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The Problem with Female Protagonists

Photo by Flickr user bDom [1]
Photo by Flickr user bDom

A few months ago, I read a fascinating article [2] on the Stuff You Missed in History Class blog. After receiving innumerable complaints about their podcast which boiled down to either “you talk about women too much” or “you only talk about women”, Tracy Wilson went back over the episodes they’d produced and put together graphs showing the breakdown between episodes focused on men, women, and ungendered events. You can see the results here [2]. But, unsurprisingly, (spoiler alert!) they showed that stories about women made up roughly 30% of their content.

Those results tie directly into the recent research that shows that men talk significantly more than women in a mixed group, but women are perceived as being more talkative and taking up more time. There are various explanations for this disparity between objective reality and perception, from old-fashioned sexism [3] to differences in male and female speaking style [4]s. Whatever the reason, however, it’s safe to say that the old “truism” about women talking three times as much as men is exactly the opposite of truth.

I was reminded of both these things a few days ago when my nine-year-old son asked, “Why do we only ever read books with girl main characters?”

Now, as a mother of two boys, I take particular care to make sure that the books I read to them feature a mix of male and female protagonists. For every Charlie and the Chocolate Factory there’s a Matilda. For every Harry Potter there’s a Wrinkle in Time. So my first reaction was to feel pleased that my attempt to provide gender-equality in our shared stories was working.

We’ve just finished reading Catherynne M. Valente’s glorious novel The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her own Making, starring September — a twelve-year-old girl from Omaha who travels to Fairyland– and have moved directly on to Barbara O’Connor’s How to Steal a Dog, starring Georgina — a young girl living in a car with her mother and little brother when they suddenly find themselves homeless. I don’t remember what we read before that, but after my moment of pride, I fell into doubt. Have I pushed the pendulum too far and deprived my son of his heroic male role-models.

So I took my son by the hand and went to find out whether his assertion that we mostly (because “always” was clearly an exaggeration) read about female protagonists was true.

We took all his novels out of his bookcase, and sorted them into three piles based on the protagonist’s gender: ensemble (eg. The Wishing Tree), male, and female. And that’s when I discovered something interesting. Despite my concerns that I’d overdone it with the girl characters, and despite my conscious intention to provide a 50/50 split, only 27% of his books have a female protagonist, compared to 65% with a male protagonist.

So that was my son’s question answered. Not only don’t we “always” read books about girls, we don’t even mostly read books about girls.

Curious, I went through my own bookshelves. I fared even worse, with only 24% having a female protagonist. Again, I was shocked. I make a concerted effort to ensure that I seek out books with female protagonists. How did this happen?

And that brings us back to the studies I mentioned at the beginning of this article. Research shows that both men and women overestimate the amount of time women speak in a mixed group compared to men. In fact, when a science teacher specifically provided equal talking time to both male and female students in his class as part of an experiment, everyone involved perceived that the girls were given 90% of his time and attention. Including the teacher himself.

So maybe the same thing happens with books.

Here’s the problem with female protagonists: There aren’t enough of them.

And we don’t even notice it.

As a society, we’re absolutely dreadful at judging the comparative airtime for male and female voices. I’ve seen forums where people name ten or twenty classic novels with female protagonists, as though that’s proof that there are “plenty” of good books “for girls”. But what they’re not including is the hundreds and thousands of books with male protagonists as a comparison.

It happens when people talk about movies, too. (Visited the comments section on an article about the new Ghostbusters movie recently?) Naming a couple of films with female leads doesn’t prove anything — we’re living in a world where over 70% of the lead characters in films are male [5], and even in movies with female protagonist such as Frozen and The Hunger Games, male characters speak more than female characters [6].

I don’t know how to fix any of this. It’s a huge issue, and goes beyond everyday sexism and into our ability to even perceive everyday sexism. All I can do is be aware of it, and actively seek out books with female protagonists. And, of course, write books with female protagonists.

It’s not just girls who need fictional female role-models; it’s everyone.

Do you consciously try to find a balance between male and female protagonists in the books you read and write? How do the books on your bookshelf stack up?


About Jo Eberhardt [7]

Jo Eberhardt is a writer of speculative fiction, mother to two adorable boys, and lover of words and stories. She lives in rural Queensland, Australia, and spends her non-writing time worrying that the neighbor's cows will one day succeed in sneaking into her yard and eating everything in her veggie garden.