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I need a hero: feminism, escapism and the female gaze

At WorldCon last week I attended a panel where one of the participants, Catherine Lundoff, announced she had just written a book called Silver Moon about a woman who becomes a werewolf when she goes through menopause. Several audience members reacted with “ooh, I’d love to read that!”, but I was not one of them. Don’t get me wrong; on an intellectual level, I appreciate that women, and especially older women, are too seldom the protagonists in SFF and that this is A Bad Thing, and yet…the premise didn’t exactly set me on fire. I much prefer books with male protagonists, or a mix of male and female. And of course that got me wondering why.

Adonis, by Bertel Thorvaldsen (Wikimedia Commons)
Adonis, by Bertel Thorvaldsen (Wikimedia Commons)

At first I thought it was because some readers prefer their protagonists to be much like themselves, whereas others (presumably including myself) prefer those who are different, in order to experience lives they can never have. That’s a big part of it, I think—escaping into a life that’s far more interesting than the real world—but there are plenty of strong, active female characters around these days, especially in contemporary fantasy. And yet they still don’t interest me as much as the men.

It’s well known that girls are more open to reading about male characters than vice versa, but what does that say about one individual’s preferences? Do I prefer reading about men because that’s what society has inculcated in me? Or because I don’t identify—and never have—with (stereo)typical female behaviour and hence my self-image is somewhat gender-neutral? Or maybe it’s something else entirely…

Back in April I was on a panel at AltFiction on the hoary old topic of diversity in fantasy, and made a quip about “the female gaze” as an explanation of why I enjoy writing (and reading) about male protagonists. More recently, Foz Meadows has written a very insightful article for the Huffington Post titled “Sex, Desire and Fan Fiction”, pointing out that a high percentage of fan fiction is written by and for women to cater to female readers’ appetite for erotic entertainment in the context of a relationship, in contrast with pornography for men, which isolates sex from relationships.

Reflecting on these points in relation to the issue of female protagonists made me realise that, regardless of whether there is any romance in a book, I want to fall in love with the protagonist—and for me that perforce requires a male character, preferably on the young side. (But not a teenager *shudders*) This habit is so ingrained in me that I can even fall in love with someone like Sand dan Glokta from Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, because despite his many flaws he’s intelligent and funny and heartbreakingly tragic. Yes, he’s also described as physically repulsive, but then so was Severus Snape—and who was cast in that role? Alan Rickman of the oh-so-sexy voice, guaranteed to make all the adult women in the audience swoon. The great thing about books is that you get to supply your own visuals.

So, I can only issue an apology to my sisters, and a heartfelt wish that you get all the female protagonists you want to read about. Me, I’m going to stick with writing about hot men 😉

Finally, going back to the title of this post, am I the only one old enough to remember this short-lived 80s TV show about a special agent who goes undercover as a male model? Warning: 80s big hair alert!






I’m in love with all my male protagonists just a little bit, even the evil / repulsive ones! You can’t write a novel about someone you don’t care about. But Coby is an excellent character 😉


Oh, I’m not against writing female characters at all – but I can’t see myself focusing on a female protagonist with no guys in the mix. To me that would be very dull indeed!

Paul (@princejvstin)

I’ve been doing some thinking along those lines. And in some cases, a minor or underdeveloped female character has, to me, been someone I would rather see the story from. This is more true in movies, but it applies in novels too.

For example, the new Total Recall. I would have been happy to have seen it entirely from Lori’s point of view. That would be interesting. And I would have liked it.

The book I am reading now has a female protagonist, and I am having no difficulty in reading it even if its not a man to identify with per se…

Jennie Ivins

“Or because I don’t identify—and never have—with (stereo)typical female behaviour and hence my self-image is somewhat gender-neutral?”

I know I’m closer to this. In real life I have two girlfriends who aren’t related to me and have had about that many my whole life. To me guys are easier to get along with and are generally more interested in things I’m interested in than girls are. So while I don’t mind reading about female protags, I’m just as happy not reading about them.

Francis Knight

I concur with Anne – when I read, I don’t (often) identify with the women*, I just want to fall a little bit (or a lot!) in love with the hero. And while I’ve read some great books with fantastic female characters, having a guy to fall for, that’s kind of my default.

* I don’t often come across female characters who are in any way like me. Often, all we share is a similarity in plumbing.

Lisa Searle

I have to agree with you Anne. Although I’ll always have a strong female lead I have to have a strong male lead as well, I could never have a book full of just women, I need some mind-candy! And I love writing my male characters, probably more so than the female ones. I tend to be more restrained and restricted with the women but the men I let my hair down with (so to speak). I like having a very strong male lead in my stories and in books that I read, although not to the point where they are overpowering and suffocating (not mentioning any names; Christian Grey…) So like you, I will also continue to write about hot men 🙂