Is Your Story Sexist?

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Anyone who reads a lot of sci-fi will tell you that this has long been a genre dominated by the male gaze. This is something that spills over from literature into film and television (token female in a comic book based film series, anyone?) but it doesn’t have to be this way.

Science fiction seems to fall into two categories as far as female characters are concerned. Either it is a novel in which being female is intrinsic to the plot, such as the Handmaid’s Tale, or it is a novel in which women are not essential to the plot, and therefore play only a minority of roles. There are of course exceptions to this. Anne Leckie played with it in Ancillary Justice by identifying all characters as ‘she’ and leaving it to the reader to decide what their biological gender might be. Ursula LeGuin writes with a strong, feminist bent, and Anne McCaffrey had plenty of female characters in her Dragonriders of Pern series. However she also stuck to traditional gender roles – the males were strong, dominating, the females weaker, sometimes manipulative, more emotionally driven, and pushed into work roles reminiscent of the 1950s.

If you are writing futuristic science fiction and your world is dominated by machines, there will be no job that women cannot do. When creating a character, ask yourself if there is a good reason why this character could not be female. Perhaps even ask if they need any gender at all. Push aside the idea that men are stronger and make the important decisions, and the idea that women belong in the domestic sphere and are there only to support men. Think Star Trek Discovery, not Star Trek the original series.

This particularly applies when writing an ensemble piece, where you have multiple characters, perhaps a group setting out on a great adventure. All too often, particularly in fantasy, one young woman will be thrown in with a group of adult men, to fight another group of adult men. She will have to earn her place among them with a special ability, though the male characters don’t have to earn their place in the group in the same way. There’s nothing wrong with giving your heroine magic powers, but don’t make that the only way a female will be allowed to join in the fun. If it’s enough for a male character to be a fair thief, or a good shot, or wealthy, if he is allowed to be old and unattractive and still tag along, those rules need to apply to your female characters too. And if you feel out of your depth writing a female character, have a look at how women writers do it, and remember that unless you are writing about a female-specific experience, creating a female character is just the same as creating a male one. You start with a name, an attitude, a flash of backstory, a talent, and you build on that.

Another thing to think about is your villain. Do they have to be male? Is Captain Phasma really the only woman in the entire First Order? If women can be good, if they can be heroic and brave and strong in the face of adversity, then they can also be evil and wicked. But make sure they are three dimensional. The wicked female does not have to be the crone, the stepmother, desperate to cling on to youth and beauty. It can be a fight for power, for wealth, for control. Perhaps she is running a corporation. Perhaps, as in my book Blue Shift, she is a corrupt politician. She can be the captain of a spaceship, a robot programmer, a poisoner, a knight. She can be planning to run the world, or even to destroy it.

The final thing to consider is whether or not your story passes the Bechdel test, named after the American Cartoonist Alison Bechdel. To past the test, your story (or film) must feature a conversation between two female characters in which they do not talk about a man. It can be really interesting to keep this at the back of your mind when you’re reading or watching a film, and seeing what passes and what fails.

Are there any other ways to make sure you’re doing female characters justice? Does it even matter? Comment below!


Jane O’Reilly would like to say that she’s the secret love child of Wonder Woman and grew up on a tropical island in the Pacific, but in reality she grew up in the north of England where it was quite cold and if anyone had any superpowers, they kept them well hidden. After university and a brief and very misguided spell as a teacher, she decided it would be better for everyone if she stayed at home and looked after her children. But what she really wanted to write was a book about a space pirate in which she could blow things up . .

You can find her on twitter as @janeoreilly, on instagram as @janeoreilly2032 or at her website www.janeoreilly.com. Her latest novel, Blue Shift, is available from Amazon and in bookstores.

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