Do literary characters need genders?

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

The Chronological Cultural Context Conundrum

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

Project Gutenberg

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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26 Responses to “Do literary characters need genders?”

  1. Peter Willard Says:

    Are you familiar with Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. It is a science fiction novel published last year and has won several major awards. One of the significant things about it is that the language of the primary culture has no form of gender identification. it is pointed out several times that the main character has trouble identifying genders when using other languages. For many of the characters gender is never actually specified.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Peter!

      Actually, I hadn’t heard of that one…but I have now.😉 Thanks!

      The linguistic issue is interesting. Many languages (including Spanish) have genders for things where English doesn’t…that’s often an area where Spanish as a second language people run into trouble.

      There have been some very creative ideas around gender in science fiction and fantasy. Not all alien races are binary in terms of sex: I remember one particular one where the human male “made a move” on an alien female. The alien rebuffed the human, nicely as I recall, but explained that the alien could just as easily take the “male role”. Let’s describe it as…flexible anatomy.

  2. jjhitt Says:

    Heros? What about villains? Only Disney stands out as having convincing female villains.

    Question: does a Disney Princess grow up to become an Evil Queen?

    Of course, Disney has it’s own gender issues. There are no Disney mothers, just aunts and (evil) stepmothers.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, jjhitt!

      As to your question:🙂

      More accurately, Disney doesn’t tend to have living mothers, except for

      SPOILER ALERT

      Bambi’s mo–never mind.😉

      END SPOILER ALERT

      I’d challenge your first statement, though. Catwoman isn’t a convincing female villain (especially as played by the brilliant Julie Newmar)? Poison Ivy? Harley Quinn? Actually, DC has several, in part because one of their core superheroes (who hasn’t had a stand-alone movie, but will appear in Batman v Superman) is Wonder Woman. The Amazon (no relation)😉 was leading a comic quite early on…Marvel has female superheroes now (often part of teams), but I’d say DC was ahead of them. Two of WW’s foes: Cheetah and Giganta.

      Yes, it’s not unreasonable to connect the change in the Ant-Man canon to Marvel being owned by Disney…

      • jjhitt Says:

        In the DC / Marvel dichotomy there’s no question that DC has the best villains (male or female).

  3. Lady Galaxy Says:

    The lack of gender identifiers would have to be essential to the plot of the story, otherwise, it would seem too much like a gimmick. And of course, it would be just plain hard to write because gender identifiers are part of our normal language usage. And then there would be the nitpickers who would find themselves trying to catch the author accidentally throwing in a he or a she. No matter how hard an author tries to be consistent when trying gimmicky writing styles, most of them slip up. Bill Pronzini let the name of his “nameless” detective slip more than once. How many times did Data use contractions even though he was not supposed to? Remember the episode of Next Generation called I, Borg where the whole episode was leading up to the point where a member of the Borg collective would identify himself with the singular pronoun I. Somehow, nobody in production or post production noticed that early in the episode good old Hugh used “I” to refer to himself early in the episode.

  4. Harold Delk Says:

    Info from Hatchette CEO at link. http://the-digital-reader.com/2014/08/10/hachette-ceo-responds-avalanche-amazon-advocate-emails/#.U-kUBIBdVyy

    Note that his facts are somewhat skewed … and mostly incorrect.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Harold!

      I’d flipped this article (which also includes the letter) into the free ILMK Flipboard magazine this morning:

      http://gigaom.com/2014/08/10/hachette-ceo-more-than-80-of-the-ebooks-we-publish-are-priced-at-9-99-or-lower/

      I did like the tone of it a lot more than I liked Amazon’s…which facts did you specifically find to be incorrect? Skewed is reasonable in this case…🙂

      • Lady Galaxy Says:

        If they’re sending a form letter to all who contact them, I wonder if any humans are actually reading the content. My concern continues to be whether Hatchette books will be available for Kindle because I can no longer read physical books. I did mention when this “war” started that a book I had intended to preorder no longer had that option. Without the ability to preorder, I forgot the publication date. When the battle started heating up, I checked back and discovered it had been published and was available for Kindle for $12.99. It’s written by one of my three favorite authors, an author whose protagonist is a strong female (how’s that for coming back to topic), an author whose books I purchased in hard back in the days before Kindle was an option. For that reason, I felt the price was reasonable and purchased it.

      • Harold Delk Says:

        1. “Hachette sets prices for our books entirely on our own, not in collusion with anyone.”
        The court found otherwise. I’d call this one an outright lie.

        2. “The invention of mass-market paperbacks was great for all because it was not intended to replace hardbacks but to create a new format available later, at a lower price.”
        That is not true. Paperbacks actually did replace hardbacks and, in many cases, no hardback was published for many paperbacks. An entire line of books were published with no intention of production of the hardback. You managed a brick and mortar bookstore so I’m thinking you can remember many instances to substantiate same. If not a lie it is substantially an incorrect statement.

        Amazon, as the retailer, should be the sole decider of what price they charge the customer. The author and publisher still receive the same revenue since the wholesaler to retailer contract sets those numbers and the retail price has no bearing whatsoever on the wholesale transaction. If Amazon wants to sell an item for less than they paid for it so be it.

      • Bufo Calvin Says:

        Thanks for writing, Harold!

        On the first one, I think you’ve missed the second “s”. If Pietsch had said, “Hachette set prices…” that would have been arguably false, since they settled over that issue. “set”, though, includes past tense. “sets” is current tense. I’d be surprised if the Big Five are colluding at this point, after the settlement.

        On the second one, Amazon seems to have been referring to the American version of the mass market paperback (started in 1939…close to WWII). That would be Pocket Books, and I believe those were all reprints initially. I think it’s about a decade later that we start seeing paperback originals in the USA. If we look at “invention” and “intended” as indicating “at the inception”, I think that’s a reasonable characterization.

        Amazon can and has been discounting. They are asking Hachette to set the digital list price lower…which is not something a retailer typically asks a wholesaler.

      • Bufo Calvin Says:

        I also wanted to add an important thought to this.

        Pietch’s e-mail, while certainly advocatory for their position, comes across as honest and straightforward to me. Amazon’s e-mail comes across as sneaky and manipulative. Thinking about it, that’s one of the major problems I have with it. Don’t try to fool us. While Amazon has kept numbers secret, I’ve generally felt that they’ve respected my intelligence as both a customer and a content supplier. They’ve been clumsy socially sometimes, but they haven’t tried to trick me.

        This time, it feels like they did.

  5. Brian Hartman Says:

    A few years ago, after showing my wife the second Kindle and your blog on it, I remember joking that you would refer to a family event without using the words Uncle or Aunt; Father or Mother; Son or Daughter; or Husband or Wife. And the blog was perfectly personal that way. I remember she thought you over-used the term “significant other” and felt it was standoffish–you wanted to talk to a reader, but keep him or her at arm’s length. I’ve never forgotten that little discussion, while showing her my K2. I understand,and it does seem awkward at times, but a writer is a writer, just ask George Elliot.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Brian!

      Fascinating! I actually find the term “Significant Other” to be a bit clunky, and don’t usually use it in spoken conversation. I use it here not just to neutralize gender, but to neutralize marital status. While it can be legitimately stated that marital status is not an inherent characteristic, not all couples in all parts of the USA can choose to be married. That, among other reasons, means that revealing marital status is something some people may not want to do…so I try to keep that a “non-requirement” for commenting on the blog.

      I agree, it can be awkward.🙂 It’s for a purpose, though, for me…an attempt to have people recognize for their thoughts alone.

  6. Lady Galaxy Says:

    Ever since you first posed this question, I’ve been working on it in the back of my mind. I’m aware of your preference to not identify your family members or yourself by gender, and though I accept it, I can honestly say I do not understand it. But it’s your choice, and different strokes for different folks. For a brief time in the early days of online message boards, I was board manager for a Star Wars and Star Trek forum. Board managers were assigned neutral screen names. The posters on those forums, mostly male, just assumed that I was a guy, too, because… because of a stereotype. I didn’t correct them. Would it have made a difference there if I’d outed myself as female? Probably. Who knows. I played it safe.

    Does gender matter in fiction? It matters to me. I prefer to read mysteries with strong female leads written by women. I’ve tried reading a few written by men, and the ones I read had first person narrators who did not feel authentically female. Was I prejudiced because I knew the writers were men? Could be. I still enjoy a well written mystery with a strong male lead. Nobody did the hard boiled hero with a soft spot the size of Cleveland like John D. MacDonald with his Travis McGee.

    As Brian Hartman alluded in a previous post, there was a time when women writers had to use masculine names in order to get published and then read. I can still remember the look of shock and disbelief when I told my young male students that the Harry Potter books were written by a woman.

    I’m currently reading a biography of Emily Dickenson called “Lives Like Loaded Guns.” It gives a very good portrayal of what it was like to have a talent that was suppressed by family and society because the poetic genius was of the wrong gender.

    As a young girl, I heard songs telling me that if only I were “Bobby’s Girl, what a grateful thankful girl I’d be.” Fortunately, those songs were soon followed by, “You Don’t Own Me,” and “I am Woman, Hear me Roar!” My college credits in philosophy are for a course called “Contemporary Feminism” where we studied books such as The Feminine Mystique, A Room of One’s Own, The Second Sex, Sexual Politics, and The Female Eunuch. I saw the rights of women start to be taken seriously, but then the tide turned and now some of those rights are in danger of being stripped by 5 old men.

    Gender matters in the real world mainly because we still live in a world where it can be downright dangerous to be of one gender rather than the other, a world where little girls are blinded, tortured, kidnapped and murdered for the “crime” of wanting an education, where young women are given away as brides to settle debts and then punished or killed if they try to escape a brutal marriage.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Lady!

      Your last paragraph is exactly why I do this.

      Absolutely, I’m an optimist, but I’m also aware of reality. I know it would be unrealistic for me to expect to change the attitudes that create those horrible situations.

      What I can do, for someone who is oppressed because of what they are (not who they are), is say, “That’s not going to happen here.”

      For that person who believes that an inherent characteristic of theirs leads to negative consequences, I set the tone that they don’t have to reveal that about themselves in commenting on this blog. They can if they choose to do that, but they are safe here.

      Certainly, I would prefer it to be the case that prejudice like that didn’t exist. That’s not an achievable goal for me, though. Allowing a tiny haven, where someone can talk about books without fear, is something I can do.

      Backing up a bit in your comment, I recently read about Dorothy Fontana, one of the important figures in Star Trek history, getting screen credit as “D.C. Fontana”, just for the reasons you suggest. One of the books I’m reading

      These Are The Voyages, TOS, Season One (Season One Book 1) (at AmazonSmile)

      mentions it as a conscious decision, and cites a fan mail letter including the phrase, “Mr. Fontana”.

      For Star Trek fans (and science fiction fans in general) to treat people poorly because of inherent characteristics often feels contradictory to me. Star Trek was imperfect in its equality, certainly, but the intent was there and continues to expand today. It’s important to note that Janice Rand’s miniskirt was Grace Lee Whitney’s idea, not Roddenberry’s: the show’s creator had “Number One” in pants in the first pilot.

      This article, which I flipped into the free The Measured Circle Flipboard magazine this morning, shows the evolving commitment to IDIC (Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations) in Star Trek:

      http://www.themarysue.com/illogical-homosexual-relationships-star-trek/

      • Lady Galaxy Says:

        I meant to thank you earlier for mentioning “These are the Voyages.” I downloaded it as part of my trial of KU. As Spock would say, “fascinating.”

      • Bufo Calvin Says:

        Thanks for writing, Lady!

        I agree! I’m listening to it on commutes (through text-to-speech), in addition to sight-reading. After I finish, I’ll probably flip back through to see those pictures.😉

      • Lady Galaxy Says:

        I also meant to add that I loved it when “Warehouse 13” portrayed H. G. Wells as a female, even though she started out as a villain she ended up as a hero.

      • Bufo Calvin Says:

        Thanks for writing, Lady!

        I’ve only watched a bit of W13, and haven’t seen that arc. The actual Wells was both a big proponent of women’s rights, and…very sexually active, from what I’ve heard. Some people see that as paradoxical…others don’t.🙂

  7. Bria Hartman Says:

    From Emily Dickinson:

    Much madness is divinest sense
    To a discerning eye;
    Much sense the starkest madness.
    ’Tis the majority
    In this, as all, prevails
    Assent, and you are sane;
    Demur,—you ’re straightway dangerous,
    And handled with a chain.

    I wonderwd for years what my dear departed mother meant when she calligraphed, framed and hung this poem on our wall upstairs by the kids’ bedrooms when we were growing up (it’s still there.)

    I know your blog is read worldwide, but I guess I feel a twinge of sadness when I read those phrases, ” a relative, a significant other,” that one can’t just say the simple word that explains the relationship. I just reread “The Giver,” so this is bad timing; family bonds are important, and can add impact to a statement. But I certainly understand your point.

    For all I care, you could be a Barsoomian groot-tree Gorn, Darmok-speaking Bufo; I’d still subscribe to your blog on my Kindle.

    It’s my favorite one.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Brian!

      Thanks for the kind words! I’m happy to be your favorite, and I really appreciate you subscribing!

      I have to know, though: have you been peeking in the porthole of my intergalactic transport? People aren’t supposed to know I’m an alien.😉 Of course, I’m just kidding about that…right?

      That’s a great quotation, and I applaud your mother for exposing you to it!

      I said something along those lines (but not as well, I’m sure) many years ago:

      “Madness comes in many forms
      We all cross over the line
      But I won’t look askance at yours
      If you don’t laugh at mine”

  8. Brian Hartman Says:

    From Emily Dickinson:

    Much madness is divinest sense
    To a discerning eye;
    Much sense the starkest madness.
    ’Tis the majority
    In this, as all, prevails
    Assent, and you are sane;
    Demur,—you ’re straightway dangerous,
    And handled with a chain.

    –Quoted for review purposes by Brian Hartman

    I wonderwd for years what my dear departed mother meant when she calligraphed, framed and hung this poem on our wall upstairs by the kids’ bedrooms when we were growing up (it’s still there.)

    I know your blog is read worldwide, but I guess I feel a twinge of sadness when I read those phrases, ” a relative, a significant other,” that one can’t just say the simple word that explains the relationship. I just reread “The Giver,” so this is bad timing; family bonds are important, and can add impact to a statement. But I certainly understand your point.

    For all I care, you could be a Barsoomian groot-tree Gorn, Darmok-speaking Bufo; I’d still subscribe to your blog on my Kindle.

    It’s my favorite one.

  9. Brian Hartman Says:

    Sorry about the double post, I wanted to make sure to claim responsibility for the poem quote. Do what you have to, I apologize for making your busy life harder!

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Brian!

      If you’ve made it harder, you’ve also made it richer today, and I appreciate that.

  10. Brian Hartman Says:

    No problems quoting this:

    “Madness comes in many forms
    We all cross over the line
    But I won’t look askance at yours
    If you don’t laugh at mine”

    I add:

    When what you write makes me smile
    I think not of the lines you crossed
    But that we deem them madness lines
    Lines well-lived, lines well-crossed.

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