How do I check my feminism as a writer?
March 19, 2013 9:16 AM   Subscribe

Are there other simple-to-express checks like the Bechdel Test for measuring gender bias and feminism in fiction? I try hard to make sure I'm being a decent feminist as a writer -- I'm a guy, I tend to write with male protagonists but with a lot of female characters involved, and I worry about my blind spots.

Feminism isn't my end goal or the point to my writing, but it is something I care about. Moreover, I don't want to simply add to the piles of anti-feminist stuff out there by blindly repeating misogynist stereotypes.

Are there tropes and stereotypes that should be painfully obvious? Are there websites or articles that do a good job of illustrating good vs poor feminism in fiction?

I self-publish, so it's not like I have professional editing support. Most of my "beta readers" are liberally-minded, college-educated women. I write sci-fi and also urban fantasy (with a heavy dose of erotica), but despite all the far-fetched and unrealistic base concepts of my stuff, I try to make my characters act and react in believable manners.

I got a review of my sci-fi novel that noted that the women in the book were by and large smarter, stronger and "better" than the men, and that made me kinda happy -- primarily because I didn't do that intentionally. I've found the same pattern in my urban fantasy stuff.
posted by scaryblackdeath to Writing & Language (18 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
It's a dippy Facebook meme, but it sometimes could be this simple --

Take something you just wrote. Find a male secondary character. Make them female.


Granted, if this character being male is germane to the plot in some way (i.e., it's the male protaganist's brother-in-law) or it would cause a lot of confusion if you changed them (i.e., it's the male protagonist's college roommate), then this wouldn't work. But if it's just the chief of police who sends your protagonist out on assignment or something? Go for it.

It's not as Earthshatteringly Groundbreaking, and most people won't even recognize it as being Overtly Feminist. But that's kind of the point - it shouldn't be a big deal to be reading about female chiefs of police or female doctors or female firefighters or whatever. They're part of the wallpaper of modern existance.

So, make them part of the wallpaper of your book.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:35 AM on March 19, 2013 [7 favorites]

Just... treat your female characters like people.

Try to be aware when your female characters are being used as pawns, or tools, or princesses to be saved.

Watching all the Feminist Frequency "Tropes Vs. Women" videos would help you learn more about the common anti-woman tropes in media.
posted by Sara C. at 9:39 AM on March 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

This is a really tricky question.

- Are you trying to write about the world as it really is, or are you trying to write about an ideal world where sexism doesn't exist?

- What makes a piece of fiction "anti-feminist"? It's hard to address this point without a clear definition of the term.

- Do you feel it's "believable" (to use your term) that the women in your writing are "by and large smarter, stronger and better" than the men?

These questions are mostly rhetorical, but they may provide contexts to help you arrive at some answers to your question.
posted by DWRoelands at 9:40 AM on March 19, 2013

The fact that you're worrying about this at all means you'll probably be fine.

That said, something to keep in mind: if a major concern when creating a woman character is whether or not you'd want to have sex with her, that's usually not a good sign. When reading books by men, I often feel like the women have been sorted by the author into "fuckable" and "unfuckable" categories, and it makes me really uncomfortable and sad.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 9:46 AM on March 19, 2013 [16 favorites]

After you have someone read through a work in progress, could you ask them to give brief descriptions of some of the characters? The descriptions you get back will let you know how well-rounded and human your female characters are.

If your writing leaves your readers with a good sense of who the female characters are, with references to psychological traits and complex motivations, then you're probably writing your female characters as people. Yay! FEMINISM SUCCESS!

If, on the other hand, your writing leaves your readers able only really to describe the physical appearance of your female characters, or only able to give one or two adjectives about the character in totality, then you're probably not really writing your female characters as people. :-( But, you'll be in a position to fix it. Yay! FEMINISM SUCCESS!

You also want to check whether these descriptions play a lot on tropes or extremes. "Oh man, Female Character is such an EEEVIL witch!" or "Female Character is a total sexpot" or "Female Character is like the girl next door." -- That's probably a good sign you may want to re-write. It implies that the character isn't really much more than the role she plays in the plot. It means the character is pretty much a piece of scenery meant to move action along, rather than a fleshed-out person. But, again, you'll be in a position to fix it! Yay!

Ultimately: you're paying attention. Yay! FEMINISM SUCCESS!
posted by meese at 9:52 AM on March 19, 2013 [4 favorites]

I was going to say that you should have beta readers who are feminist women, but it sounds like you've got that covered -- although you should make it clear to them, if you haven't done so already, that you want to be called out on sexism. I know I sometimes don't call out sexism when I'm critiquing friends because I don't want to get into a debate about what I personally think of their values (and make it awkward in the future) and I sometimes don't call out sexism when I'm critiquing strangers because I get told I'm inserting my own ideology where it doesn't belong.

Be alert for sexism when you read other writers' fiction. Ask your beta readers or other women friends for writers they like except when they stumble over a certain amount of misogyny (Haruki Murakami is mine -- like Narrative Priorities says above, he's one of those authors who sorts women into fuckable and unfuckable) and read those books with an eye towards seeing what they see. Read a lot of women writers. Read women writers who self-identify as feminist writers and who don't.

When you conceive of a character, turn it over in your head: if you wrote them as a different gender, what would change? Read Joanna Russ's essay What Can A Heroine Do? in the book "To Write Like a Woman." (The whole book is worth reading, as is her "How To Suppress Women's Writing.")

Make sure you include women characters who aren't there to serve the sexual or emotional needs of the main characters. Include more women who are generally on the margins of fiction: old women, mothers of young children, fat women, women who aren't conventionally attractive. Women who don't perform their gender conventionally; women who do. (There are a certain number of writers who seem to think that a "strong woman character" is a woman in a leather jacket or a woman who's sarcastic. Kaylee on Firefly was refreshing to me because how often do you see a woman character who's really femme and emotionally open and who's also a great mechanic?)

Be involved in conversations online about feminism in media. Tor and io9 can be surprisingly feminist-ish in orientation, and a lot of these conversations wind up on Metafilter, but I think a lot of the best conversation is on personal blogs, especially on Dreamwidth; Asking the Wrong Questions is quite pointed on these things.

This is an overly long post for a question where "just write them like people" really should suffice, but even as a woman and a feminist, it's taken me a lot of time and work to learn to write in a way that's consonant with my own beliefs (and it's definitely still a work in progress.)
posted by Jeanne at 10:00 AM on March 19, 2013 [5 favorites]

Whenever you create a new character, flip a coin and assign a gender at random. Then write the story. If the story is already written, flip half of the character's genders. Maybe make some of them genderqueer or gay. 50% of humanity, more or less, are female. Shouldn't stories reflect that?

Overall, make sure that what gender your characters are are doesn't control what the character feels, thinks, or does unless you are writing about specific biological activities or specific-to-the-setting cultural influences.

Also be aware that adding flavour in the terms of oh-well-of-course-they-are characters who are gay, queer, trans or whatever without singling them out as freaks is a very good thing for keeping minds open.

Simply treat everyone as matter-of-fact people doing what they can to get by in the world with their own thoughts, feelings and motivations -- not as archetypes or tropes -- and I think you'll clear the bar with room to spare.
posted by seanmpuckett at 10:08 AM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

When you describe the women characters, avoid mentioning the size of their breasts.

(I guess you can make exceptions for this if it's really important or if it's relevant to the plot. Most of the time, though, I roll my eyes so hard at books where male authors make a point to describe every female character's chest.)
posted by cadge at 10:45 AM on March 19, 2013 [9 favorites]

That old line about "writing what you know" seems appropriate here.

When people write unconsciously misogynistic books, it's usually because they know a whole lot about the dominant cultural narrative on What Women Are Like, and don't know very much about the actual women in their lives.

So I honestly think the best thing is just to be a thoughtful feminist and a good ally to the women you know in real life. Keep working on listening and understanding and not assuming and not projecting and so on. Because that's the hard part. Once you've got that down, treating your fictional characters with the same respect is gonna be a piece of cake.

I got a review of my sci-fi novel that noted that the women in the book were by and large smarter, stronger and "better" than the men, and that made me kinda happy -- primarily because I didn't do that intentionally. I've found the same pattern in my urban fantasy stuff.

Careful, though. There are authors who do this to a really pathological degree, and it can turn into a creepy sort of pedestal-putting. F'rinstance, Neal Stephenson has written a lot of "Strong Female Characters," but a lot of people still find his treatment of them incredibly problematic. (They definitely make me cringe. I can't shake the impression that he writes about tough competent women because he finds toughness and competence to be a turn-on, or because he looks down on women who are vulnerable. It's just a vague impression I get -- but it's sure not the sort of impression you want to be giving, whether or not it's true.)

The thing is, feminism doesn't actually mean you have to think all women are totally fierce omnicompetent badasses. It means you have to try to understand the way the world looks like from lots of different women's points of view -- including from the points of view of women who are really not all that competent or that badass at all.
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 11:53 AM on March 19, 2013 [4 favorites]

Or, to put it another way: in addition to avoiding this pitfall you need to make sure you're avoiding this one.
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 12:00 PM on March 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

Are there other simple-to-express checks like the Bechdel Test for measuring gender bias and feminism in fiction?

One more thing to keep in mind is that the Bechdel Test, like BMI, is most useful as a population or macro-level indicator, and you don't need to worry about every thing you write hitting every feminist mark. There will be individual stories--good stories!--in your oeuvre that have the women's prespective underrepresented or don't have a female presence at all, but on the whole, the reader should come away with a variety of viewpoints that mirror what you want to say about the world and the people in it. Jeanne's advice is good.
posted by psoas at 12:07 PM on March 19, 2013

A nice exercise: try writing a piece, even if it's a short story, that only has female characters, because that will teach you a lot about your own assumptions about what women are capable of/interested in/can do/think about, and what roles they inhabit in your mind, and what plots you find yourself unconsciously limited to.

My personal pet peeves:

If a character undergoes a 'tragedy' sometime during the story or in backstory, men tend to suffer by having their friends or family or lover victimized, while women tend to suffer by being the victims. Extreme examples of this to illustrate it are are The Punisher (his family is murdered! he will get revenge!) and the hacker from Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (she was raped! she will get revenge!).

One thing I do from a writing perspective is to evaluate my male and female characters and ask: are they acting or reacting to the circumstances? I've noticed the tendency to have male characters to see a conflict and then take decisive action about it, carving out the plot for themselves. Comparatively, female characters see a conflict and become victimized by it, their decisions made in reaction to external pressures rather than their own agency.

Those are trends, though, not "don't do this ever" rules.

As a quick gender test, you can install Jailbreak the Patriarchy extension for chrome, put your writing into an HTML or txt file, and open it with your browser. Toggle the plugin and it will reverse all the genders for you.
posted by subject_verb_remainder at 12:27 PM on March 19, 2013 [8 favorites]

There will be individual stories--good stories!--in your oeuvre that ... don't have a female presence at all

It's a matter of opinion, I suppose, but as a woman and a feminist, I disagree. Unless maybe it's a story about monks.

Be especially careful with this if your story is set in a historically male subculture. This is how (incorrect) ideas about "proper" roles for women self-perpetuate, and how women's participation in the world is erased. Even the mafia and biker gangs on TV have strong female characters, and it simply is NOT accurate to leave women out of these types of stories.

Stories that feature zero female characters, or female characters who are only love interests, are my ultimate worst pet peeve in terms of feminist media criticism.
posted by Sara C. at 12:58 PM on March 19, 2013 [5 favorites]

I'm not a woman, but a great piece of advice I've read on this (which applies not just to women, but to writing any group you're not a member of personally) is to write a LOT of those characters, and make them all different. If you notice any uncomfortable similarities between characters of a certain group, you can work on that. If not, well then you've already got a diverse cast of characters and that'll probably solve any problems right there.
posted by Navelgazer at 2:48 PM on March 19, 2013

Depending on the universe / content of your stories, flipping the genders may not be all that appropriate. How do women in your stories have different experiences that would inform their behavior? Is there universally available contraception/abortion, for example?

Also, MY FEMINISM WILL BE INTERSECTIONAL OR IT WILL BE BULLSHIT. Are you including characters who are more broadly diverse - people of color, disabled people, trans* people, poor people? Are you part of feminist / feminist-ally / social-justice-oriented communities? There isn't a simple test to see if your writing is feminist because it's not simple, and because there are many feminisms.

Reading some feminist/queer SF will also help with this. Ursula K. LeGuin, Joanna Russ, Samuel Delaney... IIRC there have been threads with good suggestions.
posted by momus_window at 6:30 PM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Just wanted to say this isn't entirely true:

"I self-publish, so it's not like I have professional editing support."

There are plenty of professional freelance editors out there who will work with self-publishing authors. Have a look at for info on how to find one (and more)

Caveat - that is a client of mine and I am mentioned on the list of editors, however I am a busy editor with no slots coming up in the near future, so I'm so not touting for business, just offering a word of advice!
posted by LyzzyBee at 4:41 AM on March 20, 2013

I write sci-fi and also urban fantasy (with a heavy dose of erotica)

Go back and flip the gender of every character in your story. All the males are now female. All the females are now male. You aren't writing historical fiction, so it shouldn't be unbelievable if your powerful leader is now a woman and her happy spouse is a man.

But also have a look at your book's heterosexual romantic partnerships and see if there's a good reason why some of them can't be made male-male or female-female or whatever. In this case, the president might become a woman but the first lady might remain a first lady.
posted by pracowity at 8:09 AM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You've received lots of good, practical examples for writing techniques as well as some great advice on writers and forums to read. I'd like to offer a few examples of other media where the writers have, at least to some extent, used these or similar techniques, as a hopefully-helpful appendix/resource.

(Note that none of these examples are perfect in all ways. Intersectionality is, as noted above, a huge issue. However, I do feel there is value in pointing out specific examples of where people have Gotten It Right at least as far as gender is concerned, and then encouraging writers to keep going and work on other areas such as race, gender expression, sexual orientation, age, disability, etc.)

The show Person of Interest, while by no means perfect (especially in portraying women who aren't young and conventionally attractive), has in my opinion done better than average in not just making all the one-off characters guys. A few specific examples that stick out in my mind:
-the show's Detective Carter (who is a really well-written character in her own right) has had cause to work with a Secret Service agent and a CIA agent in the course of various episodes; both of these agents were women.
-One episode featured two people with the same name and social security number. One was a rough-looking male bartender, one was an upper-class female antiques buyer. One of these people was an identity thief and drug dealer, one a victim. Turns out, the criminal mastermind was the woman; a good reversal of the low-class-men-victimize-white-ladies trope.
-One episode featured a heart surgeon, known to be the best in the state, who was secretly operating on an industrialist who feared his stock would suffer if his health problems were made public. The villain, hoping to make a fortune short-selling the stock, threatened to kill the surgeon's wife if the surgeon did not kill the patient through a "mistake" on the operating table. What was different? In this case, the surgeon was played by a woman of color. The show did not remark on this fact in any way differently than it usually remarks on plots where a person's loved ones are in danger- it wasn't an "OMG GAY MARRIAGE" plot, it was a standard crime/thriller plot where some of the people involved just happened to be women who were married to each other.
-The show is not shy about having villains who are women as well as men, and these women have lots of interesting and fleshed-out reasons for their actions beyond the ordinary Television Bad Lady "black widow/femme fatale" and "revenge for being cheated on and/or abused" motivations. For example, there is the above mentioned serial identity thief/con artist; a rogue CIA agent seeking revenge on the government agents who ordered her killed; a hacker genius who wants to pave the way for our new robot overlords; a woman who (in a reversal of the usual gender roles in TV) wants to get revenge on someone who hurt her brother; and so on.

As previously mentioned, Kaylee from Firefly is a nice example of a woman who loves engines AND pretty poofy dresses, because those are both things she likes. As mentioned above, you don't have to have a leather jacket and punch a lot of dudes to be a strong female character.

For a good example of the "gender flip" technique in action, look at the video game series Mass Effect. Mass Effect is a trilogy of role-playing games where the player can choose to play the hero (Commander Shepard) as either a man or a woman. Because of the necessities of game production, this had to mean that the majority of the game events and dialogue had to happen the same way in either case, with just a pronoun switch. (Certain things change based on selected gender- mostly the identity of potential love interests in the game but also a few conversations where certain people will treat a male or female Shepard differently- but most of the game is the same.)

Because of this fact, playing Mass Effect as a female Shepard was a transformative experience for me as a female gamer. It was the first time I played a plotty, intricate game with a woman hero who was a fully voiced, fully developed character without the game making sure to offset her agency by making her super-sexualized, making her defer important decisions to male characters, undermining her authority, giving her a breathy, "sexy" voice, etc. Commander Shepard gives orders that sound like orders; she makes decisions and stands by them; she leads a squad (of men, woman, and aliens) who respect and honor her leadership, combat skills, and courage; she is widely acknowledged as a hero within the setting of the game; she wears armor and military uniforms that are practical in design (no belly shirts, no cleavage, only minor boob-molding on the breastplate). When she moves, she doesn't mince around, she strides and stomps, because she's a badass space marine. (Please note that you could totally be a badass space marine and also have a high-pitched voice or whatever; however, most video games don't let their female characters do anything ELSE, which is why I enjoy being able to experience the opposite.)

Now, I'm not saying that everything in the series is great-- particularly in the second game where certain newly-introduced characters have a heavily sexualized design-- but it's useful to look at, both as an example of the genderswap technique for examing your writing for overlooked sexism, and as an example of the impact that this can have on your readers. I was completely unprepared for how amazing it felt to play through Mass Effect without having to constantly overlook the sexist tropes that are common in games. The more I played, and the more I kept not having to roll my eyes at "armor" that exposes vital areas of the body, or be annoyed at how a character was supposedly taking part in interstellar politics while sounding like a 900 line, or feel angry that all the female characters on my squad are healers or magicians and all the male ones get heavy weapons or punching? The more I felt invested in the story, the more I loved the game, the more I found myself actually, in real life, energized and empowered, feeling ready to take on the world. Playing that game made me feel like a hero in a way I'd never experienced before in more than 10 years of being a heavy and enthusiastic gamer. I had never realized how much the sexism in video games bothered me until I played a game that was (mostly) without it.

So for that, I say: thank you for making this effort to improve your writing in this way. Your readers will benefit. You will benefit, both by knowing that you are doing the right thing and more commercially. And your writing will benefit, because your characters will be people, and people are fun to read about.
posted by oblique red at 10:13 AM on March 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

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