First off, let me explain something. Most people don't understand what the word "sexism" means. It means prejudice and discrimination against a person (or persons) due to their sex. People think that it pertains to prejudice against women. It doesn't. It goes both ways, though many dictionaries will include the fact that it is usually used in terms of bias against women.
Got that? You sure? Okay. Moving on.
Sexism is oddly common in fiction, specifically in fantasy and science fiction. When female characters display sexism, it's viewed as either "you go, girl" social justice or crazed feminism. When male characters use it, it's either seen as manly or piggish.
Let's get something straight: Sexism is always bad. It doesn't matter who it comes from. It shouldn't be in your stories unless you're trying to expose it as something ugly (and even then you better be doing it fairly).
So what does sexism look like in books? And how can you get rid of it? Let me show you.
Your female characters aren't allowed to be feminine. How many of you have read books where there's a strong, intelligent maiden warrior who looks with disdain at the giggling girl in skirts who likes to do needle-point? *raises hand* I mean, I understand that wearing skirts is probably a sign that a female character has no brain. And it makes sense that having basic skills like sewing and cooking couldn't possibly be a good thing. Of course, it's also physically impossible for a sweet, proper girl to know how to, say, fix a spaceship. But we can pretend otherwise for the sake of a good story, right? Right. I'm so glad we got that cleared up.
Your male characters talk down to females. "You can't do this because...because you're a girl!" Ah. The extremely original line used to raise storyline tension and simultaneously set up a brilliant future romance. *sigh* You're killin' me, Smalls!
"Men are Pigs" is a prominent theme. And maybe you don't even realize it is. For instance, I recently read a very popular book where a male character makes lewd comments to the MC female while the MC male stands by and does nothing. Not only does the female character take the comments, but the the MC male never expresses any regret for not stepping in. It's never mentioned again in the book, and the MC male and female become a couple. Because apparently the author thought that was normal. Not only for a male character to act that way, but also for nobody to find it disturbing. This is not acceptable. Your male character should not be allowed to act in that way without anyone else (especially the other male characters) saying, "Hey! That's not right!" The mindset that "men are pigs" is absurd. Some human beings are pigs, but all men are not. Portraying all (or even most) of your men as lustful and self-centered is grossly unfair to your male characters. And having your female characters just accept that behavior is setting up your female characters to be narrow-minded. Is that your intent? I hope not.
Your female characters always make the men look dumb. All women are always able to do the same things all men can, only quicker, smarter, and while looking prettier. Obviously all men just sit around on porches, grunting, drinking beer, and generally being a babbling, bumbling band of buffoons. Women are smarter. Unless they wear skirts and do needle-point, as we established above. But wait! Here's a novel idea: Perhaps both genders can be awesome without making the other look bad? Mind. Blown.
Stereotyping is common.
Your characters are just walking gender signs. Their personalities were replaced with the colors pink or blue. You forgot that you're writing people, and instead grouped everyone into the "men" or "women" category. This NEVER works. You end up forgetting that both of these genders fall under the "human being" category and stop treating them accordingly. Which leads to your characters reflecting this idea that it's Men vs Women, not Human Beings vs Plot Conflict. This undermines your story and flattens your characters. If you've found yourself at this point: Redo the whole thing.
If you are writing a story to expose sexism...Well, good for you. Unfortunately, you're probably doing it wrong. For instance: Is the sexism one-sided? If you find that it is, think again. Does your story feature only one or two non-sexist characters? Widen your scope a bit, please. Is the sexism very extreme? Fine. It's not as if subtly has any place in fiction.
And there you have it. What do you think? Let me know if I missed any points or got any of them wrong. As Qui-Gon Jinn would say: The ability to comment does not make you intelligent. So please think before publishing a comment and keep it kind down there. I'd love to hear your thoughts on the matter!
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