Five More Signs Your Story Is Sexist

Carter channels the audience during "Emancipation."

As Chris handily pointed out a few weeks ago, keeping sexism out of our stories is more complicated than not being a misogynist jerk. Most authors nowadays know enough not to directly insult women,* but sexism still rears its ugly head. This beast is a sneaky one, worming its way into our stories when we least expect it. Be on the lookout for these signs, lest you be taken unaware.

1. Heroes Obsess Over “Natural Beauty”

Mae, from Gameboard of the Gods. Is that not what we all look like "naturally?" Mae, from Gameboard of the Gods. Is that not what we all look like “naturally?”

In the opening to Gameboard of the Gods, the main character, Justin, is in a Central American nightclub cruising for a casual hookup. A local lady sees him and makes her move. She’s dressed to enjoy the evening, makeup well applied and outfit in line with the latest trends. Justin immediately flees. The woman’s makeup and clothes are described as garish and hideous, like some kind of cosmic horror.

A few minutes later, Justin meets a woman who’s super hot without all that terrible makeup and fancy clothes. She’s naturally beautiful, you see. He immediately falls for her.

For a long time, our society has been obsessed with selling beauty products to women: lipstick, hair coloring, body hair removers, the list goes on. It’s inescapable. Some people have tried to fight back by promoting the idea of “natural beauty.” You see this whenever a woman on TV gets out of bed and looks fabulous in her ratty old sweater and pajama pants.

Unfortunately, this idea of superior “natural beauty” is just as bad as the thing it’s meant to combat. For one thing, it’s entirely fabricated. The on-screen portrayals of women going “all natural” are always the result of highly skilled costumers, hair stylists, and makeup artists.* For another, it still tells women they have to be beautiful, but now they have to do it without any assistance.

Finally, insisting on “natural beauty” demonizes a common activity that many people enjoy. There’s nothing wrong with putting on makeup and wearing nice clothes, but you might not think so from reading fiction.

This trope appears in stories aimed at kids, too. In the YA book City of Bones, the narrator wastes no time in describing how a secondary character’s makeup makes her ugly. Meanwhile, the protagonist knows better; she made the right choice to be stunning all on her own. She and others like her set an impossible standard: You must look as though you’re made up, but no one can know you’re made up.

What to Do Instead

If you want to make a statement that women don’t need makeup to make themselves visually appealing, go further. State that women don’t need to be visually appealing at all, but do so without demonizing those who want to be visually appealing. There’s nothing wrong with either option. This declaration will be stronger if the male characters in your story support it. Leave their fantasies of the perfect “natural look” at the door.

Dressing up and looking good are context sensitive, just like anything else characters do. Women and men are both more likely to dress up and pay attention to their hair if they’re going to a fancy dinner, as opposed to raiding an imp-infested warehouse. Consider who your character is. If she doesn’t care about her appearance, great. Just remember that means she isn’t likely to spend several hours in front of a mirror, crafting the salon-perfect look that characterizes “natural beauty” on screen.

2. The World Has Strict Gender Roles

Whimsical drawing: clearly women's work. Whimsical drawing: clearly women’s work.

At first glance, Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings looks like a standard fantasy setting: knights, swords, kings, and an interesting magic system. It’s exactly what we’d expect from Sanderson. Then you get to the societal rules regarding gender, and things get weird.

Women and men have completely segregated spheres of labor. On its own, that’s not so strange; we’ve had similar things in the real world. Then you read that while men still have all the political, legal, and economic power, all the engineers and scientists are women. Ok, that seems unlikely. Wait, it gets weirder! Men are not allowed to read; that’s women’s work. What?

The gender roles make no sense. There’s no way women could occupy all of a society’s scientific and engineering jobs without amassing some level of political power, and yet we see no sign of that. At the same time, men in high ranking military and aristocratic positions would find such restrictions on literacy unbearably restrictive. Cultural taboos, no matter how arbitrary, rarely inconvenience the powerful. At the same time, Way of Kings feels like a weird attempt to segregate the genders on a “separate-but-equal” principle. It’s as if Sanderson thought he could solve the issue of gender imbalance by mandating half the cool jobs to one gender and half to the other.

In fact, the issue with gender roles is rarely the work itself. Childcare, cooking, cleaning: these are all tasks conventionally thought of as “women’s work,” and they’re absolutely vital. Instead, the issue is that women have little choice in the work they do and that their work is usually undervalued.

Sanderson has inadvertently created a world with gender roles even stricter than real life, but none of his characters seem interested in challenging them. You see a similar effect in all the steampunk novels where women use Victorian social rules to manipulate men. These stories suggest women are the ones in charge. That’s not how power works! While capable women have always manipulated events from behind the scenes, the fact that they have to means they are not empowered.

If your story includes strict gender roles and doesn’t challenge them, it puts unnecessary restrictions on women. While that sometimes can’t be helped in contemporary and historical fiction, fantasy and far future stories have no excuse.

What to Do Instead

First, avoid elaborate yet nonsensical justifications for rigid gender roles. Remember, gender roles usually exist because they benefit men when women do important work that men don’t want to do. Don’t pretend restrictions on behavior are empowering. When characters find ways to use restrictive social rules to their advantage, they’ve defeated an obstacle, not used a spring board.

Better yet, write stories in worlds that do not have strong gender roles at all. Let your male characters be caregivers and cooks at the same time you let your female characters pick up swords. This is the best practice if you’re not interested in writing a story specifically about gender roles and want to get straight to the dragon slaying.

3. Nudity Occurs Without Justification

Kirk Facepalm Kirk, watching Star Trek Into Darkness

In the film Star Trek Into Darkness, Kirk sees Carol Marcus in her underwear. Marcus acts like she has no time for privacy, even though they aren’t on a deadline. Worse, Kirk turns and looks at her, even though he’s asked not to. So now we can all remember the captain of the USS Enterprise as a peeping Tom. This scene was not only problematic but also irrelevant to the story. It was added to provide titillation at a female character’s expense.

You’d be amazed how often unjustified nudity comes up in speculative fiction. In one episode of The Flash, Barry carries Felicity Smoak so fast that air friction catches her shirt on fire, just so we can have an uncomfortable scene of her looking around for something to put on. Questions abound. If Barry ran fast enough to ignite Felicity’s shirt, why didn’t her skin blister? Why has this never happened to a male character? Why didn’t Barry use his super speed to get her a replacement shirt?

It happens in prose, too. In the novel Storm Dancer, two boys spy on the protagonist as she undresses for a bath. This treated as a “boys-will-be-boys” moment, and how she is described makes it worse. Rather than just stepping into the bath, she acts more like a performer putting on a show for the unseen audience.

When stories tie themselves in knots to include underwear shots or write scenes to be nonsensically titillating, it’s damaging. It furthers not only the idea that women’s bodies are there for men to ogle but also the idea that they are, in some sense, communal property. In real life, this manifests as everything from cat calls to women being assaulted when they turn down a suitor. The least we can do is not include this harmful trope in our fiction.

What to Do Instead

There’s nothing wrong with nudity, sex, and titillation, provided it occurs in the correct context. Before the terrible scene with Marcus, Star Trek Into Darkness features Kirk in mid coitus with a pair of aliens. That’s fine. All three are adults who decided to get together and have some sex. The key here is that they decided to do it. They all had agency in it.

Likewise, if you’re writing a steamy novel about a professional burlesque dancer who performs in exchange for fair compensation, then titillation is fine. Again, the key is that this performing protagonist chooses to do what they do. This way you do not eroticize the uninvited ogling of a woman’s body.

Of course, sex scenes are still very difficult to write in a way that’s interesting, and you may want to stay away from them for that reason. But if you remember to include character agency and context, at least you won’t be doing anything harmful.

4. Protagonists Use Gendered Insults Without Reason

The family's expression when Mom Witch starts swearing incoherently. The family’s expression when Mom Witch starts swearing incoherently.

The English Language is full of insults, and unfortunately, not only are many of them gendered but also the vast majority are specially gendered female. They rely on the idea that femininity is bad or that any woman who doesn’t adhere to the strict standards for femininity is doing something wrong. “Bitch” implies that a woman is being unreasonable or difficult, playing into the stereotype of women being irrational. “Slut” assumes that a woman having sex is bad. “Cunt” turns genitalia into a terrible insult. The list goes on.

In most cases, there are no male equivalents for these insults. Calling someone a “dick” doesn’t have anywhere near the same connotation. When used against a man, most gendered insults do their damage by implying he is feminine in some way. The implication is clear: Femininity is bad, and women are capable of far worse sins than men.

A popular trend is to have female characters hurl gendered insults at each other, attempting to be playful. Witches of East End* does this constantly. The titular witches routinely show how fun and perky they are by telling each other not to be bitches. But whatever the intent, it’s impossible to erase the baggage these insults have for people in real life.

When we use these insults in our fiction, we normalize them, and I don’t mean they become less damaging. Instead, we reinforce the idea that women must go through life bombarded by words specially crafted to attack their gender. There are certain cases where they are appropriate, especially if your story revolves around the damages of misogyny, but few stories are so focused. Instead, characters casually drop gendered insults with no recognition from the story that what they did was wrong. It’s an easy trap to fall into, because we’re raised with these slurs all around us.

The inevitable counter is that real people use gendered insults all the time, so it would be unrealistic not to include them in our fiction. It’s unfortunately true that people often drop such slurs with disturbing casualness, but that’s not a reason to use them. The truth is that dialogue rarely reflects the way people actually talk. If you record a conversation and then compare it to your favorite TV show or novel, you’ll find fiction and reality are very different. When writing dialogue, we edit out all the ums, the repeated words, and the long pauses. There’s no reason we can’t do the same for gendered insults.

Far future and fantasy have even less reason to use them. These are completely different worlds; it’s perfectly reasonable that they have different patterns of speech.

What to Do Instead

When editing your story, examine each gendered insult carefully. Ask if it needs to be there or if you’re making some important statement with it. If not, switch it out. Most slurs can be removed without causing any harm to the story. If your original draft calls for Mimi to say, “Don’t be a bitch” when Genevieve demands they not investigate the haunted graveyard, try, “Don’t be a killjoy” or “What, ya scared?”

I won’t lie; this will be difficult. We’re so used to gendered insults that taking them out feels like weakening the dialogue. It can take a lot of creativity and mental energy to replace them, but it is work worth doing.

5. Female Heroes Are Forced to Demean Themselves

Yes yes, but what about the sexy dancing? Yes, yes, but what about the sexy dancing?

It’s not often that a male hero is subject to a demeaning storyline. Authors will throw all kinds of suffering and hardship at their dude protagonists, but unless the character is intentionally comical, he rarely loses his dignity. Male heroes are taken far too seriously for that.

Unfortunately, it happens with disturbing regularity to female heroes. Stargate fans will remember the season one episode Emancipation, when the team visits the planet of sexist Mongolians,* and Carter is made to dress in the extremely restrictive local fashions so that the team can better establish diplomatic relations. This is stupid for a number of reasons. First, the locals have a low tech level. It’s unlikely they would see people with machine guns and immediately demand one of these nearly omnipotent visitors change their clothes. Second, it’s never stated why making contact with these people is important enough that Carter has to humiliate herself. They have no useful technology, nor is the planet strategically valuable.

Adding insult to injury, forcing Carter to adopt the ways of a culture that sees her as property is played for laughs. The reveal of Carter in the local dress elicits a smug-as-hell grin from O’Neill and stammering admiration from Daniel. The scene carries overtones of “Oh, you finally look like a woman.” Frankly, I don’t buy that Carter’s teammates would treat her so badly. The scene does a disservice to all three.

In prose, exhibit A is Polgara the Sorceress. This prequel novel tells the story of Polgara, a powerful immortal. At one point in the book, despite her protests, she must go and sell herself into a life of slavery where she’s expected to do super sexy dancing whenever her owner demands. The justification for this is that she needs to arrange some kind of political alliance – the sort of task that she could have easily used her magic to solve. But no, that would have robbed us of the supposed empowerment that comes from being forced to do sexy dances.

There’s a reason authors rarely force male heroes to demean themselves. Such events diminish the respect audiences have for the character, and that’s not something authors want to do most of the time. When it happens to female heroes, it’s almost always based on some kind of patriarchal expectation. Sometimes it’s the cheap thrill of a woman doing something sexy when she doesn’t want to, as with Polgara. Other times it’s just a bizarre exercise in taking a woman down a peg, as with Carter. Either way, it’s sexist and hurts the character.

What to Do Instead

Most authors who demean their female characters are trying to generate conflict through hardship. They understand that conflict creates better characters but are unable to separate true character development from damaging tropes.

A good litmus test is to ask the following questions. First, is what’s happening actually justified by the plot as you’ve established? In the case of Polgara, there are any number of ways she could have accomplished her goal without doing this thing she didn’t want to do. Second, is it related to the character’s sexuality? Women get enough flak for that in the real world, and they don’t need more in fiction. Stay away from it unless your story is making a very deliberate point about misogyny.

In the vast majority of stories, you can generate hardship for your female characters the same way you would for your male characters, and it won’t demean them. Take the opening of Octavia Butler’s Dawn. In the first few chapters, the main character is trapped alone in a cell with no one to talk to, unsure of who put her there or if she’ll ever get out. The isolation and fear tell us a lot about her without demeaning her.

Spotting signs of sexism in our stories isn’t easy. If it was, we wouldn’t need articles talking about it! The good news is that once you know to look for them, spotting the signs gets easier and easier. Eventually, it becomes second nature. The more authors do this, the less common sexist stories will become.

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  1. Riley

    One that annoys me is the funny man and the serious woman duo (or sometimes group, in which case there’s always only one woman). It wouldn’t be so bad but it happens all the time.

    It irritates me because the man is always comical but still a hero, and will probably save the day, while the woman has no sense of humour and will probably scold the man in a way that scares him (or he won’t take her seriously and will talk down to her). Plus, she comes with all the other sexist tropes. Not to mention the fact that it often treats men as incompetent fools who need a woman to sort them out.

    I want to see this subverted. I want to read a story where the man is super serious and the woman is the fun, likable one. I want to see a story with men and women who both goof around with each other as equal companions. That would be awesome.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Yeah, that’s what I call the “Female Killjoy” trope, where the guy is goofing off and loving life and being fun, while the woman is just crossing her arms and disproving. Usually the message is that she needs to lighten up.

      When you see it reversed, with a serious man and a funny or out there woman, it’s usually a manic pixie dream girl situation, or just a lesson about the woman needing to learn how to take things more seriously. In either case, the story ends up being about the dude.

    • Paul

      Riley: What? Did you miss the “savy guy energetic female trope?” Cause most of it is all about what your asking

    • R.A.B.

      Actually, that sort of happened in a stage play I starred in once. There was a duo with a funny, annoying guy and a serious guy. But due to our lack of male actors, the funny one was switched to a girl instead. This trope came to my mind as well when that happened.
      (eventually, the guy who played the serious one left us, so that character was also changed into a girl, which coincidentally made the play super lesbian… and that was even better!)

    • Nite

      Try “Bringing Up Baby”, starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant

      It upsets me that I can’t find good subtitles for it in my language

      (Oh, and it’s a classic!)

  2. 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, cauldron or oven (traditional womb symbols) 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, a.k.a the Terrible Mother Archetype, and to have power over life and death. Her archetypes consist of Maiden, Mother, Crone, Seductress, Queer Woman, Warrior Woman, Warrior Lover, Trickster, Destroyer, Spirit Guardian, etc.

    I would strongly recommend this book.

    Sorry for the spoilers

  3. Sarai

    With regards to #4, my favorite thing is when swears are omitted completely, and replaced with ungendered, inoffensive substitutes. It’s creative, humorous, and tends to be a fairly safe option. The webcomic Archipelago does a good job with this, I think, with phrases like “son of a coatrack”

  4. Elda King

    I’d just like to point out that on the Stormlight Archives, people do challenge the strict gender roles. Most notably, Jasnah writes books on that and we get to see excerpts from them; it seems that feminism is actually a thing in Roshar. While the main kingdoms where the story is set have all those restrictions, they are often contrasted to other cultures where gender roles just don’t exist and we have viewpoints from characters far outside those roles. Even in Alethkar and Jah Keved, clergy isn’t subject to those same roles (because ardents are considered genderless) and it is hinted that some people join the church in order to circumvent gender roles. Saying that women don’t hold any level of political power in Alethkar is also not 100% accurate, though it is still depicted as a patriarchal society.

    The Vorin society might be ridiculously strict in many aspects, including the gender roles, and the reasons for that might be flimsy… but I do think Sanderson does a good job on showing multiple perspectives and depicting it as a cultural quirk rather than the “way things are”.

    • Aethra

      I really liked the Stormlight Archives because I assumed Sanderson was showing how gender roles are largely arbitrary and impose restrictions that it seems unlikely people would accept, until we compare it with our own world. Though it could be that I’m seeing what I want to see in Sanderson’s writing.
      It’s a good point that these restrictions rarely inconvenience the powerful, though I think women have more power in this universe than what was suggested here. Which means they would not easily give up their power over the written word for example.

      • Karlyn

        I agree with both of the above. There are characters who fight the system(Jadnah, who writes feminist essays) and those who work to find loopholes (female stablemaster).

        Further, if you compare the portrayal of gender roles to how class is portrayed, I think it becomes quite clear that Sanderson aims to highlight how arbitrarily such systems are created. In Alethkar nobility is determined by eye colour, and in the books it is often compared to other systems were factors such as age or essay writing abilities are decisive. Characters actively reflect upon both gender and class.

        I do not think it is to write about societies with gender roles or that are divided by class or forms of racism. In fact I think it is important that books include these themes so that readers are encouraged to reflect upon them.

        • Jormungandragon

          This hits it spot on in my opinion.

          One of the big things in the Stormlight Archives is what a pain trying to work within the established system can be, and in the third book people are challenging things left and right because the system is getting in the way of what needs to be done.

          The kind of strength required to defy custom when needed is explored extensively.

    • Rochelle

      I was just thinking the same thing! In Book 2, Jasnah’s writing seemed almost like excerpts from feminist theory I’d read before. I think Sanderson creates a sort of archaic gendered world thats gendered in a way we wouldn’t expect and then uses powerful women to challenge the underlying sexism in his world. I thought it was beautiful!

  5. Yora

    I think it should be “Five more signs that your story _might_ be sexist”. I think #2 and #4 can have their place, though they are certainly something that needs to be given considerable thought and reflection. There’s a significant risk of screwing up, but I wouldn’t condem them outright.

  6. Hunter-Wolf

    About the makeup part, i think i understand what the writer was going for in that scene you mentioned, as a matter of fact certain awful makeup trends and in general heavy makeup or unskilked use of makeup give off a very repulsing and very cheap aura (to me fake eyebrows send a chill down my spine because of how awful and cheap they look 99% of the time).

    On the other hand a natural look could be achieved with makeup, makeup done right should enhance one’s good facial features and -as much as possible- hide any flaws, in fact good makeup is like a skilled ninja, if it’s doing it’s job right you shouldn’t even realize it’s there!

    Maybe that’s why a lot of people call the look of people who use makeup really well “natural” because it feels they aren’t using any makeup or cosmetics when in fact they are, for example Shakira’s look in her latest Zootopia “Try Everything” song feels natural at the first glance, but when the camera zooms in it’s obvious she is wearing makeup, but because whoever applied that makeup know what they are doing her overall look comes of as “natrual”.

    • Cay Reet

      The problem with that trope is that it suggest a woman must be ‘naturally beautiful’ to be a heroine. If she uses makeup and it’s visible, she’s not worthy of being an important part of the story, because she’s ‘not real’ or something like that. In real life, it would depend on who she is and where she currently is whether or not she wears makeup and whether or not it’s ‘visible’ makeup.
      You see that ‘naturally beautiful’ thing way too often on TV or in movies. Nobody in real life looks like a TV or movie character when getting out of bed in the morning. (Honestly, the only TV character I sometimes look like is Vegeta from Dragonball, at least hair-wise.)
      A female main character should be allowed to wear any amount of makeup she wants, from none (also because she doesn’t care, not only ‘because she doesn’t need it’) to ‘they needed twenty hours to apply that.’ It depends on the type of character, of course, but even female characters depicted as basically ‘gender-neutral’ scientists always look their best and wear ‘natural’ makeup, while their male counterparts may look like they haven’t seen a shower or razor up close for at least a week. Good women still always have to look beautiful (at least if they’re young) … only female villains are allowed to be ugly.

    • Katie

      I don’t know, that still sounds pretty judgemental.

  7. Richard

    Here’s one trick I use – especially when watching commercials:

    Switch the gender(s) of the protagonist(s).

    If the result makes you feel uncomfortable _at least_, the story is probably sexist.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      That’s a good strategy. It won’t necessarily catch everything, but it can clue you into stuff you might otherwise miss.

  8. Kathy

    I clicked through to your article via a post on twitter simply because I was curious. I don’t write fantasy and hardly ever read it, but I want to say — on behalf of womankind — thank you.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I’m really glad you enjoyed the post, and I’d like to think I’m doing what I can to help with whatever platform my privilege affords me.

  9. Sophie the Jedi Knight

    Example of number five: Star Wars VI, Return of the Jedi.
    Who doesn’t remember when Leia had to wear that metal bikini? Who remembers why she had to?
    I’ll give the writers a bit of a break for that because it made a little sense, but Leia was stuck wearing that thing while Han was just sitting quietly in the dungeon.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Honestly I think even that’s too generous. Jabba is a slug alien. Why would he find scantily clad human women sexy? Unless we’re supposed to assume he has a human fetish.

      • Sophie the Jedi Knight

        I never even thought about that part! Amazing point. After all, all of Jabba’s other dancers are aliens, and he doesn’t obsess and chain them to him.

        • Cay Reet

          The alien dancer who is thrown to the Rancor at the beginning was chained to Jabba, too. The novelisation of the movie is even more clear about it and adds that when she slips through the trapdoor, he has to unhook the chain which keeps her tied to his dais.

          Jabba’s behaviour is that of a slave owner who has a certain interest in his female slaves. Yes, he’s physically as far from being human as is possible, but he still behaves like one. Perhaps he has a thing for humanoid women (since his dancers aren’t all human, but they are humanoid) or it’s a left-over from the original character who was human.

  10. Sadie

    Some confusion:

    About #2:
    How is a story with a patriarchal setting/strict gender roles sexist if the writer clearly doesn’t share the values of the society they created and portrays the sexism of that society as problematic? Telling writers who wish to make commentary on how patriarchy is harmful to everyone to write about a utopia where sexism doesn’t exist instead is very much an ostrich-in-the-sand approach to a problem that is unfortunately alive and well in the real world.

    About #4: What if there IS a reason to use a gendered insult? Calling an innocent preteen girl a “bitch” is downright horrible, but is using “bitch” to describe a woman who tortures children really that bad? On the other hand, I can see the point about “slut”/”whore”/”cunt”. Those insults are a lot more sexual that “bitch” and come across as rapey. But what if it’s used in a line said by a total jerkass?

    Note: I am a feminist woman, so if you wish to make an argument against my opinions, please do not accuse me of being an “angry sexist man” or claim I am suffering from “internalized misogyny”.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      So for #2, that’s why I included “If your story includes strict gender roles and doesn’t challenge them…” Some stories are about challenging gender roles and that’s great. But most spec fic stories which include gender roles do not challenge them. The Way of Kings is one such example. It’s difficult to tell if the author shares the fictional society’s values or not.

      For #4, the issue is not about how badly a woman is acting, it is a problem with the word “bitch” (and all the others you mentioned) being inherently sexist. There is no male equivalent to those words, and using them specifically attacks a woman’s gender, which is wrong if she’s evil or not.

      In the same way that it’s never okay to insult a black man using a racist slur, N-word or otherwise, even if that man is a terrible person.

      • Suzanne

        Oren, keep reading Stormlight Archives if you want to see gender roles challenged. We’re four books in out of ten and by the third book there are significant actions and commentary. The society has an arc it is following. Also, it’s just the practices of one religion (Vorinism) and to them it is not at all arbitrary. It’s from their holy books.

        We ourselves (real humans rather than fictional) have incredibly arbitrary gender roles ascribed to us in holy books as well, in many religions throughout the world. Some practice it devoutly and others challenge it or at minimum question it. That’s also happening in Stormlight.

  11. Oren Ashkenazi

    The most recent comment was deleted because it included slut-shaming language about how women who have a lot of sex are less valuable. It’s fine to disagree strongly with everything I say, but misogynistic insults are not allowed.

  12. Liz

    I tottaly with everything you said-but why Sam Carter? At the top i mean. Why her picture? That episode was verry feminsct, and showed that Carter was not okay with being treated like that

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I love Carter, she’s a great character! I just hate that episode. I used that image because Carter’s expression sums up my feelings about it. I mentioned in #5 why think that episode is sexist. Even though it does end with Carter winning freedom for the women of that planet, that doesn’t make up for how sexist it was until that point. It’s also more than a little racist to have Carter, a white woman, show up and be a savior for all these oppressed women of color.

  13. SunlessNick

    In one episode of The Flash, Barry carries Felicity Smoak so fast that air friction catches her shirt on fire, just so we can have an uncomfortable scene of her looking around for something to put on.

    Cf the equivalent scene in Supergirl, where he catches a briefly stunned and falling Kara and ends up carrying her some ways out of the city, realising her clothes are on fire as they stop.

    First he’s going super fast even by his standards, so there’s a reason for it not to happen other times. Second his immediate reaction is nothing but Oh crap you’re on fire, followed by freezing up when he realises where he’d have to touch her to put the fire out, followed by sinking in that Kara doesn’t seem to be fazed by being on fire and is happily patting it out herself, and finally her clothes being a bit scorched but otherwise intact.

  14. John

    Scientifically incorrect. Stories should be about whatever the author wants, slurs should be used at will (the idea that words can be “bad” is religious, its nonsense) if it is so desired.

    • Cay Reet

      I agree only partially. The author does have control about the story, the theme, the topic, the characters, the scenes. So stories usually are about whatever the author wants. Depending on what you want, however, you might want to second-guess your motif.

      But words have power, whether we like it or not. That is why religion works – humans work very much on words and can be controlled through them.

      You can use slurs in your story,m if it fits with it. You can have your villain/antagonist have use them. Depending on your historical setting, you can have people use them simply because that was what people did. But to just use them indiscriminately still is wrong.

  15. Robert

    Um, we are on the verge of book three of the Stormlight Archive being released…

    Have you reconsidered just how narrow minded your perception of the series is? Much of the gender roles are there to be broken as the story progresses.

    • Cay Reet

      Unfortunately the way they are handled at the beginning means a lot of people will never get to the parts where they are broken, because they’re turned away. A little suggestion of a plan to do so might have been a good idea.

  16. Brandon

    Regarding the Stormlight archive, I don’t think writing about a society with gender roles implies any sexism with the author. There is actually quite a bit of challenging gender roles that I have seen. And when writing about a fantasy world, I would say that it is accurate that there would probably be gender roles. Avoiding it entirely is unrealistic. Just like how class is determined by eye color… that doesn’t mean that Sanderson is a racist agains brown-eyed individuals. I think there may be some sexism still, as females in WoK and some of WoR are portrayed as helpless or incompetent more frequently than males. But I don’t think the sexism has anything to do with the presence of gender roles, as it would likely be unrealistic that there are no gender roles at all in any world.

  17. Ann

    I just had an issue on #5 with a friend’s gaming story. I told him it was shitty that he had one female character use sex with two different male characters in order to get information/an advantage even though she literally had powerful mind control powers. He also had a second female character that had exchanged sexual acts for drugs she was badly addicted to, because she couldn’t afford to pay otherwise. He got angry and said “Well, it happens” and then when I asked if he would have done it with male characters he said “I don’t know. Maybe”. Once again, scifi set 1k+ years in the future and besides the was no need to have women using/having to have their bodies used that way. This was in something that was only a session or two.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Yikes, I’m sorry, that’s a terrible thing to run into when you’re looking to roll some dice and enjoy yourself. I hope the GM in question sees the error of his ways or you’re able to find a better game!

  18. LiliesAndRoses

    3. What do you think of tropes “Innocent Fanservice Girl” (naked woman who genuinely finds nudity okay) or “Shameless Fanservice Girl” (naked woman who understands nudity taboo and ignores it)? In both cases the character consents to being naked.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Everything is context sensitive, but in general those tropes are still sexist and should go. They’re both clearly there for the titillation of a presumed straight male audience rather for any story reason, which can have a chilling effect on anyone in the audience who isn’t a straight male. Usually anything we would describe as “fanservice” should go.

    • Bunny

      I wonder if, purely hypothetically, this could work in a written medium? Like where it’s stated that the person is naked but then nothing else. Nobody obsesses over the character’s hot bod or pays any mind to the nudity. Like maybe it’s just a part of that character’s personality, or a quirk?

      I don’t know, though. That begs the question of why to include it in the first place, and I can’t really think of a strong enough reason that doesn’t fall under “the author wanted some nudity and awkwardly shoved it in here”. Probably better to just leave it out.

      What do you think?

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        There are plenty of reasons one might include nudity in a story that are not sexist, so it absolutely could be done. For example, if the author has a group of characters (alien or human) that just don’t care about clothes, that’s not inherently wrong as long as it isn’t being sexualized for the presumed straight male reader.

        The reason we so rarely see that in fiction is that most authors aren’t interested in it, and only ever include nudity for its sexiness.

  19. LiliesAndRoses

    4. Aren’t women using misogynistic insults at each other similar to black people calling each other with racist insults, such as “The N-word”?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      The context of reclaiming a slur can be a complicated, but in general, if the slur is used as an insult, then it’s not being reclaimed.

      For example, if a woman says “She’s such a bitch” about another woman, that’s an insult, it’s not being reclaimed, it’s being used in the original patriarchal context.

      However, if a woman affectionately greets her friends by saying “What’s up bitches?” then it isn’t being used as an insult, but rather as a term of endearment, and is thus being reclaimed.

      To the best of my knowledge, this dynamic also holds true for black people using the N-word, gay people using slurs like “fag,” and the like.

      However, I still recommend extreme caution for privileged writers depicting marginalized characters using slurs in this way. The politics of who gets to use these words in what context are ever shifting, and it’s easy to cause harm without meaning to.

      • LiliesAndRoses

        Thank you for answer, and also wonder about using insults in a “flipped” settings, like matriarchies, or settings with dominant fantastic race where white people suffer from racism (I don’t mean Persecution Flip, I assume just having these dynamics without focusing the entire story on them). If characters in such a setting insult men or white people using insults connected with that status, what advice could you give about which insults is to pick? Is it okay to use “dick” as misandric slur in a matriarchal setting? Is it okay to have “killjoy” used as male gendered insult and linked with in-universe matriarchal gender roles? Is it okay to have a faerie who insult a white character calling them “cracker” (and is that word okay for privileged writers to use?), or better create some fictional words?

        • Cay Reet

          I’d say that in a fantasy setting with flips of that kind those slurs probably wouldn’t exist, because other words would have come up. So unless you’re basing that society on modern society (after POC have taken control or women have subdued men), it would be a better idea to come up with slurs of your own.

          • LiliesAndRoses

            But why just don’t use insults that already exist?

          • Cay Reet

            Insults are highly based on the past. A word like ‘bitch’ is not an insult by itself, for instance. It’s just a word for female dogs after all – and dogs have been loyal companions of us humans for a long time, there’s nothing bad about them. The same goes for ‘dick’ – which by itself is merely a short for Richard. Or for ‘cracker’ – which is merely something to eat.

            Societies give a word a bad name – make it a slur. And that is where the development of language comes in. In a matriarch society, language would be different (they might have a female default instead of the male one, for instance). The meaning, both positive and negative, of a word would be different as well. Why should the word ‘dick’ be a slur in a matriarch society? They might have completely different words for the male genital (after all, there have been oodles of words for male genitals, female genitals, and sex as a such over time). Why would the word ‘cracker’ be a slur in a society dominated by POC? There are other names for someone with light skin, like ‘whitey,’ which would be pretty obvious. In addition, you would avoid every problem with people feeling bad about reading a slur by making up your own, not-real-world ones.

            As I said, if you extrapolate from current society and make a quick switch where, from one day to the other, the powers have shifted, you could use the slurs currently in use. But if you have a society which grew differently, it would be highly likely that they’d have their own slurs and insults. It’s easy to introduce an insult, too, you simply need to have a character use it in a clear situation and another character react to it being used as a slur or insult.

          • Darkforest

            Is there a danger that work that connected real-life male gendered insults with in-universe matriarchal gender roles can send the message that “men are oppressed in the real life”?

          • Dvärghundspossen

            I second Cay wholeheartedly! It would be jarring to read a fantasy story set in a pretty different world, but they use slurs (or just slang terms in general!) the way we do in our world. It would seem like an incredibly strange coincidence.
            It’s a little like having a fantasy world where there’s a famous group of musicians that go by the name of “Beatles”, and they play a song called “Yellow underwater vehicle”. If it’s a work of satire, it might work, depending on how it’s executed, but if it’s not, and “the Beatles” are just thrown in there randomly, that would be jarring. If something highly specific from our world have no real reason to be in the fantasy world and yet it’s there, it’s weird.

      • LiliesAndRoses

        Thank you.

        Also wonder about reclaiming the term “cracker”. Is it okay for white characters to use it for each other as a term of endearment (just like black people saying “n███a”)?

        • Oren Ashkenazi

          Fortunately, cracker is pretty risk free since it’s a term made by a marginalized community for a privileged one. It’s very unlikely to cause harm in any context. By the same token, it doesn’t need to be reclaimed since it was powerless to begin with.

          • LiliesAndRoses

            But I heard that it isn’t just an insult, it specifically referred to white people as oppressors (derived from the “whip-cracker”). If a white person uses the word “cracker” as a term of endearment, can that word have the meaning dangerously close to “wh█te pr█de”?

          • Oren Ashkenazi

            I hadn’t heard that particular origin of the term, but in that context I wouldn’t recommend using it at all.

          • LiliesAndRoses

            You mean, you recommend not to use it as shortened “whip-cracker”, or not to “reclaim” that term with white characters?

          • Oren Ashkenazi

            Re: Lillies, I don’t think the word “reclaim” would ever apply to a term like “cracker,” when it’s used as a slang for white people. Reclaiming a term implies an act of rebellion, and there’s no rebellion here. At best, two white people referring to each other as crackers is probably just going to sound weird and out of place. At worst, it could sound like the characters are celebrating their position as privileged oppressors, which you probably don’t want.

            Side note, the term itself has a long and complex history which is kind of fascinating:

          • Roger

            If a group of people throw racial insults at some girl and then brake her arms, then I really couldn’t care less if the insults were coming from a priviliged or underpriviliged group. It is the prejudice and the violence that these insults enable that are the problem.

            You are very wrong to claim that it is unlikely to cause harm. It is certain to cause harm, because it increases tribalism and creates the “us-them” mindset that leads to presecution and violence.

            Sure, priviliged groups are able to dish out the violence on a larger scale, but for the individual victim that doesn’t matter.

          • LiliesAndRoses

            “Reclaiming a term implies an act of rebellion, and there’s no rebellion here.”

            Interesting though. I have always thought that reclaiming a slur simply meant that the word is used as a term of endearment by those at whom it is directed at. If it’s offensive to call using the word “cracker” as a term of endearment by white people “reclamation”, then I apologize.

          • Cay Reet

            Reclaiming a slur is an act of rebellion by the very nature of it. You take a word other people use to humiliate you, offend you, and put you down, and make it your own by using it in a positive way. For this, though, the word must already having been used to humiliate, offend, or put down. “Cracker” isn’t there yet (and very well may never be).

          • Skyblue

            Also, could you give any recommendations about using words such as “cracker”, “stud”, “dick”, “breeder”, “prick”, or other slurs for privileged people? Is it okay to depict female/black/gay/etc characters using them? Is it okay for privileged characters to use them? Is it okay for them to be used in a matriarchy or a “faerie supremacy” (without the whole “persecution flip” thing)? And since “It’s very unlikely to cause harm in any context.”, can such slurs be used freely?

          • Cay Reet

            The problem with using slurs in a non-realistic setting (here meaning ‘not our world as it has developed’) comes with the problem of how those slurs became slurs in the first place there. Why should a matriarchal society have the same slurs for men as a patriarchal one?

            Usually, slurs are used not by the group they’re meant to describe, but by other groups. It would be a good idea to only have characters who are bigots or clearly racist/sexist use them, not just everyone. It would also depend on the time your story is set (certain slurs were quite common in past decades/centuries). Personally, I would avoid for the hero to use them (because it’s not a good idea to have a bigoted hero).

          • Oren Ashkenazi

            Re: Skyblue. I can’t give you a broad ruling about whether pejorative terms for privileged people are “okay” since so much depends on context, but in general it’s not going to be a problem because when terms are used for privileged people, they’re just words. When such terms are applied to marginalized people, they cause real harm.

  20. Michael Bugg

    The only thing that makes a story sexist is if either sex is reduced to soulless sockpuppets rather than fully-realized, fleshed-out characters. This list is ridiculous, especially for the fantasy, sci-fi, and historical fiction genres.

    • Cay Reet

      Yes, PWP, as they call it in fan fiction: porn without plot, just having sex scenes to sell the story, not because they actually make sense or have two (or more, no judging) characters share an intimate moment.

  21. M

    I disagree with you on your example for #2
    Way of Kings immediately introduces one character who is bent on destroying the idea that women have specific roles in the first place. This idea catches on over the course of the book, and is more prominent in the next books. I get that Sanderson’s writing didn’t make that issue “priority” as he had to juggle multiple threads of plots and some _dense_ worldbuilding.

    Kindly give it another chance, as #2 is a valid point with much better examples suited to it.

  22. Steven

    I’m sorry but your argument that writing about a world where strict gender norms are at play (as with Stormlight) is “sexist” is just nonsense and feels like you were grasping at straws to find something to get on your high horse about.

    The Alethi are not at any point presented as an aspirational society, they’re presented as warlike, vain and self-destructive. It is the quest of the main character Dalinar to change the ways of the ruling class and it is through the enslaved protagonist, Kaladin that we are shown the barbarism of their ways. In creating a society where expectations are placed on characters based on their gender only gives them the opportunity to show their gumption and free spirits in subverting their allocated places in life. Shallan is empowered by behaving in typically feminine ways, Jasnah by subverting them, and Lift by being utterly free spirited. Navani’s skills as a scientist and engineer reveal the arbitrary and unfair nature of gender roles in our own society. On the other side of the coin, you have Renarin whose sensitivity and interest in words are seen as feminine by his peers.

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