Stereotyping the Sexes

Some bird species are monomorphic, with no easily identifiable differences between the male and female birds, but other species are dimorphic, which means there are visible differences in appearance.

Female and male Red-winged blackbirds

Reading that information in my bird guide led me to thinking about how we portray male and female characters in our writing.

Female Black-headed grosbeak

If we women need a reason to rationalize why we sometimes feel dowdy and unattractive, the birding world has the nerve to flaunt proof that it’s the male who’s meant to sport the gorgeous plumage and strut around challenging other guys and courting the gals. The females are “usually duller, with less distinctive markings that make it easier for them to blend in to the surroundings while they mind a nest or protect young birds.” *

Male Black-headed grosbeak

Men might  love this, but the women? Not so much. Then again, literature makes reference to men who strut like peacocks, displaying them as characters with vanity or overconfidence and suggesting, as scripture does, that “pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. [Proverbs 16:18]

Ah ha! Maybe there is something about characterization in these birdy and biblical references that we can utilize in our novel writing. Or would that leave us open to accusations of stereotyping?

When you’re developing your characters do you layer traits that are specific to the sexes? How do you avoid typecasting?

~

“Did St. Francis preach to the birds? Whatever for?
If he really liked birds he would have done better
to preach to the cats.”

Rebecca West
.

“As a bird that wandereth from her nest,
so is a man that wandereth from his place.”

Proverbs 27:8

.

“Yea, the sparrow hath found an house,
and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young

even thine altars, O Lord of hosts, my King, and my God.”

Psalm 84:3

~  ~  ~

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6 thoughts on “Stereotyping the Sexes

  1. Judith Robl says:

    Love your photos! It is so easy to stereotype, but that leaves us with cardboard characters. If every character has at least one trait that is anti-stereotypical (is that a word?), I think our characters will have more dimension.

  2. Carol, it was a surprise when I learned that the peacock was the male with all the pretty plumage and the peahen much less. Then I can see how nature wants her to blend in to keep home and hearth safe. I can’t say I am as good as nature in creating the special differences … like all humans … I tend to bend the rules and make my women more vibrant, tough old birds that can weather the storm even if left along to tend the nest 🙂

  3. christicorbett says:

    Last weekend, I saw a male peacock up close for the first time. I couldn’t believe how big it was, and how long those tail feathers really are. And, I watched in amazement as it easily hopped from the ground to the top of a six foot fence.

    As for your question, I’d say my characters mostly display the traditional characteristics for male/female, but I say “mostly” because I allow for a few fun and unexpected surprises. One example is one of my female lead characters ends up dressing in male clothes because she believes them more comfortable (not shocking for today’s dressing standards, but I write historicals)

    Love the pictures!

    Christi Corbett

  4. Shari Green says:

    LOVE that Rebecca West quote! 😉

  5. joylene says:

    Having a houseful of men as I was learning my craft helped. Men are more physical in their reactions, while women think like frozen statues. I like that. I also remember the look on my mother’s face if I did something particularly stupid. That look could stop you in your tracks.

    Ha, not sure what made me think of that. All I know is I have to assign a face to my male and female characters to avoid creating stereotypical beings.

  6. torimcrae says:

    Carol, I love the way you apply so many of life’s experiences and lessons (including nature and the Bible) to the process of writing. You clearly have a gift for putting things together in order to teach others.
    Tori McRae

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