Gender and Literature

Hearts and Stars

In case I never mentioned it, I did go to college twice. In the first round I majored in beer drinking and partying and although I received straight A’s in both subjects, the University and I couldn’t agree on how to best define my pursuit into a degree program. Upon my return, five years later, I decided on a more traditional approach and majored in psychology. Having a couple of kids, a house and two jobs helped my focus. The downside to being an adult student is you don’t always have the freedom to take the courses of interest and at times you select courses that fit into your schedule rather than your preferences…see my transcript for Romantic and Victorian Literature and Chaucer in his original Middle English.

The upside is that I took courses that provided some great insights that I would never have considered. One in particular was the Psychology of Women. In my opinion, every guy who plans to date or ultimately marry a woman should consider such a course. For my final research paper I choose a social science evaluation of the objectification of women in music videos. The results were alarming.

Twenty years later, one might assume that our society is farther down the road in its portrayal of women in the media and literature. We would of course expect less from advertising. Sex and beauty sells and sales are the function of advertising. In recent months I came across a gem of a documentary on Netflix. Titled Miss Representation, the film highlights how far backwards we have traveled on gender portrayals in film, social media and politics. Having three daughters makes this topic one that grabs my attention.

Literature has always been the starting point for cultural evaluation, understanding and ultimately change. And it would seem, to my logic, that the best way to shape the minds and attitudes of our young females would be through Young Adult novels. As much of the evidence suggests, a driving force in current female objectification is self-objectification. The “selfies” (pictures we take of ourselves to post) are far more objectifying, sexualizing, and adult themed than most of what we see on television. Unfortunately, the most popular Young Adult fiction isn’t much better in terms of advancing the idea of a woman being more than a set of boobs and an attractive derriere.


The themes of these novels follow a predictable path. Strong girl engages in some conflict, she meets a boy, they struggle for interpersonal leadership, she finally trades leadership for his love, they live happily ever after. In other words the real quest for the female character is not achieving her potential, but in discovering that love is more important than equality. One could argue that the young couple achieves equality whereas such is defined as traditional roles of male leader/female adviser. Because Twilight is an easy target, I will use it as a prime example. Upon following the entire story line, what turns out to be Bella’s ultimate purpose? Still thinking…to have a baby. All that fighting, struggling and surviving and at the end of it all…she is a mother. A very important role for the survival of our species, but hardly the only role that females can or should play in society.

famale warrior

male warriorThe arguments “for” these types of books is that females love romance novels and that these are the kinds of stories females prefer to read. A fair argument, but one that ignores a simple fact. Many of the things we like, many of the ideas we hold to be true are not inherent programs of biology. They exist because individuals are socialized to accept these ideas as true or as fact. The same way you might ask for a Coke, a Kleenex or for some Vaseline – instead of cola, tissue and petroleum jelly. The labels have become synonymous with the product.

Gender role socialization begins before birth when we choose pink or blue. If you get a chance take a look at greeting cards related to welcoming a new child. Look specifically at the adjectives used for It’s a Boy vs. It’s a Girl. You will see “strong” used for boys and “sweet” used for girls and a host of other adjectives that don’t define the aspects of biology but the beliefs of our society.


MAcho boyWomen accept these roles early on and the belief extends to how they feel about one another. Clearly in the US, women are under represented in politics. Since female voters outnumber male voters, the gender inequality is the result of how women vote, not how men vote. It’s not that men don’t accept women in positions of leadership. It is that women don’t accept women in those positions. And it’s not about changing the sexuality of women. That is women who take on male characteristics do not do any better than those who maintain traditionally feminine characteristics. If you review the statements made about Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primaries, you’ll find that she was highly criticized for her looks, her clothes, for being a “bitch” etc etc. Sara Palin on the other end of the spectrum was criticized for her looks, her clothes and for being a “whore.” So Clinton was too masculine and Palin was too feminine. One might argue that “if we had the right female candidate people would vote for her.” I would argue that the “right” candidate requires the media to portray the individual fairly and without prejudice and that nothing in recent history demonstrates the ability or motivation to do so.


sara palinThis isn’t a discussion on feminism any more than it is a suggestion that we need to de-masculinize our boys. Taking away doesn’t equalize —  it oppresses. I’m not suggesting women need to throw off traditional roles or that those roles are not essential to the health and advancement of our society. I’m not suggesting that as a man I don’t suffer whiplash when an attractive female passes or that I married my wife strictly on qualities of personality. I believe much of the female power lies in male attraction and that appreciation for beauty is something that refines with age. I often tell my sons that the benefit of being in your forties is that the world becomes filled with so many more beautiful women. My point is that beauty perceptions serve a biological value, but should not define ability or societal hierarchy.

Our young women need to be socialized in a way that allows them to recognize their abilities and their value separate from the male attraction to their form. Leadership in every aspect of society is improved by female participation. Women are not more emotional than men. Both genders make 90% of their decisions based on emotion. Women are however more empathetic and sympathetic and those qualities improve decision making because they consider the whole rather than personal interest alone. I strongly believe that we need a better narrative for our daughters. Stories and literature are the best place for that narrative. Female authors, perhaps more so than their male counterparts, have the highest responsibility in creating that narrative or in deciding to acquiesce to the current girl-meets-boy girl falls in love popular mantra. The power in other words lies with them to reshape future thoughts. It is not an easy task and perhaps that is why, when a female author wants to write a story that deals with important themes, she chooses a male rather than a female character.

But I’m a guy and that’s just my perception of an experience I cannot experience. So I’m bringing in a better perspective in the tomorrow’s segment of Blogger Insights. Joining me will be Miyoko Hikiji.  Miyoko is the author of “All I Could Be: My Story as a Woman Warrior in Iraq.” It is a biographical piece that details her experiences serving in the Army. She is also a wife, mother and Christian. To further confuse the stereo-types Miyoko also studied journalism, communications, psychology, has about twelve medals and has worked as an actress and model. So in terms of representing her gender Miyoko is, in my opinion the full package, and well suited to show me where I went wrong in this article.


4 replies »

  1. Oh, I’m looking forward to reading that article. And a lot in this article resonated with me, especially since my lead character in Reborn City is female and there are a lot of YA themes in the story.
    By the way, do you find it odd that there’s a Psychology of Women course, but not one for men? Not to mention that a Psychology of Women course would also look over men’s psychology as well as women’s psychology. That’s just strange.

      • In that sense, female acquiescence to conform to feminine stereotypes is also on the decline. The only remarkable issue is that attractive women are still expected by society to somehow capitalize on their looks rather than their abilities.

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