Last Updated on September 3, 2021 by ThoughtsStained
I’m back this Friday participating in another Let’s Talk Bookish post, as always hosted by the amazing Rukky @ Eternity Books and awesome Dani @ The Literary Lion! For this week, our topic is: Protagonists and Gender, recommended by Mahita @ Amateur Teen Writer.
The official topic is a little bit longer and narrower: do you prefer male or female protagonists. I definitely have Opinions (I always have opinions, oops) and I’m curious to hear other’s thoughts on the topic!
So, when I initially read the prompt, I was like: Oh, that’s easy. Female protagonists, all the way. It’s for the same reason that I also always create or play as a female character in video games, when given the choice. The reason for that is simple. Growing up, I struggled to find female heroes to read about. Sure, I loved a lot of the fantasy I read: The Lord of the Rings, of course, but also series like The Ranger’s Apprentice series by John Flanagan, randomly finding history books by G.A. Henty (that were super old and even addressed the readers as “Dear Lads,”) and many others. Growing up, I didn’t…truly realize that I was missing, because society ingrains it in you that white and male is the expectation, the average, the standard, the default.
So, when I first discovered and read Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce? To say it was life changing is an UNDERSTATEMENT. I saw a girl who reminded me of me. A tomboy who desperately needed to fit in with the boys. She became a girl and woman I wanted to become: strong, fearless, true to herself and willing to stand up for those around her. Alanna is the HERO. It was the first time I realized that could be possible. She opened my eyes to the idea that was what women were capable of. I quickly devoured every book that Tamora Pierce wrote and then started discovering more characters; more female writers. It made me want to write books, myself, so I could continue to break the idea that women didn’t belong in SFF.
It wasn’t until I got older–much older–that I realized much more needed to break than that.
Destroying the Binary
That feeling of seeing myself on the page for the first time after only being exposed to male protagonists will always stick with me. (Obviously, since it’s been a decade since that’s happened.) I believe it’ll be with me for the rest of my life. It wasn’t until I joined the blogging community and had my own worldview expanded that I realized how many identities also have the chance to experience that. Basically, if you’re not an able-bodied, straight white guy, then seeing yourself on the page for the first time after only seeing able-bodied, straight white bros, is there. Yet, for me, it’s much more probable, as a able-bodied white woman, to see myself on the page.
But what about a queer Black woman? A disabled trans man? A culture not based on Western ideals, traditions or beliefs?
Every single person should have the opportunity to see themselves represented in books. BookS, plural. Not just once, but over and over and over again. In the pages, on the cover, through the author, again and again and again.
As a reader, I will always prefer to read books about female protagonists, because it makes me feel seen in a way nothing else can. I still love books with male protagonists, of course. Yet, it’s also very important that each of us continue to break apart the expected binary and continue to read books that don’t represent us, but do represent those who have traditionally been underrepresented: books about and by BIPOC, queer, disabled writers and protagonists. This is something I’m trying to do a better job at, because the more we support these books, the better chance publishing will listen and realize the demand is–and already has been–high and should be met.
Just in case you’re looking for some books with some incredible female protagonists, I did want to highlight a few recs! See:
And, because I haven’t done the best job of reading books with non-binary, queer or trans protagonists, I highly recommend you look through this incredible list of recommendations, curated by The Quiet Pond!
I think it’s normal to have a preference when you read to prefer to read certain books, in relation to protagonists and gender. But, I also think we need to demand publishing do a better job at making sure that everyone has a chance to be represented regularly, so no one ever has to stick with the “traditional default”.
What about you? Agree or disagree? Have any thoughts you’d like to offer? Let me know in the comments. Thank you for reading!
Rukky @ Eternity Books says
You always write such awesome discussions, Nicole! Even as a kid, I refused to accept the more dominant male characters, and studiously avoided them as much as possible. Instead I gorged on Nancy Drew, American Girl, Gallagher Girls, and any other series that followed a female MC that was in genres that I read. Now that I think about it, I don’t think I ever got that sense of excitement and empowerment about finding amazing female leads until I started reading YA where girls were smashing all the barriers left and right all. the. time. And you’re so right about publishing needing to represent everyone: nobody should have to feel left out.
I focused on the more narrower discussion between girls and boys in my post, but I’m so glad that you went ahead and broadened it, giving us this wonderful insight to read ❤
Ahhh, Rukky, this absolutely made my day, thank you so much!! <3 <3
I am so glad you were always able to find ways to navigate away from the dominant male culture, even as a kid!
Hasini @ Bibliosini says
First of all, I love that you have recommendations! And it looks like such a great list!
Second, I totally agree with you. I used to read mostly female led stories. Being a South Asian female, I didn’t come across many such protagonists in the traditionally published books, so I read many while female protagonist books in my childhood. Now I am seeing a lot more diversity and choice, which is just absolutely wonderful! But there’s still more work to be done obviously!
Aww, thank you, Hasini! I hope you find some good books you may not have discovered before (though, apologies for your TBR).
I am so glad that there are starting to be *options* so you don’t have to stick with white female protagonists if you don’t want to! You’re right: still plenty of work to do!
Davida Chazan says
Yeah… I’m with you on this one. Mind you, with a few exceptions, most of the books I read are also by women, who tend to write female protagonists. And yes, seeing ourselves in the characters is good, although I do like to see characters who are very different from me as well. Great topic.
Yeah, the older I get, the more and more I find myself reading books featuring women by women. And I agree: I think it can be refreshing and important to read about those who are also different, too!
Kal @ Reader Voracious says
NGL, I kind of cringed when I saw this topic – especially the original title, but am so glad that you dedicated time to discussing the gender binary and intersectionalities. I think there is a lot more that goes into seeing oneself represented on page and that feeling is something I will always treasure.
Oh yeah, absolutely! When I also first saw the topic, I was like, “Yeah, that’s a bit too narrow for me,” and it took a second for me to realize that I could…do what I did and break it out of the set-up binary. *shrugs* But, it was also a good call-out for myself, too, to actually read books that break away from that binary, too!
Louise H says
I absolutely agree that diversity in all it’s forms needs to be present in works of fiction, it’s not only empowering but a great affirmation that you “belong”. I still gravitate towards female protagonists, and I don’t think there is a problem in that since it’s how I identify. However I’m pretty accepting of any age, race, sexuality, disability.
Realms of My Mind says
Oh man, this is a great post and HELL YES Tamora Pierce! Alanna and the Wild Magic series were hugely influential on me around twelve or thirteen, I read those books multiple times. I didn’t used to care as much about male vs. female protagonists – like you, I just accepted it as default. But I didn’t realize how much it affected me until I legit cried during the final sequence of Wonder Woman because she wasn’t a supporting character who get shunted off to the side, she was the hero and she was here to kick ass. I’d seen other female-led action movies before that, but I think I got so used to the male dominated superhero space that I was genuinely shook.
All of that is to say, that moment truly moved me to realize just HOW important representation is for EVERYONE. Love the article and the recs Nicole!
Thank you so much, Caitlin!! And I completely connect with what you’re saying. Experiencing that representation for the first time is such a huge thing and a great lesson in how important it is for everyone to be able to experience it regularly!!
Louise @ Monstrumology says
My childhood reading experience was the opposite of yours. I read books almost exclusively with girls as the protagonists and any books I read that has boys as the protagonist were books that I read at school as part of a group. As I’ve gotten older I’ve gotten a little tired of reading protagonists who are just like me because I want to read books about people who are nothing like me. There’s nothing wrong with having a preference but I guess my preference is anyone who isn’t me 😅
Oh, how interesting!! Thank you so much for sharing your perspective. And I do agree, while I love having representation that I connect to, some of my favorite books have protagonists that are nothing like me and cultures I knew nothing about.
Loved this post…Thank you for acknowledging the queer experience! I always read books with both male and female protagonists and related to them in different ways, which I see now is because I am genderfluid and non-binary. You’re so right, everyone deserves to see themselves represented in fiction. I’d love to see more non-binary protagonists, but I don’t have a strong preference because of feeling like a bit of both. If a story is good, I don’t much care what gender the protagonist is.
Absolutely!! And that completely makes sense to me! I*1000% agree* that there should be more non-binary protagonists!
Great take on a tricky topic. I admit I can’t see “protagonists and gender” without getting flashes of the combo of “I only read books with characters like me (99%= white straight able-bodied man)” and “I don’t understand why someone would want to read a book with the MC like them (anyone not white straight able-bodied man) can they not read books if they can’t relate”(said the man who can relate to most books he reads). I’m so tired of how this topic brings out the worst in people, I’m glad you made a point about breaking the binary.
I love how satisfying your cover color picks are.
Thank you so much! Yeah, at first I was like, “I have no idea how to tackle something so limiting,” and it was so refreshing when my brain was like, “Then…don’t stay in the binary?” I was also very pleasantly happy by the unintended color palette!
Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction says
I agree that everyone should be able to see themselves as the protagonists in books. You make such a good point. We need all types of protagonists!