Tuesday, December 13, 2011

G is For Gender

I’m going to add to Ana’s post from yesterday, but I’m going to take it in a slightly different direction. While she focused on paring down her use of gestures—and it’s definitely something writers should do as they’re editing—I’m going to focus on body language to represent (or misrepresent) gender.

First discussed in the 60s (by my great-uncle, by the way), body language is familiar to everyone. Turn on any police drama and you can usually hear some detective talking about body language, micro-facial expressions, or some non-verbal cue that gives away an emotion. As writers, those non-verbal cues are a great way for us to show our characters emotions. It’s much more powerful to see our heroine cry than to be told that she’s sad.

But what about using gestures to show the gender of the character? The gestures we, as writers, use for our characters can emphasize their masculinity or femininity. For example, the following gestures,  are traditionally “masculine”:

·         Tense jaw
·         Clenched jaw
·         Hitting something with one’s fists
·         A bobbing Adam’s apple
·         Swagger

These gestures are traditionally “female”:

·         Pout
·         Wrinkled nose
·         Wide eyes
·         A tongue pressed between one’s lips
·         Breathiness

But what if you want to make a point or emphasize a particular character trait that is outside of the traditional gender role? Can a female character make a “masculine” gesture and still remain true to her character? For example, maybe you have a female character with a very physical job, such as working on a farm, or a soldier. In that case, I could easily see her hitting something with her fists. For a female character that is extremely feminine, there might be a psychological reason for her to react in a “masculine” way. The same goes for male characters. You might want to emphasize their vulnerability or their “beta” status by giving them a typically “female” gesture.

What do you think?


  1. Great post, Jen. I'd never thought about gestures being gender related, but now, thinking about it, I realise a lot of them do tend to be associated with one gender or the other. Interesting and thought-provoking topic.

  2. Ditto, Jen. This is thought provoking. How do you describe the gestures of a caring, non-aggressive, heterosexual man?
    A radio interviewer once described me as 'sturdy' because I dressed in farm boots and jeans. Was he having trouble, too?

  3. It's a form of stereotyping, isn't it?
    I've been thinking about this today (so well done on a really thought-provoking post, Jen!) - and a lot of romances (including mine!) have the heroine's eyes filling with tears - but not the hero's. Would our readers think less of him if he did cry? I don't necessarily mean over a really tragic event (when obviously even an alpha plus man might weep) but over something that is personal and emotional?

  4. That's what I'm talking about, ladies. I think that when we use non-stereotypical gestures for men and women (feminine ones for men and masculine ones for women) we are adding a layer of depth to our characters. I don't think we want to do it all the time, but sometimes a particular gesture can say way more than any words can, especially when we're turning "gender" on its head.

  5. Interesting post. It's totally like 'thinking outside of the box'.

    I think many gender lines are blurred these days, both in real life and in writing.

    Changing things up from the norm certainly can add depth to our characters. I have an opening scene in one of my books where the heroine finds the hero in the bathtub!