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Gender gap persists in imaginary world

Posted by Margot Magowan at 16th May, 2011

Originally posted to my blog ReelGirl on May 14th.

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Why write fiction?

I’ve always loved to, but I also felt like it didn’t matter as much. Writing about politics and culture is important. If you write about ‘issues,’ you can use your writing to change the world. Or try to. Making up stories might be fun but what’s the point?

Then I had three kids. Of course, I read my daughters stories, watch movies with them, and also, TV shows. I witness how the stories they listen to shape their imaginary play, how they dress, who their heroes are, the language they repeat, the art they make, and their own creative writing.

In her best-selling book Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Peggy Orenstein writes extensively about children’s brain development, how babies don’t come into the world with fully formed minds that we, parents, are just supposed to observe and discover. Their brains are constantly being formed, rapidly growing and changing as they take in language, pictures, adult reactions, and all kinds of stimuli. Neurons fire in reaction, neural pathways are formed, and connections are created, assimilating the outside world to create the internal one.

So I’ve got to wonder: How might kids’ brains (and then, of course, adult brains) be different if the stories they were exposed to weren’t so dramatically and predominantly shaped by men?

If you ever doubt fiction is important in forming our deepest reality, beliefs, and actions, look at the most influential historical novel of all time: the Bible- not known for its female authors or kindness to women. We’re still fighting wars based on these ancient, repeated, and recycled stories.

One reason the stereotypes in kidlit are so sad is because we’re supposed to be experiencing fantasy, magical worlds. Yet, what we see, way too often, is the same sexism, depicted in cartoonlike proportions, that exists in the real world.

What would our world look like if most great artists, film directors, and novelists were women? And had been for thousands of years?

Here’s just one modern example of how reality shapes fiction and fiction shapes reality. Every year, Forbes Magazine does a survey on the richest imaginary characters. This year, the list includes tycoons like Scrooge McDuck, Richie Rich, Smaug (the dragon from J. R. R. Tolkein) Bruce Wayne (of Batman) and Mr. Monopoly.

Of the gender gap on the list, Forbes‘ Michale Noer


“There are 14 male characters on the list and one female character on this year’s Fictional 15. Sadly, that’s not unusual. There are always women on the list, but too often, only one.

The highest-ranked woman ever was ‘Mom’ from the television show Futurama, who placed fourth in 2007, with a fictional net worth of 15.7 billion. Lara Croft, star of the Tomb Raider video games and movies has appeared on the Fictional 15

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three times since 2005. There have never been more than two women on the list in a single year.

Our fictional reporters- the best in the business- have worked hard to rectify this gender imbalance, even breaking the Fictional 15 rules against folkloric characters (the Tooth Fairy appeared in 2010.) But the gap persists.

Some female characters are perennial candidates. Miss Havisham, the well-off spinster from Great Expectations, is considered every year and dismissed on the grounds that she simply isn’t rich enough. And at every fictional story meeting, someone is sure to nominate one of Disney’s princesses, usually Snow White or Ariel. One problem here is that you need to infer their wealth from the fact they live in castes and wear fancy dresses. They aren’t known for being rich within their fictional worlds the same way as C. Montgomery Burns or Bruce Wayne.”

Forbes‘ Caroline Howard gives this explanation:

“Why so few? The answer is quite simple: a small pool of candidates. For some reason, authors, screenwriters, directors, and comic book artists haven’t been creating many ultarich female characters. that is equally true for writers of yore, present and those tackling future or fantasy.

Kind like the real world. Look at the Forbes Worlds Billionaires list. A paltry 1.5 % are self-made women- 19 out of 1,210. And if we include heiresses and widows, that makes 103 ladies, or just 8.5%.”

Obviously, a crucial step towards ever achieving gender equality is imagining what it would look like. Does anyone know what that would be?

About Margot Magowan

Margot Magowan has written 18 articles on this blog.

Margot Magowan is a writer and commentator. Her articles on politics and culture have been in Salon, Glamour, the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Jose Mercury News, and numerous other newspapers. She has appeared on Good Morning America, CNN, Fox News and other TV and radio programs. She is the co-founder of the Woodhull Institute for Ethical Leadership.

Category : Community Member Projects and Updates / Culture / Media / Women

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