.
Well, it did occur to me that if you weren’t a body builder, most of the heroes probably didn’t look like 99% of the readers. 😉 That wasn’t always true, and that was part of the appeal of Spider-Man, who wasn’t pure muscle. By the way, I’ve always wondered: if Superman has inherent super strength, why does the Kryptonian need all those muscles? Kal-El should be able to have the build of a ninety-eight pound weakling and still move planets…but I digress. 😉
My fictional heroes include Spock from Star Trek and Doc Savage, a pulp hero…and they really look almost nothing alike (Spock is an ectomorph ((slender)), Doc is a mesomorph ((big muscles))).
Clearly, I don’t only like characters who look like me…or are like me.
They don’t need to have the same gender, race, or pretty much anything else…I can still empathize with them and find them interesting.
As regular readers here know, I make an effort not to reveal my gender online. It’s one of the things I love about the internet: if you choose not to be judged by your inherent characteristics, its possible to put your ideas out there without revealing it.
I don’t do it myself to make it easier for other people who don’t want to do it…they can feel more comfortable.
When I write stories on this blog, like my humor pieces, I generally don’t use gender.
So, I was thinking…would it work to have mainstream novels where the gender of the characters are never revealed…and where no point is made of that?
Of course, I realize that people will generally assign genders to the characters anyway. It’s one of the fundamental ways that people define other people (and it makes sense that there is some evolutionary imperative to do that). If you had only slight interaction with someone in a meeting and asked someone else who it was later, that would be one of the ways you’d be very likely to be able to describe them…even if you couldn’t say race or even height.
Regular readers also know that I don’t visualize when I read, generally. I’m not sure if that would make non-identified characters easier or harder for most people. Since most of you are going to picture the characters anyway, I assume you’d provide a gender, whether the book did or not.
Another thing is that we have names in English that are generally indicative of gender…that might be an issue.
Anyway, I was curious to see if people would notice it is I pulled gender references out of some public domain works.
Let me be very clear: I don’t recommend altering existing works. More than four years ago, I wrote
I believe that works should be published as they were written…even though they may have words and concepts that are offensive today, and may not have been then. I wouldn’t pull the “n word” out of a book, for example, although I would warn people about it, and try to explain the context.
That doesn’t mean that I think people shouldn’t be allowed to make those alterations, either…but I don’t want the original works to disappear or become unavailable to those who want to read them as they were. Changes should be clearly labeled.
I did excerpts from three popular downloads at
and altered them to remove gender references.
I will freely admit that the original versions are better. 🙂 I didn’t make a real effort to make mine artful, and I’d never claim to be able to write as well as the authors of these classics.
I’m going to give you my version, then the original:
“William Lucas, and Maria, a good-humoured child, but as empty-headed as the older Lucas, had nothing to say that could be worth hearing, and were listened to with about as much delight as the rattle of the chaise. Elizabeth loved absurdities, but had known William’s too long.”
–Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (made gender neutral)
“Sir William Lucas, and his daughter Maria, a good-humoured girl, but as empty-headed as himself, had nothing to say that could be worth hearing, and were listened to with about as much delight as the rattle of the chaise.”
–Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (the original)
“I went down to the front garden and clumb over the stile where you go through the high board fence. There was an inch of new snow on the ground, and I seen somebody’s tracks. They had come up from the quarry and stood around the stile a while, and then went on around the garden fence. It was funny they hadn’t come in, after standing around so. I couldn’t make it out. It was very curious, somehow. I was going to follow around, but I stooped down to look at the tracks first. I didn’t notice anything at first, but next I did. There was a cross in the left boot-heel made with big nails, to keep off the devil.”
–Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (this one required no alteration*)
“Yesterday, however, just as I was thinking of leaving the office, my clerk entered to say there was someone waiting who wished to see me upon business. My clerk brought up a card, too, with the name of ‘Colonel Lysander Stark’ engraved upon it. Close behind came the colonel, who was rather over the middle size, but of an exceeding thinness.”
–The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb by Arthur Conan Doyle (made gender neutral)
“Yesterday, however, just as I was thinking of leaving the office, my clerk entered to say there was a gentleman waiting who wished to see me upon business. He brought up a card, too, with the name of ‘Colonel Lysander Stark’ engraved upon it. Close at his heels came the colonel himself, a man rather over the middle size, but of an exceeding thinness.”
–The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb by Arthur Conan Doyle (the original)
Now again, mine are absolutely clunkier. Part of that is due to retrofitting…if the original authors had written them to be gender neutral, they would undoubtedly have been better.
I asked people if they could tell what was the same about them. One of my regular readers and commenters, Lady Galaxy, compared the texts with the originals and correctly identified the main thing…that I had removed gender references.
I had sort of hoped that people wouldn’t do that: I wanted to see if it was inherently obvious, even in these short passages, that gender wasn’t being identified…and if that would be bothersome.
Since it’s not the way things are normally written, I think it would be much more obvious over two hundred pages than over two hundred words…but would that mean people would reject the book?
How important is it to you that inherent characteristics be identified in books? Would it irritate you not to be told if a character was male or female? I think it says something about us that descriptors like that likely bring strongly into us our expectations. If we read that someone is typical of a particular country, or that they are a specific religion in a book, does that make them much more three-dimensional? If so, that says something about what we assume about people.
This is an old logic puzzle:
“The police hear that a man named John who has recently committed a murder is playing poker in a particular house. They don’t have any more description than that. They raid the house, and see a truck driver, a carpenter, a prize fighter, and a mechanic playing cards. Without asking any more questions, they immediately take the prize fighter into custody. How did they know they had the right person?“
Answer: The prize fighter was the only man there…the rest were women.
Even though you might have know this was a trick question, did you picture the other three as women when you first read their job titles?
The prize fighter could have been a woman too, of course…ask Laila Ali, for example.
I guess my real question is this: do you think you could enjoy a book as much if the genders of characters weren’t identified?
I was tempted to add a poll here, but I think it would be a hard question to answer until you’d tried it…and tried it without knowing. I am interested in what you think about this idea, though. Please feel free to share your thoughts with me and my readers by commenting on this post.
* It was interesting to me that Huck, who is not well educated, uses the indefinite pronoun “they” to refer to an individual. I do that myself a lot, and it has become more accepted, although some people complain when it it is applied to one person, since “they” typically means more than one
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