Friday, January 13, 2017

How to Identify and Obliterate Sexism in Your Novel

I have something I want to talk about. It's not a popular topic in general (sexism in fiction), and the stance I'm taking is often frowned upon (that of common sense). So sit down, shut up, and pay close attention to the following words.

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.
Hannah Heath: How to Identify and Obliterate Sexism in Your Novel
Your characters are really good at objectifying other human beings. Your male characters ogle and hit on female characters. Books tend to show this as either romantic, terrible, or simply the normal state of things. Your female characters ogle and hit on male characters and it's either funny, romantic, or simply perfectly acceptable. It's pathetic that I have to explain this, but: Objectifying is bad and should be portrayed as such. It shows a basic lack of respect for the other gender. It shows that a person's appearance is far more important than personality or intelligence, that another person is only there to serve as something to look at and lust after. Do you know what that means? It's unjust treatment of a person based on gender, which is discrimination based on gender, which is sexism. Think about that next time you want to write out a scene where your female character lecherously eyes a dude she's never met or your male character can't seem to stop making passes at that lady he just saw.

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. 
You've got your Working Women, your Geeky Dudes, Stay-At-Home Mothers, Jocks, Working Fathers. They each stay very neatly inside of their labels, as people often do in real life. Heaven forbid your Working Woman be anything other than a hard-nosed caffeine addicts. The world would fall apart if your Geeky Dude plays football on Saturdays, and of course Working Father is always late for dinner and never rearranges his schedule to go watch his daughter's ballet performance.

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!

Related articles:
Writing Strong Female Characters: What You're Doing Wrong
Writing Awesome Male Characters: What You're Doing Wrong
7 Cliche Characters in YA Fiction That Need to StopSaveSave

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34 comments:

  1. At the risk of proving myself unintelligent, I'm going to post a comment. :-o

    How would you suggest dealing with characters (male or female) who tend to be more lewd-minded? Ogling aside, I think we've all had those moments where we notice someone purely because of their hotness, even if we immediately look away afterwards. And since many people exist who aren't so clean, how would you suggest portraying that type of character in fiction?

    What I'm trying to say is that these types of people (pigs, oglers, etc.) do exist in the real world and to me it would seem unrealistic not to have them in fiction as well. How do you suggest dealing with that even in a book that's not focused on sexism?

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    1. That is a great question, Faith! You make Qui-Gon Jinn proud. =D

      I agree: That behavior exists and thus should be portrayed in stories. After all, fiction is here to reflect real people and problems so that we can learn and grow. It would be both unrealistic and unhelpful to try to erase piggish behavior from books.

      So yes, include those types of characters, only be sure to make it clear that their behavior is wrong. Make sure the reader not only notices their actions, but recognizes that they are incorrect. You don't have to demonize the character, just those particular actions (ogling, hitting on people, objectifying, etc). This can be done by having another character chastise them, showing the characters struggle to change, showing how it negatively impacts their relationship with others, etc. Just make sure the behavior is portrayed negatively and not for shock value or sensualization.

      I think this is something that fiction could use more of, rather than just casually having characters act in a rude/sexism manner and not having the book take any stance on it.

      Thank you for the great thoughts, Faith! I always enjoy your comments.

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    2. Gah. Please excuse the rather copious amount of typos in my response. =]

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  2. I love your aggressive sarcasm; it's sorely needed for this subject! Also, thankyouthankyou for dealing with male sexism and female sexism in the exact same way, because they /are/ the same.

    ps thanks for sharing my Rogue One post. I'm glad you liked it!

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    1. Thank you! I love meeting people who approve of aggressive sarcasm as a writing form. =D I'm glad you enjoyed the post!

      And no problem for sharing your article! I really enjoyed it. This may be a dumb question, but: How did you know I shared it? Are you on Twitter? If so, please let me know so I can follow you (If I'm not already....I can't remember exactly how I stumbled across your fun blog). =D

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    2. I noticed a lot of referrals from Twitter in my view stats, and either saw it was from you in the url, or I noticed from your twitter feed on the side of this blog. I'm not on Twitter (yet). I'm glad you like my blog!

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    3. How cool! If you ever get a twitter, please come say hello! =D

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  3. You read my mind. I was just thinking yesterday that I want to read a fantasy novel about a princess who is being raised to be a warrior queen. She has to learn archery, sword fighting, horseback riding, etc. But this princess really likes wearing poofy dresses. In fact, she sews them herself and does all sorts of intricate embroidery. And her cookies are to die for, and all she really wants in life is to marry a nice man and have a dozen babies, but her parents tell her that that's not her destiny. I really wish writers, especially YA writers, would stop telling girls that it's wrong to be interested in traditionally girly things.
    I also wish they'd stop telling girls that it's all or nothing. You're either a girly girl, and hence probably a dimwit, or a tomboy, and hence smart and good with machines. You can have contradictory interests because really, they're not contradictory at all. They're just things that interest you. You can like fixing cars and going dress shopping. You can spend most of your day covered in engine grease and then go home and put on makeup for your date or just for yourself. You can wear pants sometimes and skirts sometimes without causing a paradox that will destroy life as we know it.

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    1. That is a part of YA fiction that has always really bothered me as well... I feel as though authors are so determined to get their "feminism" message across that they sometimes forget their female character's are human, and not just tools to make a point. I think it's a natural thing for girls and guys to want to look nice or dress up, whether they're an assassin or a princess, and these inequalities and stereotypes need to stop.

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    2. Tamara, I absolutely love the idea in your first paragraph. So...are you gonna write it, or can I do it and give you credit for the plot seed? Or maybe Hannah already called dibs. ;)
      ~Laurie

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    3. Feel free to use it. Even if I do get around to writing it, we won't end up with the same story.

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    4. Tamara, this is an awesome story idea! It smashes a lot of tropes and just generally looks like a lot of fun. I think it's a shame that so many books are swinging way too far over to the other side and trying to tell girls that femininity is useless. So go you, looking for ways to combat that idea in your writing!

      And Scattered Whimsy: Go for it! I don't have dibs and, like Tamara said, we'd all end up with wildly different stories anyway. The beauty of words. =D Thanks for the comments!

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  4. Thank you so much for this amazing, helpful post!! I am writing a novel that touches upon the ideas of sexism, but more specifically, the way society sets expectations for the genders. I have really been trying to examine both the female and male aspects of this topic, but this article really helps me to examine the things I may be unconsciously putting into my story. I really enjoyed this!!

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    1. It sounds like you have an amazing story in the works! I think it's awesome that you are working to depict both sides of the problem. So many novels only take the female side, so book worlds are in desperate need of a bit of balance. =) Keep up the awesome work! I'm so glad this post helped you out!

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  5. Thank you for keeping things so real and positive with this post! It's been a timely and much-needed reminder for me to keep doing what I can to fix these problems through my own writing instead of getting frustrated about what's already out there.

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    1. This is a really good goal! It's way easier to get frustrated with wrong things than it is to actually work to correct them. So hurrah for you and your resolve to fix these problems through your writing!

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  6. BLESS THIS POST. Honestly, thank you. A series I see a lot of casual stereotyping in is definitely The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan - someone on Goodreads once proposed a drinking game wherein you take a shot every time a character says or thinks something stereotypical about another gender, and I'm fairly certain you'd get hammered within the first 100 pages.

    Another problem that bothers me in terms of sexism in fiction is how little nonbinary genders are represented or talked about and how when they are represented, it's frequently to fetishize or objectify them. They are 100% human people, which most authors don't seem to realize? get that many authors don't view their genders as "real", but stereotyping/talking down on them is still sexism....because you're discriminating against them....because of their gender.....

    Ellie | On the Other Side of Reality

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    1. Lol! I have never read The Wheel of Time, but I do remember hearing that it had a lot of stereotyping.

      I am not completely clear on what nonbinary means, but I'm assuming it means those who are not straight? If so, then yes: I have noticed that those characters are very objectified, glamorized, or made into agenda props. It is very disappointing. They are human beings with thoughts and emotions and struggles like everybody else and should be written as such. Great point!

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    2. See, I never saw anything in the story of The Wheel of Time as stereotyping. Sure, some of the characters do that but it's always shown that it's the characters, not the author, who think that way (and usually they are immediately proven wrong in the story). Taken in context of the story, the belief that there is a strict divide between men and women is understandable, but again, though the actual story, all of those 'divides' are clearly shown to not be as strict as the characters think they are. I think as authors, we need to be able to separate how the characters view the world and how the story as a whole is showing the world. It's ok to have characters who have stereotypical views of people, as long as throughout the story you as an author, or another character calls them out on it.

      Also Hannah, non-binary means that you don't fit within the man/woman binary society has created. It means you don't identify with being either a man or a woman, or you identify as both simultaneously. So I agree with Ellie, there isn't much representation and the representation that is there isn't exactly positive.

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  7. YESSSSS. This post is fabulous. I have so. much. trouble. not stereotyping, honestly, but I'm working on it. I love the part about feminine girls still being able to fix spaceships or whatever- why did my brain not realize that before you said it?? It seems so obvious now. I really appreciate each point you made- not just for writing, but for LIFE IN GENERAL.

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    1. Haha! That point is overlooked by a lot of people, so don't feel bad. =) So excited that you are working on not stereotyping in your writing! That is a goal of mine, too, and it makes writing so much deeper and more thought-provoking. And yes, I notice in a lot of posts that, though I'm talking about writing, it always translates to real life. The joys of the written word: It reveals and teaches so much!

      Thanks for the comment, Mary! Happy writing!

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  8. Oh thank you, thank you thank you thank you! I hate sexism, whether aimed at women or men. And it's not a popular view. I've had people people get extremely defensive the instant I mention anything about men being targeted by sexism as well. It's just dumb.

    I love reading about girls who like traditionally feminine arts and employments because they are so rare they have become a novelty. I am completely sick of the Warrior Princess(TM) and even sicker of the "I don't like skirts" or "I hate cooking" or "sewing is worthless" phrases I get fed over and over again. (Trust me, if you've ripped a sleeve or a pair of leggings while climbing a tree you'd know that sewing comes in handy.)

    The biggest beef I have with it though is that women are not held up to a standard set by other women. We are held to one set by men. A woman can't be tough until she's tougher than a MAN! She can't be strong until she's bested a MAN in single combat. She isn't fast until she's beaten a MAN in a race. She isn't smart until she's out maneuvered a MAN in a game of chess. Heaven forbid that she should be called clever after beating a woman in chess; or fast by winning a woman's footrace; or strong by wrestling a woman; or tough by enduring period cramps and labor pain. She's only beaten mere WOMEN. Pah, anyone could do THAT!

    And so the sexism is double edged and I die a little inside every time a heroine declares she is "as good as a MAN, nay, better!" I always feel so cheap and insulted when people make such statements and assumptions. Bleh.

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    1. I agree that it is odd how upset people get when sexism against men is pointed out. I think people feel that it somehow downplays the problems that women have, but it doesn't. It just points out that sexism is a problem everywhere.

      I LOVE your comment about how women are often compared to men in fiction (and in real life that women compares themselves to men). Why should a woman have to out-do a man in something in order to be considered good at it? It gives the idea that women aren't good enough. I had never thought about this before, so thank you for bringing it up!

      I appreciate the thoughtful comment, Lissy. Thank you!

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  9. I think Hannah and all the readers who loved this post would enjoy this article about the Strong Female Character stereotype. I particularly like the writer's point about how often gratuitous violence is used to show a female character's "strength". In a male character, this behavior would be seen as instability verging on psychosis, but in a female character it's feisty and badass.

    http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2013/08/i-hate-strong-female-characters

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    1. I love that post! Thanks for sharing.

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    2. Thank you for sharing this link, Tamara! I always wince when I heard the phrase "Strong female character" because it often translates to "mean, angry characters out to prove that females are better than men." =]

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  10. At the risk of being labeled a troll and being crapped on by a bunch of previous commentators who obviously disagree, I need to add that I think it's wrong to force your viewpoint character to be some sort of paragon of morality just so you can be sure your fictional story doesn't offend anyone. You freely admit that piggish behaviour is real and that fiction is part of our culture as an important way for authors and readers alike to deal with reality. But you're trying to insist that every author make a point of vilifying this behavior every time it naturally occurs in the course of the story. I can tell you from honest personal experience: I'm a middle aged white guy with two kids and a wife of 19 years who I love dearly. Still, when a gorgeous girl in a revealing outfit walks by, I sometimes catch myself looking. No, I'm not whipping out pick up lines or cat calls, but ogling? Yeah, at times I ogle. Sometimes the girl even notices. And sometimes she smiles. So, if that circumstance occurs in a fictional setting, who do you propose the viewpoint character vilify? What if I'm the viewpoint character. What if she is? She smiled, after all.
    I guess what I'm trying to say is, unless you're writing for the express purpose of making a moral statement, I don't believe authors of fiction should feel obligated to make any of their characters feel and/or express disgust at what is an unfortunate but very real aspect of real life that every human being can relate to in one way or another.

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    1. Hi Justin! Don't worry about being "crapped on" by other commenters. That behavior isn't allowed on my blog. =)

      There are a lot of points in this comment, so I'll just focus on a few (and I can come back to others if you'd like me to later on). The comment you refer to (the very top one to Faith) was asking me what I thought about writing a character who displays characteristics such as ogling, objectifying, and being generally piggish. I said to show this behavior as wrong because 1) It is wrong. It may be somewhat normal, but that doesn't make it less wrong and 2) If you are writing a story and choose to put that kind of a character into it, then you are doing it for a purpose. This purpose that Faith mentioned is to depict a realistic world, in which case: Why write a realistic world with all of it's ugliness and then not provide your reader with any solutions? Ultimately, a story is written to help and uplift its readers, so it would follow that you would not condone harmful behavior.

      As to your scenario of ogling a girl in a revealing outfit: It is important to ask what kind of a story would use this scenario? Why would it be in a novel? It would need a reason behind it. Just as you wouldn't write a story where a character mentions he owns a gun and then never uses is, or a story where a plane is shown crashing on TV that symbolizing nothing and does not impact the plot, neither would you have a story where a girl in a skimpy outfit is ogled by another character and then nothing comes of it. It would need to have a reason for being there, or it would simply be a waste of words. Naturally it would paint a picture of one (or both) of the characters, and the author would need to take some kind of stance. Is the girl being purposefully provocative? That isn't correct and can open up a lot of directions to the plot, so that should be addressed. Is the man being lustful, objectifying, or lacking in self-contol? That speaks negatively to his character and can set the plot and character arc in many different directions, so it would need to be addressed as well.

      That is my way of thinking. I hope this makes sense. If not (or if I misunderstood you), please feel free to leave follow up comments. Always open to a good discussion! Happy writing!

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  11. Hi Hannah,
    I definitely agree with most of your points on here, but as someone who has studied in the social sciences, terminology can be a bit tricky. As defined by sociology (and the dictionary, as you pointed out) sexism, prejudice, and bias are all different things.

    Bias is the negative thoughts someone has against any group of people. Everyone has them, and they're just part of being human. What's important is recognizing you may have them and doing something about it (as you pointed out very eloquently in this post)

    Prejudice is when you take those biases and act on them, or let them determine how you behave toward/treat another group. Here is where women can be prejudice against men, etc. Prejudice is very individual based.

    Sexism (and the other -isms), on the other hand, have to do with power - social and systematic. Here there is a hierarchy that is supported by systems: men are above women, heterosexuals are above homosexuals, etc.

    For an example: a woman thinking a man isn't as smart as she is because he is a man and teasing him would be prejudice. Her belief that men aren't as smart as women is not going to cause men to start making less money than women, it is not going to make companies hire women over men. This is because our society has been set up to enforce prejudice against women (so beliefs that women aren't as smart as men DO cause women to make less money and be passed over for jobs that they are qualified for) and this turns the prejudice into sexism.

    So in summary, what this post is talking about (very well, I might add) is bias and prejudice, not sexism. Sexism requires systematic power over a group, the power to make laws that enforce individual bias, the power to decide who gets hired and who doesn't, who gets to marry and who doesn't, and who gets to walk down a street without being attacked because of the social group they are in and who doesn't.

    (Also as a side note, both men and women can be sexist against women. Part of the social power masculinity has in most of the Western world is how women are raised in a society that tells them that they are lesser than men which leads some women to think that in order to write a 'strong female character' that character can't be feminine because they have internalized what society has taught them: that women and being feminine is the opposite of being strong.)

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    1. Hi April! I'm so sorry for my late response!

      Thank you so much for sharing! I did read about this definition of sexism. I chose not to use that interpretation because it gets a bit fuzzy. If sexism is prejudice + power, then how are we defining power? Is it purely socioeconomic power (which it seems that this definition suggests)? If so, that seems a bit narrow. I don't think power can be just defined as socioeconomic power and, if this is the case, then it's not as if women can't have both prejudice and power over men.

      I often see this prejudice + power used to explain that women can't be sexist against men, which is another reason I didn't use. Power can mean a lot of different things.

      Anyway, thank you so much for bringing this up! I really wanted to touch on it in my post, but ran out of room.

      Also, I really liked your point about women being sexist against women. This is sadly common (and often overlooked).

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment! I really appreciate it.

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  12. One of the best piece of advice I've found on avoiding gender stereotypes, and ultimately many of the above problems, was found in an article about writing from the viewpoint of the opposite sex. It stated that to do this one needs to write their characters as "human first". If you struggle with sexism it may be a good idea to hold off applying a gender until you establish them as characters, or as people.

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    1. YES! This is a point I constantly make in my posts. No matter who you are writing, you always have to write the character as a person first, then add everything else in later. It adds a realism and depth to the character and helps you avoid stereotyping.

      Thank you so much for pointing that out!

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  13. I really like this! I hate how this works in books: strong woman = muscly sword-wielding woman covered in sweat and dirt. And I would like to know, how you would look at a woman using her body for seducing a man (villian) because she needs to get close to him/ get some informantions from him? How do you look overall at using your looks/body as a weapon in books? Thank you!

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    1. Great question! I'm not a fan of the scenes where characters use their looks/bodies as weapons (be they male or female characters....Though it's a trope that is used most often among female characters). I feel it reduces the character's ingenuity: There are many different ways to get close to a villain aside from seduction (not to mention that many of them would be interesting plot points). It degrades the character and makes the author look like he/she doesn't have unique ideas since it's such a common trope. Also, it's often just thrown in so that books/movies can have "sexy" scenes that will appeal to a wide audience. It generally isn't in any way necessary to plot/character development.

      So no, not a fan. I hope this makes sense. If you have any follow up questions, just let me know! I'd love to hear your thoughts on the topic, too!

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