The ‘Harriet Potter’ Effect, or Why We Prefer Male Characters

In 2005, the Independent polled the world’s “leading literary luminaries” to compile a list of their top 100 favorite characters in fiction. The final line-up featured a range from Lolita‘s Humbert Humbert to Catch-22‘s Yossarian. (Someone even gave a shout-out to the cat in Cat in the Hat.) What did the list not include? Well, a lot of women. With 67 male characters (69 if you count God and the whale in Moby-Dick), men accounted for nearly three-quarters of the list. A literary sausagefest.

While the imbalance could be chalked up to the notable lack of female authors in general (we’re looking at you, New Yorker), a new study has found that readers show a significant preference for male protagonists. Researchers presented test subjects with texts where the main character’s gender was swapped for its opposite. The subjects were then asked to rate the text based on how it affected them personally and how relevant they felt it was to the world at large.

The original assumption was that readers would gravitate toward characters who shared their gender. The actual result? Male and female readers alike preferred reading about men. After reading about male protagonists, they were more likely to respond positively to questions like “I feel I can understand and appreciate the main character and situation of the story” and “I would like to continue reading to find out what happens next in the story.”

According to the researchers, this could be explained by something called the “actor-observer bias,” which ties male behavior to action and female behavior to personality and emotion.

Men in Western societies tend to be seen as acting in response to circumstances (“he did what he had to”) whereas women tend more often to be seen in terms of their personality (“she behaved emotionally”). Thus, for both men and women, our social stereotypes make it easier in stories to understand and to identify with a male protagonist, the kind of character who acts in response to the situation he is in, than with a female protagonist, the kind of character who acts because of her personality.

Which could, perhaps, account for the skewed list we talked about earlier.

I’ve found myself torn. I’m aghast that we’re still reading through genderized goggles, even in the liberal world of literature—despite the fact that women have been statistically found to read more. But the vast majority of my favorite characters (favorite authors, even) are men. And I wonder if a worldwide franchise such as Harry Potter would have made it off the ground if Harry had been, say, Harriet. Would Harriet Potter have gotten away with so much teen angst without being called names that rhyme with witch?

Probably not.

—Image via 1000words.com

 

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About Lu Fong

Lu Fong was a staff writer and blog editor for the Good Men Project in its formative years. As the requisite woman on staff, her hobbies included cleaning, cooking, knitting, fainting, and childbearing. Follow her on Twitter @lufong.

Comments

  1. Alas, where are the MRA whiners? Got nothing to say it seems when faced with actual evidence of bias in society that favors men.

    • typhonblue says:

      How does it favor men?

      Men have to prove their worth through action, of course the fact that men have to prove their worth through action has the side effect of making them more interesting characters in fiction.

      However the flipside is that if men don’t prove their worth they’re expendable in a way that women can never be. Of course this consequence again makes men more interesting as characters.

      • typhonblue says:

        Also, men in real life are a lot more fragile and vulnerable then their fictional counterparts.

        So the fact that men loose sympathy if they’re not capable of solving their problems themselves through positive action hits real life men rather hard.

    • Probably hiding in the same place as feminists that think all of society favors me (or at least the parts they deem worth talking about).

    • Quick thought, but if women read more then men, then women were more likley to be polled for this list.

      And if women picked male charecters how is that a sign of a male dominated society when women were the ones who made the decision?

  2. Well, this is not surprising given the fact that ALL of our cultural characters are almost always men – most children’s books, stories, movies, are all male characters. American women, while educated, are also not ready for equality in vision, therefore, prefer to read about a world where men still run it and save it. The “beauty contest” culture women like to perpetuate, also shuns powerful women.

  3. I actually blogged about this in regards to young adult literature, how males and females in real life aren’t as different as we think. I read and write and edit a lot of YA, and while there are very few male characters in YA compared to females, I tend to relate more with the male characters because they are more realistically human and more realistically flawed. This might be due to the popularity of romance in the YA genre, but a lot of the female main characters romanticize things too much, and contemporary girls in real life aren’t like that. Basically, what I’m saying is that whenever a male character comments on a female character’s looks, he uses really lewd terms, like cherry of a backside, or a hot ass, or nice tits. Whenever a female character comments on a male character’s looks, she uses very romantic descriptions I can’t relate to because it’s just not real. Girls, in fact, are just as raunchy as guys when it comes to talking about body parts (I’m speaking about books that take place in our contemporary day). Of course, you could argue this puts guys in a bad light, but let’s be real about high school guys and girls. They’re as sexed-up as rabbits. The only difference is that this is being portrayed in guys, but not so for girls. There are a few YA books with sexed-up girls, but these are frowned upon more than sexed-up guys in YA, because people figure that should be more typical for guys than girls.

    Of course, this might just be YA, but overall, I find that males in literature are represented as realistically more human than females in literature. They’re more flawed, less static, and overall more enjoyable and releatable, and I’m saying this as a female. Of course, the most popular books in YA have female main characters, like The Hunger Games trilogy (which is the next Twilight/Harry Potter) and Amanda Hocking’s books, but this might be because females are slowly but surely becoming just as realistically human as their male counterparts.

    I’ve also noticed males, even in movies and t.v. shows, make themselves more useful than female characters. I just got done watching the Walking Dead, and it ticks me off to no end that the female characters are absolutely useless. They are easily disposable characters, because at the end of the day, if the men had to do the clothes, cook, and all that, they’d be able to do so with no problem. But if the females suddenly had to fight and defend themselves, I doubt they’d be able to because they’ve been rendered to the sphere of domesticity that, really, isn’t as important as protecting themselves from walkers and geeks.

    You can argue society sees the males as more disposable because they are being put in these roles, but really it’s the females who are in fact more disposable because they are often put in the most useless roles and positions. As I’ve said before, if you lost the males in the Walking Dead, the females would be outright screwed. If you lost the females, the males would be just fine.

    • You can argue society sees the males as more disposable because they are being put in these roles, but really it’s the females who are in fact more disposable because they are often put in the most useless roles and positions. As I’ve said before, if you lost the males in the Walking Dead, the females would be outright screwed. If you lost the females, the males would be just fine.
      Or could you say that its actually men who are more disposable because they are fighting the zombies? I wonder if the observation you make here is some attempt at adding some usefulness to men because out in the real world there is an attitude that when disaster strikes women are more important than men? I personally don’t like the idea that woman is only as useful as her uterus is fertile but I think that at least has something to do with the “women and children first”mentality.

      And as for balanced characters you may have a point. I just finished Percy Jackson book 3 last night. I think Percy is a very good example of what you say here, ” They’re more flawed, less static, and overall more enjoyable and releatable, and I’m saying this as a female. ” If you haven’t read the books Percy is dyslexic, has ADHD, and has played a role in destroying a school (or at least a large portion of a school) at the start of all three books so far (and the only time he doesn’t wreck such destruction is when he is expelled beforehand). Sounds a lot like many of today’s boys his age doesn’t it? Not the literal destruction but the disciplinary issues, the disorders, and the feeling that you just can’t be a part of “normal” society.

      • “Of course, the most popular books in YA have female main characters, like The Hunger Games trilogy (which is the next Twilight/Harry Potter) and Amanda Hocking’s books, but this might be because females are slowly but surely becoming just as realistically human as their male counterparts.”

        One of the most popular comics these days has a female main character:

        http://www.girlgeniusonline.com/

  4. I was thinking about this just this morning– largely because I saw in the flame war that the MRA comments became, someone had whined that straight men were “Othered” & I couldn’t stop cracking up about it. I tried to think of the protagonists that came to me off the top of my head; I would ballpark it as 80% straight white me, 9% black straight men, 9% white straight women, & 2% “other.” & that is some real “Othering” right there.

    • typhonblue says:

      Perhaps it’s because, absent their actions, male characters are a void. A void the reader can easily slip themselves into, filling in their own personality and characteristics.

      Like the article said:

      “Men in Western societies tend to be seen as acting in response to circumstances (“he did what he had to”) whereas women tend more often to be seen in terms of their personality (“she behaved emotionally”).”

      It’s sort of the same principle behind playable FPS game characters being as flat and featureless as possible. The implication here is that male characters are more impersonal and ‘empty’ then female characters; they are the sum total of their actions alone.

      Now *that’s* othering!

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