I am the 51% (Or, where are all the women?)

October 27, 2012 § Leave a comment

Women outnumber men. This is true of the planet as a whole and true of the United States. The most recent U.S. census shows that while the numbers have moved a little bit toward balance in a generation, the population is still predominantly female. It has been since we first started counting the census here.
Nevertheless, our culture puts men in central roles. Male characters overpopulate fiction, where even background characters are frequently male default. Even when I did a Google search for “ratio of” the search suggestions all started with “men to women” instead of the other way around! It’s so commonplace for stories to be about men that it didn’t occur to me until adulthood that it was out of balance with the world around me. I hadn’t minded reading novels with mostly male characters because the characters were interesting and the stories were good.
Of course, there have been notable exceptions all along. The first ones that spring to mind are the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, which aren’t fiction, and Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery. Sweeping out a few more cobwebs from my brain, I seem to recall that the Oz series by Frank L. Baum had lots of female characters — from Dorothy and Glinda to Polychrome and the Patchwork Girl — having adventures.
It becomes much more difficult to think of a movie that isn’t a “chick flick” that has more than two or three female characters lost among a cast of male characters. Unfortunately, there is a gender desert between movies with dominantly female casts and movies with typical casting. When the disparity started tickling my awareness, I started looking for entertainment where the cast was reasonably balanced at around fifty-fifty. Ensemble television shows seem to do better than the movies.
One show that I like, Leverage, does fairly well. The main cast is a group of only two women to three men. However, the minor and incidental characters are just as likely to be women as men. (Minor characters are also likely to be cast with “minority” actors in the roles.) After all, why not have a woman bartender and a male kindergarten teacher? Unless the choice becomes jarring to the audience in a way that is distracting to the story, it makes sense to me to populate fiction the way the real world is populated.
The world of books is somewhat better. Female protagonists are likely to have the support of other female characters, while still having male characters important to her story.
The reality of everyday is that workplaces and social places frequently slope to gather greater numbers of one gender or another. In a public crowd, I see a distribution that matches our census numbers. Socially, I interact with more women at this time. My workplace has shifted from one side to the other over several years, for no particular reason. When similar distributions happen in fiction, it may be intentional, to forward the mood of the story or tell us something about the main character. I’d like that to be the rule and not the exception. We shouldn’t be forgetting to include over 50% of our human population.

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