The Importance Of Reaching Beyond Female Stereotypes

My friend and fellow editor Kat Heckenbach asked an interesting question on Facebook today which really got me thinking about stereotypes: Are authors obligated to make characters fall into certain stereotypes because readers expect it? (For example, most people think of Goths as angry, snarly, dark, and Poe-obsessed. But when referring to a little kid, they can and do use the word cute–but if a Goth character in a book said that, would it just throw you right out?)

Stereotypes are common in literature, there’s no doubt, and in Science Fiction and Fantasy this can be particularly the case, especially with female characters. Damsels in distress are a mainstay of our genres, both inside the stories/books and on the covers. Most of us have seen Jim C. Hines’ posts about the silliness of the way women are posed versus men in such art. These images feed the stereotypes. Yes, they are an attempt by publishers to sell books using sex, which has worked forever as a means of moving product, not just books. But what message do they send culturally to women, young women and, almost more importantly, men, about the roles women have to play in our society? Are they just objects for lustful stares and wet dreams? Do these images leave open  the possibility for far more substance below the surface? How silly do male characters look when dressed and posed like female characters typically are? Take a look at this imagining or Avengers with such poses.

Think I’m kidding? Take a look at two cover examples below. One is an older example, the other more recent. Do artists and publishers actually think anyone could fight dressed this way or would? It kind of questions the character’s intelligence, doesn’t it? To make it worse, in the case of Ringo’s book, the publisher site describes the character as “soccer mom and demon fighter.” Wow. A soccer mom who walked around in that outfit would be accused of indecency, wouldn’t she? Not to mention being shunned by fellow soccer moms.

For me there’s no question that bucking stereotypes is far more interesting and adds nuances. If you start out with the typical housewife who raises kids while the hubby works but then turns out to be a zombie fighting badass, how much more interesting did she just get? I think, in particular, with women characters, fantasy struggles with this. The traditional epic fantasy has strong, sweaty fighting men protecting their helpless women, but is it really that interesting anymore? And can’t we change our views of women enough to include more possibilities? Even history would demonstrate that women have played far more diverse roles than the stereotypes a male-dominated society describes them with. There has been at least one female Pope, for example, whose gender was only discovered after she became pregnant. That was hundreds of years ago and she had to conceal her identity. But this is a different age. Why should women have to hide their true selves? I’d like to think we’re more enlightened than that, but I know not all of us are.

I grew up with strong women around me. From my Mom, who was the stay at home housewife, a woman who retired from nursing to raise her three kids, to my twin sister, cousins, aunts, and grandmothers, the women I grew up with were not stereotypical. They had common traits we might associate with women, of course. They were often more emotional than men and could talk about it more freely. Most of them were better at cooking and laundry, etc. than we men. But this was not because we were incapable of it, rather it was because that was the role they were expected to take on. They took it on gladly, too, but my Mom sat me down at fourteen with a stern warning. “You’re going to learn to cook, clean, do laundry, basic sewing, and anything else I think you need so your wife can’t send you back some day and tell me you’re not finished.” And so I did learn, and those skills have been invaluable to me. In fact, when I got married, my wife didn’t know how to sew, so I was the one who fixed buttons, dog toys, etc. in our house. I also helped with cleaning. In fact, there were some tasks I really don’t enjoy which are typically associated with menlawn work, for examplewhich my wife enjoyed and did while I helped with so-called “women’s work.”

There’s a ridiculous term if I’ve ever heard one: “women’s work.” The work typically grouped under that heading is the work necessary to daily living. If you’re a bachelor, unless you’re rich, you’re going to have to do laundry, find a way to cook and eat, etc. It doesn’t make you suddenly sprout breasts and start generating estrogen. “Women’s work” is an insulting term because its origins come from a sense of superiority by men that the “important work” is not for women. Because, of course, raising good, responsible citizens while the men are at the office working sixty hour weeks is unimportant. Keeping a nice home so the man can come home and actually relax during down time is menial. We’d all survive without those things, right? Yep, without “women’s work” we’d still be the greatest country on Earth.

Hardly. Some of the most meaningful character-building times in my life were working with my mother and grandmothers on the very tasks typically called “women’s work”learning to cook, fold clothes, sew, etc. I’m a creative after all, and cooking and sewing, in particular, very much stimulate my creative impulses. Add to that the fact that walking around naked outside of performance art has tended to be frowned upon, especially if your ribs are showing like a starving African kid, and, well, they really did me a service teaching me to care for clothes and feed myself. I’m just saying…

And look at this cover for Raven 3: The Frozen God. Seriously. A woman dressed like that fighting monsters on an ice field? Oh yeah, that’s realistic. Yeah, this warrior woman is so badass, she doesn’t even freeze. Yep. The only time women in my life ever dressed this way was to go swimming, at Halloween of costume parties, or in changing rooms at the store. In fact, other than my wife, none of the women mentioned from my life in this post ever dressed this skimpily. It’s not even appropriate for the task. Unless, as my editor suggested, the only way to kill this monster is to get it aroused. Doubtful.

You just can’t stereotype women any more than you can men these days. The fact is that we are all individuals and just when you meet a women whom you think embodies all the “typical female traits,” five minutes later she’ll surprise you with aspects you never would have imagined. It used to be “men’s work” to get an education and write, for example, and where would our genres be without Ursula LeGuin, Connie Willis, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, A.C. Crispin, Leigh Brackett, C.L. Moore, and numerous others? How much would be have missed out on if the Cat Valentes, Kij Johnsons, Nnedi Okorafors, and N.K. Jemisons had never put pen to paper? Seriously. What about Ellen Datlow and Paula Guran, Beth Meacham and Liz Gorinsky, Anne Vandermeer and Sheila Williams? They buy stories from men as well as women and all are amongst the top editors in this business.

I get the whole male instinct to want to protect their women. But it’s not like those instincts don’t also exist in women. Think I’m wrong? Go to a playground and act weird around some woman’s kid. Be sure and take a picture of that black eye and get a copy of the mug shot, too, okay?

I think it’s incumbent upon all writers, male and female, to carefully consider the roles they give to characters. Yes, with minor roles, sometimes stereotypes can be expedient. And sometimes they get the job done, but push yourself to make sure that for every stereotype you employ ten characters who buck such narrow definitions. Not only will your plots and themes and work expand in scope and meaning as a necessary result, but it will resonate more profoundly with modern readers and even help erase stereotypes as functions of our culture. I can think of no greater goal and contribution Science Fiction and Fantasy writers could make, can you?

The world needs more ninjas posing as suburban housewives who save the world. It needs more mothers who don’t wait for their husbands to save the day but draw their sword or blaster and take on the kidnappers themselves, kicking ass to free their kids. Our modern world has plenty of room for men in the kitchen and sewing, too. After all, think of Top Chef and other cooking shows: Emeril Lagasse, Wolfgang Puck, Curtis Stone,  Gordon Ramsey, Calvin Klein, Bob Mackie, and Guccio Guccishould these men be considered abnormal for the excellence they’ve worked hard to create? Hardly.

As much as I applaud them for having this panel, it’s 2012. Should we really still desperately need panels like this:

(PR) Kicking ass in high heels: These days women can kick ass, save the world, and still have time to fall in love.
But why are they still doing it in hot pants and high heels? Can heroines be a size 18 and still be beautiful?

Unfortunately, we do need them, and it’s because of the perpetuation of stereotypes. Think of the other issues we could be putting our time into if we just put aside these silly limitations and moved on?

One of the worst insults I got in a review was a review which said I had “shockingly outdated female roles.” This was for a story where I have female political leaders, female starfighter pilots, female warriors, female military leaders, and so on. I thought I was trying hard to break the molds, and yet here comes a reviewer to tell me I hadn’t done enough. I still think they’re wrong, but, at the same time, it pushes me to strive harder, to ask more questions, and to do everything I can to prove them wrong so I never hear such a disappointing criticism again. After all,  my Mom reads my books. I don’t want her thinking I didn’t learn a thing from all her efforts. But more than that, I don’t want my daughters and other girls who read my books to ever think I’m telling them they can’t be anything they want to be.

The world may set limits, but in the worlds of your fiction, possibilities are limitless. Don’t let yourself write within the familiar box of the world in which you live. Instead, tear down the walls and shoot for something no one’s seen but should be seeing. Push the boundaries and see where it takes you, your characters and your story. Let no one accuse us of writing the same old fantasy or space opera. Instead, let us together launch a new age and work to redefine what “same old” is. To my mind, we owe it to our wives, mothers, sisters and daughters to open the world’s doors. After all, making the world a better place is a responsibility for all of us, not just a “chosen male few.” We live in an age when the distinction between what women can do for careers and what men can do is fading to almost nothing. How can our fiction represent our times and a bright future if it doesn’t reflect that?

For what it’s worth…

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novels The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Book Clubs Year’s Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, andThe Returning, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and has several short stories featured  in anthologies and magazines.  He edited the new anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 for Flying Pen Press, headlined by Mike Resnick. His children’s book 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Jokes For Kids from Delabarre Publishing. As  a freelance editor, he’s edited a novels and nonfiction.  He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. A frequent contributor to Adventures In SF PublishingGrasping For The Wind and SFSignal, he can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.

18 thoughts on “The Importance Of Reaching Beyond Female Stereotypes

  1. *headdesk* I just wrote out this meaningful comment, and because I goofed when I went to post, I lost the whole thing. I’ll try to rewrite it. In the meantime, great article. I agree.

    1. Sometimes you can backspace when that happens and recapture. Sorry about that. It’s happened to me.

  2. Your comment about why we have to keep having to have panels like Kicking Ass in High Heels reminds me of a comment from Joss Whedon:

    “Q: So, why do you write these strong female characters?
    A: Because you’re still asking me that question.”

    Spec fic influences society more than people realize. Star Trek pushed the boundaries of race. The first interracial kiss on tv was between Kirk and Uhura on ST. Shocking back then, but it helped change the media perspective. Now we need to do more in portraying strong women and strong men, and I don’t mean just physically strong, though they can be, but also strong in attitude and convictions.

    Herald Myste from Exile’s Honor is plump, can’t see well without thick lenses, and can barely fight. But she is a stubborn researcher and has a firm sense of duty. She insists on going to the final battle with the other Heralds despite her physical weaknesses and the fact that she’s terrified of the fighting (knowing full well the horrors of battle from the Chronicles), because she knows they will need her knowledge. And they did. Without her, the outcome would have been vastly different from several key moments.

    Herald Alberich is her physical opposite, yet he sees the value in who she is and the reason for her choices, so she can admit her fears to him, the only person besides her Companion she tells them to at all. The two of them make a powerful example of how strong men and women can be written.

    (Much different after the quote from my first attempt, but not bad.)

    1. You know, Jaleh, one of my issues with the glut of antiheroes is that lack of conviction. They don’t believe in anything worth admiring and barely anything at all often. It drives me nuts. I fell in love with scifi as a kid because of the possibilities, especially the possibility one person can rise above his or her frailties and make a better world. Yes, most people don’t live by the strict morals some do, but those are no the only heroes. And at the same time, what’s wrong with having heroes be heroic and admirable at the same time? They should be convicted about things we can admire and agree with, not just fighting to overcome their own demons so they can win the day. To me, moral strength and strength of character are key missing elements from much of the antihero stuff being written today. And it’s to the genres’ loss. It’s become the “only real way” in many people’s minds. I write old fashioned heroes for that very reason. And yes, I think strength and sexiness, etc. for men and women comes from more than just physical attributes and it is time to emphasize both, absolutely. Maybe even to emphasize that internal stuff over the external. It’s still a fact though that people prefer movies with attractive people in them to movies with ordinary-looking or even less attractive people, and I’d tend to think book covers will reflect that as long as it’s the case, so physical will play some role. How much and how that’s depicted is what needs to be reexamined to me.

  3. Loved the article. I am a female author and I like to break the stereotype that is portrayed all the time. Feel free to check out my books on if you want to read something that is empowering for woman and at the same time not demeaning to men.

  4. One of the things that has always frustrated me is that we have women who are military (me being a former war vet), and we still get books with stereotypes and horrible covers. Yes, sex sells, but honestly, Clive Cussler’s books are for men, too. How come those don’t have a picture of a woman on the cover? I think the publishers saying it’s marketing is a cop out. More likely, they haven’t figured out how to sell fantasy and sci-fi like they have thrillers, so they took the easy road.

    1. I think it depends on a lot of factors, Linda. You have the tropes, as I mentioned, of course, but you also have the fact that some author’s books sell without much marketing, like John Grisham, whose covers also tend to have no people on them, at least for his legal thrillers. With scifi, action is so key to readership a lot of times, so depicting people doing something is helpful. And fantasy, being so character driven, typically, also tends to have people on the cover for marketing. So traditionally both have always had people. It’s how those people are depicted I find myself objecting to anymore.

  5. Just a note for a couple of people whose comments I have not approved: keep it family friendly and no trolling. If I feel your comment is stepping over the bounds of taste or attacking anyone, I just won’t post it. I realize this is a contentious issue. I believe I make that clear in my post. I also welcome dialogue. But I want dialogue with a respectful tone please. Thanks.

  6. Well, Bryan, I’m honored that the question I posed inspired such a cool blog post! I agree–women stereotypes need to be broken. And good for your mom! I love that–that she wanted to make sure your wife didn’t call you “unfinished.” That’s priceless. I’m trying to do the same for my son, teaching him how to do his own laundry, cooking, etc. I’m also, though, teaching him to be a gentleman–I think chivalry has its place. It’s not a sign that a man thinks a woman is weak if he holds the door for her, it’s a sign that he respects her :). Okay, that’s a sidestep from your post….

    The images you chose remind me of pics I’ve seen online for “pointless armor.” (You can Google that term, but be prepared to cover your eyes :P.)

    Anyway, it’s funny, and awesome, that my little comment has spawned such a discussion. I wouldn’t have thought of it in this light. I don’t write the kinds of stories where these types of stereotypes come into play. But I have a Goth girl, and a teen boy who’s a jock–I break his stereotype as well, btw. And an Elven guy who is nothing like a standard fantasy trope. I’m beginning to see a pattern….

  7. Good post, Bryan. You make some great points. I see a couple of problems with the idea of writing strong women, not that we shouldn’t write them just that there are some real pitfalls to avoid. A lot of writers equate strength with physical prowess and weapon skills. You end up with men-with-breasts characters instead of real women when you aren’t careful. If your female lead is anything but kick-butt fighter, she’s weak. Not true. Society needs to accept that strength comes in many forms.

    And women’s work? Yes, very important and not demeaning to be a stay-at-home mom. And yet, these are the women we scorn as weak and stupid. Caring for children is hard work. I’ve spent many years of my life dealing with my kids and doing the housework while my husband brought home the paychecks because we felt it was important not to let daycare raise our children.

    I’m watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer again. Lots of fun dialogue and strong female characters. Buffy can fight anything, true, but her real concern is that her friends have a good time at prom and that she can look pretty in her new dress. It’s her heart and convictions that make her strong, not her fighting skills. Look at the character Faith for contrast. She lost her convictions and became weak, though physically she stayed strong.

    We also have to be careful that we don’t emasculate the men in the story in order to make the women appear stronger. It can be a tough balancing act.

    For me, I let my characters be characters first, men and women second. Different strengths and weaknesses make for more interesting stories and characters.

    1. Let me be clear, Jaleta, strength comes in many forms for BOTH men and women. The macho male hero who never cries or falters in bravery is as much of a negative reinforcing stereotype as anything. What I’m calling for when I say “strength” is strength in many forms, not just muscular or physical but also mental and many other aspects. I guess my point is the helpless damsel is far from the norm most times these days and a too often employed trope throughout SFF history. But you’re right to suggest there are differences in how strength is manifest in people of opposite genders often as well as how it’s dealth with and displayed emotionally, etc.

  8. Speaking of stereotypes–my agent just told me that publishers won’t buy my military memoir because the typical military memoir reader doesn’t want to read about a woman. Here I thought I broke the stereotype 34 years ago, in the first class of women at the Air Force Academy, and throughout my career as a pilot. Loved your line “This was for a story where I have female political leaders, female starfighter pilots, female warriors, female military leaders, and so on.”
    So this is not just an issue in fiction, but also in non-fiction. We need to persuade readers and publishers to just open the book.

    1. Yeah, I thought I was bucking the stereotypes. It blew my mind the reviewer said that. Of course, the same reviewer also mixed up character names, used the wrong name for the world, etc. I had to write her editor to get that corrected and ask if the reviewer actually bothered to read the book. They fixed the errors but left the criticism. So I don’t take it seriously as a particularly valid review. I had several female readers who were totally blown away by that comment. They beta read for me and liked the story a lot. But I still don’t like having a national magazine known for reviews listed misrepresenting my book. As you point out, actually cracking the cover’s a good idea. And the stereotypes we think are gone are often far from it. All we can do is do our best to break them as much as we can and hope publishing and readers catch up with us.

  9. Dear Bryan, I love you.

    Now, back to writing, here’s something helpful about stereotypes that I read somewhere and it’s awesome: for major characters, avoid stereotypes. For minor ones, employ them. Example: walk-ons in scenes should for the most part be stereotypical, because they’re not there to steal the scene. They’re background in presenting an idea, a mood, etc. This they can do by presenting an easily-recognizable figure (i.e. stereotype). If you make them too unique, they draw the reader’s attention away from the point.

    But with a main character(s), of course stereotyping would be the kiss of death.

    One last thing? In the documentary “Missrepresentation,” it was said that media is largely created by and for young men (18-34). Hence the Ass Warrior on the Raven cover.

    1. Well, Lynne, you’re right. And stereotyping walk-ons is easy and smart. Since they’ll never be developed, it makes them easily identifiable, but I do think it behooves one to pick acceptable stereotypes. You wouldn’t want to use a racist or demeaning choice, in other words. Now the exception might be in comedy where it could be exploited for silliness. Still, I think the best way to make developed characters (antagonist, protagonist, keys supporting cast) without stereotyping is to look at them as individuals and develop their individualism. If they are unique, it’s pretty hard to stereotype them. They might have some stereotypical traits. Stereotypes developed for a reason. Lots of men have passion for cars and car repair. Doesn’t mean every man does but it’s not wrong to add that to a character. But for every stereotypical trait, try and give them something that isn’t. He loves working on his car in his spare time but he also loves cooking gourmet meals for guests and entertaining and his presentation and cooking rival a restaurant. Hey, now that’s more interesting. What about a woman who doesn’t cook and hates doing laundry but does enjoy perfumes, makeup and nice clothes. Maybe she also is a crack sniper or maybe she’s a race car driver. Lots of options.

      1. It’s easy to confuse stereotypes and archetypes. Screen plays will have walk-ons and maybe stereotypes, but written word should make every character count. That usually means filling some aspect of an archetypical character. As Bryan says, those characters can break the stereotype and still fulfill the role of their archetype.

        1. You know, Anne Marie, good point. I think one of the things about people is that we just can’t be stereotyped. If you break down a stereotype and the core elements, some people will fit in many categories, but none of them will exactly match all the core elements of any one category. People are just too unique and individual for that. That’s why writing characters as individuals is such a valuable tool.

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