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Representing a Gender – Female Characters in Books

She’s often young; sometimes a teenager, sometimes a woman in her late 20′s. Her personality ranges from being awkward to exceptionally confident, from being kind-hearted to domineering, and even from being branded an outcast to becoming an upstanding heroine. She exists solely as paper thin; printed on the pages that tell her story. She is the female character (be it protagonist or antagonist) of the in-numerous books of varying genres.

Whether she’s fighting for her life or fighting against horrible and inescapable teen hormones, the female character has continuously changed throughout these past few decades of literature. Still, there are things that refuse to change when it comes to our favorite, and even most-hated heroines and antagonists.

But what exactly are these non-changing elements that cause the dislike or the praise?

Female Characters in Books. Photo by Emily Alequin.

The first issue readers seem to have is that female characters are often placed into “stereotypes” and it’s only when the character breaks from these that she makes an impression with readers.

“My usual impression of female characters in books are their delicate nature, most of the time, they are socially-awkward but have a beautiful exterior as well as a wholesome personality that attracts every male in the story,” said Leila Rodriquez, a communications major at Saint Peter’s University.

It is true that when an author describes a female character, he or she will choose what they want to have stand out the most about that character. Does the writer wish to draw attention to the female’s personality, appearance, social standing in school/society, or the current conflict she’s heavily dealing with?

“It all usually comes down to what type of role the lead female character will play in the story. They’re represented as strong and brave; yet they can be shy and have laid back personalities. Or they can be loud, eccentric, outgoing and be deeply flawed at the same time, lacking courage.” Said Leila.

So what exactly are the “stereotypes” of the disputed female protagonist? There are countless books that center around “the new girl” transferring to a completely new school in a new location, yet on her first day she’ll capture the interest of the hottest or most wanted guy at the school. Usually this is despite the continuous statements that “he could have anyone he wants” or “why would he be interested in me?” If the character is not serious and grounded, she may be bubbly and eccentric or even completely detached from the social world; the list goes on and audiences continue to react and argue about the values of each “type” of female.

As readers, we tend to place ourselves into the shoes of the character we’re reading about and we’ll react and reflect and make judgements of the character’s thoughts and actions. But though this is a normal reaction, there are some readers who might believe there’s a deeper meaning to reading stories with a female protagonist.

“In some novels I believe female characters are expected to represent a stereotypical female, as in our gender in general. Sometimes though, I think the female character is just meant to be a character to prove the point of the story and that’s it,” said Francesca Rizzo, a Junior at Saint Peter’s University. “My impression of female characters is that authors like to portray them as weak or soft spoken in the beginning, but when a big twist or traumatic event occurs, the author usually has the female character rise up to the occasion and gain strength to prove herself.”

Representing a gender means female characters have become a sort of role-model to all age groups, which is a heavy burden to bear.

When we look at a character, what are we expecting to find? How do others react when hearing about these characters who either deal with conflicts well or fail to stand on their own? Is there a focus on this failure?

“I don’t think it’s just about the failure, it’s more about how that character will redeem herself after it,” said M.A; a student who wished to remain anonymous. “Every character deals with some sort of problem in their story and even if it’s not, you know, something we really care about like her relationships or something wrong with her family, I think we’re just trying to find parts of that that we can either approve of or put down because we just want to see how she’ll react as not just the female character but as a person.”

Developments in a plot or the character herself can either form or break the connection with the reader because it all returns to the judgements we will make about the character’s choices. From these judgments, readers pick apart pieces of the character to uncover what it is that they dislike so much. This character may have a personality as dry as a bone or maybe she’s too pushy/violent or comes off as being too perfect or even completely clueless.

Bernice Olona stated that it all depends on where the dislikes lie. Just as there are many genres and lovers of each, there are readers who prefer certain types of characters over the rest because they find things about those characters to admire. While some may prefer to read of strong female leads with heavy responsibilities, others are drawn to the more shy or enclosed characters simply because they feel a stronger connection to that type.

“I guess it’s that people are reading about these characters in a different light that they don’t see them more than stupid or weak,” Said Bernice. “I’m sure if they read a bit more into their story, that they’re gonna see something there that’ll change that thinking – like for example, the girl with hot guy might be struggling with something that in the process, the hot guy fell in love with her not just because she’s pretty or something.”

Other readers might often complain that it is no longer enough for a female character to just be “loving and caring.” Many stories involve undertones or heavy romantic elements and family conflicts. There will always be the female who is represented as being the motherly figure but readers find this character to be expected or typical of a female. Other issues lie in the “unrealistic” appearances of some of these characters and the dislike for females who are described as being so awkward or out of touch with reality, yet they still have the face and body to keep themselves attractive to others. Why is their an overly-generalized description of some of these characters and in many cases why is there rarely any mention of what the characters social background or nationality is? Ask any reader about a recent book they’re reading and question the ethnicity of the characters and you might get a mixed response or uncertainty and assumptions.

“I do think there has been a change with how women are portrayed in books, though, but there is plenty of room for more improvement,” said Bernice. “I mean, if looking at this at a gender equality perspective, female characters in books shouldn’t be a big issue compared to how male characters in books are – well, like how hunger games was represented – automatically, they focused in on the romantic love triangle of Katniss, instead of whatever things she had to do to survive and the problems she had to face.”

Progression through the years has created even more female characters that have more to deal with than what they used to. Female protagonists now find themselves having to deal in heavier conflicts such as: government and conspiracy (just pick up any book like “Legend” by Marie Lui, “Divergent” by Veronica Roth, and yes “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins; to name a few.)

“I definitely believe roles of female characters in books has changed alongside the change of women’s roles in society,” said Francesca. “There are books today about women who have overcome obstacles to become a powerful or respected person. That is because as time has gone on, women aren’t the same soft spoken or looked over people they were way back when.”

But can the same be said of male characters? Readers have also voiced their opinions on the male characters who are always interacting with the female characters.

“Every time I pick up a book, the guy’s either, you know, ‘the bad boy’ or ‘the sweetheart’ or just that sarcastic nerdy type and I’m just wondering ‘where the heck are the other regular guys in these things?’”, said M.A. “Half of these other guys have a dark past or they’re just too, I don’t know, perfect. It’s like they’re expected to just stand there and look pretty while being there to support the female, protect her or just be the sexy boy-toy.”

M.A also pointed out that she believes body types for males are also greatly specified in novels and that the male will either have a well built body with amazing muscles, a torso that should be identified as a “lethal weapon” or he’ll be attractively slim but never any other variations of those two.

The issue isn’t just with female characters in literature, since other problems lie within the images created to represent the opposite gender as well. It all comes down to choice; do you tend to look through the same genre? Do you look for a similar plot-line or character type? Or do you find yourself spending extra time to find something that is different? Maybe there should be new thoughts, forms and creations to help expand and add to this market’s culture.

 

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