Are Women Responsible for the Increase in First-Person Storytelling?

The use of first-person pronouns "I" and "me" in literature increased 42% over the past half-century. Is the rise of women writers responsible?

This article is from the archive of our partner .

Columnists have long lamented that modern America has become a me-first generation, and there is now some science behind that assertion. Or so says a new study by San Diego State researchers published in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, which analyzed literature written between 1960 and 2008, noted the slight decline of "we" and "us" and the exceptional rise of "I" and "me."

We hypothesize that pronoun use will reflect increasing individualism and decreasing collectivism in American culture. Consistent with this hypothesis, the use of first person plural pronouns (e.g., we, us) decreased 10% [and] first person singular pronouns (I, me) increased 42%.

But there is a second explanation for why the first person is being used so much, besides the rise of individualism—the rise in women's writing.

As Sarah Burnside noted in a column in The Guardian last week, "Why are op-eds written by women more prone to verge on the personal?" Women are underrepresented across almost all topics of conversation of media, particularly politics or economics, but they write a majority of stories on relationship/parenting advice and gender articles. These both easily lend themselves — demand, I might say — a first-person perspective. A "feelpinion."

Part of this female first-person fascination is pushed by women themselves (think mommy-bloggers), and part is pushed by their editors. In 2008, Courtney E. Martin and Hannah Seligson at  The Huffington Post called this personalization of stories "The Carrie Bradshaw Effect," from the Sex and the City character:

Courtney pitches a story on immigrant women; the editors at a major magazine want a graphic expose on sex trafficking, hopefully first person. Hannah was told by a very prominent TV agent that if she wrote more about her love life, she'd have a better on-air career; never mind that her latest book is on workplace politics (and not the kind that involve tongue-kissing in the copy room).

It's not that women are naturally more like navel-gazers, but editors promote women writers to approach stories that way. Sarah Menkedick tells a similar story of a visit to a New York literary agency, in which she and other women authors' non-personal stories were turned into personal, coming-of-age tales of young girls:

And what we noticed was that two writers in particular started to emphasize the personal, because that was what drew interest: they’d given their pitches sans personal details and backgrounds, and the moment they mentioned their families, their histories, they could see the difference.

Of course, this personalization can be seen among men, too — think the gonzo journalism of Hunter S. Thompson, or just look at the latest Paul Krugman article — but it most affects women, who may feel boxed in to their first-person topics, separate from "serious journalism," as The Atlantic Wire contributing editor Jessica Grose noted.

The rapid increase in the use of "I" and "me" is not just a story of rising individualism and personal empowerment, as the study's authors suggest; it's a story of how far women have come, and also how far there is to go.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.