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Would The Hunger Games have made it big if Katniss had been a boy? If Pride and Prejudice had been about five Bennett brothers and the proud (and wealthy) Miss Darcy, would readers still swoon? Keith from On Fiction recently covered a study that speaks to these questions.
The authors of the study wondered whether a protagonist’s gender affects the reading experience. They took passages from popular novels and presented them to readers either in the original form or with the protagonist’s gender switched. The researchers then had male and female readers read the text and answer questions evaluating the passage.
To give you an idea of what this is like, here is a sample paragraph from the experiment.
Original excerpt from The World Unseen:
Even lying on the roof, with only the cheap slates in her line of vision, she could tell that it was a police car. There was a carelessness in the skid of the tires over the sandy road, and in the way the handbrake was pulled up while the wheels were still turning, leaving a slight screech hanging in the heavy air. She stopped hammering, and peered over the edge of the ease. They had parked so close to the restaurant door that they had broken one of the flowerpots Jacob had planted only the day before.
"Bastards," she said, under her breath.
Even lying on the roof, with only the cheap slates in his line of vision, he could tell that it was a police car. There was a carelessness in the skid of the tires over the sandy road, and in the way the handbrake was pulled up while the wheels were still turning, leaving a slight screech hanging in the heavy air. He stopped hammering, and peered over the edge of the ease. They had parked so close to the restaurant door that they had broken one of the flowerpots Jacob had planted only the day before.
"Bastards," he said, under his breath.
Did the passages read differently to you? Did one seem more interesting or more literary?
Turns out that both male and female readers both preferred male protagonists. They were more likely to agree with the sentences, "I feel I can understand and appreciate the main character and situation in the story" and "I would like to continue reading to find out what happens next in the story" when the main character was male.
Why would this be? Here are some random guesses:
1. The subjects in the study were from Western industrialized countries (Canada and Germany). While Western countries have made progress in gender equality, males still tend to be the dominant gender. Maybe this would be incentive for both men and women to identify better with the males.
2. Perhaps it had to do with whether the protagonists matched gender expectations. It's possible that in the passages used, the characters acted in a more stereotypically male way. The authors did note that two of the four original passages had confident, assertive women as protagonists (the other two passages started out with male progtagonists). Like it or not, confidence and assertiveness are often seen as masculine characteristics. It would be interesting to have readers rate the masculinity or femininity of the protagonists in these passages and see if that relates to whether they liked them.
3. The authors give a related explanation. It's rather complicated and I’m not quite sure I believe it, but the idea is this: People generally view men's actions as due to situational factors, while they view women's actions as due to personality or character. Since the fundamental attribution error says that we see ourselves as situationally motivated, we identify more with male characters.
All in all, this is an interesting result, and somewhat disturbing if it turns out to be true for books beyond the scope of this experiment. What are your thoughts?
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Bortolussi, M., Dixon, P., & Sopčák, P. (2010). Gender and reading Poetics, 38 (3), 299-318 DOI: 10.1016/j.poetic.2010.03.004