Female Protagonists & Why I Connect With Them Across Gender Lines

So someone recently commented and called me on the fact that I had said I would elaborate on the statement that I very rarely read stories with male leads and feel more connected to female characters.

Now this wasn’t always the case I can clearly remember being younger and reading a whole lot of F/SF without regard to what gender the lead character was. As I got older (10-12) I started to find that the books that had male leads started to not satisfy me in the same way that the ones with female leads did. I connected more with the female characters, was more invested in their journey, cared about their trials and tribulations in a way that I didn’t when it came to the male leads.

This is also around the age that I started to become more aware, mostly subconsciously, that being African-American separated me from most of my friends in a really profound way. The large majority of my friends were white and a lot of that had to do with where I went to school (Private School, Beverly Hills, San Fernando Valley, Chino Hills), not to say there weren’t people of color or that I wasn’t friends with them but the majority of my friends were white. I felt isolated a lot throughout high school and didn’t really know why consciously except that I saw that some teachers treated differently, some people were colder to me, I was ignored sometimes compared to the way my white friends were treated.

I felt that I needed to be on guard a lot, that I was alone. Now this is often the the storyline of a lot of F/SF: the loner that is outcast for some reason and might be more than she seems. Yes, it’s true of male characters as well but I felt the deep kinship for the female characters because often in that storyline it was their gender that was hated: something they were born into, something they couldn’t change/alter and just had to deal with. The normal resolution of such a storyline is the protagonist finding their own way to accept themselves and yet still be accepted by society in some way. But at the end of the story the women were still women, it was nothing they could change and they often had to prove themselves over and over, sometimes to the same person. It was something I could relate to.

Often with the male protags, the story ended, they got the girl and everyone accepted the magic/mutation/choice that had made them an outcast before. With female protags it was like I could see that the fight wasn’t over, that they would continue fighting for respect and acceptance the rest of their lives and that’s something I can really connect with.

This is not to say that all People of Color feel this way, or should feel this way but this was where my experience led me. And the more I read of female protags the more I wanted to, the more I connected with them, the more the ideas of feminism became entrenched in me. At the time I wasn’t aware that there was such a thing as POC Sci-Fi and I don’t know if that would have changed my perceptions or politics, it’s something I can never really answer. Now with my feminist politics and my years long connection with female characters my reading is almost exclusively female protagonists. Although if something is amazing or transgressive or if there is a good population of female characters that aren’t caricatures then I’ll read a male character but that’s a rare thing. I mean there are always exceptions.

It’s very cyclical, the more I connected with female characters the more I liked them and the more I wanted to connect with them. It also influenced my feminist leanings and the more I became a feminist, the more I started reading works by Barbara Smith, Angela Davis, Judith Butler, bell hooks, etc.As I read these books my understanding of gender (and race w/ some) deepened and the more I was angry at the books with male leads for often simply tweaking a real life sexist stereotype and making that a character for the protag to fight/fall in love with/etc.

And it’s beyond books at this point if there’s not a reasonably strong female presence in film/tv I don’t connect with the story as well and it can get boring pretty quick. Although there is much more leeway with film/tv than with books there does usually need to be at least some female presence for me to become engrossed or connected with the story.

So yes , that is my reasoning. I don’t know if it’s completely coherent but that’s why 95 – 99% of the stuff I read has female leads. I find their struggles more realistic, I find their reactions more believable and I simply find them more interesting.

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9 responses to “Female Protagonists & Why I Connect With Them Across Gender Lines

  1. Argh! I wrote a long ass frakking response only to lose it when I tried to post it. Ok, I’ll try to be brief… (that’s a lie).

    I want to thank you for writing this post because I’ve often felt isolated in my propensity for female centric fiction. Or rather my complete distaste for stories that either present women as stereotypes or ignore them altogether. I’m glad someone else feels the same way I do. Even though my friends now know of my proclivities they still acknowledge them with a smirk, as though I’m weird for being this way. I wish more people rejected the white straight male norm, then maybe there wouldn’t be so much shitty F/SF out there.

    It’s interesting that you liken gender with race because one of the only books I’ve ever liked that has a complete lack of female characters is Lost in the Barrens by Farley Mowat. Maybe I liked it anyway because it deals with racial prejudice.

    So I guess what it comes down to is what I’ve long suspected: White cisgendered males don’t get it because they’ve never faced any adversity and if one has never suffered then one probably won’t acknowledge the suffering of others and one will end up being an ignorant ass with an entitlement complex. (but I’m not bitter or anything). There are exceptions of course but even the “good” ones… Recently I was shocked when my brother, whom I’ve always considered to be relatively enlightened, said that rape wasn’t a significant problem because it happens so infrequently. !!!!!

    *sigh* Anyway, sorry for the long rant and thanks again.

    P.S. What is your take on fiction that has female protags but is written by men?

  2. Nique –
    On female protags written by men I do have a little of a bias seeing as what I read is what I write and 90% of my protags are female. That being admitted and on the table I think it can be done very well, the first book of the Merchant Family series by Charles Stross has a female protag that I found interesting and don’t think I found that problematic at the time. Though I didn’t continue reading the series it was non-interest and not being offended. Also Ted Naifeh’s graphic novel series Courtney Crumrin, I love Courtney with a large level of unholy glee.

    However I do think it’s much more often done very badly and uses stereotypes instead of characterization, the first example that springs to mind is Matthew Cook’s recent novel Blood Magic from Juno, which drove me so insane I almost didn’t finish it.

    In the end I approach fiction written by men with a female protag very cautiously because I often find that they are not interested in portraying a person so much as their idea of what a woman should be and that always rests on stereotypes and their own male privilege.

  3. Can I link to this post from my lj?

    I’m increasingly aware that I tend to identify in stories and films with anyone who is not of the dominant white male persuasion, and you’ve nailed why: fundamentally most stories, even those that start with the outcast, end up with the protagonist being accepted into society through his triumph and despite his, um, quirks, whereas I – as a female – will never have that option in the same way. So any character who is at least one step out of that “mainstream” feels more like, well, me.

  4. Kate –
    Feel free to link to this post.

    And that’s exactly it! The quirks of the white male protagonist are almost never a lifelong physical attribute that will affect them and mark them for the rest of their life like being a woman or POC will.

  5. Pingback: Fem SF Carnival - I Has Teh Love « PodBlack Blog

  6. Wow – you just helped me answer a question I’ve been pondering lately. I used to read more books by male authors, but now find I’m reading very few, because they often seem less satisfying. WHY am I finding them less satisfying?

    I read a wide range of mainly genre fiction, and I read a lot. I’m always on the hunt for new authors that write books that make me think, ones with interesting, three dimensional characters and emotionally salient plots and character growth. I don’t care very much about the gimmick –and ALL books seem to have a trendy gimmick now – as long as the author makes it real, gives the world some rules that I can follow, and it isn’t TOO hokey. That said, when I do my weekly library run and grab ten books, even I get embarrassed when I realize I will pick up a flaming pink book titled “Tutu Deadly” or “Undercover in High Heels” before I pick up some ‘hard core’ male-authored mystery with a smoking gun on the cover, in my search for realistic character growth. How can I defend that bias?

    As soon as I read your post and the following comments, I ran to my many shelves holding my ‘keeper’ books and looked for the male authors that wrote about realistic leading female characters. I only found one – Richard Peck. His Blossom Culp is fantastic. Then I tried to find male authors with realistic female characters in ‘supporting’ roles. I didn’t find too many . . . and I realized that I was having trouble just thinking of male authors that didn’t actually piss me off with their characterization of women! The few male authors in my collection have stayed there by either writing more than thirty years ago (I go easier on slightly sexist leanings if I figure the author was less sexist than his environment), or basically wrote from the point of view of a male character that professed not to understand women very well! Roger Zelazny, Dick Francis, and James Herriot fall under both categories for the most part, where I decided to ‘overlook’ a few irritating circumstances. Jim Butcher and James O. Born fall into the second category – both of their main male protagonists make an effort to understand the actions and motivations (be they strong, weak, deep or shallow ) of the female characters, but often profess ignorance and sometimes confusion when attempts at chivalry blow up in their faces. Fair enough – at least they have thought about what it means to be strong and NOT a white male, and have their characters face off with some of their own lasting character flaws and disadvantages. They don’t just get to prove themselves to be a ‘real man’ once and for all, and have their detractors give in. Life JUST ISN’T THAT EASY.

    When I was younger, I just did what Diana Wynne Jones said she did – I read all the action and mystery novels with male protagonists, and I didn’t stop to think that they weren’t written for ME, and if that story came alive with me as the main character, the ending would not have panned out so neatly. But by the time I was 19, I eagerly opened The Lord of the Rings for the first time. . . and found I just couldn’t sympathize with a group of predominantly four-foot-tall 40 year old males who were off to save the world, acting like they were 14. Where were the women? Where were the realistically sticky interpersonal situations where good and evil weren’t so easy to define? I know, I know, they are CLASSICS and I should have been drawn in anyways . . . but I had already read some excellent books by people inspired by Tolkien and liked them better. After 90 pages, I still wasn’t sucked in . . . so I picked up a nice book called “Welcome to Temptation” featuring an apple with a big bite out of it on the cover, and had a very satisfying time devouring that. It turns out it was owned not by my dad’s friend Eva, but her millwright husband Georg – who said it was a bit of a chick flick, but he quite enjoyed it!

    That gives me hope that some of the female-authored fiction with leading male characters might ring true with male readers. Diana Wynne Jones, Lois McMaster Bujold, Vivian Vande Velde and Suzanne Brockmann have all written from the male viewpoint and as far as I can tell, they are on the money! Their characters often have challenges that will never disappear by the end of the book – they may have physical disabilities, mental health and/or self image issues, or have a different race, sexual orientation, or even a different species – and they deal with it in various ways every day, like REAL people. That’s what I connect with, and what I want in a story.

    Thanks for your very wise and provocative post!

  7. Lindsay:
    Thanks for the comment. I admit that I have many a time completely bypassed a lot of award winning male authored F/SF (we could really get into who gives away the awards and such but that’s a post for another time) and gone straight to what could be considered more trashy fare by women authors. My roommates from WisCon can fully attest that some of the books I picked up looked really kind of horrendous but I trusted the authors to give me female characters that did not rely on horrible stereotypes to fill out their personality something I’ve found less and less with the male authored books.

    And I’m so with you on the Tolkien, I trried I really really did but after about 100 pages I just gave up because that source material was not going to grab me in any way. Sometimes I think when people talk about “classics” we really have to examine what makes them classics and who exactly gets to give them that designation.

  8. You know you make a good point ,
    Maybe that’s why i’m more partial to female lead stories as well (being half white half mexican) .

  9. Misterfish-
    Thanks and I think that we often connect to those who’re also consider “outsiders” especially when the option of connecting to those just like us is rarely if ever there.

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