Stats: Gender in reviews

Warpcore SF has posted some really interesting stats regarding the balance of gender in the protagonists of the books she reviews. They suggest a persistent dominance of male protagonists in her reading, despite her own awareness of the problem. This is a thing I have long been conscious of myself. As a teenager I ate up books with strong female protagonists, but as adult it at least feels like I read many more books with male protagonists. I have also noticed in my own writing a switch from writing books largely concerned with strong female protagonists to books concerning men in general. Even since I became aware of this facet of my writing.

I thought at first this was because I’ve had something of a late adolescence – oh, I developed on queue (early even), but I was so sexually repressed that I didn’t start unlocking my own desires until after I took part in the Vagina Monologues, age 20. Ironically, this was just after the end of my last relationship. Let’s just say I’ve been… frustrated. So, big whoop, I’ve had sexy gentlemen on my mind. Heterosexual men frequently have sexy ladies on their minds (or so the Internet tells me), but when they write them into their stories, they become the love interest, not the main character (most of the time – not always). Moreover, I certainly still thought of sexy gentlemen a fair bit as a teenager, but they were, again, the love interests of my driven female characters.

What changed?

Well, here’s my theory: like begets like. I read a lot of Anne McCaffrey as a young teen. A lot. I also read Tamoira Pierce and other female writers who tended to put their female characters centre stage. I was inspired by them and I felt confident in myself as a woman and wanted to write about other women who felt confident in themselves. Women taking centre stage (in fiction, at least) just seemed normal. But as I grew older I read more books written by men and with male protagonists, and even the books I read that were written by women tended to have male protagonists. Unconsciously, my idea of what the norm for protagonists is shifted, and when I got ideas for writing, the view-point character (even though it was frequently a viewpoint I identified with) became, more often than not, male.

This is why I want to emphasise that when I’m highlighting a lack of female characters in a book, film, TV show, comic, or whatever, I am rarely in the business of directly blaming the author and creatives behind the art. Because I do it too. Rather, what I’m trying to do is to highlight the disparity and remind all of us – myself included – that this is not what the world looks like, but the more we see it presented as the norm, the more we will unconsciously expect it to be the norm in our real world interactions, as well as in our fiction. Moreover, reading lots of books with male protags did not make me not want to read books with female protags – I still really like it when I do, and I still get frustrated when there’s a disconcertingly high ratio of men to women in my fiction – it’s just that like begets like, and we need to make that association conscious in order to combat it.

So, anyway, I found Warpcore SF’s figures interesting, and she invited other bloggers to add their own. So, here are mine. I’ve used roughly her system for logging female, male, and neutral main characters, using neutral for multi-character viewpoints or transgender main characters. However, I don’t just review books on this blog, so I thought it would be interesting to separate out the figures for the different types of things I review. Note, also, that I have counted things like Doctor Who, Torchwood, and A Dance with Dragons, where I have reviewed the same over-arching item multiple times (i.e. different chapters or episodes), as one item.

Total figures for all reviews:
Female: 24%
Male: 45%
Neutral: 31%

So, wow, the overall total is quite dramatically male-dominated, but take a look what happens when I split it up into 2010-2011 and 2011-2012:

2010-2011
Female: 23% (9)
Male: 50% (20)
Neutral: 27% (11)

2011-2012
Female: 27% (3)
Male: 27% (3)
Neutral: 45% (5)

So, wow, that’s quite a swing from really very male-dominant to pretty much equal, with a strong preference for gender neutral. Of course, this year isn’t done yet, and you can see from the figures that I’ve only reviewed about a quarter of what I reviewed last year so far, but still, it feels suggestive that the greater consciousness of what I was reading and reviewing that built over the course of the last year has had some kind of effect.

Now for the details:

Books, 2010-2011
Female: 21% (3)
Male: 57% (8)
Neutral: 21% (3)

Books 2011-2012
Female: 0% (0)
Male: 33% (1)
Neutral: 66% (2)

Bum, looks like I’m actually backsliding, here, although it also perhaps just emphasises that the statistical sample for 2011-2012 is just too small.

Film/TV 2010-2011
Female: 6% (1)
Male: 47% (8)
Neutral: 47% (8)

Film/TV 2011-2012
Female: 40% (2)
Male: 20% (1)
Neutral: 40% (2)

On the other hand, I’ve already doubled the number of reviews I’ve given to Film & TV shows that had a female lead, and considering that this was the biggest category for reviews last year, I think that’s striking.

Comics 2010-2011
Female: 0% (0)
Male: 100% (2)
Neutral: 0% (0)

Comics 2011-2012
Female: 50% (1)
Male: 0% (0)
Neutral: 50% (1)

OK, small figures, again, but I think that this actually does reflect a shift in my reading habits, and in the publicity of comics with female creators and higher numbers of female characters.

Podcasts
I have only reviewed two podcasts on this blog, both were last year, one was a work of fiction with a male protagonist, the other was non-fiction but given by a man. I have counted both in the overall total for boys.

Blogs 2010-2011
Female: 100% (5)
Male: 0% (0)
Neutral: 0% (0)

Again, no blogs reviewed so far this year, but I did find it striking that all the blogs I reviewed last year were written by women and/or focused on women as a subject. I hadn’t realised it was this extensive, but I really do read a lot more blogs written by women. Whilst not all of the blogs I reviewed were overtly feminist, those written by women were from people whose point of view on gender closely aligns to my own, and the one run by a guy is Women Fighters in Reasonable Armor, which kind of says on the tin that it’s not going to give me any nasty surprises. And I genuinely think that’s the reason why. It’s not that I only read feminist blogs – I don’t. Nor do I think that women are more likely to write about things that interest me – I’m a geek, there are lots of geek blogs written by men. It’s that I only tend to regularly read blogs by people who are unlikely to make weird assumptions about gender difference, and specifically what women are like. Again, it’s not that all men or all male bloggers make weird assumptions about gender differences and what women are like; I think it is an unconscious bias on my part that stems from having been bitten quite a lot in the past, that and the fact that female bloggers more often flag up things they don’t like regarding the depiction of women in TV/film/books/comics, making it more likely that I will quickly see something in scanning a blog that reassures me that we’re on the same page. Also, it’s not just about the blogs I read, it’s about the blogs I review and recommend. Blogs that have a tendency to be concerned with redressing the balance of female-to-male presence in genre are more likely to be aligned to the interests of this blog – both mine, and what I assume to be my readers.

I just hadn’t realised that I had become so dramatically female-focused in this area. Mind you, I also hadn’t realised I’d reviewed so many blogs.

Lastly, because the non-Film/TV/book categories were all so small and bitty, I grouped them together as ‘others’ for comparison:

Other 2010-2011
Female: 55% (5)
Male: 45% (4)
Neutral: 0% (0)

Other 2011-2012
Female: 33% (1)
Male: 33% (1)
Neutral: 33% (1)

I find it interesting that there seems to be a pretty even split in the ‘other’ category, which by and large concerns things I go out and find on the web, either by following links, or on recommendation/word of mouth. It suggests (in as much as it suggests anything) a great equality in more ‘indie’ stuff than in the mainstream media; although, again, this is self-selecting based on the people I choose to follow on Twitter/tumblr, the sort of comics/blogs I already read, and so forth. There is, after all, a whole wealth of extreme right-wing indie stuff out there on the web that I would never be recommended, would never seek out, and would be very unlikely to review if I did encounter it.

In general, I’d say there’s a trend in my reading towards more equality, with some odd blips on both sides.

I should stress that I am under no illusions of the statistical significance of this data beyond a record of my own reading habits, but if it can form a part of a greater picture gathered from multiple blogs it might say… something. Similarly, my analyses are subjective, intended to colour in the reasons that seem to me to be behind the figures, rather than anything more substantial. I intend to continue to keep track of this, now, that I might be able to produce more useful data in future.

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About Serenity Womble

I'm a writer of science fiction and fantasy short stories, as well as many, many unfinished novels. I review things of a generally speculative nature. This is my blog for writing and reviewing.
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7 Responses to Stats: Gender in reviews

  1. Celyn.A says:

    Interesting post, Ro, but… I dunno.

    The unspoken premise of both Warpcore SF’s and your posts seems to be that as bloggers you should be aiming for an exact 50/50 gender split of everything that can be measured by gender: whether authors, other bloggers or characters. At least that is what I take from words and phrases like “the problem” and “backsliding”.

    I think it’s absolutely right to be aware of what might otherwise be unconscious or unobserved gender bias, but I would be very wary of elevating the factor of gender to some sort of overriding criterion for deciding what to read/watch/review/blog about/etc. For one thing – and I think this has been missing from the recent debates on author-gender-bias – I doubt the published material has a 50/50 split. Fair enough if you want to try to redress this balance, but it seems to me that you run the risk of wrongly de-prioritising other factors – so you might miss out sub-genres or lesser-known authors you’re particularly interested in, because your “stats” aren’t right for this month.

    I’m conscious I may be setting up a straw man (or woman :)) here and you may have quite different views, as you’ve been careful not to over-extrapolate, but this is just how it struck me.

    • I think you’re missing the point and extrapoliting wildly without justification. No conclusions were drawn about what one should do or that a 50/50 split is desired or how it would be reached. As you note, I was very careful not to over-extrapolate, as I don’t enjoy debating strawmen for fun. (I know that some people do, but I’m open and have spoken freely on the fact that it stresses me out.)

      Eventually, yes, as far as I’m concerned, a 50/50 split is desired, but that doesn’t mean I desire it *right now* or that I’m going to start ignoring people because my stats aren’t right for this month – it never even occurred to me to think that, and I really don’t think it’s likely to happen on the basis that a few bloggers compile a little statistical data for reflection. I don’t think the point about the published material not being 50/50 split has been missed at all from recent analysis – I think it has been front and centre, and, indeed, was implicit in my post above, although I didn’t want to highlight it, as people get very defensive about that, and ultimately my aim was just to collect and display some data. As I said in my introduction, I think visibility affects what is written, which is why it is important to be conscious of what one selects to review. Consciousness doesnot dictate action. I’ve been conscious of it this past year, yet I still chose to review Kraken first this year, because I felt the book deserved it. My consciousness of this simply reminded me of teh pressures that work on me to deselect writing that features female protagonists, and to challenge that attitude in myself.

      Which brings me to my last point – you talk about the dangers of elevating teh gender factor in response to stats such as these. One significant point that stats such as these highlight is that gender is already elevating one’s choices in favour of male protagonists. One may not wish to take ‘affirmative action’ towards female protags, but it’s worth recognising that there are already pressures in place the other way that push from ‘-genres or lesser-known authors’.

      Anyway, I hope that’s clearer and doesn’t come across as too aggressive a response. I don’t have the time or the energy for a lengthy debate.

      • Celyn.A says:

        That’s all very clear, thank you, and not too aggressive!

        I really wasn’t trying to start some sort of pointless debate for debate’s sake, it was an honest response to your post. However, in retrospect I was also influenced by some of the other recent discussions around this issue for which, of course, you are not responsible, so I’m sorry for lumping you in with them. (My ‘scaremongering’ comment on Twitter was supposed to be jokey, partly because I wondered – rightly as it turned out – if I might be making much ado about nothing.)

        For what it’s worth, on the publication bias point I was thinking particularly of the ladybusiness post – although it’s fair to say this point was picked up in some of the comments to that post.

        Anyway, I’m not trying to keep this going so I’m happy to leave it there.

        • Thanks, I appreciate that. I got that you were going for jokey, it’s just not the kind of joke I enjoy. I have anxiety issues that internet debates (especially on gender) play havock with – not least because most people aren’t as reasonable as you in agreeing to drop it, and I just end up anxiously waiting on how people will respond for hours. It’s not your fault, but it;s no fun for me, so I just like to be upfront about it, these days.

  2. Ros says:

    Wow, Ro, thanks for taking the time to put this together. I definitely agree with you about perceptions of what is the norm. I think if we’re at a stage where more authors are writing male characters, “he” becomes the default and female characters stick out as somehow odd because they’re a relative rarity. Then there’s a danger that publishers look at the figures for what sells and decide that female characters don’t, and you get a vicious cycle of authors being discouraged from writing about women because these characters are perceived as uncommercial, and they stay uncommercial because hardly anyone’s writing those books.

    There might be a bit of that going on, but I don’t think it’s as significant as the possibility that some authors are more comfortable writing characters of their own gender and genre authors are still mainly male.

    • My perspective is that genre authors are not as generally male as many people have the impression of their being. Moreover, the problem for me (which I note in myself, and chiefly aim to challange personally) is that as a female genre author I follow suit. It is true that some genre publishers are less keen on publishing works if they have a female lead, and even where they will they minimise her appearance on the cover (as discussed here: https://serenitywomble.wordpress.com/2011/02/06/reviewing-through-the-time-machine-the-silver-city-by-pamela-belle/) or overtly sexualise her (as discussed all over the internets (see, e.g. http://www.jimchines.com/2012/01/striking-a-pose/, and especially here: http://genrereviews.livejournal.com/371367.html) in an attempt to present her for the male gaze and minimise her strength for the perceived male audience that would be (supposedly) put off by a woman on the cover. But many publishers are aiming to combat this. Angry Robot has a large number of female authors, including Lauren Beukes, who won the Clarke Award with a female protagonist.

      I feel like the female author presence is changing, but female character presence is lagging behind, encouraging the impression of a male-dominated genre that continues to alienate some women (or persuade them that the appeal of genre for them might be limited to paranormal romance (nothing wrong with that genre, it just fits the paradigm of women only getting to be the lead when romance is the plot)). And I don’t even really think it’s conscious. I am, of course, extrapolating from my own experience. There is a word-of-mouth theory that women bloggers are less prominent and female authors are less reviewed and this leads to a viscious cycle. This is broadly plausible to me – it feels like it’s changing, but still only slowly – but the oft repeated complaint is a lack of data, and then when someone does pool data it is critiqued as being artificially selective. Which, of course, it is. The internet is vast, and increasingly the main source of reommendations and reviews for genre lovers, even what counts as a ‘popular and influential blog’ is up for dispute. So, I guess, these are my figures, and those are WarpcoreSF’s figures (another Ros!). What they mean, at this point? Probably not a lot. For me, the importance is to be aware.

  3. Pingback: Gender Stats in Reviews 2 | In Search of the Happiness Max

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