Writing Women in Traditionally Male Roles

Thankfully, we’ve got beyond the idea that a woman’s place in literature is to be the hero’s (prospective) love interest, and to scream and break her ankle a lot. However, I don’t think we’re quite at the stage where we’ve got it right yet – this is not surprising. What gets written in books reflects (at least in part) the author’s experiences – whether experiences in life, or what they’ve learned through deliberate research. And society has not yet figured out gender equality. To be fair, this is a pretty big ask, given how many thousands of years has been spent on the patriarchal model. It’s a bit much to expect all of that to be binned in a few decades. We’ve made a lot of progress since my grandmother’s day, when women were expected to give up their jobs when they got married, and it was normal to have the “women’s pay scale” (less) and the “men’s pay scale” (more) for the same job. We can recognise how far we’ve come, while still acknowledging that we’ve some way to go yet.

One of the less obvious issues is, what do we mean by equality?

Some kinds of equality are easy to define: women should get paid the same as men for doing the same job; men should be allowed to be midwives, and women should be allowed to be soldiers. More subtle are things like the value we put on different job roles, and different personal qualities. Traditionally female/caring roles tend to be valued less than traditionally male/aggressive roles. Personal qualities seen as traditionally “feminine”, like being caring, or diplomatic, are seen as less valuable or praiseworthy than traditionally “masculine” characteristics like aggression. When we look at literature, where there is currently an emphasis on “strong female” protagonists, especially female characters who adopt traditionally male roles (e.g. warrior/soldier) it’s interesting to note that these women are often written with so many “male” characteristics, that the impression is (quoting from someone else) “a man without a cock”.

Now, how much of this is just gender-bias, and how much is true? Is there really a psychological difference between males and females which should be written into a character?

Partly, this depends on how much of gender differences in behaviour are genetically determined, and how much is social. If we believe that there is no real psychological difference between men and women, and that all apparent differences are due to social conditioning (which a character may ignore or overcome), this has two consequences:

  1. Homo sapiens would be just about the only species that doesn’t have differential gender roles. Just about every animal species I can think of has differential gender roles between the sexes – whatever those roles might be. Since animals presumably act mostly on instinct, this must mean that in the majority of cases, females have different instincts to males.
  2. Gender dysphoria/transgenderism could not exist. You cannot simultaneously declare that there is no difference, psychologically, between males and females and then say that it’s possible for a person to be physically male and psychologically female (or the other way around). The most you can say is that you have a person of one gender who expresses the characteristics demanded of the gender role of the other gender, and societally-dictated roles are so iron-clad that it’s easier for that person to declare themselves to be the other gender, than to say that they are gender A but prefer the things that gender B is supposed to prefer.

So, yes, there’s a lot of societally-determined gender role enforcement going on – but I don’t think that we can say that there is no real psychological difference between men and women.

So, if we accept that men and women are fundamentally different, psychologically, then what does that mean for writing?

For instance, I attended a fantasy convention this year where in all seriousness one of the panel discussions was “Can a female character be an anti-hero?” I think that – given the context – the organisers were doing the “women are nice and good and moral, and men are base beasts controlled by their lusts” angle, but what this actually means is “Do women have the full range of moral and emotional responses that men do?”

Another example of rampant sexism is this article in Writers’ Digest, which defines male anti-heroes by what they do, and what their morality is, and female anti-heroes by their appearance (smudged lipstick), who they have sex with (men she doesn’t know well), and an inability to fit into traditionally female roles. Admittedly, this was published in 2008, but seriously…!

However, sexist these two examples may be, but they do have one thing right: men and women are psychologically different (just not in the way these examples assume). It’s obviously a sliding scale in both cases, with some overlap – but writing a female character does not mean taking the “easy way out” and writing a male character then adding something stereotypically female, like an obsession with shoes. Or crippling self-doubt about her looks or attractiveness. Jack Reacher and James Bond don’t have problems with self-doubt, so why should your heroine? If we accept that women and men are psychologically different, writing a female character who is essentially male (or is a caricature) can be just as sexist as writing only female characters who scream and break their ankles a lot. Equality is not achieved if the result is to obliterate femininity, or present a one-dimensional view of it.

So, how do you write a character who is female, yet does traditionally “male” things, without making her into a caricature, or just “a man without a cock”?

Furthermore, if we accept that women and men are psychologically different, this will affect how they respond to the situations they encounter, and how they relate to the other characters in the book. What is it like to be female when most of your co-workers are male? What are the characteristics of women choose to move into traditionally male roles/jobs?

To be fair, I don’t have the answer to this. My mother would be the first to tell people that I never got the hang of femininity myself, so I’m hardly in a position to explain it to anybody else. My advice would be to go and talk to women who do things similar to your “strong female” protagonist. Or if you don’t know anyone like that, read words written by those women and listen to interviews. At the very least, read about such women – what problems did they encounter, how did they handle it, how does history see them? How did their contemporaries see them?

Here are some suggestions:

Women working in traditionally male roles

Diaries and Memoirs

Women who dressed as men

Diaries & Memoirs

Other Non-Fiction

Women who have worked in traditionally male roles (personal experience) and are now authors

Women who have researched women in traditionally male roles

  • Mary Gentle. Did an MA in War Studies at the University of London, looking at the roles of women in combat/war. Wrote Ash: A Secret Historywhich is a sort of weird alternate-history/fantasy/sci-fi novel/series about a female mercenary, starting in 15th century Europe.

Fiction written by men or women who have not performed those roles, about women in traditionally male roles

These authors don’t have personal experience (as far as I know) of being a woman in a traditionally male role, but either I’ve read their stuff and I think it’s well done, or someone else has mentioned it as being good.

I intend to add to this list, as and when I can. If you have additions you would like to suggest, please comment!

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10 comments

  1. I love a strong female heroine who knows who she is and what she wants. The Fantasy genre has a touch enough time accepting that woman can write fantasy, let alone the idea of a female anti-hero.

    1. Me too. 🙂 Can’t stand wimpy die-away heroines!

      Personally, I don’t think it’s fantasy authors/readers so much as society in general. Wherever you look, women seem to be portrayed as weak or as victims, in need of help. In some ways, I think the romance genre is one of the worst for it: so many romance heroines screw up in a really stupid way then need to be rescued by a man, or they’re victims of a man and need to be rescued by another man… (One of my pet hates!)

      The lack of female antiheroes, I think, is possibly a resurgence of the Victorian attitude of regarding women as pure and good and moral – back in the 19th century, far too good and moral to dirty themselves with base commerce etc. Now it’s a different range of things that women are too good for… 🙁

      1. Regarding Victorian attitudes – there was also a tendency to sub-divide humanity, and the behaviour expected – by class. They appeared to see nothing contradictory in a middle class woman being all fragile in her femininity while her 15 year old maid of all work lugged buckets of coal upstairs, scrubbed for hours and had working days in excess of 12 hours.

        1. Oh, that’s easy. Maids aren’t really people (let alone women), they’re a sort of mobile furniture. That’s how they can carry buckets of coal up the stairs AND not tell everyone about the stash of ‘interesting’ pictures in your dressing room.

          It’s a weird human thing, to forget that people who aren’t part of ‘us’ (whoever ‘us’ is at the moment) are, actually, still people. Management v worker, parent v child, left-wing v right-wing, and so on.

          If everyone started treating everyone else decently, the world would probably come to an end…

          1. Oh yes, deeply peculiar. My own theory is that people doing pigeonholing of other people is a survival thing from hunter gatherer – making quick decisions. Also from hunter gatherer is noticing differences and worrying about them a lot more than similarities. That bush looks different because there is a wolf hiding in it…… And could also make an argument for group cohesiveness being important so you know you can rely on your neighbour when the wolf attacks – we have the same values, therefore we band together against the same enemies.

            But these days we need to work on being more tolerant of differences. Have you ever read anything on Emotional Intelligence? I read a very good book on it the other year, but can’t recall the title right now (and am not near the bookcase). Very telling experiments on behaviour and also accounts of it being applied in schools in California.

            On servants you might enjoy “Rose, My Life in Service” by Rosina Harrison – she was Lady Astor’s lady’s maid. Covers how she became a lady’s maid and the ins and outs of service in a big household.

            Getting a bit off topic here 🙂

  2. Its an interesting and tricky area – gender and expected behaviour – in real life and in writing. It is especially hard to be objective in a scientific way. For example the comment you quoted about some women characters being men without male genitalia – one could take the view that a certain role requires certain skills/behaviour and if that is being the meanest critter there, then that is what you have to be whatever your gender. Then the argument becomes why should a woman approach that any differently than a man?
    I’ve read Elizabeth Moon but not the other authors you are mentioning, or the women in the army books – though I think they will go onto my to read list. To me Elizabeth Moon captures the essential feel of people getting on with the job. Working in science and IT I have always been a minority female in a male environment and it very rarely mattered at all. There was the occasional older man or woman to whom it mattered, but pretty much everyone in my generation and most people in the older generation you were a person getting on with a job.
    One thing I have noticed in general life and in jobs outside of highly skilled tech environment – my being counter to people’s expectations. There is definitely more tolerance of men being blunt about things and women being expected to be nice. You can cop a doubly whammy as a woman who is trying to get something done – the people you are chivvying don’t like being chivvied to get the work done and because some people have an inbuilt expectation that women should be sweet, you cop an extra resentment that you behaved like that at all.
    Though I can remember some very blunt women I’ve worked with – and in terms of promotion in a company, of the women promoted compared to the men promoted, there is definitely a higher proportion of blunt women than blunt men. Which is a whole new area to look at.

    1. Taking it from the bottom, I think you’re absolutely right that women are expected to be nice. My husband is a teacher, and he finds that it’s usually the women teachers who criticise girls showing leadership skills as ‘bossy’ (“Oh, so-and-so is being bossy again, I see.”) And so gender-expected behaviour is reinforced as girls are told to sit down, shut up, be nice, let someone else talk…

      But I think while men and women are both equally capable of getting the task done – and of walking through the valley of the shadow of death fearing no evil because they are the baddest … something or other… in that valley – they may go about it in different ways.

      My husband sees it at school – girls tend to be more collaborative, and boys more hierarchical. A few weeks ago, he took a bunch of them to some team-building thing, and one of the tasks was to build a cart out of materials provided. The girls had sorted it all out and got it finished while the boys were still arguing over who was top dog.

      Likewise, I was (briefly) in the Territorial Army, and found that on training exercises, women tended to get on with things faster, with less posturing over who was in charge. On the other hand, that’s a disadvantage when you get the spite and backbiting – leadership issues tend to get fought undercover with girls, because nice girls don’t punch each other. Same with bullying in schools: boys are more likely to physically hurt each other, but girls are far better at psychological/emotional viciousness.

      Picking up what you’ve said about people within the tech/IT environment just getting on with the job, and people outside it being surprised… yeah, I’ve had that, a bit, too. I go clay-pigeon shooting, and I think I’m 20% of the female members of the club. I’ve never had any negative attitude from any of the male members of the club – although one old gentleman did offer to lend me his 20-bore because he thought my 12-bore was ‘too much gun for me’! It’s non-shooters (usually female) who look at me funny – and who ask my husband whether he approves of his wife doing that sort of thing!

      Interesting thing which just came to mind: a couple of years ago, the Norwegian Army hit the headlines because they introduced mixed-sex accommodation. They found that this actually reduced sexual harassment – the theory being that it made men and women more like comrades rather than exotic mysterious beings – or a challenge. There’s a short article here: http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2014/03/25/world/social-issues-world/norway-army-garrison-study-finds-unisex-dorms-reduce-harassment/#.WM2crrGcbUI

      It matches up with what you were saying about gender not being important between experts working together.

  3. Like the article on the Norwegian army – reminds me also of a comment years ago from a fellow student who’d been to an all girls school on how girls from all girls schools could be all “boys! wow!” when they got to University and finally got near to boys and co-eds were “and, so?”.

    In terms of groups approach to tasks, technical experts tend to concentrate on the task not the group, whether all male group or mixed. I remember some years back when I was working in an engineering company and the word came down from on high that personnel and accounting were organizing an interdivisional netball tournament with the aim of improving interdivisional relations and we were to provide a team. So we did. Whole lab, mix of a bit more men than women, out on a netball court one lunchtime and the first question people asked was “so who knows how to play netball?” There was a brisk round of “did it years ago at school”. Then we established that we had two keen current team sports players – one middle aged lady who played hockey and one young male engineer who played football. The lady, who actually outranked the engineer in company rank, immediately said “he can be the captain” – because she didn’t want to bother not because he was a guy. And then we had a couple of practice sessions, established who could throw well enough to get the ball in the hoop and made them shooters and then played netball in the tournament – sort of. I do remember the other teams were pretty much all ladies, athletic and beautifully turned out, well practiced at playing netball. We were a bunch of scruffs with the aim of getting the ball in the hoop and no idea of elegant play – just an energetic mob. The tournament was never repeated.

    Regarding comments from women – oh yes, I’ve had as much sexism off (some) women as (some) men. Never had anyone ask my other half if he approves of what I am doing – though have had a man asking me why I didn’t make my OH get his hair cut and his beard shaved off. “I like him just the way he is. And anyway, its his hair and beard.”

    On bossiness – reminded of “Ahead of the Class” starring Julie Walters – based on a headmistress who turned around problem schools. There was a girl who was always in trouble for arguing with the teachers. There was an amateur dramatic group in the school that left a mess and the caretaker was complaining. So the Julie Walters character combined the two getting the girl to be the stage manager – two problems sorted in one.
    Which brings me onto training – how non-technical training courses seem to be largely aimed at weaknesses rather than how to harness your strengths.

    And finally – command. We watched the series the other year on Royal Marine training – http://www.channel4.com/programmes/royal-marines-commando-school/episode-guide/ – and the noticeable thing to me was how controlled the training non-coms are. Not the kind of swaggering macho git that seems to pop up an awful lot in fantasy, but well, technical experts really. Historically, and currently, there probably are a lot of guys who get to command whatever it is by being bigger and mouthier, but it is not the only way to do it.

    1. The system isn’t letting me comment on your other comment, but I’ve already got a copy of Rosina Harrison’s book – it’s on my TBR list! I’ll push it up the priority queue. And I think it would be lovely if people would remember similarities as well as differences. Concentrating on how different ‘they’ are is a good way to increase fear. Understanding that ‘they’ might do some things differently, or they might look different, but we’re all the same in all the most important ways – love, life, death, humanity – would be nice, I think.

      But, taking this comment from the bottom… NCOs have moved with the times! My husband did his basic training when shouty-screamy stuff was the order of the day, and they’d only just been stopped from hitting the recruits. I was on the receiving end of a bit of the shouty-screamy stuff, and I found it eye-rolling rather than frightening. But things have definitely changed over the years – especially with the kind of soldiers that Marines need to be: you want people who use their brains, not mindless automatons who’ve been screamed into submission.

      Hah… training courses. Actually, I can’t remember attending one I wasn’t miserable at. I wonder if the strengths/weaknesses thing is because weaknesses are easier to focus on? Harnessing strengths, unless they’re things like ‘excellent diplomat’ or ‘natural leader’ tends to be harder because it involves someone thinking along the lines of, ‘good with data, crap with people… how can we turn that into a positive?’ which is quite challenging. 🙂

      I do like the image of your netball tournament, though. I have this vision of widespread devastation, smoking ruins, and those weird puffs of steam you get so you know it’s a post-apocalyptic landscape, and one manager saying to the other, as they look upon what has been wrought, “Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea…”

      1. You ever read any of Phule’s Company? (I haven’t in years, must do a re-read – mercenaries/military) Anyway, in one book Phule’s were sent on an obstacle course and used weapons to blow away the obstacles.

        Also on the not a good idea – years ago read in a IT professionals paper, an account from an IT specialist on how their company had had offices remodelled and there were now meeting rooms for each division. Everyone was invited to pick a name for “their” meeting room – but it had to be on the theme of Castles. So there was Windsor and Balmoral and Caerphilly – and for IT, Bouncy.

        Interesting on the shouty-screamy stuff, yes you are right, shouted into submission and instant obedience is no longer a good idea. Like it you found it more eyeroll than anything else. Nearest I’ve come to being on the receiving end of that kind of thing is rant/sarcasm from a teacher and in the main I take it as entertainment and award points for inventive imagery and language.

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