Jezebels, Ingénues, and Matriarchs, Oh My!

1950s women ordering at restaurant patio

Writing Realistic Representations of Women

All of us can think of stereotypical female roles: the nurturing matriarch, the serial monogamist or the damaged damsel whose scars only make her more beautiful. While we may relate superficially, these personas are often underdeveloped, oversimplified and sometimes just plain wrong. Realistic representations of women in writing are few and far between.

Every day, we consume a barrage of content, from movies and books to articles and advertisements. We read, watch, and ultimately continue on with our busy lives. But we forget just how influenced we are by the media. What we see and read impacts our thoughts, and has come to represent our social realities. Media has the power to engrain stereotypes and alienate outliers in one fell swoop.

The absence of developed female roles is troubling and paints a picture of women as unimportant or secondary. As a consumer, I crave characters who reflect my own thoughts and struggles, to learn from and find comfort in. And as a storyteller, I feel a responsibility to create work that reflects how unique and varied the human experience is.

In 1985, American cartoonist Allison Bechdel emphasized the representation issue in a comic strip called Dykes to Watch Out for. It formed the basis of the Bechdel Test, a popular content measurement tool used to gauge gender equality in television, movies, books and other media.

To pass the Bechdel Test, the content must:

  1. Have at least two women in it,
  2. Who talk to each other,
  3. About something besides a man.

Easy, right? Not so much. I was disappointed by how many top grossing movies this year failed the test, including Deadpool and The Jungle Book. In fact, only three of the best picture nominees in 2015 passed: Boyhood, Selma, and Birdman, which scraped by with one 20-second conversation about Broadway.

The same trend appears in written works. As Virginia Woolf observes in A Room of One’s Own, “It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were…. seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that?”

The Bechdel Test gives us a quick and easy benchmark to measure equality. It is a reminder of the discrimination that sneaks in without us always realizing. I think it is important, though, to conduct a more thorough evaluation if we’re going to fully acknowledge the issue. While the Bechdel Test is useful, the grading system is imperfect and a little too linear. Proper representation is not just about women exchanging a word or two. It’s about her unique characteristics, triumphs, concerns and experiences. If we look only for women who talk to each other, we fail to address some of the biggest problems in representation.

The Bechdel Test oversimplifies representation by lumping all women into one category. It is important to realize that in the eyes of the media, not all women are created equal. Some of the most under- and misrepresented women I see (or rather, don’t see) in books and television are women of colour, and women of the LGBT community. Simply put, black women are portrayed more negatively and less frequently than white women. While white women are often pictured as helpless damsels or romantic ingénues, black women are mostly represented as jezebels, welfare mothers, desexualized mammy figures, and tragic mulattoes1. The tokenism extends to the representation of LGBT community where 73% of characters are white and about 60% identify as males.

It is not necessary to create a complicated story arc for every female character. But as Shawna Mlawski writes, “if you find that all or most of your main male protagonists are well-developed and all or most of your female characters are not, you should probably start worrying a little.”

If you think that this bias lives solely in the world of fiction, think again. Professional female writers experience sexist assumptions almost as much as their fictitious counterparts. Though 73% of journalism graduates are female, only 35% of newsroom staff are women. What’s more is that women in the media occupy only 35% of supervisory roles2. Though overt workplace discrimination is less tolerated today, a subtler form of sexism looms in male-dominant industries.

Because professional writing began as a man’s career, women using male pen names has deep historical roots. With societal advancements, I had thought it to be an unnecessary practice today. But in 2011, author Catherine Nichols sent her manuscript to 100 agents: half as a man named George, and half as herself. In a disheartening conclusion, George received 8.5 times more responses than Catherine. I don’t imagine that the agents sat around saying “This pesky woman shouldn’t write; it’s a man’s job!” At least, I sincerely hope they didn’t. I think the problem is a major case of implicit bias.

While women are portrayed as sentimental, kind, and passive, men are more often stereotyped as rational, decisive, and competent. In a hiring scenario, the employer, who knows little about each applicant, will unconsciously use preconceived constructs to fill in the blanks. This is detrimental for a woman, whose descriptors imply she is less qualified. In a study at Columbia Business School, women who equally performed the same task as men were deemed less capable and two times less likely to be hired3. Women will continue to struggle in professional settings until we overturn the myth of disproportionate capabilities.

Truthful, full-bodied representation of women will change our world for the better. It will lead to increased empathy, understanding and respect. It will shatter stereotypes and demand equality that is rightfully deserved. As writers, we must diligently create female characters that are complex, developed and multi-dimensional. And as readers, we must think critically about what we consume and how it influences our personal biases.

1 Brooks, D., & Hebert, L. (2006). The SAGE handbook of gender and communication. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

2Yi, Robin H., and Craig T. Dearfield. “The Status of Women in the U.S. Media 2012.” Women’s Media Centre. Web. 1 Dec. 2016.

3.Reuben, E., P. Sapienza, and L. Zingales. “How Stereotypes Impair Women’s Careers in Science.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111.12 (2014): 4403-408. Web

Header image by Les Anderson.

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