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”
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
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
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 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
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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