We’re into the second decade of the 21st Century and gender issues are all over the news—again. This time the issue is a redux/re-thinking of the recent, and logical, determination that trans students can use the bathrooms assigned to their gender identity. The old requirement that everyone must stick to the “facts” as stated on their birth certificate is returning, this time wrapped in a states rights argument meant to undermine the federal Title 9 mission of equality for ALL students.
This new controversy inspired me to think about the rigid gender roles in fiction. The pink & blue divide is alive and well in books, on TV, and in the movies. Yes, women can, and are, depicted as heroic, strong, and brave, but those roles are often portrayed as exceptional. Just as the emotive, sensitive, intuitive, brains-before-brawn, men represent outliers in a cast of characters. It’s hard not to applaud Katniss Everdeen, the protagonist in The Hunger Games series, because she is everything we expect from a classic (aka male) heroic figure.
While science fiction, fantasy, and adventure genres feature more expansive rosters of characters, fiction with less dramatic dramtis personae reveals more about our backsliding into a binary male/female divide. Turn the sound off when you’re watching TV and note the differences in how men and women in comparative roles dress. Male plainclothes detectives always wear suit jackets (often baggy and always unobtrusive) while their female colleagues wear tight sweaters or sleeveless tops with fitted trousers. Note the short skirts, cleavage, high heels, long tresses of high-maintenance hair, etc. and you’ll conclude that a woman attorney on TV has a hairstylist on call and a fashion budget comparable to her rent.
Even as women in real life make inroads into formerly all-boys club professions, in fiction you will rarely find women dentists, a medical office without a man, a woman in IT, women mathematicians, engineers, etc. Although there’s still a dearth of women CEOs in major corporations, I keep reading articles about the growing number of women entrepreneurs worldwide and how women owned/founded businesses outperform comparable businesses started by men.
Maybe one day I won’t notice when a woman in a book is exceptional—when she exists outside conventional stereotypes? But for now, I’m aware of how the pink & blue divide is highlighted in many works of fiction and how easy it is to write characters that stay inside outdated lines.