Genre Talk

Gender Bias in Book Reviews–Are You Guilty? (I am!)

genderBet you thought this was going to be a post about the recent dustup over women science fiction writers and how they just don’t get no respect. Wrong.

A recent review of one of my books (Storm Force, written as Susannah Sandlin) was given two stars because, the reviewer said, “I find it amazing that a female author would use so much foul language.” My first reaction was to laugh. My second was to squelch the urge to laugh some more. Then I started thinking about what kind of expectations we go into a book with based on the gender of the author…or the gender of the characters.

And, to my horror, I’ve been guilty of it. In my own books, my male characters use MUCH fouler language than my female characters, although I get brownie points for putting those words in their mouths. (Well, okay, I have a prickly little eagle shapeshifter who’s been known to string a few four-letter words together.)

We also tend to judge the characters in books we read according to the old sexist tropes.

Look at the words we use for the male leads of novels: alpha, damaged hero, noble but misguided, strong, brusque but with a heart of gold. If the guy’s a total asshat, we call him an antihero or an alpha that can be turned into mush with the love of the right woman.

Words we use for the female leads of novels? Kickass (never alpha), smart, strong, too stupid to live (have you ever seen that label applied to a male character?).

Same with “Mary Sue.” It’s never “Jimmie Ray.”

Snarky. A guy might be humorous, have a dry wit, or be funny as hell, but how often have you seen Harry Dresden, whom I adore, by the way, described as snarky?)

What about “sassy”?  Ever seen a sassy hero? Smart and strong are good things, but usually we just assume the male characters are smart and strong without having to say it. With women characters, we seem to feel the need to point it out.

So I think there’s some language we use unconsciously when we read books, even in reviewing or describing them ourselves.

I’m not really going anywhere with this. It just struck me as interesting this week. What do you think? Do you see a gender bias in book reviews? Do you think we unconsciously create a gender bias in how we look at the characters in the novels we love–or is that just a natural difference in the way we see men and women?

12 thoughts on “Gender Bias in Book Reviews–Are You Guilty? (I am!)

  1. I don’t think it’s a gender bias in book reviews particularly. I think it’s just a difference in the way we — as in, readers — are supposed to want the characters to be. Everyone has this idea of ‘what readers want’.

    As in, ‘Readers won’t like it if your heroine is too hard-ass’. I think every book I’ve ever submitted, I’ve had the editor ask me to make the heroine less of a hard-ass.

    No one ever says, ‘Your hero is too much of a tough guy. Readers won’t like a tough hero. Can you soften him up a bit?’

    Oh, and I loathe the word ‘sassy’. Ditto ‘snarky’. What they really mean is ‘pain in the ass’. I think that’s an example of reversed gender bias, if you like. Heroines (especially UF heroines) are allowed — nay, encouraged — to be angry, prickly and wise-ass all the time, for no particular reason, and we call it ‘strong’. A male character would never get away with this. And no one ever says to the heroine, ‘Jeez, why are you so confrontational all the time? Chill out, won’t you? Stop making everything into a fight.’ For some reason, it’s okay for a woman to use ‘asshole’ (we usually call it ‘bitch’, which I guess is a gender bias thing) as her shield. A guy is expected to use ‘strong and silent’ or ‘man whore’. When a guy acts like an asshole, apparently, he’s not shielding anything. He’s just an asshole.

    A good example is the orange alien girl (I forget her name) in the tv show Defiance. You know, the main male character’s adopted daughter? Her first and only reaction to everything is to punch someone. Blam! Imagine if a male character behaved like that.

    • Good points, Erica–there are expectations on both sides of the gender fence, and when differing expectations clash (say, between an editor and an author and a reader)….well, it’s hard to please everyone. I’ve had my UF heroine criticized as being bitchy, but she’s a pussycat next to her male partner, who’s all sexy and alpha, apparently. Can’t win!

  2. I think it is also something being a male word, and something being a female word. A man is handsome, a woman is pretty or beautiful. And yes, where a female character can be kick ass, a male saying those things would just be rude and agressive. But I do like my heroines to be strong and kick ass, so that is fine with me. But don’t give me a hero who is a bully (like the 80’s men), as I will hate him.

    But back to your point of cursing: I am not a fan of much cursing and swearing in real life, and also not in the books I read. I do put up with it in BDB, as I have gotten used to it, and I still enjoy watching Gordon Ramsey. But that are all males who swear so much, and somehow, males have grown up learning that it is ok for them, and women are not supposed to do that, it is not ladylike. Or perhaps we think more about how we curse, what we really are saying. In Dutch, most cursewords are bad diseases, and in American/English, it are more often insults.

    • Hi Aurian! Yes, you’re right. Women can be as kickass as we can make them, but the same behavior in a male character can be construed as abusive or bullying. There are some women bullies out there, though!

      Re: Cursing. One reason that review amused me so is that I rarely curse (at least not the major four-letter words). It fits certain characters and types of stories, though. And in my UF series, I’ve had reviewers complain because my characters don’t curse, or very rarely so–which to that reviewer made it read like a YA book. Gah.

      If it fits the character and tone of the book, like with the BDB, it doesn’t bother me. If the author’s using language as a crutch to give “dimension” to an otherwise flat character, I don’t like it at all. So it all depends….

  3. Totally guilty here. I write alpha heroes and you’re right. We don’t say ALPHA heroine! I cuss like a sailor, but only to myself (usually at my computer) and among close friends. Never in public. My characters? Some cuss (male and female) and some don’t. And horror of horrors, I’m writing a book now and guess what the heroine’s name is? Gulp. SASSY. Oh, Lord.

    • Ha! Lexi, I think your heroine wins points for owning her sassy! Awesome!

      I cuss like a sailor, too, but only among my close friends. I try to dial it down in my books, but sometimes, the situation calls for a little bit of creative eloquence.

  4. Unfortunately, I do think gender influences my book-buying habits. I’m much more likely to pick up a book written by a woman. But this could be because the genres I enjoy most (romance and urban fantasy) are written predominately by women.

    • Me too, AJ. And I hadn’t given than much thought until you pointed it out. Back when I used to read Horror and French lit, most works were by male authors… but yes, romance and UF/PNR = primarily female authors.

  5. Great post! 🙂

    I definitely think male characters get away with MUCH more questionable behavior because we wrap it up in the Alpha label and redeem him later, but if the female character wanders into the bitch area, she’s often never forgiven…

    It’s a really interesting thought… Guys are sarcastic, girls are snarky….

    Lots to think about!


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