The Missing Women Problem in Fiction

I have to confess something: I’m at a point in my life where I am unable to enjoy films, shows or books that are so clearly geared towards a male audience. What do I mean by this? I mean, if there are no women in the story, or the women are reduced to mere love interests for the male protagonists and nothing more, I simply refuse to consume this type of content. Not just out of principle, but also out of boredom and disappointment at the writers of stories of this type. Let me exemplify:

Recently, when I told a friend that I had never seen The Lord of the Rings or its sequels, he immediately suggested we marathon the trilogy because “what do you mean you’ve never seen The Lord of the Rings?!” He had grown up loving the movies, and I was intrigued enough that I agreed to watch them even though they never interested me before. Don’t get me wrong; I love a good high fantasy story as much as the next guy, but the hobbits/goblins/elves type of fantasy is really not for me. That said, I’d heard so much about The Lord of the Rings, and was told that it’s one of those films that you have to see at least once in your life because it’s just that good. So, we watched all three movies in one sitting (the extended cuts at that), and at the end I had two thoughts: one, that while the world-building was quite well done, I didn’t care much for the story, and two, where the hell were all the women?

The way I saw it, there are two types of women in the story: they are either passive love interests of one of the main dudes, or they are all-powerful, ethereal elves who would give the main guy directions and advice and then remove themselves from the story (looking at you, Galadriel). There are no plotlines involving just women—everything they do, even if it is deemed “powerful” because they run some Orc through with a sword or something, is in service of the main male characters. Once I noticed the lack of women with their own stories and character arcs, the films simply became unenjoyable for me. There was nothing I could relate to as a woman, so why is it that I’m expected to spend more than ELEVEN HOURS of my life watching these movies? Cinematically, the films are well-directed and acted, but beyond that, the story is utterly boring to me. 

I don’t want to just rant about how much I didn’t like The Lord of the Rings, so I’m going to also talk about something else: Death Note, the anime. I’d never seen anime before, so I thought I’d give Death Note a try. I was instantly hooked by the story and the intricate cat-and-mouse game between Light and L, and was pleasantly surprised and excited when the owner of the second Death Note was revealed to be a girl! I pondered on the possibilities, wondering how the show was going to explore the dynamic of having a female Death-Note-owning serial killer, compared to a male one like Light. You can imagine my disappointment when I found out that she is reduced to a blubbering, incompetent, dumb and careless figure who obsesses over Light and lives to obey and serve him. I had to stop watching the show soon after her character was introduced because it was simply ridiculous and entirely unrealistic to have a character like Misa (her insanely shrill voice didn’t help either). I can’t speak to misogyny within anime as a genre because I’ve only seen Death Note, but from what I can tell, Death Note isn’t the only anime that struggles with developing female characters. 

My issue is not just with quantity, but also quality—with how the women in a story are portrayed. I’m sure most are familiar with the Bechdel test, which dictates that a work passes it if there is a scene which includes two women talking about something unrelated to a male character. The Bechdel test is popular because it implies that the female characters in a story must have their own narrative arcs independent of the men in the story, but it has its failings. With certain stories, it is completely okay to have a story with a small number of women or none at all, given the context. For instance, Cast Away, a movie about Tom Hanks being stranded on an island with a volleyball, might not pass the Bechdel test, but that does not make it problematic. But, if your Fellowship is supposed to represent all beings in Middle Earth, wouldn’t it make sense to have at least one woman in there? To compensate for the failings of the Bechdel test, people over the years have developed other tests. There’s the Peirce test, according to which there must be a multi-dimensional, authentic female character with her own story, who has ambitions and desires that she ultimately pursues, thus creating action. There’s the Mako Mori test, which calls for a female character with a narrative arc that stands on its own and doesn’t support a man’s story. And lastly my favorite, the sexy lamp test: “If you can replace your female character with a sexy lamp and the story still basically works, maybe you need another draft.” Think The Great Gatsby, or Superman: Man of Steel.

This problem doesn’t only exist in audiovisual media either; plenty of novels lack fleshed-out female characters. The Western canon is full of books that are written by misogynistic men, for misogynistic men. While many of them are great works of art with immaculate style and prose, the treatment of women in the stories takes away from the quality of the work. Jack Kerouac, Vladimir Nabokov and Ernest Hemingway may be great writers, but the way they portray the female characters in their novels is troubling. You might say they are products of their time, and you may be right, which leads us to the question: then why are their works still glorified, recommended and even taught at schools to this day? 

In 2015, Esquire put out a list called “The 80 Best Books Every Man Should Read”. It makes sense that a magazine geared towards men would put out such a list, but it’s the content of this list that I take issue with. There’s nothing wrong with compiling a list of books that every man should read to become a better person, but most of them are “manly” books, in that they are about violence, war, and objectifying women. Books shouldn’t confine us to a gender and the stereotypes that come with it; on the contrary, literature, and stories in general, exist to broaden our horizons, deepen our sense of empathy, and grant us access to different perspectives. This is why I find it upsetting that given the list boasts “the greatest works of literature ever published”, 79 of the 80 books are written by men. Rebecca Solnit of the Lithub responds to this by pointing out that “a book without women is often said to be about humanity, but a book with women in the foreground is a woman’s book”. Why is it that a story about men is seen as neutral and enjoyable by everyone including women, but a story about women is to be enjoyed by women only? For goodness’ sake, there is a whole genre of stories called “chick flick”, which are geared towards women and therefore are not seen as having any artistic or literary value. If you ask me, one of the novels that should be in Esquire’s list is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. It’s one of those novels that get branded as “chick flick” because it’s a love story, but there’s much in it that men can learn from. The reason women still swoon over Darcy is because his character development is all about gaining perspective and learning to consider others’ feelings; he takes no for an answer and backs off after Elizabeth rejects him, and still treats her with respect and dignity. I’d wager there’s more for men to learn about life and human relationships in Pride and Prejudice than, say, in Post Office by Charles Bukowski. 

In response to Solnit, Elissa Strauss of Elle comprises a list of “10 Misogynistic Novels Every Woman Should Read”, containing some of the novels from the Esquire list. Her argument is that “we need to read books by and about macho, sexist proto-frat boys because they are our past”, and only when women understand the inner workings of misogyny can we start to dismantle it. I’m sorry, but what? Women already know what misogyny is! We experience it on a regular basis! We don’t need to read shitty books by shitty men in order to understand it! At this point, it’s not enough to read a novel or watch a movie and point out the sexist parts; we must actively be promoting stories by women and for women, and encourage men to expose themselves to these kinds of stories. 

That said, liking things like The Lord of the Rings or Death Note doesn’t automatically make you a misogynist. Especially as a man, the lack of women in a story might not affect you directly or mean much to you, but as long as you recognize this aspect of the story and critically engage with it, I see no reason you shouldn’t enjoy it. My point is that women who would prefer not to subject themselves to that negativity are also valid, and I am one such woman. If your story doesn’t have any real, authentic women in it, that’s a deliberate choice you’re making. And in that case, I have better things to do with my time.


1 Comment

  1. lindawis says:

    “Where the hell are all the women?” indeed. This reminds me of waking to the lack of representation of Black people in the books and movies of my youth. When we only see what we are familiar with, we don’t know what we are missing. And when we see, for the first time, there’s no going back, no ‘unseeing.’

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