In one of my random browsing moments, I stumbled upon a blog post of a writer who had her son complaining about the stories she was reading to him, as having so many books with women as protagonists. As it appeared, “only 27% of his books have a female protagonist, compared to 65% with a male protagonist.”. She linked back to another post about a similar issue but then for some TV documentary series called missed in history, where viewers complained that there were ‘too many women’ and more like a herstory than a missed in history. Their tally of the series’ episodes was that they featured 45% men, 21% women, and 34% were ungendered. All this made me wonder how I fared in my yearly book review blog posts. Here’s the summary table and the M/F/both or neither:
|Year posted||Book||Nr M||Nr F||Both / neither||Pct F|
|2012||Long walk to freedom, terrific majesty, racist’s guide, end of poverty, persons in community, African renaissance, angina monologues, master’s ruse, black diamond, can he be the one||4||3||3||33%|
|2013||Delusions of gender, tipping point, affluenza, hunger games, alchemist, eclipse, mieses karma||2||3||2||43%|
|2014||Book of the dead, zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance, girl with the dragon tattoo, outliers, abu ghraib effect, nice girls don’t get the corner office||2||1||3||17%|
|2015||Stoner, not a fairy tale, no time like the present, the time machine, 1001 nights, karma suture, god’s spy, david and goliath, dictator’s learning curve, MK||4||2||4||20%|
|2016||Devil to pay, black widow society, the circle, accidental apprentice, moxyland, muh, big short, 17 contradictions||2||4||2||50%|
Actually, I did pretty well in the overall balance. It also shows that were I to have done a bean count for a single year only, the conclusion could have been very different. That said, I classified them from memory, and not by NLP of the text of the books, so the actual amount allotted to the main characters might differ. Related to this is the screenplay dialogue-based data-driven analysis of Hollywood movies, for which NLP was used. Their results show that even when there’s a female lead character, Hollywood manages to get men to speak more; e.g., The Little Mermaid (71%) and The Hunger Games (55% male). Even the chick flick Clueless is 50-50. (The website has several nice interactive graphs based on the lots of data, so you can check yourself.) For the Hunger Games, though, the books do have Katniss think, do, and say more than in the movies.
A further caveat of the data is that these books are not the only ones I’ve read over the past five years, just the ones written about. Anyhow, I’m pleased to discover there is some balance in what I pick out to write about, compared to unconscious bias.
As a last note on the fiction novels listed above, there was a lot of talk online the past week about Lionel Shriver’s keynote on defense on fiction writing-what-you-like and having had enough of the concept of ‘cultural appropriation’. Quite few authors in the list above would be thrown on the pile of authors who ‘dared’ to imagine characters different from the box they probably would by put in. Yet, most of them still did a good job to make it a worthwhile read, such as Hugh Fitzgerald Ryan on Alice the Kyteler in ‘The devil to pay’, David Safier with Kim Lange in ‘Mieses Karma’, Stieg Larsson with ‘Girl with the dragon tattoo’, and Richard Patterson in ‘Eclipse’ about Nigeria. Rather: a terrible character or setting that’s misrepresenting a minority or oppressed, marginalised, or The Other group in a novel is an indication of bad writing and the writer should educate him/herself better. For instance, JM Coetzee could come back to South Africa and learn a thing or two about the majority population here, and I hope for Zakes Mda he’ll meet some women who he can think favourably about and then reuse those experiences in a story. Anyway, even if the conceptually problematic anti-‘cultural appropriation’ police wins it from the fiction writers, then I suppose I can count myself lucky living in South Africa that, with its diversity, will have diverse novels to choose from (assuming they won’t go further overboard into dictating that I would be allowed to read only those novels that are designated to be appropriate for my (from the outside) assigned box).
UPDATE (20-9-2016): following the question on POC protagonist, here’s the table, where those books with a person (or group) of colour is a protagonist are italicised. Some notes on my counting: Angina monologues has three protagonists with 2 POCs so I still counted it, Hunger games’ Katniss is a POC in the books, Eclipse is arguable, abu ghraib effect is borderline and Moxyland is an ensemble cast so I still counted that as well. Non-POC includes cows as well (Muh), hence that term was chosen rather than ‘white’ that POC is usually contrasted with. As can be seen, it varies quite a bit by year as well.
(italics in the list)
|Non-POC or N/A||Pct POC|
|2012||Long walk to freedom, terrific majesty, racist’s guide, end of poverty, persons in community, African renaissance, angina monologues, master’s ruse, black diamond, can he be the one||8||2||80%|
|2013||Delusions of gender, tipping point, affluenza, hunger games, alchemist, eclipse, mieses karma||2||5||29%|
|2014||Book of the dead, zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance, girl with the dragon tattoo, outliers, abu ghraib effect, nice girls don’t get the corner office||2||4||33%|
|2015||Stoner, not a fairy tale, no time like the present, the time machine, 1001 nights, karma suture, god’s spy, david and goliath, dictator’s learning curve, MK||4||6||40%|
|2016||Devil to pay, black widow society, the circle, accidental apprentice, moxyland, muh, big short, 17 contradictions||3||5||38%|