Analysis

Five Signs Your Story Is Sexist

In Dune, a Reverend Mother of the Bene Gesserit tortures the main character.

In Dune, a Reverend Mother of the Bene Gesserit tortures the main character.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if making a story sexism-free was as easy as not being a misogynist jerk? Unfortunately, living in a patriarchal society means that sexism feels normal to most of us. If you want to prevent sexist tropes from getting into your work, you have to learn about them. You can start with these common signs of sexism against women.

1. Powerful Women Are Threatening to Men

Wheel of Time cover

Many people mistakenly assume that if a story depicts powerful women, then it empowers them. While depicting strong women can certainly help a work, what message that work sends about powerful women is more important. In your story, do female leaders feel normal, or are they a threatening deviation from the natural order?

The Wheel of Time and Dune both depict the latter. Each one has a powerful order that is exclusively women. In each story, this order is a menacing presence the male Chosen One must face. Dune opens as Paul is pulled out of bed to be tortured by a powerful Bene Gesserit member. In The Wheel of Time, the largest group within the Aes Sedai is the Red Ajah. The members of this group are often portrayed as man-hating lesbians bent on hunting down the hero. While neither order is 100% bad, they reinforce the stereotype that women are manipulative. Ultimately, this sends the message that women should not be leaders.

That doesn’t mean that having powerful female villains or incompetent female leaders is always sexist. For instance, in season three and four of The Legend of Korra, the tyrannical queen of the Earth Kingdom is replaced by a tyrannical female dictator. This isn’t problematic at all. That’s partly because The Legend of Korra has a well-rounded cast with plenty of positive female figures, but it’s mostly because the power and villainy of these tyrants isn’t tied to womanhood.

The Wheel of Time and Dune do just the opposite. In The Wheel of Time, magical energy is segregated by gender. Whereas men gain magic by metaphysically grappling with it, women fill themselves with magic by surrendering to it. Of course, their power is weaker than male magic. During the time of the story, male magic has been poisoned, so only women can use magic and join the Aes Sedai. In Dune, the Bene Gesserit are a breeding cult: their goal is to breed the perfect man who will surpass them. Your depiction might not be so overtly sexist, but if you tie an antagonist’s traits to their gender, you’re signing up to send sexist messages, whether you want to or not.

Powerful and threatening women also appear in these common tropes:

  • The overbearing wife: Have you noticed stories often have hen-pecked husbands but not hen-pecked wives? That’s because when the husband leads, it’s considered normal. Labeling concerns or direction from women as “nagging” is just another way of casting women who aren’t submissive in a negative light.
  • The femme fatale: Like the Aes Sedai and Bene Gesserit, the femme fatale is a villain with threatening traits that are tied to womanhood. These characters are usually designed to be attractive to a male audience.
  • Punitive matriarchal leaders: In speculative fiction, matriarchies often have comically exaggerated attitudes towards men. Yes, a matriarchy is not a fair system, and men would suffer. However, think of all the medieval fantasy stories you’ve read with male leadership. Were some of the kings depicted as good leaders despite being part of a sexist system? Did they constantly talk about how women are lowly, or did they simply assume that women would do as they asked? Don’t make your matriarchy over the top. If you do, you’re sending the message that female leadership is scary.

If you want to add positive depictions of powerful women, your female characters should be powerful on their own terms. Princesses are technically powerful, but that power is usually granted by their father, the king. Glorifying their role as princess also glorifies patriarchy.

2. Male Heroes Talk Down to Women

wesley-hit

In The Princess Bride, the hero not only accuses his love of lying but also threatens to hit her if she does it again. Yes, Wesley is mad at Buttercup at the time, but do you really think it’s acceptable for men to threaten violence against their wives, girlfriends, or ex-girlfriends when they’re angry?

You might think your male heroes are innocent, but your idea of what is appropriate for men to say to women is probably skewed by, again, patriarchy. For instance, let’s take a typical scene with the aforementioned overbearing wife and her hen-pecked husband; The Princess Bride even has a pair. In scenes like these, it’s likely the husband will say something like:

“Leave me be, woman.”

This exchange will be presented as the cute bickering of an old couple. But that’s not cute; that’s misogyny. If you doubt me, read that line again and ask yourself what tone of voice the word “woman” is in. Or ask yourself if you’ve ever heard a line like this:

“Leave me be, man.”

Unlikely. What you might have heard is this:

“Leave me be, boy.”

That’s because calling someone a “man” isn’t derogatory, but calling them a “woman” or “boy” is. The husband says it because he’s trying to put his wife in her place.

It can get much worse. In Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, every male character (except the Martian, because he was raised on Mars) refers to the female lead with names like “dimples,” “honey lamb,” and “baby girl.” Those are endearments when addressed to a character’s love interest or child, but condescending when addressed to any other woman.

Luckily the use of pet names has mostly passed out of today’s fiction. But we still have an epidemic of male heroes casually giving women orders. Once you pay attention, you’ll be surprised at how often male characters tell women what do to. While storytellers make most characters with authority male, it happens even when the male character has no official authority or even special expertise to offer. For instance, take this innocent-looking snippet from The Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare.

Suddenly all business, Simon squared his shoulders. “I’ll get one of the security guards. You stay here.” He strode away, pushing through the crowd.

Simon is the heroine’s best friend. I think Clare intended to depict Simon as socially awkward but probably not domineering or sexist.

Unfortunately, this dynamic also rears its head in romances. Too many romances feature a male character who knows what’s best for the female lead. These stories portray his commands, manipulation, or even kidnapping in a positive light. By contrast, we rarely see a serious romantic pairing between an experienced woman and an inexperienced man.

3. Female Bodies Are Casually Violated

expecting_cordelia

In the show Angel, pregnancy is forced on female characters no less than three times, and two out of three are even fatal to the character. Often known as the “mystical pregnancy,” this damaging trope is most common in speculative fiction. In real life, forcing pregnancy on someone usually involves rape. But when there’s magic, storytellers can use it to skip the rape and just go right to the involuntary pregnancy. In Angel, the vampire Darla gets pregnant after having consensual sex with another vampire. Vampires are infertile; she had no reason to think sex would result in pregnancy. Not only does a mysterious force ensure that she gets pregnant, it also forces her to bring the anomalous vampire offspring to term.

Forced pregnancy is a sickening violation of a person’s body. If your story is not dark enough to include rape, then it is not dark enough for this. But in almost every case, forced pregnancies are not treated as the horrors they are. Shows using the trope ignore the lasting trauma that anyone would experience after having control of their body taken away from them. In some cases, such as with Darla’s violation, it’s even framed as a good thing.

Too many stories have some form of sexual coercion or assault thrown in casually. Rape isn’t necessary to prove that a character is a villain or to put a damsel in distress; storytellers can use many other harmful behaviors. Inserting sexual assault where it isn’t needed is not only insensitive to real people who have dealt with it, but it also normalizes the behavior. That’s why even small instances of inappropriate grabbing or unwanted kisses should be left out. Even a theoretical mention of sexual assault isn’t something to insert in your story without a good reason. Take this line from Ron L. Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth:

Terl could not have produced a more profound effect had he thrown a meat girl naked into the middle of a room.

The implied abuse in this sentence has no purpose other than flavor. Hubbard seems to think that being stripped naked and put on display is something to joke about. Readers who’ve had anything like that happen to them probably disagree.

Sexual assault can be appropriate in fiction. But unless you’re willing to invest in researching all the thorny issues surrounding it and its appearance in stories, I recommend just leaving it out.

4. Women Live to Serve Others

Warbreaker Cover

Spoiler Notice: Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson

In Warbreaker, two princesses named Siri and Vivenna are thrust in the center of an escalating conflict between their home kingdom and a powerful neighbor. As two of the three primary characters, they’ll save the day, right? Nope. Siri is married off to the puppet ruler of the powerful kingdom. She tries to save him but only messes up. Instead, he saves her and the kingdom. Vivenna makes an even bigger mistake than Siri, but luckily for her, a male character I’ll call Stealth Mary Sue takes her in and gets her straightened out. He saves the day even more, and Vivenna fetches his sword for him. As the story ends, both princesses dedicate their lives to their respective men.

One of the most common stereotypes used by well-intentioned storytellers is that of the female nurturer. Examine your female characters: Are they best characterized as mothers, wives, nurses, or supportive lovers and friends? Are the women who don’t fit this role shamed or villainized? In Warbreaker, the next most important female character is an independent thinker who *gasp* wants to have sex for her own pleasure. Like the other women, the story reveals she was tricked by the villains, and she also gets a pointless death.

Mother characters suffer the most under the nurturing stereotype. In countless stories, they are long dead. The storyteller assumes that if they were alive, they would provide emotional support that the main character shouldn’t have. Dead mothers are invariably described as “beautiful,” “loving,” and “kind.” Pleasing other people with their attractive appearance and caring behavior was their entire life. They were not an inspiring leader, they were not of the chosen lineage, and they did not invent a mysterious machine no one knows how to operate. They were just kind and pretty.

Mothers are rarely allowed to be distant and judgmental the way fathers are. When they are, they’re considered terrible people. Fathers are allowed to be flawed parents without being condemned. Everyone assumes men just don’t get all that child-rearing stuff, because why not be sexist against guys too?

5. Women Are Missing

Corkboard of Men in the Corvinus line

In Underworld, all vampires, werewolves, and other immortals are descended from Alexander Corvinus. He had three sons: a vampire, a werewolf, and a mortal. Did this family with four dudes include any women? If so, the writers didn’t think it was worth mentioning.

During the story, a werewolf scientist tracks the mortal descendants of the Corvinus line, hoping to find a human that has a special dormant gene. However, in tracking the family lineage, he somehow forgets that women exist. His cork board shows no matrilineal descendants and no female cousins, sisters, or aunts of the chosen Michael Corvin. Sure, this could have a scientific explanation: the gene is on the Y chromosome. But the only reason to make inheritance work that way is to exclude women.

I’m not even done with this movie yet. The vampires have three important elders – rulers that alternate between sleeping and leading. The first elder, Viktor, is the antagonist of the film and has a big battle against the protagonists for the film’s climax. Marcus, the second, is one of the original three sons of Alexander Corvinus. He’s left as the antagonist of the next film. Last is Amelia, the only female elder. The movie has one brief shot of her being in danger and another brief shot of her being held down and drained of her blood. Then she’s just dead. If she had an epic fight, it was off screen.

Patriarchy conditions us to think of men as normal and women as special exotic creatures. That’s why in many stories, particularly stories written by men, characters are only women if the storyteller thinks they have to be. In other words, only love interests are women. That’s why the main character of Underworld is a woman. She’s the love interest of Michael, the audience stand-in. She’s clearly designed to be attractive to a male audience.

Women are even more absent when the characters are of a species that is considered masculine. Underworld shows us female vampires in the background but not a single female werewolf.

Because most of us have a very skewed sense of what ratio of men to women is normal, the only way to ensure equal representation is to actually count them up and tally the total. Then you have to rate each character’s presence in the story in order to make sure your male characters aren’t disproportionately important. It’s okay if most of the characters you invent are male to start with; what matters is that you change their gender as you develop your story.


One of the best tests of gender depiction is to think through a gender reversal. Imagine all the men in your story are women and vice versa. What if that order of female, breeding cultists was an order of male-only, breeding cultists? What if a kind and beautiful mother was a kind and beautiful father? If your characters feel funny or weird once you change their gender, ask yourself why.

P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?

Read more about

 

Comments

  1. Sean Brodrick

    Strongly disagree with point #1. So women can’t be batsh*t-crazy villains or femme fatales? Right … another word for the book you want is boring.

    • Omestes

      I don’t think this is an issue of “can’t”, but of “overused”. These are overused tropes. Also, they can be sexist, and people should be aware of this before they use them. Often people inject things like this just because they can be cool tropes, without thinking of what they actually say.

      That said, I think that using the Bene Gesserit and ” attractive to a male audience” in the same sentence is a bit off. Herbert did gender a bit better than most of his peers (with Heinlein being the certified misogynist pig, writing thinly veiled Libertarian manifestos… he would have fit into Reddit culture just fine). While the Bene Gesserit did use sex to control, they were rather complex. They weren’t just about that. And being a female order, and being manipulative, while being a sexist trope in most books, wasn’t in Dune. Since EVERY group was equally manipulative and vile. Also, sex was pretty much a means to the end (space eugenics), it wasn’t their only form of power, it was merely a single tool in a giant box.

      Jessica falls into the nurturing trap though. As does, later on, Chani.

      • Chris Winkle

        I meant that the femme fatale is designed to be attractive to men, not the Bene Gesserit. Although, in actually the Bene Gesserit is designed to make male readers happy, just in a completely different way. They validate the superiority of the male hero.

        I am deeply amused by the idea that any work that doesn’t specifically include a crazy female villain (which I don’t recall mentioning) or a femme fatale is boring.

        • Omestes

          I’m still not sure, since the Bene Gesserit is about the same as every other faction in the Dune universe. I suppose I can see where you’re coming from a bit though, since they are the most gendered of all of them.

          Putting some thought into this, your point would be much strong if you used the Honored Matres… They very much embody sexist tropes far better than the Bene Gesserit.

        • Darryl R Taylor

          Using your suggestion of reversing the gender in Dune, it would make the Bene Gesserit more horrifying and the protagonist more to be empathized with.

          The psychically gifted men who have been breeding for the perfect woman for generations have a member of their order creep into the room of the young woman who may be the one that they seek in order to “test” her by making her prove that she is human?

          She is forced to flee with her father after the family nurse betrays them as part of a scheme by the paranoid Empress colluding to supplant their family’s position with the vile and corpulent Baroness Harkonnen, and her niece (who is also a product of the Bene Gesserit breeding program and would have been bred to Pauline Muad’ib if she had been born a male as had been planned).

          I’m not going to take the reversal to ridiculous extremes, but within the context of what has already been outlined, the hero’s dominance and subsequent riding of the sand worms would be a Freudian nightmare, and every feminist in North America would likely have been calling for the public emasculation of Herbert shortly after the release of the novel.

      • Unquabain

        Was Herbert much better than his peers?

        Remember in Dune Messiah, he replaces the Bene Gesserit with the Tleilaxu who want the same thing as the Bene Gesserit. They’re basically interchangeable with the Bene Gesserit, but they’re more formidable villains because they aren’t tempted by Paul’s manly manness to become his mother/wife. Basically, women aren’t scary enough, so he replaces them with transgendered villains.

    • SamBeringer

      Firstly, while I agree there can be batshit-crazy female villains (only because there are batshit-crazy male villains), I disagree with the notion about femme fatales. Because when`s the last time you saw a male villain who relied on their sex appeal to get what they wanted?

      Secondly, your statement implies that the only interesting female villains are batshit-crazy or femme fatales. To which I would point out that Azula from the Last Airbender is neither (well, until the end at least. But her mental degradation makes her less of a threat rather than more). And yet many fans find her compelling and more interesting of a villain than the Fire Lord himself.

      Finally, while the two categories you mentioned aren`t bad in of themselves (Harley Quinn is my favorite DC villainess, even though she qualifies as batshit-crazy. And while Madalena from Galavant is an excellent villain and a great subversion of the damsel in distress archetype, she definitely has shades of the femme fatale), it becomes a problem when those are the only options offered for female villains. Male villains can be cunning, intimidating, monstrous, and/or loads of other things. Female villains, meanwhile, must either be insane or rely on sex appeal, reducing the potential for more interesting female villains and excluding great villainesses like Azula or Nurse Ratched (and just to give an idea of how rare this is, I spent half an hour sitting here and thinking through the notable female villains I know of who weren`t femme fatales or crazy aside from Azula). That, to me, is truly boring.

    • Adam Reynolds

      That isn’t the point at all. It’s not that all depictions of things like femme fatales are bad, its more bad when most of the female characters fall into roles opposing the hero in that fashion and there is little diversity. It also comes down to how said femme fatale manipulates those around her. For two interesting examples, look at Nikita(2010) or Leverage. While the various characters on those two shows frequently dressed in revealing outfits and used sex appeal to their advantage, it was never portrayed as the only means through which they could get results. Sophie on Leverage was extremely manipulative in every possible way, as were the heroines of Nikita. On the antagonist side, Amanda on Nikita was manipulative through almost every means other than sexual.

      For an even better example, Veronica Mars entirely gender inverts the concept with Logan fulfilling the role and not really having a female character fit said role. Nikita also had secondary protagonist Alex also seduced by a male character. It helps when stories also have women as viewpoint characters, as was the case in both of those scenarios.

      As for the crazy point, where was that mentioned?

      Onto the actual blog post, the issue with princesses is another that is somewhat problematic. One of the only heroic queens I can think of in fiction is Amidala in the Star Wars prequels, and she was elected(not to mention wholly falling into the mother role). Leia even described her using exactly the same adjectives you did.

      What is ironic about #5 is that maternal DNA that is only passed by mothers is far easier to track than paternal bloodlines. Interestingly parasitic cuckoo birds do something like you mention, but that the Y chromosome is female rather than male(as it is in all birds). The knowledge of how to lay their eggs in the nests of other birds is on the Y chromosome, such that a female cuckoo bird will lay her eggs in the same type of nest she was born into.

      That idea of reversing gender with my characters is something I do somewhat frequently. As a side note, I have a much easier time coming up with names for female characters than male, not really sure why. Though this then leads to another issue, that of the Ms. male character. That is a character that has no traits that are associated with femininity, the idea that showing emotion and compassion rather than stoicism and aggression is less effective.

      There is another related issue that I have been wondering about lately. Should stories deal with the physical strength divide between men and women? Is it better to just ignore it, as the overwhelming majority of action stories do, or is it better to address it in some fashion while still having women in such roles? There actually was an interesting moment in the first Avengers movie that almost portrayed this. After Banner Hulked out, he chased Black Widow through the helicarrier and she was saved by Thor. While the demigod and unstoppable rage monster fought, she was largely helpless.

      • Chris Winkle

        That’s a good question about physical strength. First, keep in mind that the difference is only on average and isn’t as big as we often assume. Any individual woman could still be stronger than an individual guy she comes across, particularly if she’s had physical training. If you incorporate superpowers, the superpowers are definitely the bigger factor. For that reason, if you want to just forget it you can. However, if you want to dig into the details there, you can incorporate how female and male bodies are different, the key is not to focus on the simplistic stronger vs weaker theme. I was at a panel at a con with woman veterans, and here’s what one of them, Ana Visneski, said:

        “It does come up that men’s and women’s bodies are different. That is absolutely correct; our bodies are different. The way they carry weight is different. The ways we do things is different. That does not mean a woman is incapable of carrying a 70lb rocket. It means she balances different while she does it.”

      • Jack Kaplan

        I would offer that it’s less important whether or not you explicitly address strength differences than how you portray strength in general. What I mean by that is that strength is intimately tied to body mass. If you are a stronger person you are going to have a larger body and, generally, the larger person is the stronger person. A huge portrayal problem, especially in film, is that women who are suppose to be strong and physically capable are given bodies that are more akin to runway models.

        Black Widow in the Avengers movie is a perfect example of how not to do physically capable women. The actress Scarlett Johansson is a tiny woman in her Black Widow roll, yet she is seen overpowering men three times her size. If you are going to have a women beat the shit out of a bunch of men you are going to need to close that size gap substantially, either make her much larger and more muscular or make them much smaller and more lean. That doesn’t mean that the men have to be paper thin wimps or that the women has to be a burly beefcake. If Scar Jo had marginally more muscle tone and had beat the shit out of a bunch of guys of Hawkeye’s build that would make a tremendous amount more sense.

        • Katja

          Hi Jack,

          speaking from half a decade of wing tsun practice, it is not absolutely necessary to close the gap in size and weight you mention. There are martial arts, that do not rely on strength – e.g., aikido – or offer relatively “flexible” options, if the opponent is stronger than oneself. Think of it as: “That punch is too strong to block? Well, give way.” or as the difference between fire and water bending in the Avatar series. That does not mean, that the more flexible style is weaker or stronger, it simply is adapted to the person that performs it.
          Furthermore – in my experience – strength is the crucial factor, only if two people have the same experience and equally good technique. If that is not the case, the person with better technique and more experience will usually win. (I know, the latter was not your point, but I wanted to mention it for the sake of completeness.)

          Coming back to big productions there are usually two problems with the fighting scenes:
          1) The actors are not martial artists, which makes the scene look quite unrealistic per se. If you are interested in the difference, you may have a look at “Forbidden Kingdom”, which features both.
          2) The fighting style is – as far as I know – not too much a “proper” style, but rather a mixture of “looks good” and “makes the actor look good”.

          So, in my opinion, it is not so much about strength or in the broadest sense body type, but rather the technique. As far as I remember Rodriguez and Jovovich did a good job in Resident Evil, even though Jovovich actually is a model.

          Nonetheless, I would very much like to see other body types cast.

    • Kara Harkins

      I was perplexed by the same thing. The simple test I use is whether a scene would be the same if you changed the gender of anyone in it. I can pretty much guarantee that *anyone* would be threatened by *anyone* holding a gom jabar to their neck unless they experienced pain without trying to get away from it.

  2. Cay Reet

    Only a minor point, but at the end of #1, you mention a princess as being empowered through her father, the king. Both history and fiction also allow for her to be powered through her mother, the queen, which would then mean she’s not empowered by patriarchy, but merely by being a member of a ruling bloodline. There have been a lot of ruling queens not ruling because of a system of matriarchy, but simply because their husband was missing, dead, or in war … or because the succession laws allow for the oldest daughter to take the throne.

    I agree there’s a lot of sexist topics in fiction and it’s hard to find a female villain who is not either depicted as crazy or as someone using their sexuality to gain power. This is itself a sexist topic: women can use their sexuality and their looks, because they are judged by how sexually attractive they seem. This is the true reason why there’s no homme fatal, only a femme fatale.

  3. Me

    #5 is what is wrong with Lord of the Rings. Barely any women at all. It is a world full of men and very little women. Even as a child I could never like the series because it was all boys, boys, boys. To this day I still feel the same way. Awful lot of men, very little women.

    • Paul

      LoTR was written as a tribute, or a memorial to Tolkien’s experiences on World War 1.
      Not a lot of women in the trenches, but a lot of male camaraderie in the face of horror.

      The female characters he did include were powerful, respected, and wise. Good traits for anyone and not gender based at all.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        If you think about that argument for a moment, you’ll find it doesn’t make any sense. There weren’t many hobbits, dwarves, elves, or Wring Wraiths in WWI either. Tolkien certainly wasn’t terrible on the representation front, considering the time he wrote in, but if someone feels like there weren’t enough women in it for them to enjoy, saying it’s because there weren’t many women in the source material doesn’t make sense.

        • Jack Kaplan

          It makes 100% sense. The book was a fantasy fictionalization of how Tolkien viewed his experiences and how he viewed the industrialization of war. It’s an entirely valid observation, and it does nothing to speak against why someone else doesn’t like a thing. It only clarifies why something is the way that it is.

          • Ria

            So Tolkien could reimagine the people in the trenches as dwarves, hobbits, elves, etc. but imagining them as women was a step too far?

          • Oren Ashkenazi

            I’m afraid not, Jack. I very much doubt Tolkien viewed his war experience as being filled with elves and and hobbits. He added those later, either because he thought it would make the story more interesting or to distance himself from the actual experience, we’ll never know.

            It does the man a disservice to assume his imagination was incapable of including women in his fantasy scenario. Instead, he was held back by social views of a woman’s place that permeated his culture and to a certain extent still permeate ours.

          • 3Comrades

            I saw this and had to add that Tolkien was very adamant that his story was NOT about his war experiences and once said that if it was, both sides would use Hobbitts, and would compete over how much damage they could do with the ring.

  4. Adam Reynolds

    As much as Buffy or Rey are enjoyable characters, the problem I have with portraying female characters just as physically strong is that it thus seems to claim that women should act like men with different anatomy as opposed to having different ways of dealing with problems. Ways that are often superior when used in reality. This then gets into the issue you point out with the Heroine’s Journey. Which of course does offer interesting story possibilities.

    It was an issue that Anita Sarkeesian pointed out in her review of True Grit, that having a female character that excels in a male dominated world doesn’t make her a feminist icon. Showing the feminine perspectives of cooperation and emotional expression as equal or superior to stoicism and aggression would be a far better feminist icon that a young woman who adopts to the male standard rather than challenging it.

    The other issue is with regard to populations and overall numbers. While there are women more than capable of handling themselves in situations like combat, as has been shown in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan(and in a smaller example, the mixed gender crew of the USS Cole was more than adequate when it came to damage control, despite the fact that naval fire fighting was often considered something women would have been inferior at), there will always be far less women who are both capable and interested of trying to compete in those areas. As a reasonable example, the US Army’s Sapper school has had women directly competing with men, with a failure rate no higher. Though that is with the percentage of women entering the course less than 10%.

    So that would imply that the percentage of women in such a role be extremely small.

    • Chris Winkle

      I think it is essential have to female heroes that retain feminine characteristics AND have female heroes that adopt masculine characteristics (not to mention heroes that do both). The former is to raise the status of feminine roles, and the later is to break down gendered stereotypes and allow people to exist outside the gender binary if they want to. I think Anita is right that there is a disproportionate amount of “strong female characters” adopting masculine roles, but to some level we need that. If you want to show how non-violence is better at solving problems, consider writing a male hero that fills a very feminine role. How often do we see that?

      I don’t think it’s fair to say “there will always be far less women who are both capable and interested of trying to compete in those areas” – we don’t know that yet. Everything from exposure to women in various occupations, to encouragement or discouragement from family, to wanting to be among similar people, affects a person’s choice about career. All the little ways society discourages woman from entering traditionally male professions adds up to a huge impact. If we ever lose our gender binary, then we will know if women are naturally less inclined toward combat roles. Right now, we don’t.

    • Tyson Adams

      That’s a good point you raise, Adam. You immediately made me think of the differences I had noticed in female authored crime novels vs male authored crime novels. Recently I read one that had a male protagonist, but his boss was female. She had a network of friends who would call on one another to grease wheels on an investigation. In male authored crime novels the protagonist is just about always a loner and may have trouble with getting favours.

      We should be thinking about skill-sets and differences that could be adventitious, as well as interesting from a narrative perspective.

      • Charles Olson

        A good book to read is “The Sexual Paradox: Men, Women, and The Real Gender Gap” by Susan Pinker. It is a fascinating, well-written book that includes a lot of analysis of solid statistical research studies on what career choices women make when they have the option to choose. While it does anything BUT confirm the idea that women all gravitate toward certain roles, it DOES establish that there are certain tendencies that differ between the sexes, tendencies that Pinker hypothesizes as having some foundations in average testable differences (such as empathy. Women, on average, have higher empathy than men, and Pinker hypothesizes that this, on average, leads to different choices). While some of her conclusions or theories may offend some, she backs them up with facts, and she isn’t advancing roles. In other words, she is far more descriptive than prescriptive. If I was to sum up the feel of the book it would be: “On the whole, men and women ARE a little different from each other, and this is a good thing.”

        The book also has some equally fascinating information on traits like dyslexia and autism, which are far more common in men than in women, which would be of use to anyone trying to get a better picture of how THOSE function and express in the population and in individuals.

        • Oren Ashkenazi

          Point of order: It’s actually quite difficult to say for certain what the sex bias of conditions like dyslexia and autism might be, because women with those conditions are almost certainly under-diagnosed. I don’t know if Pinker accounts for that in her book.

          I would also caution that we not read to much into the broad trends that books like hers talk about. While some of them may be true (and I say may because its really difficult to completely isolate biological factors from social ones), they are only broad trends. Broad trends don’t tend to matter very much at the individual level.

          Example: In broad trends, men make more money than women, but it would hardly be unbelievable to have a female character in your story who’s richer than the male characters.

        • Tyson Adams

          Whenever someone tells me about this awesome non-fiction book that provides research proving X, I always think, “So, couldn’t stand up to peer review hey?”

          Anyway, I haven’t read Susan Pinker’s work, but from what I understand it is the usual pop-psychobabble that you see in all of these sorts of books. They have a conclusion and offer up a polemic of cherry picked and misrepresented evidence to convince the reader their conclusion is correct. In other words, unscientific rubbish. Martin Gladwell has gotten famous and rich doing this crap.

          This review has a brief summary of what I’m talking about: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/mar/30/society.politics

          An example of the erroneous claims Pinker is making there (yes, I’m being presumptuous since I haven’t read it) is that autism rates in men are higher. Well, that’s not necessarily the case. We don’t actually know what the autism rate is in girls because they are usually undiagnosed or misdiagnosed because they tend to have different symptoms.
          http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/allinthemind/why-autism-spectrum-disorders-are-under-diagnosed-in-women/6570896

          And besides all of that, it still doesn’t get past the point that the researchers on the gender pay gap have accounted for a lot of things and there still exists a gap. Sure, the larger gap has lots of factors involved, but there is still discrimination playing a part. It is also not a very compelling argument that social conditioning explains it, therefore no big deal. Changing that social conditioning is part of the wider discrimination reversal needed.

          • Oren Ashkenazi

            Oh heh, I knew I recognized the name Pinker from somewhere. I head her bother, Steven Pinker’s book a while back, and while it had some good stuff in, it largely assumed that because discrimination is mostly illegal now, social pressures aren’t really a very big deal.

  5. Anon Adderlan

    I’m actually surprised Dune doesn’t get more flack in this political climate. In addition to the issue you mention, there’s also superiority through eugenics and faux-muslim jihadists. The reason I think it gets away with it is because of the depth of execution, and were it the product of a lesser writer it would have already been skewered by now.

    As for science…

    “Sure, this could have a scientific explanation: the gene is on the Y chromosome. But the only reason to make inheritance work that way is to exclude women.”

    So if the trait was passed down through mitochondria, the only reason would be to exclude men?

    Can we just stop with the ‘scientific explanations in fiction have a political agenda’ thing? Science in the real world has no agenda, regardless of how many people use it to validate their political leanings. It can only answer questions about empirical true and false, not ethical right and wrong, and it isn’t always ‘fair’, because fair is an ETHICAL concept.

    So why should science in fictional settings be any different, especially when based (however tenuously) on real world phenomena?

    • Daniel Taylor

      I feel you’re rather missing the point here.

      The issue isn’t with science *as science*, or as a concept.

      Story science – when made up for the story – is NOT real world science. It’s made up for the benefit of the narrative. And it’s subject to critique, on the grounds of sexism or any other grounds, in the same way as anything else the author made up.

      If the author made, for example, magic only usable by men – that’s a choice. It’s subject to critique on the grounds of sexism. And saying something like “but there’s solid science in the world for that – it’s Y-chromosome-linked” is sadly extremely common – but it’s *not* a defence. This isn’t the real world, where the author was constrained by actual facts – they *made up* the Y-chromosome-link. They could equally easily have invented something different.

      There’s a pretty hideous example of this in the latest Metal Gear, where the game designer insisted “no, there’s a really good reason why the female sniper is nearly naked all the time”, and triumphantly revealed: “she’s a lab project who breathes through her skin”.

      The trouble is – that’s a pathetic excuse. The *effect* is still that the female character is near-naked and the male ones are fully clothed, and that was a choice by the author. The fact that the author bothered to come up with an in-universe excuse afterwards doesn’t change the fact that the did it *because he wanted an excuse for the female character to have no clothes on*. It doesn’t free him from responsibility for the choice.

      So no, fictional science (when invented for narrative reasons) is not immune to critique, any more than fictional sociology or geography is.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        The Metal Gear reference is particularly amusing because they’ve had a character who did something similar before, a wrinkly old man. And yet he never went around in a tiny bathing suit on combat missions.

        • Cay Reet

          I’m rather sure I know the reason for that…

          You see the same one in every MMO RPG … male armour is meant to make the wearer look more imposing and intimidating, all hugh shoulder pieces, big boots, and sculpted breastplates. Female armour is usually as few pieces of metal as are possible. Practically speaking, all those female characters should be dead within five minutes into their first mission.

          • Oren Ashkenazi

            And of course, the males of a fantasy race look like big, imposing monsters, the females look like sexy human women with a color swap.

            Except the Tauren. Tauren are cool.

    • SunlessNick

      Mitochondrial DNA wouldn’t exclude men; men do have mitochondrial DNA. It would only mean that heridity was matrilineal.

  6. Kiden

    I question whether you actually READ the Wheel of Time series, because frankly, if you did, you sure as hell read a different version than the ones sitting on my bookshelf. You see, in the ones -I- read, the Aes Sedai are a powerful force in the world, and many of them actually HELP the hero, including some of the red ajah. There is a faction among the aes sedai, namely the BLACK ajah, aka the ones who are EVIL who want to hunt him down. There are also some among the red who want to control him, but not because he’s a man, but because they think that that’s the only way they can see to protect the world. This is what’s known as ‘character development’. One more thing…where, EXACTLY, did you get the idea that they were all man hating lesbians? There is not a single character in the ENTIRE SERIES that is described as gay or straight. They have relationships, and that’s it. Some have relationships with men, others with women, and still others with both. That goes for both men and women. As for man hating…no. In fact, the line used in the book is that because the red ajah’s job is to hunt men who can channel, for good reason, they tend to become jaded against all men. You know, kind of like cops tend to become jaded against anybody who has ever been arrested, regardless of whether or not they have turned their life around. There are even members of the red ajah that are quite friendly with men, including actually wanting warders. So, before you bitch about a series, how about you actually READ IT? And not just looking for things to prove your points, but looking at everything as a whole.

    • Ginny

      I found the Wheel of Time books very sexist. The male perspective parts were written wonderfully. The three main males were complex, interesting, and just really fun to adventure with. The women were just flat out terrible for the most part. While the women could be powerful, most of the women (with the original author) were one of two type of women
      – the gentle lady who did what the men wanted
      – the bitch who told the men they were doing the wrong thing, then the men ignore them

      When you were reading the books, did you ever just skip through the women’s point of view chapters? Ask yourself why, when the men’s were written so beautifully.

  7. Ben Atherton-Zeman

    Thank you so much for this wonderful article! As a lifelong fantasy fan and reader approaching his 50th year, this is the piece I’ve been waiting for without realizing it.

    I especially love point #3. I’ve spend my adult life working to stop men’s violence against women – having sexual violence casually thrown in ruins a book for me.

    Again, thank you so much!

  8. Andrew

    Have to disagree with the reference to Angel. Spoilers.

    The picture you have of Cordy is of an episode where (and I freely admit it has been a while since I’ve seen it) the men are shown as predators serving a demon. She is never questioned about wanting to sleep with the attractive man. She is asked if she used protection but that was just in the gathering of facts. No one questions it or anything like that.

    She is shown as distraught and her male friends are nothing other than supportive in every way shape and form they can be.

    Darla was a rapist over her centuries and to her the biggest violation was that the, human, baby had a soul and so she started to feel remorse and love.

    And I think Cordy’s second pregnancy had as much to do with Charisma Carpenter’s real life pregnancy and the show runners working with that.

    • Chris Winkle

      The reason why this seems okay to you is that you are underestimating the seriousness of forced pregnancy. As I said, it is a sickening violation along the likes of rape, and only a patriarchal culture makes people think differently. The show writers clearly weren’t okay with having Cordy or Darla raped in either of those situations (I’m not getting into the origins of Cordy’s other forced pregnancy) so clearly a forced pregnancy was inappropriate for the tone of their show.

      Sure, Cordy is unhappy for all of one episode. We don’t watch her deal with PTSD or other serious emotional consequences for the rest of the season, and that’s the least that this demanded.

      Regardless of what Darla did in the past, violating her body in that manner is clearly an inappropriate punishment. You wouldn’t watch in vindictive joy if she got raped as punishment for past crimes, would you?

      Please remember that being forced into becoming pregnant and then being forced to carry that pregnancy term is a real thing that real people suffer through. Not treating it with the seriousness it deserves adds both insult and injury.

      • Tyson Adams

        Not to mention that the ultimate consequence of Darla’s pregnancy was to be killed off so that the worst character in the series could be born. That rape pregnancy sucked from start to finish.

        • Andrew

          With Darla it was almost like it is supposed to be a horrible world with horrible people in it? And Connor ended up being a nice, nomalish person.

          I disagree that she got over it. She just wasn’t played as being overly emotional about it. It subverted a sexist sterotype. But, she does date a lot before that and very little after. That betrayal of trust did damage part of her nature.

          The writers (although this was on Buffy) also included two instances of women raping men. Faith raping Xander and Buffy raping Spike.

          In Angel, Connor was raped by Jasmine (as Cordy) and a pregnancy was the result of that. She was also abusive to the point you could argue he had stockholme syndrome.

          I’m not saying the mystical pregnancy to avoid rape isn’t a thing and it isn’t a problem. You just really picked the wrong TV series and writers.

  9. Dennis

    It does not make you sexist if you hit a woman. It makes you sexist to think it is sexist to hit a woman. Now whether or not you are a prick who solves problems with violence is a different matter.

    • NelC

      If one is also hitting men, and the context for hitting men and women is the same, then, no, that’s not sexist violence.

      If you’re hitting the men because they’re trying to hit you, and you’re hitting the women because, say, they didn’t make your dinner to your satisfaction, then I think a case may be made for sexism.

  10. Sean

    So just let me start by saying I think Point #3 is the best point and absolutely spot on. Too much use of women’s bodies to further a story is an issue we have not yet solved as storytellers both male, female, and across the gender spectrum.

    Point 0 – The article only scratches the surface of any of these points and uses specific examples that paint a picture (and not always an accurate picture) of writing without taking writing in general as a whole. Additionally all of these examples have some age on them, except the Sanderson book. Could one not find more contemporary literature that exhibits these examples? I think you could. Also, where are the examples of literature or movies or television done right or is the point that no entertainment has yet managed to do it?

    #1. This is just an example of picking out very specific examples to prove your point, but I think you chose very poorly. You completely ignore the Council of Women and the other Aes Sedai, the Aiel, and a number of female rulers who are written with great agency. You also do not point out that the subtext commentary on men is that “Men cannot be trusted with power”. So perhaps if there is specific commentary, it is leveled at both of the sexes/genders? In Dune the Bene Gesserit are a powerful and complex society who have developed in opposition to a male dominated group of rivals. You also ignore Chani, Irulan, and Jessica and that is just the characters in Dune, the first book. You may find individuals or individual groups to be offensive or tropes, but that does not make the writing or the work as a whole sexist.

    #2 Let me address romances, as I am friends with several (erotic) romance writers who are feminist and whose judgement I have always found to be sound. They have taught me a little bit about the genre and in their own way are trying to change some of the tropes involved. Still a great many romance readers desire this kind of writing, whether it be sexist or not and since it is mostly women (not entirely) writing for mostly women (though not entirely) I think it is important to examine the genre and judge it on that point. If the readership enjoys it and the writers write it, does that make them all sexist? Is there an acceptable level of sexism? Can male lead dynamics in romance be stories be written in a non sexist way, while still retaining the thing that makes them what the readers want? I suspect the answer is yes.

    Do I think its acceptable for men to threaten violence? No of course not, but should we only write things that are “acceptable”. Wesley threatens to strike her, but doesn’t and in reality Buttercup is not at all intimidated by this man. It is a scene that should make us feel uncomfortable. Are scenes like that overused? Of course they are and overuse robs it of its potency and doesn’t make us think about it critically like we should.

    #4 Here again, this argument does not seem to hold up under scrutiny. You pick and choose and generalize all in the same set of paragraphs. I have not read the book in question and cannot speak about it, but by way of example I can point out any number of books where the male only lives to serve or is forced to serve or manipulated into serving. So many male characters lack agency that I would characterize this as poor writing as opposed to sexist writing. I also worry that you are creating a no win scenario for any writer or movie maker or fan there of, by narrowing down the possible female character types to a few or one. That is not realistic or good writing, for writing not to be sexist it has to create a menagerie of female characters, some good, some bad, and some who fit stereotypes.

    I personally love the Belgariad and I love Polgara, but I also hate Polgara. She almost, but not quite, comes off as the typical woman who is always right because men are stupid boys trope. What redeems her is that Polgara is the only one who takes this stuff as seriously as it should be taken. She runs a tight ship, maybe sometimes too tight, and still manages to fall in love with a black smith who adores her. The series is not perfect in regard to women, but I feel like it makes great strides in that regard.

    #5. I think the point of Underworld OR perhaps the point we can take away is that these bad people, while complex, are indeed narrow minded and very sexist. To their extreme detriment and indeed, to their own destruction. A layer of mothers, sisters, and wives with agency would have saved them no doubt, but they were too busy being jerks to notice. I think that is intentional, though not knowing the mind of the writers and directors I cannot say for sure. It comes off to me as intentional.

    But let’s talk about bad writing again. How often is the father absent in stories? If he died that seems to be the kindest cut. More often than not he is emotionally distant, abusive – sometimes sexually, and / or a liar and cheat. Or Drunk. The list goes on and I admit that angle is over used, though I think it mirrors our society’s obsession with blaming it on our parents.

    And why does every story need women? Is a story about Waterloo improved if we make up some kind of love interest or woman with agency? Will that explain Napoleon’s poor decision making or the timing of Blucher’s arrival? In fact, adding a love story to the movie Pearl Harbor was a detriment to the film, not an improvement. Does that make me sexist? Honestly I think just the opposite as both that character and Arwen in the LoTR movies (and the inclusion of a non existent female elf in the Hobbit movies) is just pandering to female viewers. They are poor attempts to shoe horn characters into a story just to “get women to come to the movie”. That to me actually seems VERY sexist. Women were going to go see LoTR and The Hobbit anyway. Both have huge female audiences.

    Again though perhaps this is a no win situation: jamming a female character into a story just to have her there is sexist, but not having one is also sexist. I find that kind of thinking counter productive at best, anti intellectual at worst.

    So I suppose I really have an issue not so much with the points but how they are presented. There is also no mention of people getting it right, authors both male and female who are shining examples of how to write a female character. I also find some of it disingenuous. You are a Buffy fan, so where was the Buffy critique? One could make a cogent argument that Buffy )the show) not only emasculates its male characters, but also its female characters are dull sexist tropes. Including the main character who needs a man, Xander, Giles, Angel, and of course Spike, to save her time and again either literally or emotionally or figuratively. Also, where was Buffy’s dad? Oh the deadbeat? That’s not a stereotype, at all.

    Except for #3, which as I stated is spot on and brilliant, I do not find much else compelling, complete, or necessarily accurate.

    • Cay Reet

      Not having any female werewolves, although there are female vampires, is telling, though. Werewolves can propagate normally, unlike vampires who are dead and thus infertile. Logic dictates the pack should have about as many females as it has males. Yet since the 1990s, there have barely been any female werewolves in movies or fiction (safe for the three Ginger Snaps movies). The 1980s had the “Howling” series which included female werewolves.
      The werewolf is more brutal than the vampire and thus the writers obviously feel very uncomfortable with portraying female werewolves hunting and killing like their male counterparts. Female vampires are more commonly accepted, although most don’t act like Selene, but rely on seduction instead. Underworld could have and should have provided a female equivalent of her among the werewolves, especially as the human male lead turns into a werewolf first and into a vampire second. What about an alpha female of the pack taking up the mantle after the alpha male is killed? That would have made sense.

  11. justadunefan

    “What if that order of female, breeding cultists was an order of male-only, breeding cultists?”

    Yeah, they are called the Bene Tleilax.

    Maybe you should read the books.

    • Shayla

      Thank you!

    • Gary

      They don’t have time to actually read,just skimming for sexism.

      • Jencendiary

        It’s not our fault your critical thinking and analysis is turned off by default.

  12. Steve Turnbull

    I know you mean well (and are not wrong to mention these things) but, for example, quotes are taken out of context with no reference to the nature of the narrator.

    If the narrator is misogynist (or indeed alien) they’re going to express things in misogynistic (or alien) ways. You cannot demand all characters are “PC”, ‘cos people just ain’t.

    Also judging past works by the standards of today is always a flawed approach.

    The gender reversal trick might not work for my books – all those female characters becoming male … does that make me sexist?

    • Ginny

      Is it really judging past works, or simply looking at them with a critical eye? You can love books/series and admit they have flaws.

    • Tony

      Yes, you can demand that all characters are treated with respect and dignity. That’s all “PC” is.
      Also, you *can* judge past works by the standards of today. That line of argument prevents people from making any judgements about works that don’t exist in the present day. People-average readers or historians-judge historical works all the time. No, what you’re saying is ‘don’t judge historical works through the lens you’re using’. That’s not reasonable either. The standards of today that you’re decrying also existed back then.

  13. Shayla

    I was done when I heard the explanation of the Bene Gesserit. Their goal was NOT to breed a perfect man. There was a prophecy that a man would be born to their order, which is why they didn’t want Jessica to marry the duke and why they were super pissed that she didn’t destroy the child as soon as she found out she would give birth to a son. Paul was their undoing and the Reverend Mother knew it. Just…wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

    And guess what: women can, in fact, be manipulative just like men.

    • Martin

      The goal of the Bene Gesserit was to breed the super being, and it was Jessicas ambition to bare it. The reverend mother’s reason for reproving Jessica for her arrogance, was that with a male child, there would now be no way of sealing the two seperate, refined bloodlines, namely to marry an Atreides daugther to a Harkonnen son and thus ensuring another more refined generation, one that would have a much higher likelihood of being the quisatz haderach.

  14. Gary

    You know you are all arguing over non sense that dosnt matter,right?

  15. joe

    This is a horrible article.

    A sexist character does not make a book sexist. There are horrible people and horrible things in the real world and writing a story that is all unicorns and happy fun candy is a damn lie to the reader. There are also good people that do bad things and bad people that do good things. Including characters like this in a story can make it more interesting.

    All this being said anything written into a story needs to have a reason to be there, or it’s just wasted ink on paper. If I’m going to have a horrible woman hating man in my story, there is going to be a reason for it. You, as the reader, may not like the character. And if that happens, … good. I succeeded in stirring your emotions.

    Thanks,
    Joe

    • Cay Reet

      The positive portrait of one or more sexist characters, though, makes a story sexist. Just as having a villain in a story doesn’t make the story evil, it’s a matter of context for sexism or racism, too.

      If you have a sexist superior who makes the female lead’s life harder than it has to be … like a sexist editor who gives all the good stories to male reporters and sends out the female one to cover gossip stories or fashion shows, although she asks for different assignments … then you don’t have a sexist story. You put a sexist character up as an obstacle for the protagonist to overcome. She will sneak her way into the murder investigation or manage to interview the new superhero in town or come up with the top story about the newest political scandal and nothing her boss does can stop her.

      If you write a story where the male lead commands the female lead around, although she is just as competent as he is and never show it as something wrong, then your story might just be sexist. If you reduce the female lead to mere arm-candy, even though she’s a scientist with two different doctorates, or make her so utterly stupid she obviously has never heard of common sense, your story is sexist, unless you have a very, very, very, very good reason.

  16. Kelley

    You should credit that use of the painting by Dan Dos Santos, the one used to illustrate point #4. http://www.dandossantos.com/extras/wallpaper_dds_warbreaker.jpg

  17. T.

    This is the most ridiculous article I’ve ever read.

    As a woman, I find it completely offensive that you’d even consider the idea of censoring real story because “powerful women are threatening to men” and matriarchies are scary. Matriarchies ARE scary, just like patriarchies.
    ANY extreme is bound to cause a reaction, and pandering to audiences who can’t deal with that is wrong.

    Femme fatales? I never felt undermined whilst encountering a story where a woman was portrayed in that role.

    What you’re suggesting here is fascism in storytelling. Awful.

  18. M

    Nice article.

    A couple of points to the recurrent questions I hear when these things come up:

    0. No, you aren’t legally required to have perfectly gender representation in every work of fiction you write. Things like this are thought provoking questions, not orders from the Matriarchs of Lyrane.

    1. If you’re writing a fantasy story and are starting to talk about some biotruths about how women couldn’t be knights or whatever, stop yourself for a moment. It’s a FANTASY story. You’re making things up. In my opinion you should ask yourself “How come I’m including sexism in a situation where it is not necessary?” If the sexism isn’t doing anything for your fantasy story, how come it’s there? (If it’s the point, then fair enough, and don’t beat yourself up over small unexamined things that slip in – everyone’s living in this ambience.)

    2. Same deal with science fiction.

    3. If you’re writing historical fiction, know your period. There were probably more important women around than you think. Even if you’re writing something set in a situation where there wouldn’t be many women around (a tall ship a la Master and Commander, a Civil War regiment) there would be SOME, and you should treat these characters with thoughtful respect and avoid stereotyping. The matriarchs of Lyrane will not appear and make you include 50% women in disguise in your Civil War company. (Though you can if you want.)

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Out of curiosity M, are the Matriarchs of Lyrane product of your own imagination for from a work I haven’t read?

      • NelC

        They’re from EE Smith’s Lensman series, a really old space opera, and a really quite sexist work altogether.

        The Matriarchy of Lyrane are a race of more-or-less normal human aliens that the protagonist has to work with at some point. They are 99% female, 1% male, and the female Lyranians hold the males in utter contempt, and by extension all males everywhere. Still, the Matriarch (ruler of Lyrane) eventually comes to admit that maybe the protagonist is worthwhile, for a man.

        The other notable sexism of the series is that there’s a magical psychic booster called the Lens, which enables telepathy and other powers, but only to the truly worthy. For some reason, only men are ever awarded them, until late in the series, when the protagonist’s girlfriend gets one.

        There’s a whole bunch of WTFery in the series, though, and might be worth reading if you want to have that whole “the past is a foreign country” experience. Also, there’s some great space battles. (Maybe start with Galactic Patrol, skipping the first couple of books, which were published later.)

  19. Vilya

    Good article, it has many painfully true insights about Wheel of Time and Warbreaker. (These are the only works I’m familiar with from the examples.)

  20. Oliver

    Since I’m fresh off a re-read of the Wheel Of Time series, I’ll comment on that much at least; there are a huge number of times at which a character of one gender dismisses the entirety of the other gender as ‘soft’ (in both directions) or generalizes them as ‘dangerous’. Ultimately, though,

    SPOILER ALERT

    one of the primary revelations which builds up through the series and is inescapable at its culmination is that neither one can stand alone, and they must be in balance, working together, in order to win the day. Most of the characters – whether strong male or strong female characters, since the series has both aplenty – who fail to realize this fact also do not survive the series.

    If anything, I would argue that one of the predominant subtexts of the series is the changing of those biases for the better. As such, that series is a particularly poor example of what you attempt to illustrate.

    Nevertheless, there is certainly value in a lot of the points you make – but as things which should be considered for ways which will best serve the plot, not as things which should be avoided for fear of being ‘sexist’.

    I would strongly urge writers to consider all of these points, but ultimately to do what feels right for any given character, because the attitudes of particular characters can be important story elements for the subsequent development of those characters. Likewise, there is no value added to a story by introducing a character of another race or gender just so as to have one in there; I don’t want to have a ‘token female’ in a scene which doesn’t actually benefit from having a female character; I would rather have other scenes in which female characters play a valuable role.

    If it doesn’t feel right to the creative process, don’t force it. Write what feels right for the story that’s unfolding in your head.

  21. Beekeeper

    Sometimes great literature transcends any particular “ism.” Imagine reading sanitized, revised versions of Tom Sawyer, Anna Karenina, or Taming of the Shrew.

    We cannot deny who we were any more than we can deny who we are now.

  22. Devlin Blake

    I hate sexism in fiction too, but we do live in a sexist world. Wesley’s world was based off of real middle ages England, like most sword and sorcery is. (at least, back then)

    Since he never DID hit Buttercup, he might have said it because he grew up in a world where he thought he was SUPPOSED to say it. People aren’t perfect, and characters should never be. Pretending the world he lived in wasn’t sexist (Humperdink basically wanted Buttercup for a pawn and trophy after all,) isn’t doing justice to the story.

    I LOVED Buffy, and thought it was VERY empowering for women. Yes, Cordy gets a forced pregnancy (or nearly) in every season, and that got kind of old. However, many stories in Buffy were about not being in control of your own body or mind. The men went through it too, just in a different way.

    One of my favorite scenes in Buffy was the night of the prom and she had to go off and fight the Master. She spent a good part of the night worried about her dress. Yes, it’s a little vain, but I thought it also showed you didn’t have to give up ‘being a girl’ to be strong.

    That’s what I always hated about Xena. She was just a guy in a woman’s body.

    And if you’re looking for great female villains, read Gone Girl. Amazing Amy could beat even the early season Azula.

    • Adam Reynolds

      Another thing that was notable about Gone Girl was just how many women were featured in it. Nick as the protagonist was surrounded by women in various roles. So even with a female character in a villainous role, there were enough diverse roles that it didn’t feel representative.

    • Heather

      Well said Devlin.

    • Tuckerscreator

      He did hit Buttercup in the book, though. Interesting thing, though, is that the author seems to be aware that Wesley’s behavior was unkind. In a later postscript to the book where he interviews the characters, he asks Buttercup if she thinks his treatment of her (not just the hitting, but also insulting comments) like that was abusive (she dismisses it with “love isn’t alway pretty”, but he isn’t entirely convinced.) There’s also a Study Guide section with questions written by him that ask the reader if they think Wesley’s treatment of Buttercup was abusive. It’s unclear whether this aspect is something Goldman always intended to be anti-heroic or if it’s something he’s retroactively come to regret, but it’s at least good that he’s not content with just dismissing it and inviting the readers to question the story.

    • POVisPOV

      “That’s what I always hated about Xena. She was just a guy in a woman’s body.”

      To you, perhaps, and you are certainly entitled to your POV. However, to many of us who are actually women, she definitely came across as authentically female. Oh! – Perhaps I have been terribly mistaken; somehow failing to realize that *I* am also “a guy in a woman’s body”! Certainly this would be news to my husband and kids… :p

      • Cay Reet

        I agree. Xena was a very realistic woman in her job … for a fantasy series that is. A female soldier or even war leader would be supposed to be on the taller side and definitely look athletic. After all, we talk about a time when fighting with swords or spears was still standard. She was very strong, yes, but we’re talking about a spin-off to a series called “Hercules.” The whole series wasn’t that grounded in reality, but it did its female leads, both Xena and Gabriella extremely well.

  23. Lynx Firenze

    You unironically used the word patriarchy several times. I’m heavily disinclined to take you seriously as a result. That aside you seem to be pushing for arbitrary quotas which is never good.

    • Adam Reynolds

      So it is an arbitrary quota to have roughly equal representation for half of the members of our species?

  24. Virginia

    It’s funny in the one instance that women are excluded in genealogical research – the matrilinial lines are excluded – and the search was for a Y chromosome.

    The irony here is that the Y chromosome has very few genes on it, and the majority of male characteristics (if I remember correctly) are on the X chromosome to be expressed. Most likely a sex – linked trait is on the X chromosome, and it is essential to check the female lines to find heterozygous alleles on the two X chromosomes.

    For instance, sickle cell anemia appears in two ways:as full – blown anemia, and as sickle cell trait. The difference is whether you have one or two of the same allele (homozygous expressions of a gene) or only one gene with that allele (heterozygous) and the other gene has the normal allele or characteristic. The heterozygous person has sickle cell trait, and she or he might never show anemia at all. But they still pass the gene in to the next generation.

    Same with sex – linked genes. A normal allele paired with the sought – for allele may both appear in the genes, and the normal allele might interfere with expression of the one you seek: by recessiveness or by relative repeated copies of the gene (in both cases you had BETTER look in the female lines) or by the presence of a gene very close to the normal gene on the chromosome that suppresses the expression of the gene you look for. In all of these cases, the chromosome you seek should have no more that 25% chance of expression in the next generation, and in the case of having a close suppressor gene, perhaps not even one percent, because the genes would be almost impossible to separate during meiosis. (The closer the genes are to each other, the less chance they will be separated when chromosomes exchange genes.)

  25. Ram L

    #1 is the one I struggle with the most. I was a boy raised in a lesbian separatist and Dianic Wiccan household. As I grew older, the local neopagan community nominally became more gender neutral- but the power structures were still largely vestiges of the womyn’s spirituality movement of the 80s/90s, so my masculinity made me a threat to some of the leadership.

    I try to temper my tough women with moral ambiguity, and they range anywhere from villains to heroes, but almost all of them have axes to grind… and tend to be more domineering than the men.

    The one bit that’d I’d interject about the article is in response to the samples in #1:

    “The overbearing wife: Have you noticed stories often have hen-pecked husbands but not hen-pecked wives? That’s because when the husband leads, it’s considered normal. Labeling concerns or direction from women as “nagging” is just another way of casting women who aren’t submissive in a negative light.”

    One of the main reasons we don’t see the hen-pecked wives more is because when the same ‘nagging’ behavior is inflicted on women, we are better able to identify it as being abusive. It feels like a separate category when it’s against men because we minimize its severity: the author is right in that it *is* a trope that can be used to dismiss the agency of non-submissive women, but it can equally be used to minimize violence against men. That particular sword that cuts both ways.

  26. Sam Victors

    Thank you for this. Its great.

    I recently ordered a book by a Valerie Estelle Frankel, called “From Girl to Goddess; The Heroine’s Journey through Myth and Legend” I find it a much better and, IMO, an updated version of Maureen Murdock’s Heroine’s Journey (I thought it was a little dated). I would strongly recommend it as it shows that the Heroine does not always need a sword or any phallic weapon, but usually normal or magical talismans/tools of perception and information. Though some weapons that are considered feminine are the bow, whip, distance weapons, etc. The book also explains that the Heroine is on a battle for identity and security, to rescue her loved one, to confront the patriarchy, to venture into the Underworld to face her Shadow Self in the form of the Ruthless Mother figure, and to have power over life and death. Her archetypes consist of Maiden, Mother, Crone, Seductress, Queer woman, Warrior woman, Trickster, Destroyer, Spirit Guardian, etc.

    I would strongly recommend this book.

    Sorry for the spoilers

  27. Brigitta M.

    I sometimes wonder why people comment on articles at the exact moment they’re riled up. I then I ponder the phrase “ego defense mechanisms” and mutter something about “trolls will be trolls.” A lot of hate for a five point article. Some basic advice to be had, some points to re-ponder, but nothing world-changing… just one author’s advice to other authors on how to potentially avoid sexism.

    Maybe.

    Kinda. Sorta. Because sexism is a dual-edged sword (as was touched on in this article) and really, it hurts everyone. But fighting against it isn’t easy.

    Because, y’see, one thing that I consistently see underappreciated in our society is the single father. Sure, he might be well-represented in sheer numbers, but fathers in general, in our society are often presented as distant or doofuses. Incompetent compared to their female counterparts.

    So, I take a character-type and base my story around it. In this case, the half-demon child. Subvert the trope of the mother was raped (ick… honestly, because I don’t wanna write it or about it) and make the mom the demon. Oh brother…now I’ve stumbled into evil and powerful woman. Whatever, I’ve got a cool guy, he’s pretty laid back, takes stuff in stride, socially awkward, but hey, this half-demon girl becomes his world. He literally transforms his life around her.

    Dads can be self-sacrificing too and it’s much more than “parent sacrificing for kid” because kid has powers…. like teleportation from 5yo… and an aversion to all things biblical.

    Is she evil? No. Takes after dad. No angsty stuff either. Another trope subverted.

    But… still… hanging over my head is that the most powerful female in my book is also the most evil creature in the book.

    Are there other demons? Yeah, but the half-demon gal I spoke of is the main character and she never really gets to know them. Are there females in power in the book? Kind of, but “in power” in this case is “supervisor at a homeless shelter” the highest rank any human has from the narrator’s perspective.

    Oh, did I forget to mention that my narrator is a male, and being 100% human, he’s not reacting well when he finds out that his bff (the half-demon gal) is loaded to the gills with powers he doesn’t understand? Yeah, he comes to term with them, and who she is as a character of agency in her own right (including being ace…that’s one thing I didn’t decide about her, she told me) but when he first finds out he’s a bit of a jerk about it.

    Why?

    Because he’s human.

    Not that she’s much better. She literally vanishes right after she tells him. Because she is, in the end, more human than anything else.

    And while I may have slammed into tropes and cliches while trying to avoid others, what it comes down to is that we have to tell real stories and not avoid what really happens between people because sexist things do happen we just have to hope the larger story is seen but….

    Chances are it will be nitpicked.

    And that, oddly enough, is a good thing.

  28. Siderite

    While I agree with most of what you said, I don’t agree with the exclusiveness of it all. If these principles are abused, then sure, you get a sexist angle, like that horrid Wheel of Time where the author had to die for me not to read about his sexual obsession with spanking braided women anymore. But if we indeed live in a patriarchal society, it would be downright weird to try to appeal to your readers by eliminating what is natural to them. Not unless you want to get free publicity for your work from the feminist forums.
    For example for your first point, you seem to consider sexist when women are displayed as powerful, yet threatening, but that is a very quality of power: it threatens. It may be sexist if it threatens males only, but that can hardly be said about Dune. Poor Jessica got the wrong end of the stick and by the end of the books there was full on war between female factions. Incidentally, they were looking down on men, as inferior untrained puppies that can be easily manipulated and/or seduced. It feels strange to call that sexism directed toward women.
    An observation that I want to make is that even if we consider sexism bad and political correctness good nowadays, it is by no means a guarantee that this will hold for the future or that the bias won’t go either way. I can well imagine futures where one sex is generally abused by another and see no relevance between that fiction and your current feelings about reality. You want to see a bad implementation of trying to seem progressive and failing miserably, try the Ancillary series, by Ann Leckie. Moderation in all things, is my point.

    • Tyson Adams

      Lost me at “IF we indeed live in a patriarchal society”….

      Next you’ll be trying to convince people we don’t breathe oxygen.

    • Lucid

      If I had a braid, I’d yank it pointedly and raise my chin at you.

      No, but seriously, this post made me laugh. Robert Jordan was obsessed with spankings and awkward, girl-on-girl “pillow friends.” There’s no two ways around this. There was the occasional nod to the idea that this form of discipline was merely something favored by the White Tower (e.g. IIRC, there is a scene in Book IV where one of the novices threatens to inform on Gawain and Galad, to see if Siuan’s warder “has a strong an arm as the Mistress of Novices,” or some such nonsense.) But you get it everywhere: men spanking women, women with braids spanking boys, women with braids being spanked, women with braids spanking women, women in power…well, you get the idea.

      I loved the Wheel of Time. I loved it so much I could rationalize away a lot of the focus on lesbian relationships as indicative of an exclusively female institution paralleling similar institutions which were exclusively male. But if I’m being honest (feel free to stop reading here because I used the word “if”), the author literally had to die before we saw even one gay male character so much as mentioned to the readers, and the man had a peculiar spanking fetish that often leaked through his work at the worst moments.

      I still loved it, though. I gave my heart to that series, and the ending left a bad taste in my mouth, but at least we got an ending.

  29. Theophania

    It is important to remember that sexism goes both ways – and nobody wins.

    It’s sexist when:
    1. Your male characters were at the front of the queue when washboard abs were handed out, but behind the door when it was time to issue the personality. “Arrogant jerk” is not a personality, when every male character is exactly the same.

    2. Your female characters are always nicer, smarter, more diplomatic, etc, than your male characters (and/or your male characters are one step above Ug the Barbarian). Not all women are nice, or diplomatic. My husband does the being-nice-to-people-diplomatic stuff; I do algebra. This works much better than the other way around. I wanted to be Xena when I was a girl. Does that make me a man in a woman’s body? Or, maybe, I’m just a person with her own opinions and tastes.

    3. The phrase “all women are A” or “men are all B” could be used to describe all or most of your characters. People are individuals. Thinking of a person as gender first, person second, is a good way to introduce sexism.

    4. All your male characters instantly fall in love/lust with your female protagonist. The male brain IS situated in the cranium; it’s demeaning to the male characters to make them do their thinking with their genitalia, and it’s demeaning to the female character to be lusted after by people who don’t know her as a person. Or, of course, the other way around. Objectification is objectification, no matter who’s doing it to whom.

    5. The reader can reproduce the tick-list you have used to get your “diversity credentials” with a minimum of effort. Done properly, including a variety of characters is good because you get different perspectives, which can increase conflict and tension. Done badly, it just comes off as silly or unbelievable – and as if you were working down a list, without considering what each character would bring to the story. It’s worth considering that in normal life, people group together either by common origin (family, culture) or common purpose (job, hobby). Why and how did your bunch of people end up together, if they’re all very different? That alone could make a good story. This also avoids “token X” problems.

    It all comes back to treating your characters as individuals, rather than as representatives of a gender. If you think, “X is angry, so X will…” you’re more likely to avoid unfortunate isms than if you start “X is female/male, so X will…”

    To go back to one of the examples above, about Wesley and Buttercup in the Princess Bride: the incident alluded to is actually sexist to both characters. Buttercup is stuck being the weak woman being dominated by her man, but Wesley is equally stereotyped as the borderline-abusive male.

  30. Lucid

    I think you’re terribly off base with the Wheel of Time. The Red Ajah are *perceived* as “man-hating lesbians,” but once you actually read from the perspectives of women who belong to the Red, it’s pretty clear that this is a deliberately false characterization. They are women, just like every other member of the Aes Sedai, with fears and hopes and dreams.

    The segregated nature of magic in the Wheel of Time was part of what made the setting so wildly fascinating. Here you have a world where women have political influence similar in scope and nature to that of the Catholic Church. Women are *generally* weaker, but they’re also *generally* more capable of weaving complex magic. Those rare men who were cursed with the One Power cannot link, yet women can exponentially increase their power by banding together.

    It quickly becomes clear to the reader that the One Power was never meant to be used explicitly by one gender, because the greatest achievements of the Age of Legends were performed in tandem. Men are cursed because of the Dragon’s pride, in turn a result of the inability of men and women to cooperate. Had it not been for the Aes Sedai, the world would have been broken beyond repair. Hell, you could even argue that the “taint” of the male half is a kind of analog for “toxic masculinity.”

    The Wheel of Time holds a special place in my heart. It was my intro to fantasy. The gendered nature of its magic and the authors perceptions regarding the fundamental differences between men and women, all while paralleling fictional women to historical men, was a significant part of what made it so rich and enjoyable growing up.

  31. M. D. Ireman

    The premise that authors ought to be building ideal worlds as opposed to realistic ones is flawed.

    • Tyson Adams

      Given that wasn’t the premise at all, your point is moot.

      Also, your example of a banned book is poor. Book challenges have always been an issue in society, especially society with groups of religion influenced loudmouths. To Kill A Mockingbird was originally challenged in 1977 for the use of the words “damn” and “whore lady”. Again in 1980 for being a “filthy trash novel”. It has been challenged for using profanity, as well as racial slurs, as well as being racist.

      This article isn’t the sort of thinking that leads books to be banned at all. It is lazy thinking like yours that does.

      • M. D. Ireman

        By your own admission, To Kill a Mockingbird was challenged as being racist. The fact that it was also challenged for other reasons by different groups of people, equally authoritarian and ignorant, is irrelevant.

        Any charge that To Kill a Mockingbird is racist is laughable and sad. The root cause of that type of idiocy is the inability to distinguish between content and condonation. Just because a book is chock-full racist or sexist content does not mean the book is racist or sexist. The inability to understand that does not make one a powerful thinker.

        • Tyson Adams

          Ahh, I’m seeing your problem, you keep missing the point. Which only emphasises my point about lazy thinking.

      • S.D. Miller

        Actually, building ideal worlds does seem to be the point. This is opening sentence of Chris’ essay: “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if making a story sexism-free was as easy as not being a misogynist jerk?”

        Really? Sexism-free? Her second sentence: “Unfortunately, living in a patriarchal society means that sexism feels normal to most of us.”

        No argument there. Chris is spot on. Her third sentence: “If you want to prevent sexist tropes from getting into your work, you have to learn about them.”

        I will argue that sexist tropes do belong in our stories. It’s not a matter of preventing them, but controlling them. Chris’ fourth sentence closes out her opening paragraph and leads us into the remainder of her essay: “You can start with these common signs of sexism against women.”

        Perhaps Chris didn’t mean that stories should be free of sexism, but that is what she wrote.

        Sexism, racism, and other -isms do belong in our stories. Those -isms are a part of the human condition. The problem comes about when we authors become blind to them in our writing because, as Chris pointed out in her second sentence, the society we live in has desensitized us. We need to recognize the -isms and take control of them.

        • Chris Winkle

          When I write articles like these, I don’t put including bigotry in your world in the same bucket as having a story that is actually sexist. The difference is that the former is aware that it portrays bigotry and depicts it as harmful, while the latter often does not intend to portray bigotry and packages harmful behavior as constructive. This second thing is what I meant when I said “sexist tropes.” It will always be valuable to have stories that comment on the problems we face in real life. Though right now, I also think we need more stories that show us a world without bigotry.

          • S.D. Miller

            Excellent. I’d hoped that was the case.

            Because of a lifetime of living in a particular society, we pick up the biases of that society. It’s good to step back from our own writing and examine if the biases have crept in.

            I hope you’re not proposing we use “sexism” (or “racism”) to mean an accidental bias, and “bigotry” to mean a purposeful bias. That is too confusing to the uninitiated. Besides, sexism has a specific meaning while bigotry does not, meaning you’ll need adjectives anyway. I prefer “accidental sexism” and “purposeful sexism” (or “the character’s sexism”) rather than “sexism” and “sexist bigotry” (confusing to new readers).

            So how about that John Norman fellow? (Author of the “Planet of Gor” series.) Wiki implies the attitude displayed in his novels is not accidental: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Norman#Themes I was exposed to Gorean ideas several years ago and was astounded that anyone could believe that 50% of the human population might be so weak and/or emotionally underdeveloped as to exist in a permanent child-like state. Bees or anglerfish maybe, but not humans.

            Take care, and keep writing.

  32. M. D. Ireman

    And it is the type of thinking that leads to books like To Kill a Mockingbird being banned as racist.

    Yes, female characters ought to play a significant role in the plot, and be more than love interests, however, that doesn’t mean Moby Dick is sexist. Well, except for the title, of course…

  33. Trish Mercer

    Thanks for these insights! As a middle-aged woman, I’m always looking for female characters playing untypical parts. They’re hard to find.

    I’ve been writing a book series where a mother is the most dangerous woman in the world, setting into motion the downfall of an oppressive government because she won’t conform. She’s also a school teacher, and while her husband is the colonel of the village, her quest for truth–and her inability to keep her mouth shut in public–eventually leads to a civil war. It’s been great fun to write, because I don’t see anyone else doing this with motherly characters.

    Her finale, at the end of the series (book 8; book 5 will be coming out soon) is one that I’m so excited to get out there. As a sweet, great-grandmother, she’s gonna be shocking!

  34. Romy

    Some of these points can only be made by the context of the story. Writers sometimes use these points but in reverse. Men are sometimes depicted as dumb ass, beautiful surfer boys or simply asses who are handsome while the woman was ordinary but the protagonist. To sum things up in such a general way doesn’t work. Some I do agree fullheartedly (about the rape topic and the carelessness authors use when broaching the idea), and that is important to educate others about.

  35. M

    I don’t agree with some viewpoints in this post. All fiction requires honesty and women are placed in many roles and situations that are unwanted, harmful, and even devastatingly painful. Writing can and should reveal truths thay are still prevalent all over the world today. You can’t erase reality over someone else’s over-sensitivity. Fiction depicts all types of characters that are based on real personalities, disorders, struggles, major character flaws, and strengths, as it should. Abuse happens…to women, children, men, animals in real life. It is not sexism to portray real life, even when they are ugly truths.

  36. Sophie the Jedi Knight

    One thing that I laughed about in this post was #2 – the one about a man hitting a woman. I completely agree with you; that is abuse plain and simple. And the fact that it seems okay is worse.
    But what was comical to me was that when a man hits a woman, it’s assault and sexist and terrible. When a WOMAN hits a MAN, it’s suddenly being sent all over Facebook as the greatest gif of our time and everyone is calling it “A punch in the face of patriarchy.”
    Take the Hermione-Draco punch in the Harry Potter movie Prisoner of Azkaban. (In the book it’s a slap, which I think was more appropriate.) Basically, Draco is making some mean jokes and is responsible for the death of a hippogriff. Hermione then punches him in the face, causing him to bleed and run off. Harry and Ron praise Hermione for “standing up to” Draco, and all over Pottermore are raving about the punch. IT’S BULLYING! Draco never even physically lays a hand on any of them; and why do all the detail about “never dropping down to a villain’s level” in Order of the Pheonix when that rule was already abandoned? I hate the punch so much, but everyone else loves it. It’s bullying. Can we stop acting like this gender-swapped punch is so cool? Please?

    • Cay Reet

      I think in case of Hermione and Draco, a few important points are

      1) female teenagers also sometimes lose against their hormones, so Hermione simply lost the fight against her better side and hit him (I agree the slap in the novel is far more appropriate and far more like Hermione than an outright punch)

      2) Draco has constantly bullied Hermione for years at that point, simply because she’s both a know-it-all and a muggle-born – it’s not too hard to construe this as a reaction not just to what he did at that moment, but as a culmination of all things she had to endure because of him (also see point 1 for this)

      3) Hermione cares a lot for Buckbeak (she’s on a ‘protect magical creatures’ crusade for quite some of her teenage years) and it’s 100% Draco’s fault Buckbeak is supposed to die – he was warned to approach the hippogriff respectfully, but didn’t do so – and at that point, he’s even joking about the death of another being

      I do agree, however, that a punch is never cool, no matter whether a man punches a woman or the other way around. There are situations, though, in which the circumstances can lead to a hit or a punch.

      • Sophie the Jedi Knight

        Responding to Cay Reet:
        I can understand where you’re coming from, I just still see it as bullying. Yes, Draco bullied them, but aren’t the good guys supposed to go above that? Especially outright punching them. My main problem is how glorified it is because Hermione did it. If Harry or Ron had punched Draco, it would have gone over much worse.
        Though I understand how much he deserved it with Buckbeak, I love the slap much better. I love imagining Hermione slapping Draco and just yelling vague insults at him in the book. It’s just that the punch did seem too extreme. If Hermione had actually broken Draco’s nose, she could’ve gotten expelled. Remember when Ron got angry at Draco for insulting Molly Weasley, and McGonagall told Ron that there was no excuse for violence? In the book world, Hermione would have gotten some punishment for the punch. In the movie world, it’s “brilliant.” Though Draco deserved something, I think that the punch seemed too extreme. Imagine a kid today doing that to someone in school.
        If swapping the genders or modernizing a situation makes it not okay, then it is not okay. That’s my rule of thumb for most situations.

        • Cay Reet

          Were you ever bullied in your life? In your teens? Because I was and I often dreamed of getting one up the people who tormented me.

          I said the punch wasn’t like Hermione in my book, either and that I don’t think women hitting men is any better than men hitting women, but it can happen.

    • Tyson Adams

      “When a WOMAN hits a MAN, it’s suddenly being sent all over Facebook as the greatest gif of our time and everyone is calling it “A punch in the face of patriarchy.”” and then “I hate the punch so much, but everyone else loves it. It’s bullying.”
      I take issue with this statement. As Cay Reet outlines in their post, Hermione has been bullied by Draco for years. When you look at our society, and particularly domestic violence, the street is pretty much one-way. So oppression and physical violence of women (and minority groups) is the norm throughout much of history. This means that Hermione’s punch/slap, and any push-backs against male violence, are the exact opposite of “bullying”.

      • Sophie the Jedi Knight

        Responding to Tyson Adams:
        I understand what you’re saying. It’s not that I have a problem with a woman standing up to a man, it’s that I have a problem with the woman doing something to a man that would be bad if he did it to her. If Harry or Ron punched Draco, it would all go to hell.
        Here’s a better example I like in literature of a woman standing up to a man. I love the Legend trilogy by Marie Lu. One of the protagonists in it is June Iparis, and she is very smart. When she is 12, she attends a 16+ school. On her first day, an older boy purposely pushes her around. She stands up for herself and then criticizes him amazingly – by saying how his hair looks “too long to pass inspection.” (She’s a great observer.) He tries to punch her, but June dodges his punches until a teacher breaks them up and threatens to punish June as well. June stands up for herself and says she never threw a punch. The teacher is so impressed she recommends June for a higher class. That’s the kind of woman-against-man interaction I like.

        • Tyson Adams

          Sophie, your example from the Legend trilogy (I confess I haven’t read that series), actually has a few issues. The first issue is that while the character stood her ground and was a strong character, it didn’t counter or stop the abuse. That required an external force. Which brings me to the second problem, it means the character lacked ownership of the situation. Sure, she benefited from her stance, but it wasn’t through her actions alone that she overcame the foe.

          I get that you are derided violence. I like James SA Corey’s quote on violence being the thing we do when we run out of good ideas. But we are also talking about manifesting conflict in a novel (or whatever) and overt displays of physical violence are ways to do this.

        • Cay Reet

          Tyson has a point in his answer. In the first novel I wrote, I have my main character (who is female) taking down a guy with words, ridiculing him in front of his friends and others from the same level of society, so it will be through gossip for quite a while. But for my character, there’s a choice. She’s a female secret agent and could just as well have beaten him up. She chooses not to, because it wouldn’t be the right way to handle the situation, since the guy didn’t physically attack, either. That doesn’t mean she wouldn’t beat someone up who physically attacked her first.

          What you describe here only works because an outside force comes to her assistance … that can work, but it’s not an answer in the long run with bullies. Sooner or later, you have to draw the line into the sand yourself and, if the bully is relying on physical powers, that might require getting physical yourself to prove you’re not an easy target.

          Perhaps #2 should rather be ‘violence against a weaker person’ instead of ‘man beating woman’ … even though women usually are the weaker ones in such a constellation.

Leave a Comment

By submitting a comment, you confirm that you have read and agree to our comments policy.