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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
I think a larger number of sample passages are needed before a fuller conclusion can be reached. The example paragraph, for instance, contains a significant difference in the reading. Specifically, the only mention of a character's name is "Jacob." As no name is given for the POV character, it's easy to assume that the POV character, when described by the male pronoun, is Jacob. This gives the POV character a greater investment in the scene (as the characters have just undone part of Jacob's work), and thus invites greater investment by the reader. I think this could have skewed results. Since they only used four passages, and this one seems unfairly skewed, it seems as though a larger number of passages is needed for a fair determination.ReplyDelete
good point about "Jacob", Donald. I didn't catch that. The actual passages were about 1-2 pages long, so that might have helped with that. I do think it'd be interesting to do many passages, and analyze the similarities and differences between passages.ReplyDelete
Interesting. Personally a story that does not have a confident, assertive female protagonist or otherwise central character has to have a LOT going for it to get me interested. I wonder how they would explain that...ReplyDelete
Hmm... I must say that I agree with guess number 2 most. When I read the first passage, (maybe I was biased because I knew what was coming) it seemed as if the character was male rather than female through actions and thoughts. Maybe this has something to do with stereotyping, I don't know.ReplyDelete
But what was especially interesting is that I missed the "original" and "modified" headings (no, this isn't the interesting part, I'm getting there) and I immediately assumed that the "he" paragraph was the original, only to find that I was wrong.
(By the way, I think the "Jacob" factor mentioned above is a good point)
Anyway, great post. I think it would be interesting to see the entire passage(s) that they read.
A fascinating study! It's making me think of my favorite books and how they'd be different if the MC's gender changed.ReplyDelete
Donald - so I went back and looked at the samples. It seems like they do provide names for the protagonists. Since the excerpts were about 2 to 3 pages, I assume that the Jacob factor would not have been an issue in the actual sample. Although that still doesn't change the fact that more samples would be good for the study.ReplyDelete
Azkyroth - same here. I love novels with strong female heroines. And some of them tend to be rather violent. I'm not sure what that says about me.
Jake -- I had the exact same impression with that passage. It totally seemed like a man
Jenna - I've been thinking about that too. It's actually very hard to flip the gender of the protagonist. It switches up all the other relationships.
Nobody asked me my opinion, and I prefer reading about women. #BuckingTheTrendReplyDelete
I find it all a bit depressing, really. It's especially bad in the fantasy genre with a substantial population of the readers refusing to read novels with female POV characters out-of-hand. Maybe it's because so few authors know how to write women 'well' because of confusion about what a woman should be? One reader sees confidence, another sees arrogance, a third sees stupidity based on their own value judgments whereas we still have a pretty consistent and clear view of what traits are good in a man.ReplyDelete
Simon – well, we know you're all about bucking the trendReplyDelete
Shannon – it's funny because young adult is the exact opposite, with so many female characters. I wonder why that is.
It does seem like most kid books that appeal to both boys and girls have male characters in them. But I think gender expectations plays a strong role with that. My son enjoys Diego and Dora equally, and I'm comfortable with that and buy him books from both series. But I feel that culture seems to say it is better for a girl to enjoy "boy" stories than it is for a boy to enjoy "girl" stories, even when the girls in them are not stereotype girly girls with an overdose of pink and teengirlspeak. I think that's rather sad. Boys (and men) miss out on some great fiction if they are unwilling to look at stories with dynamic female protagonists.ReplyDelete
I read the Hunger Games trilogy and the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series, even though I rarely make time for new fiction. I love these, and their wild poplarity, not to mention Twilight series Bella of book and now screen fame, show female leads can rock the world successfully. I found the lead characters in Hunger and Dragon amazingly strong, and their voice even more interesting because they are cast as women.ReplyDelete