Hello, reader! I have absolutely loved opening up my blog to guest posters. I’m so glad that I get to help other writers get their names, views, opinions, and thoughts out to a different audience than their own. Thank you so much for taking the time to read!
This month, I have Ja-Mel, who has an interesting question for us writers and readers. Let’s have a chat about gender imbalance!
Atre Williamson, Astor Palam, Ryan Grayson, Charn Dimension (now Brendan Chambers), all of these are the names of some of my protagonists in my early days of obsessive writing. There were girls in there as well: Alice Jones, Rosalyn Brown, and the most important person to come out of this early writing age of mine, the person who’s most persisted into our modern day—Maya Juanita Isidora Hernandez Lilac (just “Maya Lilac” back in those days).
There were female protagonists and some of them were even the main characters of their stories, but there were more boys on average as the main characters than girls; the girls were there originally typically as love interests or partners. And, as I mentioned in a previous article, my story casts were relatively balanced among the sexes in these early days.
Then, 2014, that all changed when I saw Maleficent. I made a story based off it—gave Maleficent a daughter named Jordyn, reverted Aurora back to a teenager, gave Jordyn a human best friend in our world named Connie. There were still guys: Maleficent’s pet/assistant, Diaval, Connie’s brother (and Jordyn’s ex), Charles, even Walt Disney had made an appearance. But, there were more girls than guys. And, then, when it came time for me to return to Dreamer in late 2014-early 2015, the gap widened. There were barely any guys, and everyone else was a girl.
If you read Dreamer today, you’ll see that as a thing. And every story I’ve written after that has followed the trend; my mind just naturally jumps to making female characters, and just like in the case of Maya and Jordyn, they were the protagonists, the main characters, and the heroes of their tales and their series’. And my stories are always in first-person.
I can practically hear the worry of some of my readers from here. “Why?” They’re probably thinking to themselves. “Oh, why is this boy writing from the perspective of a girl? He should only write guys. Whenever men write female-characters, it almost always devolves into hyper-attention to sex, sexuality, or ‘girl problems’ and pettiness.”
But, with me, that doesn’t happen. Those issues don’t arise. There are reviews of Dreamer that explicitly point out that they were happily surprised that all of the female characters were written realistically and weren’t simply caricatures—they were people with emotions and goals and dreams and even if they argued, there was still love and care that was obvious in their relationships. Now, the reasons for why some men in the past and present haven’t been able to write women as realistically as they have men is a longer discussion for another day, but to get to my point, I want to bring up one aspect: control of the canon.
Imagine, if you will, some part of your identity has been misrepresented consistently by a large part of the population: if you’re a minority, race; if you’re a part of the LGBTQIA+ community, your sexuality… essentially, any minority or group of people that are mistreated are represented poorly on average by the ones in power, the ones in control of the literature, the education, and the politics. Ignoring the aspect of race—which is a different discussion for a different day—those people in control of the literary canon were male. And this has been the case for a large portion of media: film, TV, novels, comic books, etc. We’ve only recently begun seeing significant pushback and victories in the last few decades, but we still have more to go in every respect.
However, this “male domination” of literature takes on a bit of a twist when we reach the realm of Young Adult and New Adult literature. In the past decade, while there have been successful male authors such as Rick Riordan, John Greene, Andrew Smith, etc., there appears to have been an even larger growth in YA lit surrounding famous female authors.
A Woman Dominated Field
Here’s an exercise: try to name as many YA authors as you can in a minute.
My own list (aside from the three men I’ve mentioned above) had JK Rowling, Suzanne Collins, Kendare Blake, EL James, Stefanie Meyer, Marissa Meyer… My list of authors was largely female, and I can almost guarantee that the same result will exist for you. And this is a thing that others have been taking note of and commenting on.
A few weeks ago, I found a reddit thread where someone asked why 90% of YA books had female protagonists. The answers went along the lines of “more female readers in the category”, “more female authors”, “females were the target audience moreso than males”. Teacher and author, Jon Scieszka, writes on his website, “Boys don’t have enough positive male role models for literacy.” Even The New York Times made a plea for more boys in lit in their 2011 article “Boys and Reading: Is There Any Hope?”.
With this many people noticing such a wide disparity, there had to have been research that was conducted on the topic, or at the very least, investigating the claim. And there is. In The New York Times article previously mentioned, a Harper executive at the 2007—very long ago, yes, apologies—ALA conference said that about 75% of YA readers were female. The Pew Research Institute has stated multiple times over the course of multiple studies and years that women read on average and in general more than men (see below for links to their findings).
I also tried to find a percentage of how many female authors were in YA and NA lit compared to male authors but was unable to do so. However, even without a firm number and just a cursory glance at the New Adult shelves on Google, Amazon, and Goodreads (links below), it’s clear that there are more females there compared to males. Because of this and the fact that girls are more likely to be reading YA compared to boys, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that girls are more than likely the target audience. And since girls are more the target audience and people are more likely to connect to a book if they see someone that looks like themselves being reflected back, more books with female protagonists are made.
Now, this isn’t a perfect theory, but it did get me thinking and keen to learn more. So, I ran a test on Twitter. I asked writers, “what gender do you write for your protagonists, and what gender/sex do you most identify with?” Of the 1,395 votes and approximately 400 comments that the poll has of writing this paper, 41% say they write their protagonists to be the same gender that they are, 11% say they’re male writing female characters, and 18% say they’re females writing male characters. 30% of writers say that it varies, either because they themselves are non-binary, they’re writing agender characters, or they simply switch between them depending on the story they’re writing.
A More Balanced Solution
“So, what’s your solution for this proposed problem?” You’re likely asking me. “We can’t predict what every single author is going to write about. We complain on forums. We don’t want them to pull back completely from female protagonists; we just want more guys.” And, to this, I say, we have dual perspectives. One from a guy and one from a girl.
Turning back to my Twitter poll—which is by no means representative of all YA/NA authors—a good portion of them said that they write both or that they change it up depending the story. And I feel like, to curb this oversaturation of female protagonists (which isn’t terrible but is something that some readers are definitely noticing), maybe more dual-POV stories are needed. While a singular point of view is easier for authors—and writing two perspectives in the same story can lead to some issues of balance (I have tried multiple times to write stories with dual protagonists that we flip through and can personally attest to how difficult it can be)—it’s not impossible.
Only 13% of YA stories have male and female characters sharing the “protagonist” title according to Fall 2014 issue of Guide, which reviewed all hardcover books published in the first six months of 2014 by U.S. publishers.
The stories themselves can’t be controlled and influenced by authors if we don’t know what they’re writing, but we can, at the very least, put the idea out there for them.
On the writing end, any authors that have connections to others can maybe reach out through Twitter or Facebook or whatever platform they use and ask their writer friends about putting a guy and a girl perspective or make a poll about it like I did to kickstart discussion—and also likely create more male protagonists themselves. Maybe, to not intrude as much, a twitter challenge or writing prompt can be made to address it. Challenges run rampant within the #amwriting community, and they’re a fun way to get people’s brains going, to get people writing about things they maybe normally wouldn’t tackle (an example of a challenge/prompt that can get people thinking in that mindset is the story of a brother and sister/two best friends who got separated and both have to find their way back to each other).
For readers, maybe discussion panels could be started at events where the readers themselves can ask questions like “have you ever thought of having a guy and girl’s perspective in the same story?” There also is much more MG fiction with male protagonists, so possibly asking those writers if they’d ever consider writing young adult could also be an option. Readers have tremendous power and can influence quite a lot if they mobilize.
Of course, there will be authors like me whose mind automatically jump to making a female protagonist and sort of filling the world out with girls more than boys. Some people also just write people of their gender/sex because it’s just easier. That may require a bit of a deeper solution and more work on the part of the author in terms of asking questions—or perhaps just a mindshift, as when I write my female protagonists and characters, I don’t think of anything different between writing guys and writing girls; I just write based off the character’s individual history and their emotions.
There are also some stories like Kendare Blake’s Three Dark Crowns which have female protagonists and a female-dominated world for a specific purpose (it was based off queen bees and how they’re chosen in a hive, as all worker bees—and the ones that are eventually chosen to become the queen—are female). This won’t be like flipping a switch, where more guys will suddenly permeate Young Adult Literature, but starting the process now could ensure its growth and importance later on like the diversity movement that’s been sweeping across all forms of literature—but particularly YA lit—for the past decade or so.
When it comes to me, it’s…complicated. I write New Adult Fiction most of the time, and my stories are predominantly female—both in terms of the protagonist as well as their supporting cast. In my debut novel, Dreamer, the protagonist is a girl named Maya, and of the characters we meet, only one major character—an antagonist—is male; the others, like Caitlin, Rosemary, Astrid, Lucent, etc. are female. A few more men are sprinkled around, but they have largely minor roles and duck in and out for a scene.
Now, if you know anything about me and Dreamer’s creation process, then you know that the 1990’s TV show, Charmed, was a large influence on the world and did feature a matrilineal family line where the prophecy of the Charmed Ones was passed down. Dreamer’s equivalent is everything regarding the True Dreamer, and for that reason, the emphasis was on the women; they held the power, and they had the duty of saving the universe and had to rely largely on the other women in their family to help, as there have been no male True Dreamers by design. In Dreamer, it served a practical purpose as an artifact of—and reverence for—the story’s earliest inspiration that I refused to write out or alter.
While Dreamer could possibly be the same in terms of substance, I feel the character or feel or story would change, at least somewhat if I messed with the way the True Dreamer was currently laid out, even if I can’t explicitly name why. For Fairytale, Jordyn is trying to step out of the shadow of her “evil” mother and shirk that legacy to build a new one for herself—both her and her twin sister are trying to do that. The Salem Coven, a new story I started, centers on the granddaughters of women hanged in the Salem Witch Trials, all seeking vengeance on those who killed their grandmothers. And I could go on and on for every single book idea I have or have started.
Relationships between family members—most typically a daughter and her mother/grandmother—and found family are major for all of the books that I write. And romance—a major element in YA and NA novels, are either not a priority in my books or is relegated to the background and typically between two women—not for any particular reason, the characters just tell me the relationships they want to have. Maya, in the second chapter, says she’s not looking for love, and love tends to be a non-issue for the characters because they all have more important things to do: going through school, getting back their kingdom, saving the world, dealing with family issues, etc. Even as love interests, guys tend to take a back seat or just not appear at all.
For all of these reasons and more, I can’t make a promise that all of the story ideas I have from this point forward will have more men than women (as The Salem Coven shows), but in terms of protagonists, I do still have some of the stories from my early days—with Roger and Brendan and Astor—that I will one day return to and publish, probably with dual-protagonists. And maybe that will spur some sort of revival of the male protagonist and other male characters in my stories.
But what do you all think? Do you think there’s a gender imbalance in YA literature? Do you have any other potential solutions to the problem?
Website: Jamel Vinson
Thanks so much, Ja-Mel! As far as my own writing goes, I tend to write my short stories with female main characters, but my novels have male main characters. I’m not exactly sure why that is, it just seems to happen that way. My current WIP (Dementis) has more males than it does females. Why? Because the males are more dominant in my mind. But, the females will have their time. Don’t think they won’t!
Thank you for reading! If you’re interested in where Ja-Mel found his information, he has included a works cited, which is posted below. Also, please don’t forget to follow Ja-Mel on Twitter, and visit his website and blog to keep up to date with him.
Talk to you guys later!