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?
—Image via 1000words.com
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.
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;… Read more »
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.… Read more »
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… Read more »
“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:
Yeah, it is a struggle, & YA & Comics– what the mainstream views as marginalia–is the front where equality is winning.
Interestingly, the women and children first idea is actually mostly a fiction. Only in 3 shipwrecks in the 0th century where women and children let off first. In fact, in maritime disasters over the last hundred years over two-thirds of all fatalities were female because in the ‘every man/woman for him/herself’ scramble that occurs, women lose out due to lesser size and strength. We see woman and children first in movies, but when last did you actually hear of it happening in real life? It almost never does, it’s just another romantic lie fed to society to make women seem… Read more »
Yet when its time to send troops off to war who are sent? Now its tempting to say that was because “men kept women out of combat” but if that is the case then why has it only been in recent decades that women have been making massive strides to gettting into the front lines of combat? When civilian death tolls are reported why is often a specific notice to how many woman and children are killed even when they are the numeric minority (something like “100 people killed, 20 of them women and children”). Or that when it comes… Read more »
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.
The beauty contest culture is perpetuated by fashion magazines and media, which are almost all owned by men.
Alas, where are the MRA whiners? Got nothing to say it seems when faced with actual evidence of bias in society that favors men.
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.
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.
Over 6000 American soldiers died in Iraq and Afghanistan in the first six years of war. AT THAT SAME TIME, TWICE as many women were murdered by their partner in America, with NO MENTION of this in the press. To say men are more expendable than women is absolute nonsense. People murder girl children in many parts of the world because they wanted a son. The opposite doesn’t happen. Even studies in America showed that among Conservatives, there was distinct son preference with no daughter preference amongst others, leaving a son preference overall. Men are more valued then women globally.… Read more »
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?
You make the decisions you’re trained to make, that’s the point of the whole article. As for society being male dominated, you have only to look at the seats for power from government to industry t media, ALL of which are male dominated to know that men shape he society and make the rules.
But you already knew that, it’s just in your interests to play innocent.