Speaking a couple of years ago, British writer and journalist Caitlin Moran, reflecting on the benefit of having read primarily women writers when growing up, said this, in addressing young female readers: “I hugely recommend that girls, if you’re feeling a bit weird about yourselves, just give yourselves a year off from reading male writers writing about women and just read women writers writing about women. You know, we talk to each other; we know what’s really going on. Men still see us as these mad cartoons to be laid… [whereas women writers] will nourish your souls and bone.”
It may be fair to note, Moran largely references here a time period — and perhaps genres — in which the male gaze prevails. A term coined by film theorist Laura Mulvey in 1975, the ‘male gaze’ refers, of course, to circumstances in which female characters in film and literature are presented to provide pleasure to masculine, heterosexual males. Moran cites the example of Raymond Chandler, known for his misogynistic representations of women in his work. Sample quotes include: “From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class. From 10 feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away.” (in The High Window, 1942). And “She gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket.” (in Farewell, My Lovely, 1940). As Moran acknowledges, these are clever, snappy lines – but undeniably objectifying and reductive representations of the women, who rarely appear elsewhere in Chandler’s works as well-rounded characters.
Has literary representation of women changed since, say, the 1940s? That may be hard to gauge. Again, a lot depends on the genre, and there’s always a degree of subjectivity. However, in terms of the ‘space’ and prominence given to female authors and to female characters in published literature, the picture appears bleak.
Around a similar time to Moran’s above-mentioned interview, research was undertaken by the Universities of Illinois and Berkeley into the changing significance of gender in fiction, particularly the characterisation of women. It asked whether depiction of female characters has changed from the end of the eighteenth century to the early 21st, examining 104,000 works of fiction that dated from 1780 up to 2007. The researchers did find that differences in language used to describe fictional men and women has become less marked, or less ‘gendered’, in the past 170 years. Yet they also found:
a. decline in the proportion of fiction written by women (from women comprising half of published authors to around one quarter today), and
b. the number of female characters in literature (women or girls) also dropping significantly.
In fiction books by men, the study found, women occupy around a quarter to one third of the character-space, on average. In fiction by women, the gender representation is much
closer to equal – though bear in mind, as noted above, women authors write only around twenty-five per cent of literary publications. Commenting in a Guardian newspaper write-up of the research, Kate Mosse, novelist and founder of the UK’s Women’s prize for fiction, noted that: “When we were setting up the prize, we discovered that when a book by a woman won a prize, it was more likely to have a male protagonist.” Interesting.
Concerningly, this is a trend that appears to start early. A different Guardian article reported in 2019 on research on the current top 100 illustrated children’s books, which showed that male characters dominate. They found a child 1.6 times more likely to read one of the most popular children’s publications featuring a male rather than a female lead, for example (and, even more notably, only five of the children’s bestsellers featured a BAME character in a main role – a separate but related topic, and a significant one).
This matter appears to have a relation to the post on ‘women’s fiction’ that I blogged about in April, here. Roughly speaking, fiction by men and featuring male central characters is for everyone, whereas fiction by women and featuring female central characters is regarded as being for women readers. A very crude analysis, I acknowledge, and we can certainly name exceptions — but personally, I think there is some germ of truth in it.
What do you think?
Has the representation of women in fiction changed?
Why are women authors and novels with female central characters evidently published less?
And what recommendations would you make to young and teen-age girls about their choices of reading, in relation to gender?
Caitlin Moran, My Life In Objects | The Director’s Cut | Women We Love’, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=trUquBZabdM, June 30 2018.
Underwood, William & Bamman, David & Lee, Sabrina. (2018). ‘The Transformation of Gender in English-Language Fiction’. 10.31235/osf.io/fr9bk.
Alison Flood ‘Women better represented in Victorian novels than modern, finds study’ in The Guardian, 19 February 2018 https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/feb/19/women-better-represented-in-victorian-novels-than-modern-finds-study.
Donna Ferguson, ‘’Highly concerning’: picture books bias worsens as female characters stay silent’ in The Guardian, 13 June 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/jun/13/highly-concerning-picture-books-bias-worsens-as-female-characters-stay-silent.
Main image Jordan McDonald on Unsplash
Victoria Priessnitz on Unsplash