I recently came across an interesting article in HuffPost Books while scrolling through my twitter feed. Laura Santoro, Writer and Former Foreign Correspondent for HuffPost, explores an underlying reality in fiction; that female characters are more limited than their male counterparts. She writes:
I came to a Child of God by Cormac McCarthy late in life — so late that I remember going to a dinner party and loudly objecting to the protagonist, Lester Ballard, dragging the frozen corpse of a woman he’d murdered from the attic and waiting for it to thaw before engaging in necrophilia. “Was it necessary?” I asked shrilly, “Was it really necessary?”
Santoro recalls that her questions began a discussion amongst her friends about the story itself and what makes literature great. Despite the character Ballard’s despicable actions, never once was the author’s ability questioned, nor was the book itself deemed deplorable:
I mention Lester Ballard because it doesn’t get any worse than Lester Ballard in fiction yet I don’t recall anyone that night lingering on his moral shortcomings, his failures as a citizen, or his less than perfect record as a taxpayer. Lester Ballard’s right to inhabit the lowest level of human experience was never subject to a vote, just as no direct link was ever made between the rectitude of the character and the quality of McCarthy’s work.
For comparison, Santoro uses her own novel starring an alcoholic single mother named Anna who develops relationships with barely legal boys:
(Anna)’s a paragon of civic virtue compared to Lester Ballard yet she keeps attracting deeply irate comments from people who find her inability to feed the dog regularly too much to stomach. Add to that the sin of self-absorption and a less than nurturing home environment, and the response from some readers starts to blur some pretty heavily demarcated lines, such as the one between personage and work. I have traced an undeniable correlation between Anna’s flaws and the dislike the book keeps provoking — as if the two could or should be linked.
This is a common trend in the critique of literature, and in most media including film and TV. Women protagonists are constantly held to a higher, less realistic standard of behavior. When the woman falls on the side of unlikeable, the entire story is called into question. Take for example one of the most popular TV shows on The CW (a network targeting the18–34 female demographic), The Vampire Dairies. The protagonist males are both century-old vampire brothers, who over the course of their long lives have both volleyed back and forth between homicidal killer and self-sacrificing superhero. The female protagonist, however, a young teenage girl, is endlessly critiqued by the fan base for having loved both brothers over the course of the show and for being the object of their desire. So far, that’s her greatest sin. And for this, she reaps endless criticism and hate, as does the show, mainly directed at the female Executive Producer Julie Plec (here and here). I could only imagine what would happen if the brothers were instead sisters fighting over the love of young boy. That show would probably never make it off the script pages. Santoro offers some insight as to why this is the cause:
The truth is that while women engage in this type of behavior every day, experienced in the pages of a novel it can bring on a curious lack of empathy, followed in some cases by a suspension of critical faculties. The female protagonist has no redeeming qualities? Well then. Neither has the book.
How does it get to that, and why? The answer is as old as literature itself. Bad men get to be king. Bad women get to swallow poison and die.
So why is it we embrace multi dimensional male characters but accept only caricatures for women? And are we, as the audience, encouraging the production of new generations of limited female characters? A good test is this; the next time you are engaging in any media, swap the gender of the protagonist. If the character is no longer likeable, if the TV show is no longer enjoyable, then something is not right here. Are Women In Fiction More Limited? [HuffPost Books]