Overthinking it: Gender Roles of Men and Women in Fiction

Hello Friends!! I wrote a post on Unlikeable Characters: Why is likability Even a Question? a couple of weeks ago, and it sparked another topic that had me thinking. So today, I am questioning the gender roles of men and women in fiction. Now, this wasn’t something I have put a lot of thought into till now. Here I am overthinking it and talking about those expected behaviors and attitudes of men and women in fiction.

Again I am inspired to write this post after reading Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay. She talks about the gender roles of men and women in fiction, and she gave me a bit to think about that.

I asked about the likeability of male characters and if we found them more likeable than female characters in my post for unlikeable characters. Jonetta commented that we, as women, hold women to higher standards than men and thought it was a case of conditioning. Lindsay also commented on that. I asked myself a few questions do I judge women more harshly and question their motivates more than men

I am reading Ordinary Hazards (Hardcover) by Anna Bruno right now, and this quote from a female character had me thinking more about likeability in characters.

“It’s a man’s prerogative to be liked. Women are sometimes respected, sometimes admired, sometimes adored, but they aren’t liked, not really”

Gay talks about how gender roles can be a performance and questions if we have become trapped, expecting women and men to perform their gender. Have I come to expect men and women to play their roles in fiction? In thrillers have I come to expect women to be portrayed as either catty, evil, manipulative, not to be trusted, or helpless to disadvantages and grounded by cruelty and violence of men. Then in some twist or turn to the story, become strong, brave women. Thrillers have become more of a miss than hits lately for me, and I am starting to wonder if gender roles play a part in that for me.

Have we become conditioned on what we expected from male and female characters’ behaviour and attitudes in fiction?

I think some authors have come a long way with portraying those expected behaviours and attitudes of characters that seem to perform gender roles. Some are doing it better than others, and some miss the mark, especially in thrillers. We have come a long way away from the sidekick women to women-driven stories. However, I wonder if we should be raising our expectations on how men and women’s roles are portrayed in thrillers. How does an author balance an entertaining page-turner without falling into that gender-stereotyped behaviour and attitudes?

In Domestic suspense thrillers, women are often grounded in toxic marriages and disadvantages because of cheating, controlling murdering husbands, and the women are represented as broken by men’s cruelty. We also see self-absorbed, selfish, catty, manipulative women who can’t be trusted. While this can make for a suspenseful page-turner, I find myself wanting more from the characters in terms of development and depth to them.

“Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them”― Margaret Atwood

I just read three domestic suspense thrillers that revolved around cheating, lying, deceitful or controlling husbands. Each portrayed the character’s roles differently, and that set different tones to the story for me. In one, the author layered the twists and turns while developing and adding depth to the characters creating three dimensional characters. She questioned some of those gender roles through the characters. In another, the author portrayed a few stereotyped gender roles, and then in the twist, the character becomes a “strong female.” In the other one, nothing too deep was explored, and the story was a fun, entertaining read for me that kept me guessing throughout the story.

What about those strong female characters, and how does that play into those gender roles in fiction? Is it the kiss-ass female character who drives the plot forward with her strength and bravery, a strong female character or the character that starts flawed (weak), vulnerable and is given her own conflicts and is driven by her goals the strong female character? More about that in another post.

Are characters that feel like actors performing a role more likeable and make for a more entertaining read, better yet what we call escapism read? When we read, do we want a performance of those gender roles or more realistic human characters? Sometimes knowing what we expect makes for a more comfortable read.

Thank you for sticking with me and reading through my post! What do you think about the things I said? Have you thought about the gender roles in fiction? Do you think we should expected more from characters or are we conditioned on what we expect from male and female characters’ behaviour and attitudes in fiction?

11 thoughts on “Overthinking it: Gender Roles of Men and Women in Fiction”

  1. This is an interesting topic. Sadly, far too many authors rely on stereotypical gender norms for their characters, primarily because that is what sells books. When there are non-traditional roles, gender neutral, atypical behavior then those who disagree voice their anger loudly. Those very loud voices too often drown out the most intelligent quieter voices. I have stopped accepting books from certain publishers because they continue to force these stereotypes on us as readers. The only way that we can sway them is with our dollars . However, that is difficult if we continue to accept free books from these publishers and give less than honest reviews in order to keep garnering their freebies. I still like cozy love stories and crime fiction, but I’m leaning more toward those romances where the woman is not weak, the male is not macho and the ones solving the crimes are intelligent females or gender neutral.

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    1. I agree 100%!! Thank you for your comment! In the end, unfortunately, it’s some authors who pay the price on publishers telling them to write what sells instead of what they want to write. I have learned a lot through the Q & A I have done with authors on what they want to write and what they are told to write based on what will sell. I, too, have decided to stop excepting books from certain publishers unless it’s an author I enjoy. I am now going to be tougher in my reviews because lately I have been shocked by what books have been giving so much hype that have harmful representation of subject matters using tropes and stereotyped gender norms. Part of the problem is some reviewers don’t even realize what stereotyped gender norms are or have just come to expect it. I have had few discussions with people in the groups I host and they know what they know and don’t want to see things differently. So I also think as reviewers we need to understand and expect more/better representation of gender, identity and subject matter. I have also not read with anyone who overthinks things like I do!! LOL, So I hope my posts will challenge that!

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  2. I’m thrilled you are revisiting this issue, Brenda. It’s one that’s very close to my passion.

    I’m an admitted and proud feminist. That doesn’t mean that heroines have to fit one prototype, just that the diversity in our gender should be represented in our mainstream reading. I read a lot of romance and am pleased at the progress being made in how women are portrayed, especially in romantic suspense. What I’m often chagrined about are the reactions of readers…how tough they can be on women who aren’t perfect but give lots of latitude to the men who fall short on many levels. We’ve been conditioned to have these skewed views because of the gender inequities we exist in at work, in our marriages and other environs. We need to expect better behaviors from our male partners for these outlooks to shift.

    I’m still a work in progress and often check myself when drifting into old patterns. My small contribution to the matter is to call it out in the many book discussions I participate in on Goodreads. Small steps!

    Thank you for elevating the conversation!!! I screamed when I first saw the post💜💜💜

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    1. Thank you, Jonetta! I am so glad to see that, and thank you for your comments. I think this might be a topic I revisit again and so many others ties into this.

      I have just recently started looking at my own feminism and questioning what that means and then looking at how women are portrayed in fiction. I often find things that nag at me, and I silence that overthinker, and now I am not anymore and trying to embrace it. So like you, I am a work in progress.

      I think in thrillers, we are starting to see women more as flawed and strong women but have to be careful not to fall into that kiss-ass stereotyped (trope). First I think we need to explore what a strong woman is. That’s another post I am working on. What do you think when it comes to thrillers? I don’t read a lot of romance so I can’t speak to that. It’s interesting how hard readers are on women and that is something I would like to explore as to why they are. These topics I am exploring has opened my eyes. I am no longer hosting group reads so I am hoping these posts will bring awareness to how women are portrayed in fiction and as always I love to see what friends think. Yes, small steps! I am glad to see you call them out.

      Thank you for joining in on the discussion, Jonetta!

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  3. I do read a lot of thrillers and unfortunately they continue to mirror real life. There are so many crimes against women that go unresolved or the penalties are commensurate with the severity of the crime. We are starting to see changes in penalties for rape and legislation that offers better protections for abused women. We’ve a long way to go as more men are in charge of deciding make these rules and often resort to conventional thinking. As we see more female lawmakers emerge, there’s hope that things will continue to shift in the right direction. The untested rape kits throughout the US is shameful, allowing rapists to continue perpetrating crimes without fear of impunity. The attorney general in my state made it his mission to clear the backlog and got private money to help. So, that’s an encouraging sign.

    Long-winded response to your question about thrillers but until real life changes, these stories are going to continue to be dissatisfying for readers looking for better outcomes for heroines.

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    1. Thanks again for your response Jonetta! I appreciated your insight and It’s nice to see someone as passionate about it as I am. I agree things need to change in real life before we see the changes in thrillers we want. The question about that is where do we see that first. Often people don’t want to know or see those dark realities in real life or uncomfortable truths. They want to escape them. I guess that’s a much deeper conversation.

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      1. I haven’t decided that for myself yet, Brenda. Is it better to mirror real life in the midst of a more enlightening audience where they might take up our passion and demand change? Or should authors create the ideal, where we might see better outcomes, maybe giving us more energy? I don’t have an answer yet but it’s a great thing to explore.

        Again, thank you for elevating what I feel is an important issue.

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  4. Hi Brenda! Great post! I’ve been trying to figure out how I feel when I read books that have gender stereotypes or cliche characters or characters who are similar/opposite to myself . Like you and Jonetta, I’m a work in progress and am actually still trying to figure out what my exact thoughts are. For me, I’m trying to sort through what actually makes me connect to characters and if stereotyping impacts my enjoyment. I have loved both likeable and unlikable characters. I think for me, I need to be able to sympathize in some way with the characters (men or women!). Do I “feel” for them and their situation? They might be similar to me (stay at home mama main character in The End Of Her – 5 star read for me!) or opposite to me (single income earner wife main character of cheating husband in Confessions On The 7:45 – 4+ star book for me!) . Both completely different situations/characters yet I loved and connected well with both. Those are just two of the more recent thrillers i am using as an example. I think I need to be mindful of this going forward to i can “check” my thoughts along the way while reading a book and see what exactly it is that is impacting my connection (or disconnect). I’m not even sure this makes sense. 🤣. Like I said – this is a work in progress! But those are my thoughts for now…..

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    1. Hi Lindsay! That makes perfect sense! Those are two of the three books I looked at the gender roles of women and men and ones I thought did a better job with them. I love that you are trying to figure it out because I am really starting to wonder if that has something do with all those misses in thrillers for us. We can be a work in progress together!! We can take a closer look at our next thriller! I think the key is like you said do I “feel” for them and it’s interesting to explore what has us feeling for them and if those stereotyped expected gender roles play a part in that. Thank you for joining in on the discussion!

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