Books and other written forms continue to support outdated gender stereotypes. Fiction writers can help break this cycle.
As a society, we’ve made great improvements in an effort to reach gender equality, but does our writing reflect these improvements? The way we write about people affects the way we view the people around us, and including gender stereotypes in writing reinforces them in our minds.
Stephanie C. Goodhew, Katherine Reynolds, Mark Edwards, and Evan Kidd (2021) conducted a study on the prevalence of certain gender stereotypes in current literature, and published their findings in the article “The Content of Gender Stereotypes Embedded in Language Use.” The researchers compared the use of 100 of the most popular male and female names with the use of various traits that volunteers in a previous study described as favorable and unfavorable traits for each gender.
After using the Google Ngram to find every occurrence of the names in the past fifty years of published materials, the researchers used Latent Semantic Analysis (LSA), which calculates the similarity or association between two words by analyzing the context of those words. Essentially, researchers found these popular names, then analyzed how closely the names were associated with the favorable and unfavorable attributes.
“Authors could be connecting with imagined audiences through ‘assumed’ shared understandings of social identities and gender relations.”—Goodhew, Reynolds, Edwards, and Kidd (2021)
Predictably, male names were most closely associated with favorable male traits (athletic, dependable, ambitious, assertive, decisive, and disciplined), whereas the female names were most closely associated with both favorable female traits (warm, kind, loyal, sensitive, friendly, and clean) and unfavorable male traits (emotional, impressionable, yielding, superstitious, shy, and moody). In other words, male literary characters embody supposed masculine ideals, while female literary characters embody the traits that are criticized in men. Through this study, researchers point to the glaring gap in how men and women are portrayed in writing.
This particular study analyzed gender stereotypes in previously published literature, but its relevance extends into ongoing editorial life. After all, books affect the way we live, and the way we live affects the way we write and edit books, creating an endless cycle. When a book upholds a gender stereotype, that stereotype is reinforced in our minds. The article suggests that “authors could be connecting with imagined audiences through ‘assumed’ shared understandings of social identities and gender relations” (Goodhew et al. 2021, 227). While it’s important to appeal to the cultural consciousness of an audience, authors and editors can recognize that there are ways to connect with audiences besides succumbing to outdated gender stereotypes. Although gender inequality typically affects women, gender stereotypes are harmful for both men and women, as they confine people to attributes assigned to them by others. True change only happens once we realize it’s possible to embody all kinds of qualities, regardless of perceived gender attributes. Changing the way we create fictional characters would not only alter the books we read, but alter the way we behave and how we think about the people around us.
To learn more about gender stereotypes in literature, read the full article:
Goodhew, Stephanie C., Katherine Reynolds, Mark Edwards, and Evan Kidd. 2021. “The Content of Gender Stereotypes Embedded in Language Use.” Journal of Language and Social Psychology 41 no. 2: 219–231. https://doi.org/10.1177/0261927X211033930.
—Kate Blatter, Editing Research
FEATURE IMAGE BY TIM MOSSHOLDER
Find more research
Take a look at Kate White, Suzanne Kesler Rumsey, and Stevens Amidon’s (2015) article for more information about the effect of gender-related language in workplace communication and professional writing: “Are We ‘There’ Yet? The Treatment of Gender and Feminism in Technical, Business, and Workplace Writing Studies.” Journal of Technical Writing and Communication 46, no. 1 (2016): 27–58. https://doi.org/10.1177/0047281615600637.
Check out Jane Sunderland’s (2010) book for more information about the repercussions of gendered language in children’s fiction: Language, Gender and Children’s Fiction. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.