Gender Roles and Gender Role Reversal in Fiction and Television

YA writer Mette Ivie Harrison discusses gender masquerades and gender role reversal using the TV show The Mentalist as an example.

I’ve been watching the show, but I have to confess that I never noticed the gender role reversal between the characters of Patrick Jane and Teresa Lisbon. The reasons are probably cultural, because a man taking care of his appearance and neither using nor liking guns are not viewed as anti-masculine traits in my part of the world. In fact, I quite like it that Patrick Jane is not your stereotypical macho hero, because I don’t like macho heroes. And while Teresa Lisbon is a no-nonsense person (though not as no-nonsense as the delightful Agent Cho) and knows how to use a gun and frequently rescues Patrick Jane, I viewed those traits more as part of her job than as deliberately non-feminine. Never mind that the actress who plays Teresa Lisbon is a very petite and feminine woman. Besides, Patrick Jane is the sort of person who tends to get himself into trouble, so it’s kind of obvious that someone has to rescue him.

As for why there is not more romance between Patrick Jane and Teresa Lisbon (and there is plenty of sexual tension and sparks flying), partly I put it down to the fact that Patrick Jane is still mourning his murdered wife and child and mainly down to the fact that Americans seem to have huge issues with workplace romances, which are deemed unprofessional and sometimes downright illegal. And indeed the “secondary couple” of Agents Van Pelt and Rigsby, who meet and fall in love on the job, was forcibly broken up by department head (or whatever her actual job is) Madeline Hightower, a move which instantly made me dislike Hightower, even though I always felt bad about it, because strong black women are still rare on TV and when one comes along, she’s unlikable.

So I put the lack of a romance between Patrick Jane and Teresa Lisbon, even though the characters were obviously attracted to each other, down to the fact that Americans hate workplace romances and frequently get their panties in a twist when a workplace romance storyline pops up anywhere. I never even considered the fact that Teresa might be too masculine for US audiences and Patrick too feminine.

Though come to think of it, there are quite a few TV shows at the moment, including quite a few American ones, that play with gender roles. The sexually freewheeling Torchwood of season 1 had some interesting takes on gender and gender roles, before they toned it down to appease cranky (male) genre critics and appeal to American viewers and completely ruined the show. Someone in the comments at Mette Ivie Harrison’s post mentions Fringe (which I cannot stomach, because the storylines are stupid and the Olivia character annoys me) and Bones, which does work as an example, though they are taking great care to make the Booth character appear masculine (he’s an ex-soldier and sniper, plays ice hockey, likes sport, etc…) and seem to be moving towards softening Brennan’s character, a move I don’t like at all. Castle would be another excellent example, because once again we have the no-nonsense female cop (played by an attractive and feminine actress) partnered with a man who is neither a law enforcement officer nor particularly macho. Indeed, Richard Castle comes across as more “feminine” than Patrick Jane, because he is non-violent and does not use guns (except in very rare circumstances, when he picks one up from a fallen bad guy), he is intuitive, he is the primary caregiver for his teenage daughter and flighty actress mother, etc… Monk would fit as well, for even though the female leads does have the stereotypical feminine jobs of personal assistant/caregiver/nurse, they are nonetheless practical, no-nonsense women who had to deal with a man who is a bundle of neuroses, who obsessively cleans his apartment, whose most important quality is his intuition and attention to detail and who is not very masculine in general.

There are some literary examples as well. Eve Dallas from J.D. Robb’s In Death series is yet another no-nonsense police officer who is not very feminine at all and does not care for her appearance and is indeed both mystified and terrified by stereotypically feminine interests such as make-up and clothes and baby showers. And while Eve’s husband Roarke is a ruthless businessman with a criminal past who certainly knows how to handle himself in a fight, he is also portrayed as someone who appreciates the finer things in life. Roarke also has the nurturer role in his relationship with Eve, indeed large parts of the series are devoted to Roarke making sure that Eve sleeps and eats properly, Roarke comforting Eve when she’s troubled by nightmares or by her cases, Roarke showering Eve with expensive gifts she neither wants nor knows what to do with. Indeed, the vivid characters and unconventional gender roles are a large part of the reason why I adore the series. Yet you regularly hear complaints from readers, particularly on romance focused sites, that Eve is too rude and abrassive, frequently couple with snide remarks that the series is “pure fantasy” and that in real life someone like Roarke would be married to a very young and properly feminine supermodel and would never look twice at an unfeminine and “older” (i.e. in her early thirties) woman like Eve. I sometimes reply to such posters that if they’d actually read the series, they’d know that Roarke did date supermodels and found them boring and that he loves Eve, because she’s different. Still, the mere idea that a woman can snag a top man without having supermodel looks and being subservient and feminine seems to bother a certain subset of American readers a whole lot.

Indeed, female characters who are deemed “too rude and bitchy” and no feminine enough are frequently criticized, particularly by romance readers, as are male characters who are not “alpha” enough. Just recently someone complained that Yasmeen, the heroine of Meljean Brook’s Steampunk romance Heart of Steel, was too unlikable and that she never even said “I love you”. Now I didn’t get around to reading Heart of Steel yet (it’s next up on the to-be-read pile), but Yasmeen was a secondary character in The Iron Duke and I liked her quite a bit there, even though she was not stereotypically feminine. But then Yasmeen is a mercenary airship captain and stereotypical femininity wouldn’t suit her character at all. Besides, Mina, the heroine of The Iron Duke, is not stereotypically feminine either.

Hmm, looking at all this I wonder whether the rather rigid gender role pattern in the US (which is a lot more rigid than in Germany) is gradually breaking up.

Kate Elliott responds to Mette Ivie Harrison’s post and describes her issues with gender and gender roles in her own work. I certainly sympathize, because I sometimes worry if my female characters are not too passive and stereotypical. For example, I worried that Constance Allen was too passive in The Spiked Death, because she spends most of the story chained to a wall, even though Constance does fight off a kidnapper in The Spiked Death (though it ultimately doesn’t work) and is pretty damn awesome in Countdown to Death. I even worried that Teresa in El Carnicero was coming across as too passive, even though she is a guerilla leader and refuses to give in to or be scared by the villain.

Ironically, I also worried about an upcoming story which features four really awesome women. Sure, they were awesome, but were they maybe too awesome to be true (even though the story is not exactly serious)? Did they perhaps venture into the dreaded Mary Sue territory? Never mind that there is rarely more than one Mary Sue per story, because multiple Mary Sues would cancel each other out. And never mind that all four awesome women are fully developed characters with flaws and warts and everything. I still worried that some idiot would view them as Mary Sues, because they are female and awesome.

For some reason, I rarely worry whether my male protagonists will be viewed as masculine enough. I suspect it’s cultural, since gender roles in general and masculinity in particular are less rigid in Germany than in the US. So all of those “a real man would never do this” article aimed at women writing male characters usually leave me shrugging and thinking, “Well, I know several real, heterosexual men who do exactly that.” Indeed, male characters only worry me when they act like macho arseholes. The main reason why Sir Nicholas Harcourt does not get the girl at the end of Hostage to Passion is that he hadn’t sufficiently redeemed himself from his macho pirate ways in my opinion – and because I had an idea for a sequel, of course.

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18 Responses to Gender Roles and Gender Role Reversal in Fiction and Television

  1. Pingback: Ways of Struggling with Gender | I Make Up Worlds

  2. Kate Elliott says:

    This is a fabulous post.

    I haven’t seen any of the tv shows in question so can’t comment on them. But the issue of Mary Sues is one that is coming up increasingly often recently, as woman begin to reject the idea that any female character is who, as you say, awesome, must thereby be a Mary Sue.

    This post and Mette’s have actually clarified a few things for me in my thoughts about how to handle gender expectations in my current project.

    • Cora says:

      I’m glad you like the post. But of course, without your excellent post I would never have come across Mette’s excellent post, which in turn sparked this post.

      The “Mary Sue” issue is increasingly becoming a problem. The term Mary Sue started out to describe a very particular phenomenon and it does have its uses in that context. But somewhere alone the way it morphed into a derogatory label for any and all female characters who are reasonably competent and attractive. Never mind that true Mary Sues are rarely found in professional fiction nor among long-term fanfiction writers, since Mary Sues are a mark of beginning writers. Besides, Mary Sue accusation are harmful, even in the cases where they are justified. All that blasting a 13-year-old fanfiction writer for writing Mary Sues does is discourage a young person who might eventually have grown into a good writer.

      But in general I agree that escaping gender role stereotypes is very difficult, because they keep sneaking up on you both in your own writing and in the expectations of readers.

  3. Estara says:

    I can’t compare US and German stereotypes about what men and women should be because I have not read German romance novels or fantasy novels at that since I did the switch to being able to read in English – but I really thought that your analysis of the Eve Dallas novels and the possible hang-up people have with Heart of Steel very plausible.

    I find that the beta or omega heroes are more interesting to me these days, not to mention are more my ideal ^^. There are always exceptions depending on the execution of course, but that’s true for all books.

    I definitely want capable heroines – I don’t mind them starting out newbieish, but they better come into their own by book’s end or I won’t be interested.

    • Cora says:

      My first experiences with romance involved some of the rapetastic bodicerippers of the 1980s (Catherine Coulter, Fern Michaels) and the treatment of women by the supposed heroes and the sheer violence of it horrified me. I also read some of my mother’s Uta Danella and Marie Louise Fischer novels and the occasional romantic Romanheft and there was never anything even remotely like the violence in the bodicerippers in those books.

      Indeed, I once read a study of “Romanhefte” published around 1990 wherein the author compared translated American category romances to German Romanhefte. Ultimately, the study was flawed, because the author never fully grasped just what he was comparing (he called them traditional and modern romances and totally failed to notice that all of what he called modern romance were translated category romances). But one point he noticed and that quite stunned him, because he could not account for it, was that the heroes of the translated category romances were often violent towards their heroines, while the heroes of the German Romanhefte never were.

      I’ve never much cared for the stereotypical alpha hero either, though there are alpha heroes who are not arseholes and rapists. Indeed, I vastly prefer beta or omega heroes. But looking at the discussion on romance sites, particularly more conservative ones like All About Romance, a lot of people still want the alpha hero and the innocent ingenue heroine.

      • Estara says:

        Heh, I went from my granny’s Frau in Spiegel and Hedwig Courts-Mahler to my mother’s Bertelsmann Shanna and Angelique ^^ – it was quite a shock!
        During the 80s when I still bought German books they all were translated English or US romances, bodice rippers or not. At the time I also accepted that you often had to had an arsehole alpha if you wanted a feisty heroine – I hadn’t yet become totally aware of the TSTL trope, although I was quite annoyed with a lot of those heroines.

        I really liked the historical romanhefte by your namesake publisher when they came out, they introduced me to authors like Mary Balogh (I had discovered Mary Jo Putney via Heyne already) and Carla Kelly. As soon as Amazon became a reality I imported romance, too – my yearly shopping trip to London had been for sf&f exclusively – especially because the 90s where the time when publishers experimented with red colour on the border of the pages – as if the lurid covers weren’t enough shame enducing :P.

        I was so happy to discover early Sandra Brown, Barbara Delinsky (the categories by Silhouette – I find I hardly read Harlequin until they bought up Silhouette) and of course my eventual goddess of the genre, Nora Roberts.

        I don’t mind alpha heroes, if the author has given the heroine as much force, power and strength of mind – I really like the Kate Daniels series and Curran is nothing if not an alpha. I think the Andrews team actually take the fighting spirit of the couple and their background to its logical conclusion, so if words don’t suffice they go at each other physically until they reach a consensus. That may be uncomfortable for readers who can’t grasp that in a paranormal world a woman like Kate CAN be a match for a werelion, but as a fantasy reader I can believe it.

        So these days alphas with brains are fine (I would say that the World of the Lupi books with Lily and Rule have a similar balance) but if I had to choose I would like a suportive male who is happy in the situation he finds himself and supports me from behind the scenes (or calms me down when I start raging about stuff^^, unless it is deserved rage). I wouldn’t be able to relax with a guy whom I constantly had to work at to show my competence.

        The physically innocent heroine makes sense in an upper class historical romance, otherwise not.

        • Cora says:

          I read Angelique, too (and Courths-Mahler, of course), but somehow they never bothered me as much as the American “bodiceripper” style romances did, probably because while poor Angelique endured all sorts of physical and sexual violence at the hands of multiple men, Geoffrey never raped or violated her. It’s the rape by the supposed hero that I really cannot stand.

          I agree that the alpha hero can work, if the heroine is equally strong. That’s probably why I like urban fantasy and paranormal romance so much, because you get a strong hero paired with an equally strong heroine. Though some paranormal romances also feature a pairing of an ultra-possessive alpha hero and a TSTL heroine (Christine Feehan has a few of those. J.R. Ward, too). That’s usually the kind of book I don’t enjoy very much and I rarely read the author/series again.

          • Estara says:

            Me, too. I read a few Carphatians and a few Dark Brotherhood and then stopped and haven’t felt tempted to try anything else by these authors.

            • Cora says:

              I think I lasted only one novel each of the Carpathian and Black Dagger Brotherhood series. I did try Christine Feehan’s other series. The Leopard shifter series (all have “Wild” or “Savage” in the title) is just more ultra-possessive alpha male stuff. The one I read was basically like a Harlequin Presents with a wereleopard in the Greek tycoon role. The book I read of the Sea Haven series was okay, though. The heroine was autistic, which was interesting.

  4. Great post! Surfing in from Kate Elliott’s joint.

    I’ve been contemplating this issue a lot over the past year, especially as it relates to science fiction romance. I have strong expectations for sci-fi romance to diversify its gender roles and quite a few of the books deliver (two recent reads of mine in this regard are the cyberpunk romance GRIDLOCK by Nathalie Gray and the erotic romantic SF MOONSTEED by Manda Benson). But the subgenre could deliver more.

    I would love to see more Alpha heroines, anti-heroines, kick-butt heroines and also smart and cunning heroines. In short, bring on the extraordinary heroines. Let’s put *them* on the pedestal for once.

    The idea of extraordinary heroines emasculating the heroes is nonsense (underdeveloped characters of any gender is a valid concern, however). I wonder if what is really being conveyed is that some readers are unhappy that a story doesn’t deliver the male fantasy lover they want. Those stories are valid and power to readers who want them.

    However, to say that an extraordinary heroine emasculates the hero or is at fault for not delivering a fantasy male lover is so frustrating to me. A romance isn’t a proper romance if it doesn’t deliver a male fantasy lover every time? My belief is that a romance is about *two* people falling in love, regardless of gender roles, sexual orientation, ethnicity, social status, body type, etc.

    One of the reasons I love SFR so much is that the SF side of the story offers so much opportunity to explore topics like gender roles in the context of an intimate relationship.

    What I love about ebooks is that I believe their existence will level the playing field as far as stories featuring gender role reversals and such. Now there’s much more room for stories with those elements. The market might not be huge, but it’s there (*waves to the long tail*). I really hope that extends to more films and television shows as well, like HAYWIRE (

    • Cora says:

      Thanks for commenting, Heather. I love your blog.

      I’ve never really understood the impulse of reading romances to put yourself in the shoes of the heroine and enjoy a hot mental affair with the fantasy lover hero either, but apparently it’s fairly common judging by comments of hardcore romance readers. Never mind that a lot of the more extreme alpha heroes most certainly aren’t my fantasy.

      It’s also very interesting that heroines are almost always judged more harshly than heroes for relatively small failings such as “being bitchy” and not appreciating the hero enough, while heroes are often forgiven even for genuinely problematic behaviour. But then I’m apparently not the typical romance reader.

      I agree with you that science fiction romance and all speculative romance varieties such as paranormal romance, romantic urban fantasy, etc… have the potential of offering more equal or even reversed gender roles. And while some books fulfill that potential, many others still stick to the old overbearing alpha hero and innocent maiden scenario. Some paranormal romance series are particularly bad about this, but for whatever reason those series are extremely popular. Hopefully the e-book revolution will promote romances with a different take on gender roles.

      Thanks for the recommendation regarding Nathalie Gray and Manda Benson, by the way. I will check them out.

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