Gender stereotyping occurs in fiction when a writer either depicts all of one gender the same or adheres to gender conventions that are no longer relevant.
Not all women like to shop, wear dresses, and colour their hair. Women can be also be jerks, criminals, and mean-spirited. Not all men like sports, drink beer, and can change a tire. Men can be sensitive, nurturing, and insecure about their bodies.
What if your book has 99% male characters (with the token female sex object)? Or if the women you do include all wear lipstick, often cry, and never make their own decisions?
Gender stereotypes are harmful and offensive, and they highlight weak writing. When you use a gender stereotype, you are telling your reader you didn’t want to invest in unique characters that stand on their own.
Questions to ask to ensure you aren’t falling to gender stereotypes…
If your book is about a post-apocalyptic world where only men survived, the absence of women makes sense (let’s pretend there’s something about that Y chromosome that saves only men). If you are writing about an all-female commune, you likely won’t have many men appear. I’m not trying to control your story here. But, assuming that you are not writing about such events, I challenge you to ask yourself these questions:
- How many women do I include and what purpose do they serve?
- Do their roles/descriptions fit with the time period in which I’m writing? (If you’re writing a story set in the 1860s, it is fine to have wives at home, looking after children.)
- How do I portray the women I do include? Do they all wear the same type of clothing? How realistic for the setting are the wardrobe choices? Are they all on diets? Are they all married? Do they all have children? (Variety is key in fiction writing; make sure your women are not one-dimensional.)
- How have I portrayed my male characters? Do they all avoid housework? Are they all deadbeats? Do they all drink beer and watch sports and tinker on cars? Are they all aggressive?
During the editing process, I’ll flag problematic gendered issues. Most of the time, writers aren’t aware of the gender bias they created, and they’re more than happy to fix it. We are so used to seeing such stereotypes, that it’s understandable for some to sneak their way in. I don’t judge when these words/phrases/stereotypes slip through, as long as the author is willing to adjust their perceptions.
It’s important to have balance, so I’m not saying you can’t have characters that fit these descriptions. When you’re developing characters, of course some will include many of the traits mentioned above. Just remember the word “some.” Some men like cars. Some men like beer. Some women like to shop. But if all your women and all your men are the same, it shows your perspective of that gender is limited.
A note about transgender & non-binary characters…
Not everyone identifies as 100% woman or 100% man. There are transgender people and non-binary people to recognize (and celebrate!). It’s fine if you do not include a transgender or non-binary character in your manuscript; however, two things:
- Be aware you do have the option! We don’t live in a world where only two genders exist.
- Be careful in how you portray a transgender or non-binary character in your writing—if you yourself do not identify as either transgender or non-binary, you may have a limited lens on such a character. In the same way, you want to avoid gender stereotyping against women or men, you absolutely do not want to lump all transgender characters into one stereotype or all non-binary characters into another. Remember: A transgender person and a non-binary person are people. And people are diverse. There’s a lot that makes up each one our personalities—gender being just one element and not the defining one.
If you aren’t sure if your message is gender inclusive, I can help. Contact me and we can chat about reviewing your manuscript.