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.”
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?
—Image via 1000words.com