Being Aware of Gender Bias in Stories

A reminder that St. Martins Press is hosting this amazing sweepstakes for Romance Awareness Month! It goes through August 16, 2020, so jump over there to win this awesome collection of romances in a variety of subgenres!

A bit ago on the podcast, I was discussing how “we” – as a culture – tend to give active roles in a story to the male characters. In a story where the male and female protagonists have equivalent roles, or even when the female protagonist has a greater role in the overall story, it tends to get described in terms of the actions he takes. This tends to be unconsciously done, and not intentional – but it IS a reflection of our overall culture and deep programming.

As an example, I mentioned reviewing the catalog copy for THE PROMISED QUEEN. This is book 3 of the Forgotten Empires (THE FIERY CROWN in the sweepstakes is book 2) and for those of you who’ve been reading the trilogy so far, you know that the story is evenly split between Queen Euthalia (Lia) and Conrí (Con). If one of them has more emphasis in my mind, it’s Lia. But when my editor, Jennie Conway, sent me the catalog copy (this is what goes to bookstores for ordering, etc.), the story sounded to me much more like Con’s. Here it is:

Conri, former Crown Prince of Oriel, has claimed the hand that wears the Abiding Ring, but the prophecy hasn’t been fulfilled. He and his bride, Lia, Queen of Calanthe, are safe on her island kingdom – for now. But Calanthe isn’t the haven it once was. Now that blood has been spilled on the island, the truth of Lia’s powers—and her deep connection to Calanthe—will be revealed. As the threat of Emperor Anure intensifies, Conri and Lia will have to put their trust, and love, in each other to stop the emperor once and for all. In the thrilling finale to the Forgotten Empires trilogy, the fate of the world hangs in the balance as Con, Lia, and their allies sacrifice everything to save their kingdoms.

Now, there is a hard limit for characters and spaces, but can you see the subtle ways the copy points to Con having the most active role? One flag is the reference to “He and his bride.” Why doesn’t it start with Lia and mention her consort? Then Lia’s powers are revealed – but it doesn’t sound like she has anything to do with that. So, I revised it to read:

Conrí, former Crown Prince of Oriel, claimed the hand that wears the Abiding Ring, but the prophecy remains unfulfilled. Queen Euthalia of Calanthe returned to her island kingdom, but broken in mind and body. With the blood of war unleashing ancient terrors, Calanthe isn’t the haven it once was. Lia must use her magical bond with Calanthe to save their people while Con fights to hold off the vengeful Emperor Anure and his wizards. Con and Lia will have to trust in each other—and in love—to fend off ultimate disaster. In the thrilling finale to the Forgotten Empires trilogy, the fate of the world hangs in the balance as Con, Lia, and their allies sacrifice everything in a final bid to destroy the corrupt empire.

See how I gave both characters equal weight in the actions of the story? Editor Jennie loved this version – and I’m so appreciative that she gives me the opportunity to make these changes. I think if we all become more aware of these unconscious biases, we can begin to rid ourselves of the programming that created them.

Stupid Female Drama

the talon of the hawkAs I was preparing to write this post, the US Supreme Court just ruled that no state can ban same-sex marriage. This effectively legalizes gay marriage in the United States.

Much excitement and rejoicing!

I’m happy for my gay friends. More, I’m happy to see the recognition of one of my fundamental beliefs: that people should be able to love and have sex in any way that makes them happy. As long as everyone is consenting, it’s nobody else’s business what people do together.

It really kind of baffles me that anyone wants to pass judgment this way.

But then, I’m not much for judgment of any kind.

So, that happened today. Some of the Supreme Court commentary that people are sharing regarding the decision is really interesting, particularly Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s musings on marriage evolving away from the concept of women as property. I also read this article, musing about gender and all the traits we associate with being male or female – both in body and mind.

And then I’d been thinking about this one review of THE TALON OF THE HAWK. I know, I know – I’m not supposed to read the reviews! In this case, however, the reviewer tagged me on social media with the review. In more than one venue. It wasn’t an amazing review, but not terrible either. Still she complained quite strongly about something that my heroine, Ursula, does near the end. I know it’s something that frustrated a number of readers – including one of my critique partners – and I did consider taking it out or changing it. In the final cut, however, it was something that I believed Ursula absolutely *would* do. It’s part of her final character change that, despite how far she’s come, she still reverts to a particular emotional habit. Yes, it’s annoying and frustrating and she’s absolutely in the wrong.

But she has to figure that out before she can really evolve as a person. To become somebody other than where she’s been heading all her life.

I get, therefor, why this reviewer was angry at Ursula for doing it – or at me for writing it – but what bothered me, and has stuck in my head, is that she referred to it as “stupid female drama.”

This seems so terribly misogynistic to me. Yes, Ursula makes the mistake of refusing to hear her lover out. She leaps to an assumption based on her own emotional issues. But why is that exclusively the territory of females? Don’t all people, regardless of their physical or mental gender, sometimes fail to listen to the people close to them? Most every major fight I’ve had with my husband had to do with one or both of us miscommunicating in some way. A lot of the time it was because we had so much emotion tied up in whatever it was that we didn’t think clearly. I think it’s fair to say that he can be worse about it than I am – and I say this with the perspective of nearly 25 years together – because I tend to be more cerebral and he’s more emotional. This has nothing to do with him being male and me being female. It has whole lot more to do with me being an INTJ and him being an INFP.

Personality has no gender, is how I see it. Nor do the emotional issues we all strive to overcome so we can be happy and fulfilled.

So, sure. There’s stupid drama and it’s Ursula’s fault, but that’s the only way that it’s female. Just as we in the U.S. can now dispense with the terms “same-sex marriage” or “gay marriage” and just call it what it is: marriage.

Taking Time to Think about the RWR Cover

Sunset in Eldorado at Santa Fe by Jeffe KennedyAs the weather warms up in Santa Fe, the sunsets get more spectacular – double the blessings!

So, I seldom wax terribly feminist in writing. I’m sure more than a little of this is due to my Texas grandmother’s voice in my head reminding me to be pleasant, soft-spoken and not to ruffle feathers. Which I totally get is part of the problem. Still I tend to avoid conflict and sometimes I don’t voice my opinions for that reason. Of course, I have other, very good reasons for not voicing my position on some subjects, at least not publicly.

But this one has been bugging me for quite a while.

As you all may or may not know, I’m a member of the Romance Writers of America (RWA) and remain an enthusiastic supporter of the organization. RWA is the premier professional organization for romance writers, which means it’s composed primarily of women. There are no absolute numbers for this, as some men write under female pseudonyms, other writers consider themselves gender-flexible and, of course, there’s no gender-reporting requirement. Still, if looking around the room at the National Convention is any indicator, we’re probably talking over 95% female.

I frankly love that about RWA. There are very few arenas in my life where the community is so strongly female and – in the words of Cinderella from Into the Woods – it makes for a nice change. I think more people than I feel this way. Sure the male members joke about being outnumbered, but I figure, hey, welcome to the non-male experience. I embrace the overwhelming femaleness of RWA and feel that should be celebrated. Certainly that fact should be front and center in RWA’s branding.

So why isn’t it?

This is what has me riled up. (Hi Grandmother!) The cover of the April 2015 Romance Writers Report, our official magazine, looks like this:

RWR April 2015The lead article is “Master of Your Career,” which… okay, fine. “Master” is grammatically correct and we’re all supposed to be good with the word being gender neutral. It might look silly to have “Mistress of Your Career,” because that word doesn’t denote mastery of anything at all. Which is a sad truth, right there. I probably wouldn’t even have given it (much of) a second thought, except for that image.

Men’s shoes.

I mean, decidedly masculine shoes. Not even gender-neutral shoes, like sneakers or some such, that could be seen either way. Now, I know that probably Corn Creative, who does the magazine design, likely came up with this and didn’t give it a second thought. I think that graphic designer is female, too. It looks like she does work for many publications, including the Society for Neuroscience, which I can vouch from personal experience skews the gender proportion in almost the opposite direction. Maybe she didn’t think about it and just picked a strong image.

What I’m saying is, maybe we should think about it.

I’m saying this also coming off a call with Agent Connor where he (strongly) suggested that I reconsider some of the naming in this new fantasy series I’m working on, as it can be viewed as cultural appropriation. And yes, it irritated me that he said that and I might have replied that we all belong to the human race and that the Celts came up out of India and at which point do I have to stop retracing my cultural inheritance?

(I know, I know – send him a nice note for having to deal with me.)

I’m no less irritated about that now, but… in the clear light of day I’m seeing that he’s likely right. I needed to think about it and avoid causing that offense, if I can. Which I can because it’s really not necessary. And it’s an important courtesy.

These things ARE important. Ruffled feathers or no.