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
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
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
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
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
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.