Do you have male and female characters in your story? Apparently, statistically speaking, you’re probably using physical attributes to describe the women, while the men get more personal qualities. Female characters might be lovely or undernourished, while their male counterparts are more likely to be rational or bigoted.
Why can’t we have a rational woman or an undernourished man? Why not the farmer’s bigoted daughter or the group of lovely young men waiting for the train?
According to the article I just read, machine learning was used to analyse 3.5 million books written in English over the last century or so, and to pick out the adjectives used to describe men and women. The results don’t look great. In fact, it looks like women are reduced to objects while men get to be rounded characters. Which isn’t just annoying, it’s pretty boring.
So let’s take a look at the words, shall we:
Positive Traits: just, sound, righteous, rational, peaceable, prodigious, brave, paramount, reliable, sinless, honourable
Negative Traits: unsuitable, unreliable, lawless, inseparable, brutish, idle, unarmed, wounded, bigoted, unjust, brutal
Positive Traits: beautiful, lovely, chaste, gorgeous, fertile, beauteous, sexy, classy, exquisite, vivacious, vibrant
Negative Traits: battered, untreated, barren, shrewish, sheltered, heartbroken, unmarried, undernourished, underweight, uncomplaining, nagging
Of course, I have a few questions (you knew I would, right?):
- Was there an equal sample of recent books and those from the early part of the twentieth century?
- Has there been any change more recently, or is there still evidence of sexism in recent books?
- Is there a difference when it comes to male, female or non-binary writers?
- Is there a difference when it comes to romance?
- What about more specific descriptions, rather than looking at adjectives?
OK, so while there are no answers to my questions, there are a few things to pick out from the lists.
First, I’m not sure I agree with whoever decided on the positive and negative traits. How is “inseparable” a negative? Or “unarmed”? Or “uncomplaining”?
Second, I’d say the negative traits are where the sexism becomes really apparent, rather than the positives. “Shrewish” and “nagging” make me grind my teeth (although, so does “fertile”…shudder…). Some of the negative traits for male characters, on the other hand, are almost badges of honour: lawless, brutish, wounded.
Third, looking at the words, I’d say I can answer my own question that there are either just as many books from the early twentieth century as more modern books, or it might even be that the sample size is smaller for modern books. “Chaste” is the third most common adjective for female characters… I mean, really? Who’s using “chaste” any more? Or “beauteous”? Or “paramount”? Unless there are a lot more period novels than I thought, and they’re rife with bland adjectives, it looks like these are coming from older writers.
That bodes well, and honestly I’m pretty sure we must be using more interesting descriptions instead of so many adjectives too. I also suspect, as a romance reader, that more modern romances steer clear of boring adjectives and female characters who are only there for window dressing.
Which makes me happy. I don’t hate adjectives. They’re useful. But at the same time describing characters in overused cliches is an example of telling rather than showing, and a lot of the time you’re going to want to do better.
So drop those boring, sexist adjectives already. That goes double for anyone still writing bland 2D cutouts of women into their stories.
It’s the 21st century, you can do better.