Warning: very mild spoilers for Asimov’s Foundation series and endless soapboxing about gender distribution in literature lie ahead.

I’m rereading the Foundation trilogy by Isaac Asimov for the first time in probably 13 years. Twelve-year-old Stephanie was rather more forgiving of certain things than twenty-five-year-old Stephanie, but I’m still enjoying it very much. I love the scope of the story; some writers would be afraid to jump a few decades every other chapter, but not Asimov. The premise of the series is fascinating. A single man is wildly unpredictable, Asimov says, but if you get large enough numbers of men together, their behavior begins to be predictable. A scientist can’t predict the path of a single molecule of a gas, but get enough molecules together and the gas behaves according to certain laws, causing movement which can be predicted. The trilogy essentially presents mob psychology on a galactic scale as a way to predict the future. This is exceedingly intriguing, and exactly why I loved the books when I was young. As an adult, I do see more writing flaws: little discrepancies, redundancies, or awkward phrasing.

What I found most startling now, however (and what I did not pick up on at all as a kid), was how devoid the series is of females. The books are all about humanity en masse; there are quintillions of people by this point, and the first book has dozens of protagonists because it covers such a wide span of time. But there are no main female characters at all in the first book; in fact, women are only mentioned once or twice in passing. Much of the second book is the same, with only one female who is anything like a primary character.  (I confess I haven’t reread the third book yet, so I can’t critique that with much accuracy.)  One wonders how quintillions of people managed to be born, since the worlds seem populated almost exclusively by men. I’m not a hardcore literary feminist by any means, but this sort of skewed gender distribution does strike me as odd.  A story that deals with the entirety of humanity should be able to address half of that humanity in a realistic and well-written way, and a history of the significant events of the future describing the people who cause those events should, statistically speaking alone, include a good number of female people.

Asimov does try in Foundation and Empire, bless his heart. Bayta is clearly intended to be a competent, strong, female character (even if she is apparently the only one born in the galaxy for 300 years). He actually does a pretty good job of illustrating that, particularly at the end when we realize how intelligent she really is, but what’s jarring is that all of the characters (including her own husband) are surprised by her competency and intelligence. Several minor characters express amazement at the fact that she acts as an equal in the group. She is a competent, intelligent equal (most of the time, anyway)–but it shocks everyone, because the other female characters, insignificant as they are, are demonstrably NOT equal in either intelligence or capability. Bayta is an anomaly (and if I were going to write a paper on this, I’d argue that she’s as much an anomaly as the Mule is).

One could argue that the Foundation series is old, and should by no means be considered a picture of gender distribution in modern literature, so there isn’t much point in being concerned about it.  This is true, and that’s part of what I mean when I say I’m not a hardcore feminist when it comes to literature, particularly literature of the past.  We are all, to varying degrees, products of our environment; expecting female characters in a novel written 200 years ago (or even 60 years ago, as in the case of Foundation) to behave like contemporary females is absurd, as is expecting a male author of the past to write like one of the present.  I also don’t believe that classic literature classes should be required to include an equal number of male and female writers from all time periods, or an equal number of male and female protagonists within those works.  When this is done, the sum quality of the class inevitably suffers, as I saw firsthand in a few of my own college classes where straining for a more equal gender distribution meant that we ignored classics written by men in favor of whatever works the professor could scrounge up that were written by females of the same era. For the entirety of the history of writing, there have been more men writing than there have been women, and the men have been generally better educated; it stands to reason that with a larger pool to choose from, we would find more works of enduring quality amongst the male-written pieces of the past.  These facts are objectionable to modern sensibilities, but they are no less true for being so, and these facts certainly do not justify us in refusing to study the classics written by men.

But all of that is the past; you would expect things to be very different today, particularly since women make up the majority of readers in the US.  Unfortunately, this is not the case, as I found while running down rabbit trails on Google. Authorship remains very skewed: in 2010, only 37% of the books published by Random House were written by women, and only 17% of the books reviewed by The New York Review of Books were written by women. Men also wrote the majority of articles and book reviews in leading magazines in the United States and the UK.  Male characters still vastly outnumber female characters in modern literature; the huge imbalance even extends into children’s literature.  (Even the animals are mostly male: Pooh, Peter Rabbit, Clifford, Curious George, etc.)  This is perhaps the most disconcerting fact I found, since kids’ books are shaping the cultural values and expectations of future adults.  Are these books indirectly telling kids from a young age that women have a less important role in the world?  If so, kids are getting this message  from all directions: In 2011’s top 100 domestic grossing films, only 33% of characters were female, with only 11% of protagonists being women.  Keep in mind, 51% of the US population is female.  And of course, very few of these movies pass the Bechdel test (not that the test is the most accurate means of equality assessment, but it’s an interesting indicator of imbalance, all the same).  As in literature, the skewed distribution extends not just to characters but also to creators.  Of the top 250 grossing films in 2007, 82% had no female writers and only 6% had a female director. Seventy percent of all film reviews published in the USA are written by men, meaning that in both literature and film, men have the most influence over not just stories and characters, but also over published opinion.

Many  argue that men don’t relate to books/movies about women. Recently a novelist speaking at a boys’ school learned that the students weren’t reading the Brontës, Austen, or Woolf as part of the curriculum. The teachers claimed that their students couldn’t relate to these works, written by and about women.  By this absurd reasoning, girls shouldn’t be expected to read or “relate” to Huckleberry Finn, Moby Dick, or The Hobbit—books written by and about men.   Melvin Burgess, winner of the Carnegie medal, admits that “girls will read books that have boy heroes, whereas boys won’t read books that have girl heroes.”  The same article states that “the notion, meanwhile, that boys only read books by and about males does ‘become a self-fulfilling prophecy…More worryingly, in these new lists of recommended books for boys, there’s a heap of fantasy and violence, very little humour (except for the poo and bum sort), and almost no family novels at all. If you offer boys such a narrow view of the world, and don’t offer them novels that show them dealing with normal family feelings, they will begin to think this sort of stuff is not for them.’”

I grew up reading a lot of so-called “books for boys”—because I love scifi and adventure stories—and I was very accustomed to a lack of female characters. There aren’t many girls in Asimov, C.S. Forester, or Tolkien, and I was used to that. It didn’t bother me that I identified most with a pack of guys, nor do I feel like it injured my femininity in any way.  There’s less stigma attached to a girl reading “boys’ books” than there is to a boy reading “girls’ books,” but it makes no sense that there’s any stigma at all.  Good books are good books; if you restrict yourself to books about or by members of your own gender, you’re shutting yourself off from a ton of great literature. The classics are about human beings; they’re classics because they have something in them that transcends time period and gender, something universal, something from which everyone can learn.  I can understand boys not being interested in most chick lit; I’m not either.  But dismissign Jane Austen as chick lit is like dismissing Moby Dick as a fish story.

And we still have the problems of characters in today’s writing.  Some authors (I’m looking at you, Bernard Cornwell) include female characters on occasion, but turn them into cardboard cut-outs that have a tendency to fall over if you look at them too closely: they’re static, flat, and utterly unrealistic.  Other authors, in an attempt to avoid the old female stereotypes, fall into the equally stereotypical and fallacious trap of thinking that a strong female character must be physically strong, tough, or aggressive to be called such.  This is just assigning typically masculine traits to a female character, a practice that makes for annoying, unstable, two-dimensional characters who often engage in frankly unacceptable, bullying behavior under the guise of being “strong.”  These  characters are a dime a dozen these days, and they drive me wild with frustration.  They’re not realistic or interesting, and they simply illustrate the other side of the same problem coin.  This particularly irks me in historical fiction/entertainment, in which the women possess traits completely incongruent with their times in order to accomodate modern mores.

Amongst these other concerns, publishing houses have a distressing tendency to label anything written by a woman as chick lit or “women’s fiction.”  I have little patience for true chick lit as a genre, but I also disagree vehemently with the propensity to dismiss or judge a work based solely up on the gender of the author, which seems to be what’s happening, right down to the covers that publishing houses choose for female writers.  The majority of contemporary “serious literature” is being written by men, or at least that’s the impression we receive.  Only 12 women have ever won the Nobel Prize for Literature, out of a total of 109 given, and not for a lack of excellent material from which to choose.  Gender distribution among Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winners is similar.    When judging literature, the only distinction should be between good and bad writing.

Literature, of any kind and written by any person, should stand or fall on its own merits.  I love reading good books, period, and I want more to be written.  At the same time, while I am concerned about certain literary trends, I still love my Asimov.  In my desultory research for this post, I came across a lot of vitriol against the male gender, with which I disagree just as vehemently as I do with the societal trends I’ve discussed so far.  Attacks against works (and authors) that have a lot of merit are counterproductive and only fuel the pendulum swing to the opposite side of the problem.  I once had an adamantly feminist (male) professor, righteously indignant on the behalf of all womankind, argue with me that I MUST have felt oppressed or marginalized by the unequal gender distribution in The Lord of the Rings.  No, I said, I really didn’t.  But you couldn’t identify with most of the characters, the professor insisted.  On the contrary, I said, I identified with many of the characters; Aragorn is one of my favorite characters in all of the literature I’ve read.   But he’s a man, not a woman, the professor said—you can’t relate to that part of his character.  He’s also the heir to a kingdom and extremely long-lived, I replied, and I’m neither of those things either, but none of those differences stop me from identifying with him as a human being.  The professor missed the whole point literature, just as much as the teachers who pulled female writers from their boys’ school curriculum.  We’re all people, and literature teaches us about people, enabling us to understand people who are different from us.  Empathy or understanding of people in literature, and in reality,  is not limited to members of our own gender any more than it is limited to people with our same eye color.