A lot of professional writing organizations (well, all of them, I think) are struggling with diversity issues, and writers are scrutinizing their characters, looking for hints of bias. But gender stereotypes—we’re past that, right?
The latest Sisters in Crime newsletter pointed to an article in The Pudding, in which author Erin Davis recounts reading a novel for her book club that had a 35-page description of the heroine that made everyone’s eyes roll. She started to examine what she was reading and found that female characters often had red lips and soft thighs, and men had strong muscles and rough hands. She wondered how prevalent those kinds of descriptions were.
So she chose 2,000 books, from Pulitzer-winning classics to bestsellers, and ran them through a parser that identified sentences and mentioned body parts. Then she extracted the owner of the body parts and any adjectives describing them.
Guess what? Authors do describe men and women in different—let’s say, for want of a better word, stereotypical—ways.
For example: “hair” is used to describe women more than twice as often as for men (2.27 times more often, to be exact). Men, though, have a “brain” 1.6 times more than women. Men “grin” three times more often than women; women “smile” 1.3 times more than men.
Elsewhere on the body, women are described by their “waist” or “hip” (twice as often) and “belly” and “thigh” (1.5 times more often) than men. And let’s not even look at “breast,” where this anatomical wonder describes women almost seven times more frequently than men. (Men get “gut,” “fist,” and “back” as the descriptors used twice as often as women.)
But it’s not just about the nouns. Across 2,000 books, the most common adjectives to describe a female body are (in no special order) hot, round, sleek, weak, young, tiny, slender, tight, perfect, soft, warm, beautiful, naked, little, and small. For men? Cold, large, rigid, big, powerful, black, heavy, tall, hard, great, and lean. Also “dead,” oddly enough. Maybe those weak, tiny women got sick of being pushed around by those rigid, heavy men and smacked them upside the head with a cast iron frying pan. Who knows?
Check out how “hair” is described in the literature. “Blonde” and “loose” are used for women 16 times as often (and “long” twice as often) as for men. Men’s hair is described as “sandy” twice as often as for women, and men also get “comb” twice as often, which seems weird, since women have all that “long” and “loose” hair. You’d think it would be hard to keep tidy.
Davis’s charts are great—she has illustrations comparing the occurrence of body parts from head to toe (the nouns), and she shows the use of adjectives in 15 charts, one for each of 15 body parts (head, arms, lips, legs, etc.), which show the skew and rate of occurrences of the adjective for each part. The data, alas, confirm what we’ve come to expect, although Davis points out that it’s easy to overlook the differences in how men’s and women’s bodies are described when you’re reading because they may crop up only a few times in a single 300-page volume. But the patterns were clear when she examined 2,000 books: women are soft and sexualized; men are strong and powerful. (You can check out Davis’s methodology and see her charts here.)
I guess to a certain extent this kind of differentiation is not only normal but expected, depending on the genre you write in. But as I work on my revisions, it’s made me think I have to examine how I’ve written my characters. I don’t want to fall into lazy writing. My heroine can grin. She’s strong physically; I can point this out more often. Does my hero have a tender and compassionate side? He did in the last book. But this book? I’m not sure.
What about you? Are you conscious of gender stereotyping when you read? What about when you write your own characters? How much do they—or can they—fall outside the norms?