In today’s world, headlines are splattered with same sex marriages, celebrity “bumps” (a slang term used to describe a pregnant woman’s stomach), and women deemed to be “fat” because they gained a few pounds. Whether you’re a writer in the entertainment industry or a columnist for your local newspaper, gender treatment is one of the biggest issues facing our work today, because the boundaries and descriptions of gender have changed.
I often laugh at old fifties advertisements showing a submissive wife waiting hand-and-foot on her husband. If you’re writing fiction or a story about that particular time period, however, those gender roles were part-and-parcel to what the society is about—much like “hippies” were part of the 60s, “disco” defines the 70s, and “over-consumption” spelled out the 80s.
Unconsciously, we deal with gender treatment all the time in today’s society; when we see a female action hero and comment on her costume, when we read about bisexual, gay or cross-gender relationships in the news, when we form opinions about gender treatment based on what’s happening in another country.
In writing, our own ideas and conceptions about gender treatment may color our projects and speak to our values. This isn’t a “good” or a “bad” thing, but it does have consequences that may range from alienating sections of a market to offending a particular group. Some of these reactions are unavoidable, but they are a result of how we approach gender even before we write words on a page.
If you’re ever been involved with marketing, gender treatment is part-and-parcel to market research. Take, for example, “paranormal romance” where the main, female character falls in love with a vampire or a werewolf. In romance, writers shoot for a different kind of fantasy than a dragon-filled world; in paranormal romance, it is a mixture of both, but the main focus is on the relationship of the characters. When love and sex are the selling points for the book, often the cover art will be shaped with that particular market in mind.
In this genre, writers aren’t going to write about unattractive characters or avoid certain tropes, because marketing caters toward the stereotypes, but the same isn’t necessary true of other industries.
For games, for example, there is a big problem with gender stereotypes, because according to “old” popular beliefs, girls don’t game and if they do? They’re fat and unpopular and useless. In gaming text, if the text continually is catered only toward male references and stereotypes of girl gamers, it can actually hurt the product’s efficacy because it’s ignoring a blatant truth. So-called “girl-unfriendly” products may perpetuate the stereotypes because the products are selling, but they could sell a lot better if they focused on gender treatment that leaned toward more realistic characters. Sexual orientation is also something that directly effects the definition of “gender,” and can add a layer of confusion to the mix. When is it appropriate to include a gay character, for example?
Regardless of your personal beliefs, gender treatment is a subject that can be very touchy for almost anyone. As a writer it’s something that affects your prose; as an editor it will be something you’ll have to determine up front through style sheets either with your marketing department or with your product developers.
If you’re looking for a single solution to resolving appropriate gender treatment–there obviously isn’t one. In this case, you’ll want to ensure that you understand this dimension of your target market, and compare notes with your editor or publisher to ensure that you’re representing the company appropriately.