Feb 27, 2012

Sexism and Changing Perspectives

I'm reading Mockingkay, the final book of the Hunger Games series. I've only recently started it and I read fairly slowly so I'm not very far in yet. Still, there's something I've started to wonder.

Would I like Katniss as much if she were a boy?

Without giving too much away, Katniss has an awful lot of negative traits. She's suspicious of others, especially if they seem helpful or supportive. She casts broad assumptions about how other people deserve to be treated, even when she should know better. She can process information and deal with problems only in the immediate present, she has little to no ability to see the bigger picture or understand subtleties in conversation or intent.

All of these traits are understandable given the world in which she lives and her position in it, but I know that I've read books where male characters could be described in a similar way. Those traits, or at least how they're depicted, have bothered me. I think an awful lot of people would consider a male character with these flaws to be pretty dense and ignorant.

Is it just because Katniss is a girl that I overlook these flaws? Is it that extra level of vulnerability I feel in female characters? Is that sexist?

Peeta, on the other hand, is about the most decent person in the series. I would definitely have liked him if Suzanne Collins had chosen to make him the protagonist. But I wonder, would the first book have been as successful with a nice guy as the hero instead of a hardened girl?


  1. I think in most cases it is whether or not the character is believable and rounded that is important. Girls are moody, and experience and exhibit all the negative characteristics that a lot of boys do but i don't think they get a free pass and I think there are plenty of bad behaving boys in fiction who are lauded for their behaviour. In fact i think women and particularly girls suffer from the opposite in that often they are not rounded out to include negative characteristics. They can fall into the passive victim who never does anything wrong.

  2. Just thinking on that point further I think the most important point I am trying to make is that if you don't treat your female characters as human beings with all the possibilities that that implies - including both negative, positive and conflicting traits - then that is sexist because you are denying them their humanity.

  3. I agree, though I think in an awful lot of cases today, male characters are taken to task for their failings a lot more than female characters.

    I've been very aware of double standards between genders in fiction, so it's a surprise to me to think to myself, as a reader, "If this was a male character with these flaws, would I have as much sympathy?"

    1. Maybe you are nicer to women then you are to men :) You give us more of a break. This is ok if it means that you are taking women seriously as well and not dismissing our potential to be not so nice all the time. Or maybe you see this as a wider thing where society sees women in this way again the problem comes if it dismisses our potential to be human.

      It's a good question to ask. The scientist in me can't help but follow that question with another question. What are the assumptions I am making to get to that opinion and where are these assumptions coming from. Is it me or society etc. These are I think important questions to ask oneself.

    2. Exactly! Why is it I would hold a male hero to a higher standard than a female? Is it because, like you say, I'm nicer to women? More protective of them? Is it because I'm just more used to seeing men in heroic roles?

      Of course, the other question is, am I even right at all? Am I just assuming I'd have a harder time liking Katniss if she were a boy?

      The most important question is, does this affect my writing and is it something I need to watch for?

    3. follow your assumptions down and see where you get. The point is to not hold women up as perfect because perfect is incredible(in the original sense of the word)but you can't completely demonize them either. Maybe you are making assumptions that you would like her less as a boy. And hero's don't necessarily have to be terribly likeable but it helps if they are relate-able and the closer they are to human beings there the better. ie with negative positive and conflicting traits.