See Jane Do: Moral Agency and Gender

A grammar lesson from Typhon Blue.

The most basic gender role in our society is this:

Men act; women are acted upon.

This paradigm is old; it is also vast. It shows up in every culture on Earth and during every time period.

Traditions are very hard to change and this tradition is carved deep into our collective psyche, so deep that the people who defy it are very few. The people who promote it, on the other hand, are loud, powerful and many.

Modern science has also identified this deep dichotomy. Gray and Wegner write in Moral Typecasting: Divergent Perceptions of Moral Agents and Moral Patients:

Moral agency is the capacity to do right or wrong, whereas moral patiency is the capacity to be a target of right or wrong. […]

Across a range of targets and situations, good- and evil-doers (moral agents) were perceived to be less vulnerable to having good and evil done to them. The recipients of good and evil (moral patients), in turn, were perceived as less capable of performing good or evil actions. Moral typecasting stems from the dyadic nature of morality and explains curious effects such as people’s willingness to inflict greater pain on those who do good than those who do nothing.

People are typecast into moral agents and moral patients. Moral agents do things, moral patients have things done to them. What’s really important to note is that we think people are one or the other, not both. Also important is that a villain is typecast in the same ‘classification’ as a hero: they’re both moral actors. In fact, we see villains as closer to heroes then either are to victims.


Now that we’ve taken a quick look at this paradigm, what are its effects?

Let’s look at some findings about smart girls. Heidi Grant in The Trouble With Bright Girls[1] writes about Carol Dweck who studied fifth graders in the 1980s and how they approached new and difficult material.

She found that Bright Girls, when given something to learn that was particularly foreign or complex, were quick to give up; the higher the girls’ IQ, the more likely they were to throw in the towel. In fact, the straight-A girls showed the most helpless responses. Bright boys, on the other hand, saw the difficult material as a challenge, and found it energizing. They were more likely to redouble their efforts rather than give up.

At the 5th grade level, girls routinely outperform boys in every subject, including math and science. So there were no differences between these boys and girls in ability, nor in past history of success. The only difference was how bright boys and girls interpreted difficulty—what it meant to them when material seemed hard to learn. Bright Girls were much quicker to doubt their ability, to lose confidence and to become less effective learners as a result.

Researchers have uncovered the reason for this difference in how difficulty is interpreted, and it is simply this: More often than not, Bright Girls believe that their abilities are innate and unchangeable, while bright boys believe that they can develop ability through effort and practice.

Notice how the boys Carol Dweck describe believe that their actions are what count, not their current level of abilities. They know if they work at it, they’ll achieve results. The girls, on the other hand, are convinced that their actions are meaningless.

This phenomena is just another reflection of moral typecasting. The girls see themselves as passive, unchanging moral patients whose actions have no effect; the boys recognize themselves as dynamic moral actors whose actions have results.

Remember again that moral actors are not villains or heroes, but both. Both villains and heroes are capable of doing bad and good.

Grant continues:

We continue to carry these beliefs, often unconsciously, around with us throughout our lives. And because Bright Girls are particularly likely to see their abilities as innate and unchangeable, they grow up to be women who are far too hard on themselves — women who will prematurely conclude that they don’t have what it takes to succeed in a particular arena, and give up way too soon.

Women have been taught their actions have no real consequence either to their lives or anyone else’s. They’ve internalized the gender role that women don’t act, instead they are acted upon. When these women encounter something challenging, say, inventing a new type of music, trying to understand calculus, or negotiating a raise, they simply give up.

As a species we really love this particular dichotomy and there are some benefits to women in excising their own agency—people prefer to cause moral agents suffering than moral patients—but when it comes to achievement, women will always find themselves on the short end of the stick.
The wage gap? Yep. The last female getting a Nobel prize for theoretical physics in 1963? You bet. The lack of women in STEM fields? Better believe this is why.[4]

Promoting the moral typecasting of women as victims diminishes their ability to rise to a challenge and overcome it. It chains them to a system in which they must always appeal to their betters, oops, I mean moral agents to save them. It excises their agency, and with it much of their belief in their own potency and self worth.

Moral typecasting of women as victims is toxic.

Every time we automatically view women as ‘acted upon’ in the absence of evidence—or even in the presence of evidence that refutes it—we are engaging in furthering this archaic gender socialization that limits and belittles women. Every ‘but women are hurt more’ or ‘women are the real victims’ reinforces this dichotomy. Even the cry, ‘women and children first!’ holds women back.

[1] Latin 1: The Easy Way.
[2] Moral Typecasting: Divergent Perceptions of Moral Agents and Moral Patients.
[3] The Trouble With Bright Girls.
[4] Yes there may also be biological causes, however until we live in a society that doesn’t engage in these particular shenanigans, we won’t know for sure.


—Photo RubyGoes/Flickr

About Typhonblue

Typhonblue is a Canadian in her thirties. She writes about the state of decay in the relationship between the genders in our culture with a focus on men’s vulnerability and women’s agency. She blogs at


  1. The parallel paradigm (or PP for short – ha!), is that females internalize (acted upon) while men externalize (act upon) – similar stereotype.

    Great read Ms. Blue.

  2. Just curious, why is there an image of Peppa Pig at the top of this article? I mean, I find the program to be the most anti-male, anti-father thing I’ve ever seen directed towards small children, but I’m not sure of its particular relevance here.

  3. I found the link to the article by feminist writer Moe Tkacik (Slate XX) who considered the Lois Feldman case a possible rape.

    Nothing illustrates the feminist view of women’s moral passivity than this article. Basically Lois Feldman consensually engaged in public drunken sex and then proceeded to lie about it by saying she doesn’t remember anything.

    But Moe never even conceives of this. After all how is it possible that a women could ever lie! She assumes the woman is telling the truth about not remembering and that all the people watching must have been cheering a rape! This is how far a feminist will go to deny a women’s agency and promote female victimology. Disgusting. Or maybe i should say EWWW C-R-E-E-P-Y.

  4. I love this too because it essentially undercuts feminist victimology but in a way that feminists are basically forced to agree with. According to many feminists if a drunk man and drunk woman have sex than the man has raped the woman. In fact feminists are working hard to make this the law everywhere. But of course this ONLY makes sense if you think of women has being morally passive. They are acted upon. Because otherwise the situation is symmetrical.

    This was brought home to me in a pretty dramatic way in the case of Lois Feldman

    She had public drunken sex with a man in a bathroom stall and said she doesn’t remember doing it. There were many comments saying she might have been raped.

  5. Typhonblue — I love this! Thanks for posting. I think there is some important food for thought regarding women – particularly young girls – becoming aware of these typecasts and taking agency for themselves. Furthermore, I’m particularly intrigued about the ideas you raise in this article regarding inner city students, particularly minority males. I think there are similar affects there as well.

  6. Part of the answer to Bobbt’s question may be that so many boys are losing ground in the early stages of their education and simply never make it up.

    Another part of the answer (I believe) is that especially at lower levels education is increasingly becoming a matter of the pupil/student accepting what they are told rather than thinking for themselves or understanding “from first principles”, and (for whatever reason) girls have always been better at that kind of learning. (Attitudes to authority are relevant here, in ways that key in with Typhonblue’s thesis.

  7. If what you say is true, why are according to many new studies being done, are young men falling so far behind young women in education today?

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