For a long time, the world of fantasy, sci-fi and young adult books was largely populated by young boy protagonists. That's shifted, thankfully, though there is still a dearth of diversity. But the shift in the gender gap has highlighted how bias in the real world has crossed over to how people experience made-up ones.
Author and editor Danielle Binks brought the issue up on Twitter. She works primarily in Young Adult, and has said she has noticed that in negative reviews, readers don't say they didn't enjoy the story structure or found the prose boring. They often just say how stupid and bad the female protagonist is:
YA observation: I am always a little ... disappointed when I read low-star reviews, that cite a female protagonist being unlikeable and her actions immoral as the reasons for hating the whole book.— Danielle Binks (@danielle_binks) February 5, 2018
Binks thinks it's especially bad when the female characters getting dragged are teen girls. It seems like there's not even room for characters to be messy and make mistakes when they're kids if they're also women.
So I'm especially concerned when young female teen characters are chastised for their imperfections too. For not being 100% likeable for all 350 pages or so - really, they're "marked down" for making mistakes, fucking up and being messy and just HUMAN.— Danielle Binks (@danielle_binks) February 5, 2018
But have you considered how boring the book would be if they weren't flawed?
I often think it's an echo of a society that thinks women have to be "nice" and uncomplicated, all smooth-edges and purity. But that's not necessarily interesting. It's certainly not where conflict lies.— Danielle Binks (@danielle_binks) February 5, 2018
Her musings reminded her of something Shonda Rhimes recently said about how she sees female characters described in television.
Rhimes thinks the term "strong smart women" is condescending. We don't say Dumb Weak Women to describe other characters—unless we're really horrible, I guess.
Okay. Entertainment industry, time to stop using the phrases "Smart Strong Women" and "Strong Female Leads". There are no Dumb Weak Women. A smart strong woman is just a WOMAN. Also? "Women" are not a TV trend -- we're half the planet.— shonda rhimes (@shondarhimes) February 1, 2018
Binks says that her observation isn't new, but we should consider why we applaud flawed male characters and now women, especially if we actually want to read something compelling.
This is not a new revelation. Others have said similar. Because every goddam famous male YA protag - from Harry Potter to Holden Caulfield - is praised for being multidimensional and imperfect ... I'd love to see us praising similar complexity in ALL characters. pic.twitter.com/3I5hJfMNLt— Danielle Binks (@danielle_binks) February 5, 2018
Complicated is not bad. Perfect is boring. Female characters are NOT their worst mistakes.— Danielle Binks (@danielle_binks) February 5, 2018
And can I just say - if you haven't watched the 2016 TV series #Fleabag - please do. Because it's one of the most perfect examples in recent memory of all these things I'm saying & wanting pic.twitter.com/nPsv4A9Mrq
Binks followers agreed that they'd noticed this as both readers and writers considering reviews:
Couldn't agree more.— Bella Higgin (@Bella_Higgin) February 5, 2018
Reader reaction when my heroines make mistakes: 'She's dumb. She pisses me off. She's rude. She's selfish. She doesn't know her place.'
Reactions to the hero's mistakes: 'It's understandable. Poor baby. I still love him. It's not his fault.'
Yup. It's okay for men to be flawed because it makes then sexier. It's okay for them to make mistakes because it makes them real. It's okay for them to be broken because then they can be saved.— Bella Higgin (@Bella_Higgin) February 5, 2018
The women must be perfect at all times.
Except then they get criticised for it.
I just don’t like the double standards, because cishet (usually white) male characters get away with so much more. And girls (esp WOC) in fiction get vilified for the smallest thing. I’m still salty about the reviews on Goodreads about Dimple Shah 😂— aentee au andromedus 🌙 (@readatmidnight) February 5, 2018
So much yes. We love the naughty, outspoken, grumpy, wild, mistake-making, heart-in-the-right-place girls of children's lit, so let's cut their big sisters some slack.— EmilyGale (@EmilyGale) February 5, 2018
Applies to any story. Flawed characters are invariably more interesting than heroes. Also, if we demand our heroes to be flawless, we're in for some bloody boring work.— Andrew Stafford (@staffo_sez) February 5, 2018
She also offered some of her favorite complicated female characters in fiction, if you're dying to check some out after reading this thread:
For shits & giggles, here are some of my *fave* messy AF #LoveOzYA female heroines - and 🙏 @ me with your own!— Danielle Binks (@danielle_binks) February 5, 2018
• literally all Melina Marchetta women, but especially Taylor Markham, 'On The Jellicoe Road'
• Frankie Vega in Shivaun Plozza's 'Frankie' (she broke a guy's nose) pic.twitter.com/CyFS6tFPJj
• Wildgirl in 'This is Shyness' by Leanne Hall— Danielle Binks (@danielle_binks) February 5, 2018
• Ashala Wolf in 'The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf' by Ambelin Kwaymullina
• Jess Gordon in 'Summer Skin' by Kirsty Eagar
• Riley Rose (atheist bad girl) in 'Everything Beautiful' by Simmone Howell
• Arden from 'Friday Brown' by Vikki Wakefield— Danielle Binks (@danielle_binks) February 5, 2018
• Rose Butler in 'Chasing Charlie Duskin' by Cath Crowley
• Abigail Kirk, 'Playing Beatie Bow' by Ruth Park
• Sun Langley, 'Saltwater Moons' by Julie Gittus
• Holly Yarkov, 'Holier Than Thou' by Laura Buzo
• Ava Simpson, 'Pink' by Lili Wilkinson— Danielle Binks (@danielle_binks) February 5, 2018
• Kit Learmonth in 'Neverland' by Margot McGovern (OBVIOUSLY!)
• Rosa Taylor (yup, the young psychopath) in 'My Sister Rosa' by Justine Larbalestier
• Alice from 'The Stars at Oktober Bend' by Glenda Millard
• Amelia, 'Dreaming of Amelia' by Jaclyn Moriarty— Danielle Binks (@danielle_binks) February 5, 2018
• Ikky (who killed her husband with an axe and now must pay the price) 'Singing My Sister Down' short-story by Margo Lanagan
• Kady 'Illuminae' by Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff
• Kate Elliot, 'I'll Tell You Mine' by Pip Harry
Phew! That's a lot to read. If you just want to watch a show, she also recommended the new Black-ish spinoff, Grown-ish.
Of course, if you hate a character so much you can't get through something, that's understandable. But Binks encourage readers to use challenging characters as an exercise in empathy:
Start practicing empathy in fiction and eventually you learn to do it in real life. Full circle.