Can and should authors avoid sexism?

Cheater man cheating during a marriage proposal with his innocent girlfriend

For quite a while, I’ve gotten incensed at the story of Medusa—seduced or perhaps raped by Poseidon and turned into a monster for breaking her purity vows. It’s an example of an early story promoting hostile sexism. 

As far as ancient stories are concerned, the examples of sexism are endless.

Fairy and folk tales are filled with sexism—from princesses being kissed (or more) without consent to wicked older women jealous of youth and beauty, leaving the protagonists with no female role models, only men to turn to. The stories we grew up with aren’t great examples of how women should be treated in society. Do fiction authors have any obligation to tell different stories?

Internalized sexism teaches us how we view ourselves in the world and it comes from the stories we tell about each other. It can affect academic performance, create shame, make women doubt their competence, and give misogyny a boost.  

I never considered how much we internalize and accept misogyny. It’s so prevalent we can’t even recognize it in ourselves or others. It wasn’t until I wrote two historical novels that I realized how often women, such as Queen Victoria, can be sexist and oppose rights for other women. Author Clare Tomalin does masterful job pointing out the misogyny woven through history in her numerous biographies. Many times, other women perpetuate this sexism.

I can thank a psychology prof for introducing me to the various types of sexism prevalent in society, meant to promote female subordination. 

For those who haven’t recently taken a course, and in case this type of information gets banned politically, here’s a run down:

Hostile sexism has one goal: To keep females subordinate.  Women who step outside this box are resented and punished. Hostile sexism takes the form of harassment and violence against women. Women are seen as beings who seduce and deceive men. (Sirens for example.) It can be seen with sexist insults or comments on women’s sexuality. 

These views are most often held by people with lower economic status and who perform manual labor. Some of this is thought to be because these types of jobs and social circles are less integrated, keeping people uncomfortable and stereotyping of each other. 

This type of sexism can slyly manifest itself in story telling with a lack of female characters. Thus, a good way to avoid this sexism in your writing is to show men and women working together as equals. 

Another common manifestation of this sexism is normalizing rape. Rape happens and we need to talk about it but think twice about having it as part of a plot line aka entertainment. Yes, you want to make your male villains bad but is this the only way to do it? These scenes not only make rape seem normal, they might even encourage it! Try finding another way to spice up your plot. Please stop dramatizing rape.

More socially acceptable, benevolent sexism is defined this way: benevolent sexism is hostile sexism pretending to be nice. It might involve chivalry, comments about beauty, delicacy, and purity. It sees woman as compliments to men (not equals). However, even this seemingly nice form of sexism can undermine female confidence, autonomy, and options in the world. Consequently, it’s also a nearly invisible social force that perpetuates gender inequality

This type of sexism is much less dependent on social and economic factors and is more a result of up bringing. Educated women in particular are less likely to appreciate benevolent sexism. Ironically, boys learn hostile sexism from those around them while girls learn benevolent sexism from their contemporaries. To counter it as an author, mix up the jobs your characters have, show them sharing parenting duties, and add a non-puritanical sex scene here and there.

Ambivalent sexism sees some women as deserving and others as threats. Women who accept benevolent sexism are often “recruited” by a hostile partner. As long as they fit his expectations, they can be safe and even successful. Ambivalent men see women as something you “can’t live with and can’t live without.”

In the ambivalent world, women might be seen as being superior to men (saintly, caring, long-suffering), or in contrast, as too easily insulted. We see this in the anti-abortion movement. Bad woman are irresponsible and have abortions. Good women do not. 

Sexism is behind male rage and behind the anti-abortion movement. It’s linked to environmental destruction. People who don’t care about mother earth are also likely to not care about women in general. These sexist people win elections in my home state. It’s oppressive, which is why I wrote a dystopian series

Sexism is behind how older women are treated by society with “gendered aging” being one of the worst prejudices around.  Getting older in human society gives women a lot of shame and guilt. Loss of looks means lost social currency and 80% of older women are treated poorly at work. Therefore, a challenge for authors is to write older female characters who are taken seriously, enjoy what they are doing, are relevant, and have self-confidence. Stereotypes to avoid include sagging breasts, being wicked, and being self-sacrificing. Keep in mind that older characters have rich experiences and have had time to process them. 

 How much sexism has filtered in to your everyday? Click on this link to take the ambivalent sexism quiz. 

It’s pretty darn hard to shake sexism out of stories. Having it in there is realistic. Sexist characters are bound to pop up in your fiction. My question for myself is: how do I not make them protagonists? How can I move a plot forward without women being raped, rescued, or kidnapped? How can I show men and women working together and women supporting each other? We’ve got centuries of myths and fairy tales to overcome. I’m not sure I can do it (thanks to internalized misogyny) but I’ve got to try. Are you with me? 

2 thoughts on “Can and should authors avoid sexism?

  1. My boss and I were talking about this the other day. I had phoned a new supplier for the first time, and he was abrupt and rude. He insinuated I knew very little about the product – which is true, and that’s why I was phoning with questions – and I felt the conversation was quite belittling. Well, my boss found an industry facebook page where someone had mentioned this supplier. When I went through the comments, I observed remarks from men were either positive or neutral towards that individual, but comments from women were negative. Sometimes I’m amazed that it’s 2023 and women are STILL having this kind of experience.


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