How to avoid gender stereotyping

Last time we looked at how to avoid racial stereotypes in fiction writing. Now let’s take a look at gender stereotypes.

What are gender stereotypes?

Many writers falter when trying to write characters of whose genders are different from their own. Even Margaret Atwood, a writer who I deeply admire, has this problem at times. In her book The Robber Bride, the primary characters, three women, are all rich, complex characters. Their male partners, by contrast, are a bunch of shallow, selfish morons who easily fall for the charms of the book’s female villain. Male writers frequently struggle with the same problem, writing women who blather about shoes and makeup, making clichéd remarks like “men are idiots.” These are not characters. These are bland collections of traits which we associate with one gender or another. Granted, these characters don’t offend many people, as stereotypical depictions are so familiar as to be invisible, but neither will anyone see these as memorable characters. We know the stereotypical traits of gender; we’ve been learning them since before we we knew how to talk. If you want to make a nuanced character, we need to know more than what gender they are.

Want a tip on how to write characters who don’t share your gender? Remember that they’re people. Obvious, I know, but this seems to be the stumbling block for a lot of writers. This is especially true of male writers creating casts which include a token “girl character” whose only distinct traits are “girl stuff.” Yet writing characters of other genders is not mysterious, and requires no special knowledge. The fact is, most of us don’t live lives completely defined by gender. Few of us walk around thinking, “well, since I am a woman, I’d better make sure I do plenty of woman stuff today.” No, we simply go about our business and don’t think about our gender unless it becomes relevant for one reason or another. A female character who only thinks about “girl stuff” is as cartoonish as Popeye’s friend Wimpy, whose every thought is of hamburgers.

So, when approaching this problem, make sure you aren’t just slapping a gender on your character and calling it a day. Pay close attention to the traits you’re using: is your male character a lazy husband, square-jawed hero, or brutish thug? Is your female character a ditzy shopaholic, or a menopausal crank, or a flirty secretary? If your characters fall into these sorts of deeply gendered categories, chances are that they lack anything in the way of unique personality traits (things outside of the realm of stereotypical gender roles) which could make them stand out.

Breaking expectations

This is not to say that one should never write characters who conform to gender expectations. That wouldn’t make sense. What’s important is to remember that gender is a spectrum, and that few, if any, people fall entirely into one category. Look at Indiana Jones: in most ways he’s the archetypal male action hero, an embodiment of masculinity if ever there was one. But he has a weakness: he’s afraid of snakes. This is generally played to humorous effect, but it also humanizes him in an important way. Imagine an Indiana Jones who’s not afraid of snakes: he would be a character with practically no vulnerabilities at all, just another dude who gets the treasure, kills the bad guy, and lives to do it again. Snake-fearing is Indy’s one not-so-manly trait, and he’s stronger for it. So will your characters be stronger if you allow them a few traits outside of the gender mold.

Gender and self-image

That said, don’t forget that gender does affect peoples’ worldviews. A man and a woman of similar backgrounds and motivations will nonetheless have very different lives. Likewise, people deal with the elements of their personalities which are contrary to their prescribed gender differently. Does a male character hide a love of flowers out of a desire to appear manly? Does a female character question her identity when her friends don’t share her fascination for robotics? Does a scrawny male character covet the rippling muscles of a bodybuilder, ashamed of how he measures up? Just as we all approach gender slightly differently, each of us has a unique relationship to our own gender role, and this must be taken into account in the construction of a complex character.

This is not to imply that you must always write characters who are angsty about their genders. Just remember to let the issue come up if it seems relevant to your story, and know how your character stands on the issue. Don’t take the lazy way and declare that all your characters are completely accepting of their gender roles. Consider their positions carefully, even if you don’t intend to make gender part of your story. (Indiana Jones stories aren’t about gender, but as we’ve discussed, the issue is still relevant to the character.)

And a quick note on GLBT+ issues

Like everyone else, GLBT+ people are just people, and can fall anywhere on the gender spectrum. Gay men are not necessarily girly and flamboyant. Lesbians are not necessarily muscular car mechanics. Don’t make the all-too-common mistake of making the “gay character” embody tons of opposite-gender stereotypes. In fact, don’t think of them as gay characters at all; they are first and foremost characters, and homosexuality is just one of presumably many fascinating character traits.

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