Faring well, my lovely?

Speaking a couple of years ago, British writer and journalist Caitlin Moran, reflecting on the benefit of having read primarily women writers when growing up, said this, in addressing young female readers: “I hugely recommend that girls, if you’re feeling a bit weird about yourselves, just give yourselves a year off from reading male writers writing about women and just read women writers writing about women. You know, we talk to each other; we know what’s really going on. Men still see us as these mad cartoons to be laid… [whereas women writers] will nourish your souls and bone.”

It may be fair to note, Moran largely references here a time period — and perhaps genres — in which the male gaze prevails. A term coined by film theorist Laura Mulvey in 1975, the ‘male gaze’ refers, of course, to circumstances in which female characters in film and literature are presented to provide pleasure to masculine, heterosexual males. Moran cites the example of Raymond Chandler, known for his misogynistic representations of women in his work. Sample quotes include: “From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class. From 10 feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away.” (in The High Window, 1942). And “She gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket.” (in Farewell, My Lovely, 1940). As Moran acknowledges, these are clever, snappy lines – but undeniably objectifying and reductive representations of the women, who rarely appear elsewhere in Chandler’s works as well-rounded characters.

Has literary representation of women changed since, say, the 1940s? That may be hard to gauge. Again, a lot depends on the genre, and there’s always a degree of subjectivity. However, in terms of the ‘space’ and prominence given to female authors and to female characters in published literature, the picture appears bleak.

Around a similar time to Moran’s above-mentioned interview, research was undertaken by the Universities of Illinois and Berkeley into the changing significance of gender in fiction, particularly the characterisation of women. It asked whether depiction of female characters has changed from the end of the eighteenth century to the early 21st, examining 104,000 works of fiction that dated from 1780 up to 2007. The researchers did find that differences in language used to describe fictional men and women has become less marked, or less ‘gendered’, in the past 170 years. Yet they also found:
a. decline in the proportion of fiction written by women (from women comprising half of published authors to around one quarter today), and
b. the number of female characters in literature (women or girls) also dropping significantly.

In fiction books by men, the study found, women occupy around a quarter to one third of the character-space, on average. In fiction by women, the gender representation is much

Starting early: children’s books more likely to have central male than female lead characters

closer to equal – though bear in mind, as noted above, women authors write only around twenty-five per cent of literary publications. Commenting in a Guardian newspaper write-up of the research, Kate Mosse, novelist and founder of the UK’s Women’s prize for fiction, noted that: “When we were setting up the prize, we discovered that when a book by a woman won a prize, it was more likely to have a male protagonist.” Interesting.

Concerningly, this is a trend that appears to start early. A different Guardian article reported in 2019 on research on the current top 100 illustrated children’s books, which showed that male characters dominate. They found a child 1.6 times more likely to read one of the most popular children’s publications featuring a male rather than a female lead, for example (and, even more notably, only five of the children’s bestsellers featured a BAME character in a main role – a separate but related topic, and a significant one).

This matter appears to have a relation to the post on ‘women’s fiction’ that I blogged about in April, here. Roughly speaking, fiction by men and featuring male central characters is for everyone, whereas fiction by women and featuring female central characters is regarded as being for women readers. A very crude analysis, I acknowledge, and we can certainly name exceptions — but personally, I think there is some germ of truth in it.

What do you think?
Has the representation of women in fiction changed?
Why are women authors and novels with female central characters evidently published less?
And what recommendations would you make to young and teen-age girls about their choices of reading, in relation to gender?


Caitlin Moran, My Life In Objects | The Director’s Cut | Women We Love’, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=trUquBZabdM, June 30 2018.
Underwood, William & Bamman, David & Lee, Sabrina. (2018). ‘The Transformation of Gender in English-Language Fiction’. 10.31235/osf.io/fr9bk.
Alison Flood ‘Women better represented in Victorian novels than modern, finds study’ in The Guardian, 19 February 2018 https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/feb/19/women-better-represented-in-victorian-novels-than-modern-finds-study.
Donna Ferguson, ‘’Highly concerning’: picture books bias worsens as female characters stay silent’ in The Guardian, 13 June 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/jun/13/highly-concerning-picture-books-bias-worsens-as-female-characters-stay-silent.
Main image Jordan McDonald on Unsplash 
Victoria Priessnitz on Unsplash

18 thoughts on “Faring well, my lovely?

  1. Reading women writers is more than a good idea, it’s a lifeline for females.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree. Reading female writers growing up showed me I was ‘not alone’ in many ways.


  2. Hmm “Men still see us as these mad cartoons to be laid…” alas I cannot argue with miss Caitlin Moran, and suggesting that girl’s ‘go read female writer’s writing about women’ makes perfect sense.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh dear – worst fears! Reading female writers makes sense for us all, girls growing up in particular. I am not sure I’d exclude me from the literary diet though.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I only read Blogs written by middle-aged (mature) ladies… because they keep it real!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Oh dear, it’s official – middle age!

          Liked by 1 person

          1. 😂Oh dear….. NO offense intended!

            Liked by 1 person

            1. None taken, just kidding. Although I believe the US Census lists the category middle age from 55 to 65 – seems a bit short (!?), but it does start relatively late, so not there yet! If I emigrated, anyway…

              Liked by 1 person

  3. Thought provoking. You may know that I have read Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield quite recently.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Two of my favourites! A good quote from a letter from Woolf to Mansfield that seems topical: ‘It seems to me very important that women should learn to write. Does it to you?’

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Fascinating.

    Yes, I think the portrayal of women in fiction has somewhat changed throughout the years. Most fiction (that is not sci-fi) is written based on what we see around us every day. Writing about objectification shouldn’t be frowned upon, in my opinion, because it reflects reality. Why would we want to read about things that don’t ring somewhat true to our surroundings?

    I had no idea about the number of female writers being that much lower than the number of male writers. Why is that? Good question. I wouldn’t even begin to imagine.

    Recommendations for young girls? I try to be as objective as possible so I choose books based on the story, not the author. I know females who will only read female writers because they feel that males don’t know how to write about females well. And I know males that aren’t interested in reading “books for women.” I take each book at face value. I either enjoy it or I don’t and it has nothing to do with the gender of the author. I firmly believe that it’s a healthier approach than segregating books based on gender.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I write for both sexes, but am always extra delighted when amongst my limited readership it’s a chap that has enjoyed reading. I read what sounds good without thinking about the sex of the writer, but thinking back, I read mainly female authors from my pony books, through the Georgette Heyer phase to Fay Weldon. As most stories have men and women in, writers have to write about both sexes, perhaps if men objectify women, women writers create unrealistic men who are the ideal they would like to meet; a combination of the best characteristics of their father , brother, gay friends and film idols.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful response. I agree that writing about objectification shouldn’t be frowned upon, as opposed to objectifying – not the same thing. And I also was surprised at the ratio of published female to male writers. I doubt there are fewer aspiring women authors. Also agree I would not exclude books by men from those read by girls though – each on its own merits and on quality.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. That sounds like the best approach – write without a gendered audience in mind.
      I smiled in recognition at your growing-up books list – old pony books by Ruby Ferguson and the Pullein-Thompsons, mum’s Georgette Heyers, and also had a big Fay Weldon phase in the late teens.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Well, I mostly read women writers with female protagonists. I’ll confess that, a few years back, I went searching for men authors with male protagonists for a change, and only picked 2 authors: Jim Butcher and John Grisham. And, I don’t mean to be contradictory, but if you take a look at women writers and pay attention to how they portray the male gender, you will find that most men are arrogant, chauvinistic, or have a stereotypical “model” they use. Or am I reading the wrong books? Hmm…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I find myself veering more to women writers, too, and read fewer male writers than I used to (e.g. Paul Auster, John Irving, and others I enjoyed). It’s not conscious, so I wonder why. Interesting point on women writers – certainly, they are not immune to chauvinism and writing male stereotypes.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Proportion has fallen from half to a quarter? That is appalling. Any hypothesis as to why? It seems to me a large proportion of women work in the publishing industry, lit agents and such? Surely there must be a reason. On another plane I suspect there are more women readers than men. Empirical observation in the French Tube… 😉
    Thanks for the post Libre.
    (I’m gonna speed up my search for a desert island.


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