I’ve been thinking recently about the issue of representation and gender equity in fiction.

I’ll be first in line to acknowledge what a serious imbalance there is in gender representation in the worlds of literature, film and TV, both in the media itself and behind the scenes.  VIDA perennially demonstrates how little the publishing world values the voices of women, and, as A.M. Homes put it after winning this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, “we still live in a world where the work of male writers dominates.”  A study out of the University of Southern California recently found that there’s 1 female film director for about every 15 men, and 2012 had the lowest number of speaking roles for women in five years.

I shouldn’t have to point out that this is straight-up bullshit.  Women make up half the population, but we are the actors of our own narratives surprisingly seldom. The reasons behind this are immensely complex, from institutionalized sexism in the publishing and film industries to the fact that many women wind up writing about men because stories about men are the only models they’ve really been exposed to.

Which is all to say, gender disparity is a serious problem in the creative arts and I’m all for any efforts to redress the issue.  But recently, I found myself wondering, do we really need to see people like ourselves in the media? Isn’t that what empathy is for?

Empathy is the central exercise of fiction, which asks the reader to identify with someone else’s experience.  By that definition, I should be seeing people like myself in fiction all the time, because what reading fiction requires me to do is put myself in another’s shoes. Or, to put it more precisely, I should be able to recognize the similarities between myself and characters regardless of our respective demographics.

But obviously it’s not that simple.  Sometimes we just can’t put those differences aside, no matter how hard we try to identify.  And we shouldn’t have to.  It’s not the reader’s responsibility to be the bigger woman and ‘just get along’ with characters in the face of extreme differences.

And, really, to say that we need to see more people like ourselves in fiction is oversimplifying the issue.  Rather, fiction should reflect the diversity of reality.  If women make up fifty percent of the world population, then it seems fair to say that probably around fifty percent of narratives should be about women.  Now, of course, that’s not to say that the demographics of reality need to dictate their representation in fiction.  I’m not suggesting that 10% of fictional characters — and not a jot more or less — should be left-handed simply because 10% of the population is left-handed.  This isn’t about filling a quota.

But the fact remains that being exposed to diversity makes us more comfortable with diversity. If so few of the books and movies we consume as a culture treat women as human beings possessed of agency and intellect, is it any wonder that so many men fail to treat women as real people?  It isn’t fiction’s job to teach us or subject us to exposure therapy (although it can certainly serve that purpose), but the world is a diverse place, and I think it’s only fair to expect the world of the imagination to be the same.

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