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Gender Bias: Fact or Fiction?

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By Flickr’s Michael Coghlan

Lest you think I’m a “man-hating feminist,” let me assure you I am not. In fact, I like to think that in my day-to-day life mine is a pretty equal world—all things considered. But when I hear things that make me think that women aren’t equal (for whatever reason), I pay attention. And we’ve all seen the tweets about gender inequality in the publishing industry: the rumors (and more) that men are more published than women; that more men’s books are reviewed than women’s books; even that there are better roles for women than men in movies.

It’s something I acknowledge—it’s there—but to be honest, I never really give it much thought on a daily basis. I certainly never let it preoccupy my time. And it would never, ever discourage me from writing. And so I’ve never considered blogging about it… until three things happened, three things that brought it into focus, that made me want to find out more.

Those three things.

  1. My latest WIP. One of my beta readers was an Army veteran who was incredibly helpful in my research about the Vietnam War. When I gave him my manuscript to read, he said, “This is the first book I’ve ever read that was written by a woman.” The first book he’d ever read that was written by a woman. (He’s over 70, and he’s a big reader.) That was troubling enough. But what he said next really gave me pause: “I’m afraid I won’t be able to relate.” Because it was written by a woman.
  1. A casual comment by a friend. We were talking about one of my main characters—a man—and she asked me, “How would you even know how to write from a man’s point of view?” That surprised me. She surprised me. How would I know? Are male writers asked the same thing? Do you think Jeffrey Eugenides’s friends ask him how he knows how to write from an intersex POV? How would he even know how to do that? I never answered my friend, by the way. Not because I was offended. But I just didn’t know how.
  1. Something I read about Gone Girl—the movie. No, this post won’t become about Gone Girl. In fact, I’ll just come out and say it: I wasn’t a huge fan of the book or the movie, but that’s not the point. The point is that the article about Gone Girl (on Forbes.com [2]) made me like it a whole lot more. That Gone Girl has an abundance of strong female characters—characters with real substance—and the story passes the Bechdel Test, which is (surprisingly) unusual in today’s movie industry. (That said, I do find other aspects of the novel/movie problematic for feminism and our world in general.)

[pullquote]A movie passes the Bechdel Test if it “features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. The requirement that the two women must be named is sometimes added.”[/pullquote]

What’s the Bechdel Test?

I’ll admit I’d never heard of the Bechdel Test [3] until I read the article. So I looked it up. It’s not without its critics, by the way, but according to Wikipedia, a movie passes the Bechdel Test if it “features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. The requirement that the two women must be named is sometimes added.”

There’s a test. Hmmm. My first thought was to wonder if there was a similar test for male characters (more about that later). My second thought was how ridiculous. Of course women talk about more than just men in most movies (and books). Then I started thinking about my own manuscripts, and I realized they squeak by—barely. I’d give myself a solid C on the Bechdel Test. Next I started thinking about books I’ve read. I just finished a book that would fail miserably. It had three main characters, all men. The women in the story were all supporting characters (girlfriends, wives, mothers, grandmothers), and they never talked about anything but the men and their problems. And the women weren’t named. To be completely fair, only one of the characters in the book had a name at all (of course it was a man).

To see a list of movies that pass (and fail) the Bechdel test, follow this link to the Bechdel Test site. [4]

Anyway, I digress.

Those three things got me thinking, and I decided to find some answers, do some research. Is there really a gender gap? Are men more represented in fiction, as published writers, as reviewed writers, as characters? Here are the answers I found—as much as I could find in a couple of hours of web research. I want to go on record as saying that in no way is this a scientific study and I didn’t do an exhaustive search. And—I say this in all honesty as a journalist by training—my opinions are skewed by who I am [5].

1. Do more men than women get books published?

In a word, yes. To be fair, I’ll say that as of 2010 they did. In fall of 2010, The New Republic [6] looked at catalogs from thirteen publishing houses (both small and large). They counted how many published books were by men and how many were by women. Only the Penguin imprint Riverhead came close to equality: 55 percent of books by men and 45 percent by women. Random House came in second: 37 percent by women. Three publishers came in around 30 percent; the rest were at 25 percent or below.

Interestingly, VIDA (Women in Literary Arts)—an organization that does an annual study on women in publishing—says that in 2013 for Young Adult and children’s books, the picture is a very different [7]—where women dominate.

As for self-publishing, I looked and couldn’t easily find the division by sex. (Maybe someone who’s commenting knows? I’m very curious, actually.) But I did find this: last year Amazon.com released news that about 25 percent of its 2012 U.S. Kindle Top 100 list were self-published and indie authors and that of those 25 books, twelve were from indie or self-published women writers (15 if you count E.L. James’ three Fifty Shades books, which started with a self-published e-book).

2. Do more male writers than female writers have books reviewed in major publications?

Again, yes.

In fact, for some publications, by more than 4 to 1 (according to the VIDA Count that looks at major book reviewers like The New York Review of Books, The Atlantic, Paris Review, The New Yorker, London Review of Books, Harper’s Magazine). Every year, they find that male writers’ books are more reviewed—by far—than female writers’ books. That said, for 2013 the VIDA report [8] did give some good news: things have started to shift in The Paris Review and New York Times book review. But books written by men are more reviewed than books written by women (perhaps at least partially because more books by men are published?).

3. Are there more male than female characters?

Androcentrism [9] is alive and well (“the practice, conscious or otherwise, of placing male human beings or the masculine point of view at the center of one’s view of the world and its culture and history”). Two researchers did a seven-year sample of Caldecott award-winning books and top selling children’s books in 2001, and found “an under-representation of female characters.”

Another example of androcentric bias is the fairly-universal use of masculine language—“he” for both men and women or “hi guys” as a universal greeting—which some social scientists believe leads to a masculine bias and a potential for marginalization of women.

And now back to Gone Girl (I’m liking that book and movie more and more by the way) because it’s in the minority with its strong roles for women. The Geena Davis Institute of Gender in Media [10], says that in the U.S., 70.8 percent of speaking roles were male and 83 percent of narrators were male. (Other countries do better. In South Korea films, for example, 50 percent of lead characters are women.)

The Institute says it’s not just about equity: “Research reveals that the percentage of female speaking characters in top-grossing movies has not meaningfully changed in roughly half a century. Further, women are often stereotyped and sexualized when they are depicted in popular content.”

(By the way, I’m not even covering what I found out about readers judging female characters more harshly—like anger being viewed as a positive in a man, a negative in a woman—that’s a whole other blog post.)

4. Finally… I got curious after learning about the Bechdel Test, and I wondered…Is there a test similar to the Bechdel test for men?

No. Not that I could find. I looked for about twenty minutes and didn’t find anything, but I found this great post on Huffington Post [11] about twelve great books that pass the Bechdel Test.

So there you have it.

I’m not drawing any conclusions, not casting any stones—although to be honest, things seem a lot more biased than I expected them to be. Still, no soapbox. I’m just satisfying my curiosity. (And maybe yours.) But, you can bet that from now on I’ll be sure that everything I write passes the Bechdel Test. Because—you know—women don’t just talk about men. And we do have names.

Do you think men have the edge over women in publishing or writing? Does it bother you? And if you’ve had personal experiences, too, we’d love to hear them.

About Julia Munroe Martin [12]

Julia Munroe Martin [13] (@jmunroemartin [14]) is a writer and blogger who lives in an old house in southern coastal Maine. Julia's other passion is photography, and if she's not writing at the dining room table or a local coffeeshop, you'll likely find her on the beach or dock taking photos. Julia writes The Empty Nest Can Be Murder mystery series as J. M. Maison.