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The Fictitious Gender Throwdown

Why Are Male Characters More Well Liked Than Female?

The+Fictitious+Gender+Throwdown%3A+Photo+by+Sheridan+Ecker
The Fictitious Gender Throwdown: Photo by Sheridan Ecker

The Fictitious Gender Throwdown: Photo by Sheridan Ecker

The Fictitious Gender Throwdown: Photo by Sheridan Ecker

Sheridan Ecker

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Yesterday, I found myself in a drawn out conversation with my sister about our favorite book characters. This is not an uncommon occurrence; with a limited number of shared interests, most of our conversations roll back around to the same few topics. Nonetheless, I pondered, as I have in every conversation we ever have about this topic, why it is that we–self proclaimed feminists–so vastly prefer male characters to female characters in fiction (mainly Young Adult novels, but it extends to everything). Is it us? We’re forced to consider that perhaps we, for all of our forward thinking, are maybe not as progressive and all-embracing as we’d like to believe. But here’s the issue with that way of thinking: This gender preference is universal.

A significant part, I think, of why male characters are more liked lie in how the genders are portrayed in books. Of course, YA novels are rife with female representation–it makes sense, really. Female authors in YA far outnumber male; just look at Barnes and Noble’s website and compare the number of male name’s you see as compared to female. With these female writers often come female protagonists. I’m not going to lie; I love female protagonists. Authors seem to have become increasingly good at creating complex, realistic, thoroughly fleshed out females, and these characters allow you to have just the same range of complex emotions toward them. Think Katniss, Clary Fray ala City of Bones, Celaena Sardothien from Throne of Glass, Eleanor of Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park: These characters are fully formed, great characters, but here’s the trick–they are flawed. Of course they are; no one can be perfect, right? And if they were perfect, we’d punish them, because that’s obviously not fair or right. The thing is, these characters are written for the female readers, really, and female readers want to relate to a character instead of reading about a relatively perfect one. But this rule does not apply to male characters. They can be as perfect as they want! We’re not emulating them, right? Of course not. They’re the love interest; they are there, for the most part, for us to love, and to support the ever so flawed female protagonists. It’s easy to fawn over them because they’re unrealistic–maybe some boys would slay a dragon at one moment and then recite world-class poetry for you the next second (shirtless, of course, and with a six pack, tousled hair, and insert some ridiculous color eye that makes Heroine shiver and “not from the cold”), but not many. So they’re safe to love, and their “flaws”? Well, most of the time they’re caused from some outside force so we can excuse even that–take Peeta from Hunger Games, for example. While Katniss is a surly, world worn survivor that you vacillate between wanting to hug and wanting to scream at, Peeta is basically just a kid with a heart of gold who maybe can’t wield a bow and arrow as well as his counterparts. Third book is the first hint we see of a genuine “flaw,” and that’s induced by drugs–how can we hold that against him? Peetas don’t exist (and if they do, I want to meet them for myself). Of course we’re going to love perfection. But those female characters who are stubborn, hotheaded, act-before-you-think, they exist. We can love them for that, but how can they compare with a dream?

 

Despite the matter of flaws, however, another important fact is the difference in the way we perceive and judge the genders. If you do a simple google search of  “why are male characters more liked than female characters?”, you’ll be treated with a variety of articles ranging from opinions like this one to why female representation is more important for boys. The Atlantic, however, makes a rather pertinent point: Females are judged more harshly than males. “Over the last 30 or so years, work by social psychologists like Susan Fiske and Mina Cikara has repeatedly demonstrated that women are perceived and evaluated on different criteria than men: not only are the same traits that are seen as positive in one (say, assertiveness in men) reconstrued as negative in the other (say, pushiness in women), but we put different relative values on different traits depending on gender,” explains Maria Konnikova. For example, author Cassandra Clare once pointed out on her Tumblr how often she’s seen the word “annoying” to describe her main female protagonist, Clary Fray. Fray, for those who haven’t read the novel, is a Harry Potter-esque character; she’s gifted with a rare ability among her kind (Shadowhunters) and takes risks to save the day in the name of her friends and family—yet this “foolish” behavior and her subsequent way of handling situations has been labeled annoying for her, but this same label is not given to the males of  YA and children’s literature who act in a similar manner. This same ideas apply to the word “charming” or charismatic,” words typically associated with leaders. I cannot count the number of times I’ve seen these words to describe boys in books–from the heroes to the villains, too! They’re princes or kings or would-be presidents, and have the attributes to match. We encourage them to be these roles; in many cases, they are born to rule. But the females of YA are almost always the unwitting leaders or symbols–they usually don’t want to be in charge, have to be encouraged or forced into that position. To reuse some of the ladies I’ve already mentioned–Celaena Sardothien, assassin extraordinaire, but brilliant enough to rule everyone if she so desired. But she is instead the sharp-mouthed, stubborn girl in a sea of boys competing to be the King’s lapdog. And her two male counterparts? Captain of the Royal Guard and none other than the Prince. Granted, these roles shift and form as the books progressed, but my point still stands: We sooner appreciate the boys’ charisma and competence while watching the female muddle along in a role she doesn’t want (but honestly, that’s another article and problem entirely).  They are not described as charismatic. The ones who could be usually get a “bossy” slapped in front of their names, instead. It’s a sad fact, but one that’s important to be aware of–especially when considering why we like the people or characters we do.

Now, this is all well and good to think about, but does it really change the fact that I still prefer mostly male characters to females? No! Of course not! I’m still trash for the utterly cliched gold-skin-tousled-hair-absurd-eye-color-charming-smile combo that is the quintessential YA male character. However, that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t also appreciate the flawed female characters in all of their stubborn, realistic glory. I just can’t wait for the day I start seeing more males portrayed in a similar manner.

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