Women in Fiction

Random thoughts about women in fiction. I’ve said from time to time that my observation leads me to believe men don’t really want to read books with women protagonists. I’ve never had men argue against that position, though a few will say they don’t mind so much.

Women, on the other hand, seem content to read books with a protagonist from either gender. But one thing seems to be surfacing—the woman main character must be strong in some way, not just beautiful.

I realized some time ago that one reason I don’t like typical suspense featuring a female protagonist is because in all likelihood, she will be weak and/or vulnerable at some point in the story, either running for her life or for her chastity. I don’t like stories in which a woman is fearful throughout.

At the same time, in one of the recent CSFF Blog Tours, we featured R. J. Anderson’s Faery Rebel: Spell Hunter. A number of the “manly men” participating noted that they did not expect to like the book because of the cover featuring a truculent faery they found to be too much like Tinkerbell, a connection I hadn’t made at all.

As it turned out, our faery female was a tough and independent young thing who took the name Knife—not your typical girlie-girl. And the manly men loved the story.

There are plenty of girlie-girls if fiction, especially in romance. Some are patient and demure and adoring. Some, like she of Twilight fame, are willing to sacrifice all for the one they obsess over.

I heard a startling figure this last weekend—fully eighty percent of all books (not just Christian books) sold in the US are romances. Accurate or not, I think the perception is telling—we are a culture seeking relational bliss, women with men.

Yes, there are coming of age stories featuring guys. Hatchet comes to mind as does Peace Like a River. And there are some action-adventure stories mostly about guys. Alton Gansky has written at least one such book. So has Ted Dekker.

But for the most part, women show up in fiction, if not in the protagonist’s role, then in a role demanding her own subplot.

So I wonder. Is this why men notoriously don’t read fiction? Do guys really not want to read the romance, just as they do not want to go to movies identified as romantic comedies?

Do they not read because they don’t want to know what Jo and Meg and Beth and Amy were whispering about in their attic? Do they not read because they don’t care how Ann Shirley felt as a little orphan girl arriving in a home that expected a boy.

Do men not read because books are too cerebral and not visceral enough? Or manly enough?

And if women protagonists become tougher, more clever, stronger, and independent, will men want to read about those women more?

Believe it or not, these thoughts have something to do with the Church, too, but I’ll need to make that connection another day in a part two, or maybe a part three.

Published in: on April 19, 2010 at 5:52 pm  Comments (7)  
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7 Comments

  1. Greetings,

    I am a guy, a young man intent on becoming a manly man. I love epic music, wrestling, boxing, sword fighting, working out, I can handle pretty much any gore you throw at me, and I love action and adventure.

    I am passionate about Godly manhood defending Godly womanhood.

    I also read romances like Little Women, the Anne series, and books by Grace Livingstone Hill.

    (I am also rather genre independent in everything.)

    I do not balk at books with female protagonists, or books with romance in them (I am actually writing a short story like that right now). And I sincerely hope that other guys will wake up and do the same. If they don’t they will be in real danger of losing a beautiful thing that God intended us to have. Not a ‘feminine side’, but an appreciation for the amazing creation God made to be our helpmeet.

    What I do balk at, and absolutely detest, is woman protagonists that do not behave like women, but like men. Feminism is an evil plague, and it creeps in very subtly into everything, especially female protagonists. If the female MC is tough, independent, strong, etc. to such a degree and in such a way that she stops being a helpmeet, and becomes one of those pseudo-people that are so common today, I will not only detest the book, but distrust the author.

    We need strong women. We need smart women. We need independent (in a Godly way) women. But we don’t need masculine women.

    I hope that made sense and got my point across. If you want me to write more about this, explaining what I mean, drop me an email at my blog letting me know, and I will. 🙂

    With joy and peace in Christ,
    Jay Lauser aka Sir Emeth Mimetes

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  2. Hello,

    In my humble opinion most of the romances that are out there are basically emotional porn for women. It is addicting and appeals to their flesh in ways that are pornographic in nature. What man would be interested in reading that kind of stuff?? Conversely, how many women ‘like, enjoy’ looking at the porn that men do? Both are wrong.

    How can you compare Jo March, Anne of Green Gables, Jane Austin heroines with the romances that are being sold today? In these books the women are not ‘fearful throughout’. When the MC is female but is masculine in her strength and etc., then is she still female or just another ‘male’ MC?? A MC who is female but is strong in that femaleness is not allowed because of the feminist sophistries that has so infiltrated our society.

    There are works of fiction with strong female MC’s who are not another ‘male’ MC. They are old and good but not for the typical modern reader, who do not want to acknowledge that being feminine is a good thing.

    Interesting thoughts and conversation.

    To God’s glory,
    Mrs. Lauser

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  3. I would agree with both Lausers. I don’t mind romance, as long as it is not the driving force in the book. Lord of the Rings had some romance in it, and frankly, most movies have a bit of romance in them. What I don’t like is the “Christian” romance you can find in the bookstores. They literally flood the shelves and they all seem to paint the same picture: a lonely girl waiting for prince charming.

    I also do not mind female MC’s. I thoroughly enjoyed watching a play based off of “Little Women”. I also enjoy watching “Little House on the Prairie”. I have read several books with the MC as a female. But, to reiterate what Jay said, you have to be careful that the female MC is not depicted with male characteristics.

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  4. Just a note to Tim: you have to know what Christian romances to read. Yes, there are certainly those you’ve described and although the majority, definitely not the only romance novels on the shelf. This “complaint” is precisely why I label my work “non-traditional” romance because I don’t want it looked at like category romance. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with category romance because it’s suited to a specific and large audience of CBA readers but certainly not all of the available audience for romance.

    As to the secular romance novels: anything goes.

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  5. Becky, you know how much I love to dread this subject.Personally, I have no problem following a female protagonist. In fact, I don’t require fictional females to “become tougher, more clever, stronger, and independent.” A more “manly woman” is not attractive and definitely would not coax me into reading a straight romance novel. Furthermore, I’d suggest it’s women who want “manly women” — confident, strong-willed, independent, professional females — in their tales, not men.

    I’ve quoted you and springboarded from your thoughts at my blog on Why Men Don’t Read Romance. Basically, I agree with your suggestion that, when it comes to reading, not only must men struggle against their nature, they are faced with an inhospitable industry to boot.

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  6. There are always exceptions to the rules but basically I feel that the reading styles reflect where men and women’s interests lie. There’s an even more basic divide here: consider that men, in general, tend to like the hard science of sf end of speculative fiction while women historically have veered more towards fantasy. Sf (at least in the past – I can’t speak for it now because I haven’t read it in so long!) has often had a “machine” or even an “idea” as the hero while a important aspect of fantasy has always been the relationships and interaction of the characters.

    Regardless of other reasons, this is the pull of romance for women: it is about relationships. I don’t think that the “manly woman” is as big an issue as the issue of the relationship (or lack thereof) between the characters. I think they are entwined problems.

    It’s also true that much Christian fiction tends to reflect the world around us: we have the rugged and stoic individualist as hero, doing it “my way”, against the odds. The average thriller is the other extreme to the emotional porn of much modern pulp romance. In fact we are called to be part of a “communion of saints” and to show “the way” by loving one another.

    Getting a balance so that men and women readers both love what you’ve written – now there’s a goal!

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  7. Great comments here. I’m sorry I haven’t had the time to come in and answer each one as it deserves. The more thoughtful your remarks, the more I have to think about what to say. For now, let it suffice it that I’m putting my thoughts into my posts about this subject.

    Ann, I agree that the reading style reflects the differences between genders, but I guess I’m wondering if we wouldn’t have more men reading if there were more books out there for them to read. It’s one of those conundrums. Women have all kinds of choices. But men? What if they don’t want to read about Tony Dungy or Every Man’s Battle? What is out there for them to enjoy if they don’t care for Ted Dekker?

    My point here is, as a woman, I have (or so my theory goes) more options because I am not limited to reading one type of book, with a protagonist who is also a woman. Of course I’m making general statements. The three men who commented here don’t seem to mind reading books with women protags—as long, in Mike’s case—as the book isn’t a straight romance.

    But yes, I think it’s possible to write books that both men and women love. I don’t pretend to know what that would take. Not too much emotion for the men, but a sufficient amount of romance for the women. Action and adventure, but a good amount of internal monologue so we can relate to the characters. Hmmm.

    Becky

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