Male Leads: Why Gender Stereotypes Limit Readers – Guest Post by Amanda M. Lyons

I have for a long time been obsessing over the ethics and sexuality of vampires (see, for example, Consent). I am delighted to have a guest post today from Amanda M. Lyons, author of the vampire series Shades of Midnight, who is concerned about the real impact of ‘harmless fantasy’ on impressionable readers.

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It’s a question I’ve been asking myself for a while now, especially when it comes to fiction that is targeted at women and, most prominently, in fiction such as romance and vampire fiction where it would seem to logically focus on the softer side of both genders. Why do we feel the need to make our male leads strong, built, only so emotional and even brash and aggressive?

What exactly do I mean? Let’s see if this sounds familiar. Tall, dark and handsome walks into the room and suddenly our female lead is falling all over herself not to drink in every glance she can grab. Sometimes we get the old cat and mouse game of “oh I really hate him but now I love him despite myself” but most of the time we know this is the guy because he’s just so “hot” and our heroine can’t help but be glued to him as if he is the last real man on earth. Sometimes he rescues her or helps her beat the bad guys, sometimes he’s an “alpha” or “dom” who tells her what she “really wants” or who she “really is”, but in all these forms he’s taking some sort of lead, he’s rescuing her from her boring life or the troubles in it.

Listen, I get it. This is escapism, fantasy fiction, a way to get away from the humdrum bits of our everyday lives, but why does that mean we invest in a guy that, if we were really honest, we’d reject as pushy or an outright asshole in real life? Why does this guy have to come with a 6 pack or only brood in the most attractive or mysterious ways? Why must he be all action, drama, aggressive come ons and a hefty bank account? Why is this guy a modern caveman only slightly evolved? Why is he our ideal?

This is our model of the ideal man, this is the guy we’re taught can get the job done, no matter what that job is. He’s meant to be the guy that takes you away to a world where the bills are covered or don’t matter, the big decisions in life are taken out of the picture and things don’t ever get boring because this guy never does anything remotely boring. He’s not human, he doesn’t have any of the same needs all the guys in real life do, his job is to look great and protect us from the big bad world. Ladies, this is our equivalent of the hourglass figured, leggy, redheaded/blond sex goddess that none of us live up to and should never want to, why are we doing to guys what we feel they do to us when they behave in a sexist manner?

It’s all about what we think we want most in a man, what we’re taught to see as the ideal. What’s wrong with the sensitive guy who doesn’t have 6 pack abs or stellar good looks? Nothing. What’s wrong with the guy who prefers reading or writing to slaying the bad guys or rescuing damsels in distress? Nothing. Plenty of our heroines have these traits so why shouldn’t our heroes? In fact, why don’t we write guys who are more sensitive? Why don’t we have guys that need a little rescuing every now and then? Who have human faults and human strengths like sympathy, empathy and the ability to make them more lovable, more worthy of our time.

In and of themselves these things aren’t all that bad, but when we push the ideal we also leave in some of the bits that aren’t so great. A lot of the dom and alpha guys aren’t just protectors they’re abusive, aggressive in the worst sense and hurt us. Guys who put everything aside for adventures aren’t exactly dependable or willing to commit to anything including their lady. Odds are good that Mr Rich Guy isn’t going to have time to spend with you and he’s got a pretty good shot at being the guy who picked you because you make good eye candy rather than any real emotional investment. Mr Built also has a strong shot of missing the mark either by being self-involved or being a bit of a chauvinist or worse using those muscles on you. Fantasy is great, but where do we draw the line between harmless fun and telling young women that these guys are what they should be looking for? When do we admit that a lot of these male leads, even in the books we ladies are so fond of, are passive aggressive at the least and outright manipulative and abusive at the worst?

Nobody buys these books as real, right? I think you’d be surprised.

A lot of younger women ages 12 and up are picking up these books, falling in love with the leads and forming crushes that lead to an ideal, the one that sets their overall goal in men for the rest of their lives. Yes, we do learn to modify this ideal, yes we do end up dating men who aren’t this ideal, but we go through an awful lot of heartbreak before that. Our earliest relationships, the ones most likely to color our romantic outlook leave their mark and if these girls are seeking out the passive aggressive guy, the manipulative one, the abusive guy masquerading as the protector or the loving dom she’s paving a pretty hard road, one that might lead to real emotional, mental, and physical scars, even, in the worst cases, things like rape, death and suicide. We are offering all women incorrect models to which to aspire and, in turn telling men that these are their own ideals if they want to find a partner. Because these same books are being made into movies they’re also influencing young women through film, t-shirts, and other merchandise that promote it all.

We are also telling her that she’s only appealing when she kowtows to a man’s needs, when she plays a secondary role to his primary. We tell her it’s okay to be controlled and manipulated by someone she loves, for her to see herself as worthless without his presence. That her needs will all be fulfilled when she finds a man who will take care of her, who will remove all of her need for independence and self-reliance. These things limit women, they give them a skewed view of reality and when they are caught up in these ideals they pay the price. We need to have stronger characters in these books. We should have men with flaws and strengths that we find in real men of all types, men who represent a good ideal. We need women who own their lives and stand up to men who would belittle them, who seek out healthy relationships with truly strong men who see them. We need to stop limiting the reader because she wants a little adventure and romance in her life. We need to build her up and the strong young men who grow up with her.

Extracts from Eyes Like Blue Fire

Raven had been shunned and abandoned throughout his life. Friends often came and went without a word or worse, they toyed with his emotions and shared his secrets with those he chose to distrust. His loneliness was inevitable and his secrets were damaging enough. Through all of his largely brief but emotionally involved friendships and infatuations, the depression and the darkness of his past, there had been one place to which he could go for solitude—either in thought or in person—and he never shared the knowledge of its existence or its secrets with anyone. That place dwelled within him even all of these years since the summer when he was nine and all that could ever have gone wrong, did.

[…]

When she first saw him, she took him for a ghost. His jet-black hair fluttered in the breeze as he walked, letting her see his eyes. They seemed haunted, lost in some way. He was tall and gaunt, starkly pale in his black clothes. He was the very picture of Anton, even sharing his world-weary eyes of deepest blue. She could hardly look away from this apparition, an echo of all the memories and dreams that had haunted her these many years.

Author Bio

Amanda M. Lyons is the author of the Shades of Midnight gothic vampire series. A longtime fan of horror and fantasy, Ms Lyons writes character driven novels that, while influenced by her darker interests, can also be heavily laced with fantasy, romance, history and magic. She has lived her whole life in rural Ohio where she lives with her fiance and two children.

Wendy Won’t Go: Collector’s Edition, Eyes Like Blue Fire, and Water Like Crimson Sorrow came out from J. Ellington Ashton Press this year. She is also the author of Feral Hearts (a brutal vampire choose your own ending tale), with authors Catt Dahman, Mark Woods, Jim Goforth, Edward P. Cardillo, and Michael Fisher; a contributing author to the extreme horror anthology Rejected for Content: Splattergore, and co-edited Autumn Burning: Dreadtime Stories for the Wicked Soul with Samatha Gregory. Look for Under the Bridge, Inanna Rising: Women Forged by Fire, Fata Arcana, and Cool Green Waters (Book 3 of Shades of Midnight) in the coming months.

Amanda is also Lead Editor US Division with J Ellington Ashton Press and a freelance novel editor. Find out more at: amandamlyons.weebly.com

About Frank

A Sci-Fi & Fantasy author and lyrical poet with a mild obsession for vampires, succubi, goddesses and Supergirl.
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10 Responses to Male Leads: Why Gender Stereotypes Limit Readers – Guest Post by Amanda M. Lyons

  1. isaiyan says:

    Personally I can’t read books with this theme. They never interested me. I tried several times, just to see what the fuss was about and each time, I found myself either throwing the book across the room, giving it away, or storing it in the darkest corners of my closet.

    Just recently I purchased a book. From the blurb, I thought that the novel was different from the paranormal romance drivel out there. Boy, was I wrong. The same old girl meets boy, girl falls in love with boy and from what I remember, there was some paranormal in there somewhere.

    Never again. If I see paranormal romance anywhere in the novel’s description, I’m running the other way. Just my preference.

  2. Thanks for the article. Very much enjoyed it.
    I have to wonder why these men are present in women’s romance (paranormal romance in particular) and action movies, and nowhere else. These jerkasses haven’t been acceptable main characters in the rest of fiction since the days of John Carter at the turn of the last century.
    Contemporary fiction focuses on character-driven stories – so why do these chummy guys persist? They aren’t proper characters. They don’t even have the depth of the female leads they’re wooing. Bella Swan might have been two dimensional – but what was Edward? He didn’t even have that nuance. And while it’s not paranormal, Mr Christian Fifty Shades of Grey was no better – his aggression substituted for personality.
    From what I can see in the larger speculative fiction world, there are plenty of examples of nuanced male leads in believable, healthy relationships. I’m no proponent of Divergent, but if it did one thing well, it was the relationship between Tris and Four. Tris was largely the strong partner in that relationship, Four had his strengths and weaknesses, and Tris aimed to complement those without compromising her own personality.
    Paranormal romance can definitely be done well. So Amanda raises an interesting point: why isn’t it?

  3. BroadBlogs says:

    Sometimes it seems we haven’t come so far. A lot of women waiting for prince charming — or waiting to reform him. Which can leave the false impression that you can be reformed — leaving a lot of women staying in abusive relationships, perhaps? Luckily, we now live in a world where that’s not the only message we get, anymore. So at least we have come some way along the path.

  4. Great post. I can’t read romances in general. The few I’ve tried have been just too stereotypical with cardboard characters and predictable plots. The romantic stereotypes sometimes seep into YA, so I steer clear of that too if the blurb even hints in that direction. It’s probably because I’m old. When I was a teenager, I would have gobbled that stuff up.

    • Frank says:

      I used to love wandering through bookshops, searching the SFF shelves for something new and interesting. Now I see lots of exciting covers, but by the second sentence of the blurb I’m sick with disgust as yet another potentially interesting heroine gets saddled with an enigmatic-but-gorgeous and astonishingly capable hero.

      I like romance, but I dislike the tedious inevitability of it. Also, I’m obviously not a lesbian, but I suffer from the same irritation that the heroine inevitably falls for a man.

      One final straw for this camel: People complain about the quality of self-published books – and, yes, okay, 99.9% of those are awful for one reason or another – but popular stuff in bookshops is increasingly poor in terms of writing. Do even the big publishers employ editors these days?

      • I recently had a discussion with a friend sci-fi writer whose characters are always gorgeous. In a nice way, I tried to tell her that they are all a bit “vanilla” and I’d love some variety. She said they’ve been genetically engineered and that’s why they’re all so dreamy. I tried….

  5. Great article, Amanda.

    In writing my fantasy Dirt it has been really important to me not to have obvious stereo types. I do have a couple, well one, good looking man and a couple of the women are very good looking, but part of that is that they are active and fit as well as young, rather than because they are some beauty queen – similar with the men. The rest of my characters are a real oddball mix of shapes and sizes – just like real life.

    Personally, I think it makes the story more interesting. If everyone conforms to a stereotype then the story is going to be terribly predictable! People react as they are portrayed in the end.

    I have written an article that, without being a complete companion piece to this, does address a similar issue which you might appreciate:

    http://cchogan.com/writing-convincing-female-characters/

    CC

    • Frank says:

      Thanks for commenting! I enjoyed your article.

      I have a theory that we authors have a tendency to idealise the characters that match our orientation. Thus straight female authors write gorgeous, powerful males, while straight male authors write beautiful, sexy females, and so on. Not always, and not all characters, but the temptation is there.

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