Why is it easier to forgive male characters for terrible decisions than females? We take a deeper look at internalized misogyny as readers while we breakdown the root of the problem.
Somewhere along the way as I grew up I got the idea in my head that I disliked female protagonists. Up until only a few years ago when people recommended books to me, I’d specify that I only read male-lead books.
Now, though, I seek out female-lead books, especially those written by women. The problem, I realized, wasn’t that I hated female-led books, but that I disliked how poorly they were being written. To break it down even further, I disliked the choices a lot of the female characters made and it irked me to the point where I essentially only cared about the males.
Internalized misogyny at its finest, I gave all the time in the world to male characters, despite their flaws and issues, but pushed away any female who stepped outside of my comfort zone. The last couple of years I’ve pushed myself to read more and more books by women. In doing this, I found that it was easier for me to connect to female characters than it had been before.
i ain't forget how fast got viewers forgave jaime lannister for crippling a child and being generally awful in the beginning of the show but then in the year of 2019 they still want sansa dead because she had an attitude and trusted the wrong people when she was 13.
— ana (@alaynestoned) March 24, 2019
What was the difference? Well, the books were written by women, for one. I read almost solely fantasy (both Adult and now YA) and I immediately zone in on plot lines about thieves and assassins. I’d found that most of the books with the above criteria are written by men. Unfortunately, though, after reading a lot of thief and assassin books by men, you get a pretty consistent pattern.
I was tired, burnt out on my favorite sub genre because I didn’t look past the end of my nose. In order to get to any sort of Adult Fantasy written by women you have to dig, because let’s be real: they aren’t talked up the way that male authors are.
I was used to books with male leads where the (usually only) female was described as strong, but in reality her actions within the book were clingy (towards the male lead), or her strength was described masculinely. Before I took a step back and really thought about the reasoning behind why I felt the way I did about female characters, I thought I just hated stories about women.
some of y’all have never gotten emotionally attached to a background underdeveloped female character who’s ignored both by the fandom and the writers and gets paid dust while you know she deserves the world and it shows.
— sylvia. (@stellarcarol) March 23, 2019
This couldn’t be more wrong. Sure, I wasn’t a fan of Bella in Twilight, but thinking back on it now her depression in New Moon hit a little too close to home for me, so I didn’t like seeing that part of myself that I dislike so much mirrored in her actions in New Moon.
I have found some amazing books with female leads (usually also with male leads, as most YA Fantasy do) that are empowering in how flawed the female characters actually are. Strength comes not by how masculine a female can act, but by her actions and resilience. Showing weakness can emphasize strength in the same way that bravery isn’t the absence of fear, but the action taken despite it.
I was having a discussion over breakfast this past weekend about books that have disappointed me lately, which somehow turned into why they disappointed me, or if they actually did. Confusing, right? The fact that I couldn’t even pinpoint how I felt set off an alarm, so over coffee we dove deeper, to the root of the problem: I find it easier to forgive male characters than I do female.
We came to this conclusion after bringing up the issue that Victoria Schwab this week came across a comment on her Instagram post where a reader said that they found Lila Bard annoying. Victoria then went on a (necessary) Twitter rant about Goodreads being a space for the reader and not the author to discuss the books and she didn’t want to hear it re: if readers hate a character.
This isn’t the first time I’ve seen this, and I 100% agree with her. Authors don’t need to know if we personally hate characters, because no book will ever please everyone. But, while discussing how to separate reader opinions and showing love of a book I had a breakthrough: I, too, didn’t care for Lila Bard in A Darker Shade of Magic, but why? I couldn’t recall specifically why I disliked her, especially when I adore the series.
So we dug deeper, within ourselves, and came to the realization: it’s because she always had her own agency. She, a thief, who lived alone and had to take care of herself, was after her own interests from the get go. There was no leniency when she met Kell, the cute male lead. She stole from him, was the inciting incident, and had no qualms about it. She didn’t say she was sorry, didn’t immediately team up with Kell willingly.
Looking back, I want to reread A Darker Shade of Magic to see how I had internally shut myself off from caring about her because she was a woman. If their positions were reversed, where a male thief character stole from a female and had no remorse I would have no issue forgiving him. This, of course, is on me, but stems back to internalized misogyny. So, do I actually dislike Lila? The real answer is no, I do not. My judgement was clouded because society tells us that it’s terrible when women have their own agency and don’t need a man.
It’s something that I fight with, within myself, every time I pick up a book. When Vengeful came out I was so there for more Victor and Eli, because those were the villains I came to love/hate in Vicious, but that meant when Marcella came in, at first my reaction was “why is she taking up Victor and Eli’s space/pages”, but… that wasn’t fair to the bad assness that is Marcella. She has her own agency, her own revenge. She is the epitome of a woman who deserves to take up space. Move aside Victor and Eli, she is the villain now.
Speaking of forgiving males easier than females and how books seemingly disappoint but upon further digging, it’s merely (I am seriously working on my internalized misogyny) the fact that deep down I was taught to set a higher standard for women than men. In Escaping From Houdini Audrey Rose did something that I personally didn’t like. It clouded my judgement so much that I will always look back and be disappointed in myself for not giving her an inch when I had given Thomas a mile when he had made a mistake.
Kerri Maniscalco told a story of a female character who is just as flawed as her male counterpart, but fans (including me!) didn’t react kindly towards her heroine and I consider myself chastized and am determined to check my internalized misogyny at the door while reading.
After a lifetime of being told that women can’t take up space, should be emotionally available to men, and shouldn’t have agency of their own, I am fighting step by small step to truly giving women characters the space that they deserve, flaws and all.
I want to read books by women, about women, where no one is perfect, because to be imperfect is to be human. After reading The Priory of the Orange Tree which has the largest female cast of characters I’ve read to date, each with their own agency and beliefs, I want to read more.
The conclusion of the Stalking Jack the Ripper series by Kerri Maniscalco is coming out this fall, and I can’t wait to read it with my eyes open. Victoria Schwab is going to be working on a second series in the universe of A Darker Shade of Magic and I am here for Lila Bard and her ambitions and dreams that are completely separate than Kell’s and she never has to apologize about it.
Giving space to female characters to make mistakes and grow is just as important as growing ourselves and allowing each other the time to break out of the cage that society forced us into, but made us believe we put ourselves there.
Related:‘The Priory of the Orange Tree’ establishes a dominant female voice in epic fantasy, Samantha Shannon discusses writing the feminist fantasy she never had, ‘The Priory of the Orange Tree’ sets new standard in epic fantasy