Shifting the scales on gender bias

Just now I was working on a minor transition scene: our heroes were sitting in a diner and unwittingly witnessed the villain making a deal.

In order to more subtly plant the villain in the diner, I listed off the restaurant’s other patrons: a boy in a college hoodie, a homeless man, the villain’s henchman, and the villain himself.

It took me a moment to realize what felt off about that: even though I’d gone for a variety of people, I’d made all four of them men. Aside from my protagonists, the only woman in the building was the waitress– and this is in a book that’s intended to be female-focused and female-driven.

Diversity is an element that needs to be actively considered when you’re writing, or else it becomes easy to backslide.

Why worry about it at all?

Remember, even though women comprise roughly 51% of the population, but they don’t get nearly that much representation in media.

In 2013, only

  • 15% of protagonists
  • 29% of major characters
  • 30% of all speaking characters

in movies were female (Martha M. Lauzen, Ph.D.). And that’s an actual step up from 2012, when those numbers hit a five-year low.

You tell 'em, Bill Nye! (gif not mine)
You tell ’em, Bill Nye! (gif not mine)

It’s not just in movies, either, even in the classroom, guys consistently get more time and opportunities to speak than girls, even when the teachers make a conscious effort to give fair opportunities to the sexes. Even in daily conversations, women are often crowded out of conversations with men— and when female voices start to inch toward a more even ratio, they’re often seen as dominating conversations.

This isn’t meant to shame anybody– like I mentioned above, this sort of thing is insidious. It’s so ingrained into our society that we don’t see that we’re doing it. After all, it only took a momentary lapse of attention to turn a regular diner into a sausage fest.

How do I fix it?

More authors writing more balanced stories will help to normalize the idea that women are, you know, half of all human beings. There are a lot of systemic issues that need to be addressed before common perceptions really do change, but it’s a start.

Within your stories, I recommend actually listing off all your named characters according to the gender they identify as. Try doing the same for individual scenes. The nice thing about lists is that they’re hard to argue against. Perception can be fogged by unintentional bias; numbers are far more concrete.

Once you’ve got your lists (and, if you’re like me, you’re slapping yourself for letting things get so unbalanced), start thinking critically. Would my villain’s henchman be uncharacteristically different as a henchwoman? Would my villain be any less intimidating as a woman? Is there any reason why I can’t just swap pronouns and make that stoned college student a girl instead of a boy?

With some characters, their gender has a huge impact on their role in the story, but it’s not true nearly as often as you’d think. You can see it in the differences between Red Dragon and NBC’s Hannibal, where both Alan Bloom and Freddy Lounds were cast as women– and doing so opened the door for more interesting perspectives and subplots, without any noticeable cost.

Do you have any characters who could do to have their gender reassigned? Have you swapped a character’s gender in your stories? Tell us about it in the comments!


Writing Exercise: Gender Bender

Marilyn’s traditional poses are given a whole new perspective. (Photo credit: bionicteaching)

I’ve heard a lot of people say gender doesn’t matter– that we are all equal in soul and under the skin– and I’m not arguing that, with or against. But it’s undeniable that society changes our expectations of how men and women look, think and behave, and how they should be portrayed– at least on some level. The Hawkeye Initiative plays with this concept a lot, pointing out that what we consider acceptable poses for female comic book characters are just plain ridiculous when you make a male character try to pull them off.

Even in my own writing, gender plays a big role in how my characters behave. My first finished manuscript began as an idea for a character, but without a sex to go with it. After consulting with my little sister, I decided the name was more feminine than masculine, and the rest of the story fell into place. I can guarantee that it wouldn’t be the same story if Chicago was a teenage boy being stalked by his childhood maybe-girlfriend. In another manuscript, I’ve got a very powerful and confident woman… who, when genderflipped, stops seeming powerful and starts looking like a sexual predator.


I’m not saying all traditional gender-based behaviors and actions are necessarily bad, but they do open the doors for us to gain some new perspective.

If you’re having trouble writing a scene, try flipping it– all the dudes are now chicks, all the chicks are now dudes, all the MtF are now FtM, etc– and write it from that perspective. What are they saying that they weren’t saying before? What are they suddenly hiding? Pay attention to the changes in their body language, changes in vocabulary.

Once you’ve written it gender-bent, go back and turn it right-side-up (or maybe you’ll find it works better that way, and change the rest of the story to match it). If you decide to keep your initial gender roles, rewrite that scene back in the old style, but still pay attention to the body language, the vocabulary, the taboos and secrets and posturing. You’ll be amazed what you find.