I’ve written before about how powerful fiction is, and how we can use our stories to do good in the world. Today I’m writing specifically about how we can use our stories to fight the problem of oppressive, and regressive, gender stereotypes.
What Are Gender Stereotypes?
When I talk about gender stereotypes, I’m talking about the social implications that come with your sex. The notion that boys have to be tough and strong and “masculine,” girls have to be subservient, nurturing, and “feminine.” Children have been pressured to conform to gender stereotypes by society for generations, and those who don’t conform have long been “othered.”
Conforming to these stereotypical personality traits by nature is fine, many people do, and there’s nothing wrong with it. But the “othering” of people who don’t conform, and the way society is built around cramming children into the gender roles boxes (think of the pink aisles and princess dresses for girls, the fighting toys and guns for boys), means that a lot of people are forced to conform rather than conforming naturally, and I truly believe it has long term psychological damage. To either feel you’re wrong because you’re different and can’t make yourself fit into the box, or you’re wrong because you’re uncomfortable in the life you’re living stuck in the box, is a really unhealthy life to live. And completely avoidable.
But with stories we can do something.
With stories we can fight the regressive stereotypes. We can make seeing humanity in all its shades normal, and then nobody has to be othered, because nobody thinks fitting in the gender stereotypes box is the only way to be.
When you see yourself represented in fiction, either on screen or in books, you’re immediately welcomed into the story. And stories are how we communicate, how we represent society, how we explore ideas of humanity and all its complexities. When you’ve been almost universally excluded from fiction, you’re essentially being treated like you don’t exist. And this is true for the girls and boys, women and men, who are gender non conforming.
Strong Female Characters
The most common way of tackling this issue is with the “Strong Female Character,” the woman who is fierce and tough and “just like one of the guys.” She usually looks like a “feminine” woman but with “masculine” personality traits; beautiful and tattooed, drinks beer, and fights. Everybody else is completely conforming to the stereotypes in varying degrees, but by inserting the one female character who’s basically a stereotypically male character but female, you’re pretending you’re doing something progressive.
But, in my opinion, it’s not. One female character with traditionally male personality traits isn’t what we need. We need men and women who are masculine, feminine and everything in between, and we need them so much it’s not strange to see anymore.
Our job as story tellers is to represent humanity, and your characters are humans, therefore they should be as interesting and diverse and complex as humans are or you’re just skimming the surface of what it’s possible to write. It’s a disservice not only to your audience, but to your story and your characters.
Not Limited By Our Sex
To truly write a diverse cast of characters, and thus make steps to represent humanity in all its beautiful complexities and shades, we should just write characters. Not characters defined solely by their sex.
If I look at myself, my sex is one aspect of who I am. Of course, it’s an important one; I’m a mother, I’ve given birth and breastfed my children, I’ve had a miscarriage, I’ve been dominated by men much stronger and more violent than me in a way that is more unusual for men to experience (of course not unheard of, just less common). But it’s not the only part of who I am. I’m not controlled by it. It doesn’t shape my interests or my personality.
I have the same job as my male partner, we do the same amount of housework, we do the same amount of childcare, we have a lot of the same hobbies and same tastes in music, food, films. Sometimes I dress in a traditionally feminine way, often I dress in his clothes because I like that they’re baggier. I’m not a walking stereotype, and I’m willing to bet, neither are you. And, even the most traditional men and women aren’t 100% conforming because humans are too interesting.
If we accept that people are not walking stereotypes, then I feel strongly that not making all our characters walking stereotypes can be a force for good in the world.
Some people feel that having stories with entirely male or entirely female casts is a problem, we should always have equality of screen time, but I disagree. If you want to write a story entirely about men, that’s fine. I mostly write female characters and that’s fine too. I think it’s entirely possible to write about the lives of men and women, exclusive of one another, and the real world issues you face because of your sex, without acting like sex is the only thing that contributes to who they are as people, and I don’t think we’re obligated to consume fiction we don’t like. If you don’t like films dominated by one sex, then don’t read or watch them. But when you do write characters, ask yourself if they’re all representing a gender roles stereotype, or are they people in their own right.
I just finished a book (The Haunting Of Ashburn House by Darcy Coates) with almost no male characters in at all, and only realised part way in because the characters weren’t written like stereotypes, they were just characters who happened to all be female. Because they were written like people and their sex was just one aspect of their character, it didn’t impact the story. The story was the story, regardless of their sex.
To embrace humanity in all its shades, representing the men with make up and flowers in their hair through to the men who are army generals, and the women who win boxing matches to the women who model wedding dresses, is a beautiful thing. It’s something I aim for in my own stories because I love humanity and all ways it presents itself. And there’s no right wrong way to be male or female, you’re just you.
Embracing the huge variety of people, their interests and sexualities and personalities, in our stories means that nobody feels excluded. If you’re welcome in stories, represented in characters good, bad, smart, complex, you’re welcome in society. If your humanity is understood and accepted by the story tellers, it will seep through into everywhere else and you’ll no longer stick out as strange. You’ll no longer be “other” because people will just be people.
Gender stereotypes suck, especially when they’re the only acceptable way for someone to behave and feel, but I consider the story tellers to be the ones who can fight them most effectively. So I’ll always try.
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