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_Cattermole.jpg
"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.

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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