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I’ve always been curious as to whether women feel represented by their portrayal as characters. Since “Hey, Lucy, I’ve got some mansplaining to do” would not be a popular start to my column, I sought help via social media and email from my female friends for their thoughts on the subject. Although the specifics of their answers vary, the trends are clear: they think women’s portrayals are improving, but regardless of the genres or styles they read, they find that their fictional counterparts still need work.
Years of reading books and watching movies that lacked meaningful female presence sent Fun Home graphic novelist Alison Bechdel on a similar quest, so she introduced a yardstick that has become known as the Bechdel test. It asks (1) that a film or fictional story has at least two named women; (2) that these women talk to each other; and (3) that they talk about something other than a man. It’s not an unreasonable starting point, but my respondents show that women want to leap over the bar of minimal benchmarks.
My sampling included many librarians but also friends met in several other walks of life. The first thing that strikes me is how few of them regard women’s fiction as one of their primary reading interests. Those who did mention women’s fiction specifically often had critical things to say, that the women in these stories lacked adequate diversity, were “whiny,” and “always created their own problems.”
Perhaps the most common critique was one that we hear about all fictional characters, that they are one-dimensional types instead of full-blown people. Mary Sue heroines, wicked stepmothers, and the manic pixie dream girls of fanboy fantasies need not apply. The women that women want to read about should be neither entirely good nor absolutely evil. Readers want women with strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures. They should want things but don’t have to get everything they want.
My respondents are tiring of “kickass” heroines who find strength by imitating men. Having read too many fictional women who reach the top by becoming hardened caricatures of misogynistic men, women want to see more heroines who succeed with feminine behavior. They know women who are strong without bullying, violence, crassness, or domination, and they want those role models in their fiction, too. They want a big increase in women who succeed without fitting outdated standards of beauty. They want more middle-aged and elderly female characters, preferably some that aren’t dying, divorcing, or on a midlife bender. They want women with a variety of body types and women who come from different ethnic backgrounds.
Women see through labels that don’t match the story. They’ve seen too many “strong” women who behave like damsels in distress, “smart” women who make one dumb mistake after another, and “independent” women who spend the whole story pining over men or reacting to others. They want parents who actually parent; career women who pursue advancement and work toward goals with focus; and women with hobbies, interests, and aspirations beyond relationships, shopping, or their appearance.
Women aren’t amused by the old “comedy” of bimbos and airheads without a baseline of mental or emotional intelligence, women who one respondent deemed “too stupid to live.” They want to see women participate in decision making with men instead of being passive manipulators in the background.
Women’s relationships still need more breadth. Readers want a variety of relationships for female characters, not just romantic relationships or traditional female friendships that focus on talking about men, raising children, and pursuing beauty. Especially important is that female characters have their own narrative arcs and don’t just exist to motivate men’s love interests, as a fantasy solution to a broken man’s problems, or as the victim of the violence that spurs him into action.
Women still care about accuracy. Several noted that they are tired of historical women who behave in ways that don’t fit their historical milieu, who magically escape the limits that were typical for women in their time. They believe there are ways for these women to matter and to exhibit strength within the context of historical realities.
As a readers’ advisor, I’m going to take all of this great information and apply it to the books (and films) I’m promoting. I hope you’ll join me in applying this filter to your own list of frequent recommendations. Authors who make my short list for great female characters include Elizabeth Strout, Tana French, Margaret Drabble, N. K. Jemisin, Amy Stewart, Jennifer Egan, Lois McMaster Bujold, Sharon Bolton, Elizabeth Hand, Toni Morrison, Courtney Milan, Tawni O’Dell, Margaret Atwood, Octavia E. Butler, Karin Slaughter, and Kristin Hannah. Make sure you have your own go-to picks for diverse women.
As a man in the library field, I know the debt I owe to inspiring women. Thanks to Alicia Ahlvers, Catherine Bond, Amy Peitz Bunn, Anneliese Bush, Ginny Catanese, Tabor Chapman, Kara Dennison, Brenda Epling, Jenny Farley, Amy Gornikiewicz, Nanci Milone Hill, Sharon Hollands, Jennifer Holliday, Barbara Jones, Kirsten Koch, Jennifer Kuncken, Monica Marier, Sara Meldrum, Allison Heinbaugh Norfolk, Emma Pruss, Linda Marley Smith, Leona Wisoker, and Jessica Zellers for informing this column, and thanks to the many wonderful women who inspire my thinking about books, reading, and life every day.
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