Do Readers Judge Female Characters More Harshly Than Male Characters?

A recent interview with author Claire Messud raises questions about how gender affects reading.
"Lady Macbeth," George Cattermole / Wikimedia Commons

John is ambitious, driven, and intelligent. He works for a high-profile consulting firm and sits on the advisory board of a political think tank. Hold him in your mind's eye, and ask yourself a question: In the absence of other information, would you want to be friends with him? Now, let's just change for a moment John's name to Joan. Repeat the same exercise. Would you want to be friends with her?

No matter what you answer in this hypothetical example—likely, you know the "right" answer and so respond accordingly—we know that, on the whole, this Joan would fare far worse on the friendship scale than her John counterpart. She would very likely be considered as less warm, and consequently, less appealing friend material. Successful, maybe. But someone you'd want to have a drink with? Not so much.

Over the last 30 or so years, work by social psychologists like Susan Fiske and Mina Cikara has repeatedly demonstrated that women are perceived and evaluated on different criteria than men: not only are the same traits that are seen as positive in one (say, assertiveness in men) reconstrued as negative in the other (say, pushiness in women), but we put different relative values on different traits depending on gender. Niceness, for instance, is seen as consistently more important in women than it is in men—something that high-profile women from Hillary Clinton to Margaret Thatcher have felt all too well, no matter what they try to do and how they try to act.

Now, even fictional females are feeling the sting. In an April 29 interview with Claire Messud, Publisher Weekly's Annasue McCleave Wilson wondered whether Messud would want to be friends with her protagonist, Nora. Nora was, after all, just so very angry, "almost unbearably grim."

"For heaven's sake, what kind of a question is that?" Messud shot back (understandably), proceeding to rattle off any number of unpleasant male protagonists, from Philip Roth's Mickey Sabbath to Dostoyevsky's Roskolnikov, about whom, one presumes, no one would even think to ask such a question. "If it's unseemly and possibly dangerous for a man to be angry," Messud says, "It's totally unacceptable for a woman to be angry."

McCleave's question—and Messud's outburst—raise two broader issues. First, do people treat male and female literary characters differently? That is, are readers actually more inclined to evaluate female, as opposed to male, protagonists on the basis of their potential as friendship material? And second, gender issues aside, what kind of a question is that, anyway—a legitimate one, or, in essence, a fairly dumb one? Should we be going to literature to look for potential friends in the first place?

Gender perception can be a pernicious thing: Where a lack of warmth passes in a male, in a woman, it's deadly. Messud is correct to point out that what is simply dangerous in a man is often seen as unacceptable in a woman. In fact, I would go a step further. Where anger can be seen as a relative positive in a man, it is hardly ever perceived as anything other than a negative in a woman. Consider: Assertiveness is repeatedly ranked as a positive, important central trait in males. In something known as the halo effect, we tend to evaluate secondary characteristics in light of the overarching primary ones that we look for. So, when we think of a male as assertive (good), we will likely reinterpret his anger as just a facet of that assertiveness. If we see a woman as lacking in warmth (bad), anger becomes a sign of her, to borrow McCleave's words, unbearable grimness.

It's not at all a far jump to think that overall perceptions of gender—and what is and is not important in gender roles—would carry over from life to fiction. After all, not only is the opposite frequently the case—a number of psychologists contend that we use fiction to learn empathy in our actual interactions—but our theories regarding other people tend to remain relatively constant, irrespective of context. Messud is certainly correct in calling out the gender-centric nature of her interviewer's perception of Nora; chances are good that, given a male character, interviewer and outside reader alike would be more likely to shrug off or smile at the anger (good old Sabbath, acting up again) instead of letting it color the entire reading.

But there's another issue at play here, gender considerations aside, and that's the nature of the question itself. Should we be looking to fiction for friendship material to begin with? Imagine for a moment that someone wrote an impassioned critique of Crime and Punishment on the basis of Raskolnikov's unworthiness, or denounced Macbeth because Lady Macbeth would likely turn out to be one of those frenemies who invites you for a sleepover and takes the opportunity to poison you and ruin your reputation on the chance your survive, or railed at The Inferno because, out of all of its major players, hardly a one would pass muster as friendship material. You'd dismiss any of those arguments as absurd from the get-go. Judge literature on the merits of its characters-as-my-best-friend material and you lop off the vast majority of the literary canon—and much of modern fiction along with it (goodbye, Jonathan Franzen; farewell, Raymond Carver, J. M. Coetzee, and Orhan Pamuk). Such a reading misses the point entirely.

Conduct that exercise, and you see how inane the question is to begin with. Why in the world would you possibly ask it? The goals of literature are multifold, but creating nice, positive protagonists that you'd want to grab drinks with or invite home to mom can hardly be considered one of them.

But here's the thing. I've never met McCleave, but I would guess that she is far from inane or unperceptive. I'd venture to guess that she simply didn't think twice about her question or its relative merit (or lack thereof) because, well, she was a woman talking to a woman about a woman. As David Daley pointed out in Salon, the question "might not be posed to a male author in quite this way." Nor, I would add, would it be posed the same way by a male interviewer (who would be all too aware of its potential bias) or about a male protagonist (who would be evaluated differently to begin with). McCleave thought herself on safe ground—and ran afoul of the gender biases that tend to permeate our perceptions on a fundamental level, female or no.

I hate writing about gender in literature. Not because I don't think it matters, but because there are others who do it better, on the one hand, and on the other hand, I find that you often have far more productive discussions—and address many of the same issues in a deeper way—when you stop letting gender be a necessary focal point.

Three years ago, Emily St. John Mandel wrote an essay in praise of unlikable characters. There was no gender frame to set her off, no conflict or media flurry to prompt her writing. It is a measured, insightful, engaging piece that deals evenly with men and women, with no other agenda than to talk about the nuance and intrigue that accompany protagonists you wouldn't let within arm's—make that city block's—length of you in real life. In fact, were they to bother you with overtures of friendship, you'd be apt to get a restraining order.

In researching this piece, St. John Mandel's essay is the single best writing on the subject of literary-characters-as-friends that I came across. Her conclusion sums up the argument beautifully:

The point is that these characters aren't real, even the ones wrought by a master like Updike. What is naïve and blinkered is the insistence that fictional characters be held to the same moral and behavioral standards we expect of our friends. It seems to me that part of the point of literature is to enlighten and expand, and there are few pleasures in fiction that expand our consciousness further than getting to observe the world from the perspective of characters so different from us, so thoroughly flawed, that if we were to encounter them in real life we wouldn't like them very much.

I don't think it an accident that gender had nothing to do with St. John Mandel's writing. She was just doing what a good literary critic should do: reading objectively, with an eye to merit and away from anything that has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with that merit—such as gender.

Would she have been able to accomplish that within a gender frame—or would the frame itself have belied the basic point? Consider Messud's immediate reaction to her interviewer's question. Straight off, she becomes quite defensive. She rattles off a list of other negative males who have been judged in a far different light from her Nora and goes to great lengths to explain that the question should instead deal with the merits of the literature itself ("is this character alive?"), essentially explaining McCleave's job—and her engrained bias—to her in not so many words.

That reaction would have been quite different had the question been posed to, say, Philip Roth. True, Roth would likely never be asked that to begin with. But what if, for the sake of argument, he were? I'd imagine he would have raised an eyebrow, called out its sheer stupidity, and moved on. He wouldn't have expended an extra ounce of energy on responding. He wouldn't have moved on to gender, or thought of gender, or considered deeper gendered implications. He would just call it out for what it is. Stupid, regardless of anything else.

Why doesn't Messud just call McCleave out and leave it at that? It's simple. She can't. "For heaven's sake, what kind of a question is that?" she asks. What kind of a question, indeed. End of story for a Roth. But it's not the end of the story for Messud, or any other female for that matter, because she realizes that it is, fundamentally, inspired by a gendered reading. And so, she goes to great lengths to bat it back.

Is that the right approach? I'm not sure. On the one hand, I do understand where Messud is coming from—and I think it's safe to assume that neither McCleave nor anyone else will be asking anything similar in the near future. But on the other hand, is it really worth giving such blatant wrongness the benefit of intellectual discussion? Something so grossly misguided may not be worthy of serious response. What kind of a question is that? The kind that may not merit further consideration to legitimize its points or its underlying assumptions.

Presented by

Maria Konnikova

Maria Konnikova is the author of Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes and the forthcoming book The Confidence Game. She is a contributing writer for The New Yorker, online.

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