Some of you may remember that earlier this year I was inspired by Warpcore SF to track statistics on the gender of lead characters in the things I review. A lot of talk is bandied about regarding the gender of protagonists – whether there are less female protagonists than male, whether female protagonists sell less well, whether books/films/TV shows etc. with female protagonists are often overlooked by reviewers. But there’s not a lot of data. Especially in the vast blogging marshes of the Internet it seems impossible to accurately gauge the truth about what people are reading and what people are reviewing.
Does it really help for one not particularly well-known blog to keep a record of these things and do a bit of analysis? I don’t know. Maybe. I know a couple of people have been referred to my data since I posted it, but the data sample is so tiny I’m not quite sure what they got out of it. For me it’s an interesting exercise to take the opportunity to step back and think about what I’m reading and viewing, and what I’m choosing to review of the things that I’m reading and reviewing. If you read this blog you’ll know I make big noises about the representation of gender in the various forms of media I review. It’s only fair that I step back and take a look at myself and my own actions.
As my previous post was conducted spur-of-the-moment in the middle of the year, I wanted to do a post soon(ish) after my blog’s birthday (3rd October) to compare the two years I’ve been blogging. I had planned to make the post shortly after the Serene Wombles, but… yeah… that didn’t quite happen. It’s still October, right? Just?
So, let’s take a look. As before, I have followed roughly Ros’s model for logging female, male, and neutral main characters, using neutral for items where there were multiple protagonists of different genders as well as for trans or indeterminately gendered protagonists. Where I have given multiple reviews for the same item (e.g. my Read Along with Rhube A Dance with Dragons reviews, or where I have reviewed multiple episodes from the same TV Show) these have only been counted once. I have not counted any reviews given since 3rd October 2012.
Total figures for all reviews
Well, that’s not great. And if you compare to when I did this in March, there’s no real movement. Female has gone up by 1%, neutral has gone down by 1%, Male has stayed the same, with nearly half of all reviews having a male protagonist vs only a quarter with a female one.
But let’s break it down by year and see if there’s a change.
Female: 23% (9)
Male: 50% (20)
Neutral: 27% (11)
Female: 29% (7)
Male: 38% (9)
Neutral: 33% (8)
Well, that’s quite a difference. Male protagonists have gone down a lot, and all three categories are hovering roughly around the third mark. However, the stats from March, half-way through the year, are interestingly different:
October 2011-March 2012
Female: 27% (3)
Male: 27% (3)
Neutral: 45% (5)
I seem to have backtracked from gender parity to males taking the lead since I started tracking this. You might have thought awareness of gender parity would have had the opposite effect. However, when you look at the numbers rather than the percentages, you can see that the difference isn’t very great. I have in general reviewed more works with a clearly gendered protagonist, and there is only a difference of two between male and female. It’s a shame, really, that I haven’t had a chance to review as much this last year as I did the year before, as the sample is smaller, but it is what it is.
Let’s drill into the detail and see where the changes happened.
Female: 21% (3)
Male: 57% (8)
Neutral: 21% (3)
Female: 17% (1)
Male: 33% (2)
Neutral: 50% (3)
These figures are interesting. I’ve reviewed fewer books with a clear female protagonist, and male protagonists still clearly outstrip females. However, the percentage of gender neutral protagonists has gone up massively. When you look at the numbers (1, 2, 3) you might not think that’s too significant – perhaps I simply didn’t review enough books this year to make for much dice. But look at the figures from 2010-2011; I reviewed eight books with a clear male protagonist vs only three with a clear female protagonist. I think it is significant of something that I didn’t read dramatically more male-led books this year.
These figures reflect two books I reviewed written by Sophia McDougall – books that I got into explicitly because I had been so impressed by her blog posts on gender issues (interestingly, these were both gender-neutral, multi-POV books). The two male books are Kraken, which I read because I had heard it was good and it was written by an author I’m already a fan of, and The Dark Tower: The Drawing of the Three, which was a time machine review of my very favourite novel, which I wrote because I had revisited it and felt compelled to write more on. Both of these books are by massively popular male authors who lead the field (China Miéville and Stephen King) and both of whom write predominantly male protagonists (King also writes a lot of multi-POV books as well, to be fair). In both cases I like the authors because they usually write women well and allow women to take strong roles as well as displaying a range of female roles; nevertheless, they are market leading male authors who, when they have a clear protagonist, usually have a male protagonist. (Note: It’s possible I haven’t read as much China Miéville as I have Stephen King; I apologise if I’ve misjudged him on this basis, although it did seem to me that in all the books of his I have read there have been many more male characters than female.)
I don’t take this as an indictment of these men – on the contrary, I respect them both immensely from the views they have expressed outside of their books as well as the sort of female characters they write. Rather, it is interesting that this can be said of some of the better writers for gender equality who happen to be male. One might speculate that there is a natural tendency to identify with one’s own gender and therefore write characters of one’s own gender as the lead (except that female authors also seem to write male leads a lot, which I suspect may be a product of the prevalence in the culture). Indeed, I recall a gob-smacking conversation with a very senior academic who seemed shocked that a man would ever write from a female POV – he seemed to think it a matter of literary merit to attempt it at all. He could see women writing male characters, but not the other way around. I rather suspect his interests don’t stray far outside of literary fiction, however – I don’t imagine he will be reading Contact, Embassy Town, or Carrie anytime soon. But the idea that men would only try to write women as some kind of literary study is kind of appalling to me – as though were an alien species, or a laboratory specimen. I guess women are allowed to write men because a) male is the default, and/or b) women are just so intuitive and empathic. You can imagine how I feel about that kind of assumption.
This attitude may be a part of the problem, but given that there are actually a fair few men who write female characters at least on occasion, I would expect it to be more a matter of lack of thought on the matter than actively thinking it impossible. Stephen King, after all, has written a great many excellent female characters, just much less frequently in the leading role. Consequently, if males generally get ahead more in society it’s reasonable to expect that more of our most successful authors would be male, writing more male characters, especially in a genre perceived as male-dominated and where female writers still feel a pressure to conceal their gender to avoid putting male readers off. A number of female authors have commented that they chose to use initials rather than their forenames to conceal their gender, and even the colossally successful Robin Hobb chose this pseudonym as being more androgynous for when she started writing high fantasy with a first person male protagonist*.
I also wonder if female authors are more likely to write multi-POV novels. This is pure speculation, but I found it interesting that Sophia McDougall’s novels were multi-POV. I had sort of assumed that they were female-led novels, because she wrote such strong women and I had read her books because I was impressed by her articulate expression of her views on gender. However, when I came to tally up the figures, I realised that Una, impressive character though she is, is only one of three predominant POVs (four, counting Varius, who becomes more prominent in the second novel), and the others are male. Of course, the sample is far too small to draw any conclusions, but I have noted elsewhere that women are more likely to be given powerful roles in ensemble casts in television shows, and I wonder if something similar might be going on here. The more leads you have, the easier it is to slip in a powerful woman without objection, as you will also be able to give men powerful and prominent roles. Perhaps this might also explain why I read so many more multi-POV books: they are more likely to have a range of female characters, and some in positions of power.
Interesting note: the one female-led book I reviewed this year was The Blazing World, by Margaret Cavendish, and, by my reckoning, the first science fiction novel. Is it telling that women writing in harder times are more likely to write about women? If you have to fight harder to get published, are you more likely to have an axe to grind about why it was hard for you? Virginia Woolf thought so, and she thought it was a flaw (although not one we could be blamed for) – that we couldn’t possibly know what women will write until we achieve genuine equality because our frustrations naturally bleed out into our work. I can’t say it better than she, so I will quote the passage in full:
But perhaps it was the nature of Jane Austen not to want what she had not. Her gift and her circumstances matched each other completely. But I doubt whether that was true of Charlotte Brontë, I said, opening JANE EYRE and laying it beside PRIDE AND PREJUDICE.
I opened it at chapter twelve and my eye was caught by the phrase ‘Anybody may blame me who likes’. What were they blaming Charlotte Brontë for? I wondered. And I read how Jane Eyre used to go up on to the roof when Mrs Fairfax was making jellies and looked over the fields at the distant view. And then she longed — and it was for this that they blamed her — that ‘then I longed for a power of vision which might overpass that limit; which might reach the busy world, towns, regions full of life I had heard of but never seen: that then I desired more of practical experience than I possessed; more of intercourse with my kind, of acquaintance with variety of character than was here within my reach. I valued what was good in Mrs Fairfax, and what was good in Adele; but I believed in the existence of other and more vivid kinds of goodness, and what I believed in I wished to behold.
‘Who blames me? Many, no doubt, and I shall [b]e called discontented. I could not help it: the restlessness was in my nature; it agitated me to pain sometimes….
‘It is vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquillity: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it. Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot. Nobody knows how many rebellions ferment in the masses of life which people earth. Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.
‘When thus alone I not unfrequently heard Grace Poole’s laugh….’
That is an awkward break, I thought. It is upsetting to come upon Grace Poole all of a sudden. The continuity is disturbed. One might say, I continued, laying the book down beside PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, that the woman who wrote those pages had more genius in her than Jane Austen; but if one reads them over and marks that jerk in them, that indignation, one sees that she will never get her genius expressed whole and entire. Her books will be deformed and twisted. She will write in a rage where she should write calmly. She will write foolishly where she should write wisely. She will write of herself where she should write of her characters. She is at war with her lot. How could she help but die young, cramped and thwarted?
And you can see what Virginia Woolf means, can’t you? Charlotte Brontë interrupts her work to break into a wild description of her own pain and frustration because to be driven to write is to be driven to express yourself. The skilled and calm practitioner, Woolf suggests, does so wholly within the bounds of the story and the natural inclination of the characters. But a writer in pain may let her own passions bleed into the work, and if you are fighting to be heard you may be more inclined to skew towards a description of your own pains – of writing your own tale, rather than another’s. Yet, we should be wary of taken Woolf’s criticism 100% at face value. The conceit of A Room of One’s Own is that of a woman trying to pin down a thesis whilst constantly being interrupted – she begins the essay uniquely with a ‘But…’ as though she is trying to complete a point someone interrupted her to object to. It’s a telling moment. I myself have been taken to task for ‘interrupting’ with a ‘but’ when I was merely trying to finish a point a man was objecting to on a mistaken premise because he had not let me finish outlining my point in the first place. And, of course, that is why Woolf prizes ‘A Room of One’s Own’ (and £500 a year) as so necessary for writing – for developing thoughts and following them through to completion. In the same vein, Woolf may have a dual point in highlighting the way in which Grace Poole’s laughter interrupts Jane Eyre’s reflection upon the restraints that are placed upon women. Yes, it is an intrusion of authorial voice upon the writing, but it is also an illustration of Jane’s frustrations, as well as Charlotte Brontë’s.
I don’t know if anyone has ever done a study on early women writers and their protagonists – quite possibly they have – it might make an interesting read.
It’s a thought anyway. Let’s move on.
Female: 6% (1)
Male: 47% (8)
Neutral: 47% (8)
Female: 33% (5)
Male: 40% (6)
Neutral: 27% (4)
Well, now there’s a clear shift. I think, in part, because I’ve personally been fed up with film and TV that represents women in an implausible and offensive manner, and have thus sought out more varied fair. It should be noted that I have included in this category web series; as I only reviewed two this year it didn’t seem like it would provide intelligible information to include a category just for them. That said, they were both female led both on screen and off – with Felicia Day taking the lead in both. Does this skew the results? I don’t know, but it reflects the fact that when I sought televisual entertainment with female protagonists I turned to the web, where the more indie nature of the genre allows more flexibility. The fact that Felicia Day is a woman and one of the most successful innovators in the genre speaks well of a different dynamic in the future. It also reflects that finding you like a female creator/lead in one show can lead you to investigate other work that she is involved in. It’s like Sandi Toksvig says of comedy panel shows: if you want gender parity, ‘make the host a woman’.
Anyway, enough musings. Moving on!
Female: 0% (0)
Male: 100% (2)
Neutral: 0% (0)
Female: 50% (1)
Male: 0% (0)
Neutral: 50% (1)
No change from March. Same goes for podcasts and blogs:
To quote me in March:
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.
Female: 100% (5)
Male: 0% (0)
Neutral: 0% (0)
I wrote quite a bit about this in March, so I won’t duplicate that here (this post is already long enough!) but it’s still there to be read if you’re interested.
I also grouped the non-Film/TV/Book categories together for comparison, as these groups have much smaller results overall. (Note that I reviewed one poem this year – Fern Hill – which has been slotted into this category along with the others already mentioned. It has a male protagonist.)
Female: 55% (5)
Male: 45% (4)
Neutral: 0% (0)
Female: 33% (1)
Male: 33% (1)
Neutral: 33% (1)
Again, this is a no-change-since-March, so I won’t say much more about it, except that I think perhaps the year coming will show more variety and I will have to switch up the categories generally. I suspect web series may need its own category, and it may be that comics and/or blogs will have enough to stand on their own feet. But it all depends on how things go. When I finished Read Along with Rhube (and I will finish it, I will!) I’ll have more time for reviewing other things. I’m also moving towards the end of my PhD, which will probably mean a little less blogging followed by a bit more. Exciting times!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this tour of my useless data and personal analysis.
*Fun fact: a certain local charity shop that will remain nameless to protect its cause took to dividing its books up into those by ‘male authors’ and those by ‘female authors’. They consistently misshelved Robin Hobb in the ‘male authors’ bookcase, even though I kept moving her books back to the ‘female’ shelves.
That is really interesting – both as a reflection of what you’ve been reading and your speculation on whether females write more multiple POV books – my gut says yes, but I’d be interested to see the numbers.
Thanks! I wonder, too. I’m less certain than I was when I wrote this post. Suddenly examples of the reverse seem prominent. But I stand by my comment that female characters tend to be more interesting in ensemble casts – safety in numbers/it’s less threatening if it’s absolutely clear that boys are also havng ther turn.