Fictional Characters Face Inequality? Suffer the Female Protagonist
With a sad set of statistics on inequality for female authors in publishing
by Robert W. Walker w/compliments to TK Kenyon
Come on, a book, any book ought to be as Ezra Pound once said “like holding a ball of light in one’s hands.” So no matter if your lead and secondary characters are male or female, they ought simply to be believable and memorable and a joy to spend time with in the case of the good guys and the ladies. Often it is a fine line a character walks between authentic and inauthentic, larger than life and comic book hero.
Often in my own work, it works out that there are two main characters, a strong male lead butting heads with an equally strong female lead. The bottom line in creating male or female characters ought to be the same—attention to detail, layering, providing each with a worldview, an interesting psychology, and often a psychosis or two – or an obsession. However, critics and readers often take us to task when we create a strong-willed, determined, or obsessive female character—obsessive say about getting at the truth like our lead lady in TV’s The Closer. When a male character is strong-willed, determined, or obsessive and dogged about clue-finding activities that pull him away from a personal life, he is applauded for being firm, courageous, bold, and all manner of positives. But when a female character exhibits these traits in fiction, whoa Nelly! So often she is hit up for being a bitch, for being strident in her speech, for being pushy, aggressive, overbearing, and a host of other negatives. Take a look at a single line of dialogue here:
Jack shouted, “Do what you g’damn hafta, Frank, and I’ll do my job!”
Jack’s stand is worthy of applause, no question. Compare it to the lady, Celine’s line.
Celine shouted, “Do what you g’damn hafta, Frank, and I’ll do my job!”
Same line, same words, same apostrophe and exclamation point, but just knowin’ she’s a lady…a lay-lay-lady, we get a whole ’nother take on the line, especially if we’re predisposed to believe a lady approaches things with more femininity and ahhh grace. She does not swear anymore than she snores.
The Closer, Saving Grace, CSI, Law & Order, and a number of other current TV dramas about women in law enforcement are making waves and changing some preconceived notions about women in dramatic roles, in film and on the book page. Still when a woman sleeps around as Grace does to “excess” on Amazing Grace, we don’t shrug it off as we have been doing for years for Bond, James Bond. Grace is seen as a slut, while Bond is viewed a lady-killer, a real stud. My own Dr. Jessica Coran had a new man in her life often with the opening of a new book in the Instinct series--as few men could keep up, and I got complaints that she was too promiscuous from some readers. Jessica had a total of four men over eleven books, and the last one she married, and she had long-lasting relationships compared to TV’s Grace. Trendy or a sign of the times? Another big no-no a mere few years ago was that you don’t have little children murdered or maimed in your story, but every cop show drama on TV has tossed that notion, often displaying the small body on a slab or in an alleyway. Amazing Grace is being ballyhooed as ground breaking, and perhaps it is in some respects, but the condemnation of women acting like a James Bond character does seem to still have its hold on viewers and readers.
In other words, we want our tough, firm, determined female cops to also be vulnerable and sensitive; we certainly don’t want them pulling out their hair or baying at the moon or up-chucking in the car, or losing their maternal instincts, or losing all respect for themselves, or becoming Lindsey Lohan or lushes. Let a jaded, disillusioned male cop drink himself to sleep at night but God forbid a female on the force with the same level of jaded disillusionment become a sickening lush and watch out—particularly in book form. Perhaps seeing someone on a screen literally fall apart before our eyes is a kind of voyeurism we can take, but careful of the same in a novel.
So here is the crux of the matter for a novelist working with a strong female character, as I have often done. Be certain, as with any character that you don’t allow her to become a poster-girl for some message; nor a caricature for feminism; nor an exaggeration of a bias; and for God’s sake try not to allow her to cross over or fall into a comic book version of who you want her to be. Rewrite those last two sentences and insert he/him for she/her. Male or female, you don’t want your strong, determined, willful, firm characters to become comic book heroes or heroines.
Now how is this all relevant to the real world of publishing and the number of books done by men as opposed to women writers? How do the statistics in the real world of the publishing industry inform us that women are still, after all these years and all that has been said and done about equality in this world (as opposed to fictional worlds) –how do the stats stack up? Thanks to a recent posting by TK Kenyon (www.tkKenyon.com) on DorothyL (where you can often find me), here are some sobering facts about the industry we all know and love with respect to such things as how many female authors get reviewed as opposed to male authors. Again while the number of books published by male and female authors is very close, the numbers below tell a sad story in a time of shrinking newspaper, magazine, and other review outlets. Perhaps the internet is the only place women might find, in time, equality.
Percentage of book reviews for male authors vs. female authors for 2006 in major review publications: 56%:44%
Percentage of book reviews for male authors vs. female authors for Jan-June 2007 in major review publications: 63%:37%
Percentage of book reviews for male authors vs. female authors for at the New York Times Review of Books (very influential): 72%:28%
Ratio of male book reviewers to female reviewers at the New York Times Review of Books: 2:1
Percentage of articles written by men to those written by women in the five “thought leader” magazines: 3:1
Worse yet, as I read most of those magazines, I can tell you with a quick glace at my stock, that the few women writers write about women, home life, babies, diapers, poems, and very light culture. The heavy stuff like economics is reserved for the boys.
Percentage of male book buyers to female: 45%:55%
Women constitute only 17 percent of opinion writers at The New York Times ,10 percent at The Washington Post ,28 percent at U.S. News & World Report ,23 percent at Newsweek and 13 percent at Time . Overall, only 24 percent of nationally syndicated columnists are women.
The only place where a woman really kicked butt was in the Alien
movies. "Ripley" (Sigourney Weaver) was originally supposed to be
a male character. The studio wanted the main character to be
female for some business reason, and Ridley Scott went through
the script and changed the pronouns, and that's all. Didn't even
change the character's name. I thought it was brilliant, and
Ripley will live forever as one of the few women characters who
-- Author of Callous and Rabid, TK Kenyon