14

In my post-apocalyptic story, the split of male and female main/supporting characters is 50/50.

The girls and women in the story, Eris, Marina, and Ezrith, display very little emotion--Eris represses her emotions so that they only come on rarely and in intense waves, Marina only shows emotional vulnerability to those she trusts, and Ezrith's fears and love for others only manifest in controlling behavior and frustration directed at her family and friends.

However, the boys and men, Leo, Alexander, and Caspian, are very much in touch with their emotions--Leo, although gruff, communicates most everything he feels to his loved ones, Alexander is a humorous and empathetic man who constantly watches out for others, and Caspian is a patient and levelheaded dreamer who is unafraid to display affection and his own happiness, sadness, and anger.

In evaluating how I wrote these characters, I realized that stereotypically masculine displays of emotion (i.e no emotion at all or emotion only manifesting as frustration, rage, and possessiveness) are assigned to my female characters, and stereotypically feminine displays of emotion (i.e gentleness, empathy, and patience) are assigned to my male characters.

I didn't realize I had done this until studying portrayals of emotions and their relation to masculinity in the media, and I guess what I'm doing is "subverting" this trope, albeit accidentally. But is "subverting" these tropes a good idea? Is a simple reversal a good thing for my story? I don't plan on having my characters be static--I want my women to open up, and I want my men to think a bit more with their heads than their hearts. So if I were to start out with this basic trope reversal (as I am now), and then progress into growth out of these tropes, would that effectively subvert these tropes?

  • 14
    From this description, it does not sound like you're subverting anything. On the contrary, this sounds like you're just playing straight the common trope of the honest, direct man and the manipulative, indirect woman. The fact that you're seeing this as a subversion might indicate that you need to do more work in understanding the human psyche outside of any political ideology you might espouse. – Sigma Ori Sep 22 at 14:45
  • Just ran into an excellent example of a female character subverting female stereotypes! It's Veronica Palmer (played by Portia de Rossi) in Better Off Ted. She's the boss of the series's main character, Ted. She's self-directed, relentlessly confident, positively affected, focused on advancing her career, etc.. She also lacks any hint of passive aggressiveness; she's always direct, dealing with things when she has to while ignoring things that're beneath her concern. – Nat Sep 27 at 16:29
  • I dunno if you might want to try writing subversive female characters, but if you do, Veronica seems like a fine example. – Nat Sep 27 at 16:32
39

Subversion is not just a way to introduce literary variety. It is actually subversive. It overturns the established order. So you have to ask yourself, why does the established order exist, and what would be the motive for subverting it?

The stoic male is an established literary trope because it is an established societal phenomena. Through most of human existence, food has been scarce, threats many, lives short, and infant (and maternal) mortality high. Women would spend most of their adult lives either pregnant of caring for small children (more than half of whom would die). Getting enough to eat was a full time job that required hunting, gathering, and other strenuous activities that are hard to do when pregnant or nursing. And women and children were vulnerable to predators and raiders from other tribes.

Women needed the protection of men, and society, up until the 19th century, was conceived of as consisting of families (rather than individuals as it is today) and the role of the male was to provide and protect the female and their offspring. Women and children were literally described as being "under the protection" of a father or husband or perhaps some other family member or tribal leader. When a father gives away his daughter at her wedding, the meaning of the gesture is that she is passing from his protection to that of her husband. When a ship sank, women and children got into the lifeboats first because it was the job of the men to protect them.

Evolution says that those traits that favor reproduction are passed on. The men who were the best protectors and providers got to have more babies, and so their traits were passed on to their sons. Showing that you are a good protector and provider is obviously important for attracting a mate, and a stoic demeanor is useful both for showing this, and for actually doing it.

But, starting in the 19th century and going on till today, we invented the police, office jobs, antibiotics, and Uber eats. Soon women were living to their 80s, almost all their children were surviving, and they could provide for them themselves and enjoy the protection of the police. They did not need an individual male to provide and protect.

Before these inventions, managing a family and a household was a complex full-time lifetime job, involving just as many skilled crafts as those of the men who worked the fields. After them, it was not, and women naturally sought a very different role in society. And here we are, trying to figure out how the characteristics developed by thousands of years of evolution are going to work in a world where the forces that shaped them have been almost entirely removed by our inventions.

So, our inventions have subverted the old male/female dynamic, but our emotions and our psychology have not caught up. Our current literature reflects that subversion and explores its implications, sometimes honestly and dispassionately, and sometimes with an agenda. This often includes projecting currently evolving gender roles backwards and forwards in time.

How does that affect a post-apocalyptic story? Well, an apocalypse is likely to deprive us of police, antibiotics, office jobs, and Uber eats, so it would put us back to a pre-19th century state of affairs in which logic would suggest that gender roles would return to those of that era.

But whether that is what readers of today will want to read is not so certain. It seems entirely possible that you reversed traditional male and female roles because that subversion of the old order is so prevalent in literature today that it is closer to being a default than a subversion anymore.

So there is an argument for going either way.

But beneath this, there is a deeper issue, on which you may or may not have, or want to express an opinion. That is the argument about whether societies, and people's roles within them, are shaped by the environment (presence or absence of police, office jobs, antibiotics, and Uber eats) or are purely social constructs made up by the dominant group to suit themselves. By taking one position or the other on male/female roles in a post apocalyptic society, you would implicitly be taking a position on this highly contentious question.

If you have a position, go for it. If not, at least be aware of the pitfalls that surround whichever choice you make.

  • Though this is a great answer in many regards, I strongly disagree with the assertion that the cliche "strong, stoic man" is the inevitable state of humanity. Gender norms vary a lot across cultures and time, including what behavior is deemed acceptable for each gender. The modern masculine ideal of stoicism as a sign of strength may have a long history. I would argue, though, that the trope wouldn't have been established if it weren't for the emphasis on reason during the Enlightenment era that deemed emotion to be weak and therefore feminine. – Ohndei Sep 24 at 0:13
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    @Ohndei 'I strongly disagree with the assertion that the cliche "strong, stoic man" is the inevitable state of humanity.' That's fine, since I made no such assertion. Clearly not all men are stoic. Stoicism is a useful trait in the hunter and the warrior, but not necessarily the only successful trait. Nature often finds multiple ways to adapt to a situation. Nor is it certain that a predisposition to stoicism will always produce stoic behavior in circumstances where it has little survival value. But it is, nonetheless, a common and widely, if not universally, admired trait among men. – user16226 Sep 24 at 4:31
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It's not that unusual. In fact, the dynamic is why Mulder and Scully worked in the X-Files. Before the show aired, the typical paring in similar series was a skeptical man and a believer woman. X-Files reversed this and gave Scully the supporter of the plausible and Mulder the role of the true believer. In the early seasons, Scully's monologues (usually framed as her reports) were very clinical and very dry, with no emotion from her actress given, and were given imagery of mundane tasks. Mulder on the other hand (often in the form of musing) were much more emotionally charged and carried little factual weight, and the imagry used was normally charged with something mystical or fantastic.

That said, they weren't locked into these roles. When the case had a religious (especially Christian) connection, it was devout Atheist Mulder who is rational, while devout Catholic (to the point that her Crucifix lying on the ground was a cue to both Mulder and the viewer that she was in trouble) Scully would believe. But even in this switch, both are still their natural selves. Scully would still approach the case from a logical point and Mulder from an emotional one. In one of the series first flips, a convicted killer claims that he is getting premonitions as a sort of divine punishment for his crimes. Scully's reason for belief is the man refering to her by a nickname only her recently deceased father called her by (evidence of knowledge of something that he couldn't have if but for a divine link), while Mulder's doubt is because he wrote the profile that led to the man's arrest and conviction (emotional belief that the man's true motive is some form of revenge on the man who put him there).

And when they were under duress, Mulder would become more emotionally compromised, where Scully would work to find a logical solution to the point of exhaustion (once, when suspended from work, she focused on the next logical step, which was going home... which she did, via walking from the FBI HQ to her mother's house, and she only stopped there because she had done the whole thing in heels and her feet hurt). Mulder, on the other hand, would often lashed out at people who were trying to help him, but could not (through no fault of their own).

9

A trope is something that's been explored in so many books or other forms of entertainment that it has slipped into the collective unconsciousness. They can be useful storytelling tools, but if you let the tropes do the heavy lifting you end up with cliched characters or a predictable plot people have read a dozen times before.

You can subvert the trope by flipping it on its head, but it's not a panacea. Making all the women in your story gruff and men emotional only means you've made your cliches swap bodies. Same product, different packaging.

What to do, then? Well, you've already provided a partial answer to your own question by saying that you want your characters to grow. If you portray your characters as if they could be actual people, if you make their struggles and problems faced relatable, if you can make them emotionally resonate with your readers, your readers will care little whether the character is male or female.

A grown woman who bawls her eyes out because she stepped on a ladybug is a ridiculous stereotype. A grown man who bawls his eyes out because he stepped on a ladybug is equally ridiculous. Neither are ridiculous if a week ago they had to bury their four year old daughter who died after her struggle with a terrible disease, and loved nothing more than to play in the meadow behind the house and catch ladybwuhgs with a butterfly net.

Sometimes you don't even need to do all that much to make a character less of a stereotype. My favorite science fiction novel is Neuromancer. Its male protagonist, Case, is an archetypical loner. He's a drug-addicted criminal who, for the first 250 pages of the book, shows about as much emotional reciprocation as a cardboard box. Very early on in the book he finds the dead body of Linda Lee (a person he once had feelings for) and just... acknowledges the fact.

Near the very end of the book he's sucked into cyberspace by the titular Neuromancer, and finds a simulated version of Linda Lee. He knows she's a fake, even tells Neuromancer this to his face. Yet in a blink-and-you-miss-it moment he hands Fake Linda his jacket. In case the collection of ones and zeros gets cold. That little scene does a lot to suggest there's more to Case than the stereotype suggests.

6

Are you asking yourself the right question?

Consider this a frame challenge.

I don't think you should put this much emphasis on "Is it good to subvert this trope?"

What I think you should be asking is "Are each of these characters a full character in their own right, or just an extension of (a subversion of) a trope?"

I think that if your characters - each independently - are worth their screentime, are who they are for a reason, and are plot-relevant enough for inclusion. and they have their own character development, then you don't need to worry to much about subverting a trope by accident or the meta-consequences thereof.

5

There's more you can do with a trope than play it straight or subvert it. You can play with it in various ways: invert it (which you did), parody it, lampshade it, exploit it, and much much more. And you can avert it - that is, the trope just isn't present in your story at all. There are countless tropes you are averting in your writing, because there are just countless tropes, many of which aren't relevant to your story at all.

Whether you choose to engage with a trope, and how you choose to engage with it is up to you, as @MarkBaker explains. I can't thing of a trope that's a "holy cow" that should never be engaged. You can play with any trope you like. However, your goal is to tell a story. Tropes, and whatever you choose to do with them, are tools. They're the means, not the end. Don't let them get in the way of telling the story you want to tell.

As for the implications of playing with this particular trope, look at how it plays out, examine what it means, then decide whether you like this or want to change it. For example, you might see that the message that comes out is "balance is needed", or "each approach has it's time and place". If that's a message you like, go ahead. If you don't like what comes out from the way you chose to use a trope, change it.

4

tl;dr- Frame-challenging in that I don't think you're actually subverting the trope. While your male characters don't sound like paragons of masculinity, they're not especially subversive either. Your female characters aren't subversive at all; they're textbook neurotic, which is entirely consistent with standard tropes. Given this lack of subversion, I don't think you really have a problem.

NOTE: This answer is on the subject of stereotypes and stereotypical thinking. Obviously, stereotypes and tropes aren't robust scientific models, nor are they prescriptions for how people should act. Obviously real people can be far more complex, and there's no reason anyone should feel obligated to conform to a stereotype.


Stoics strive to be at-peace with the world. Intellectually, their thoughts are based in correspondence to nature. Stoics don't tend to engage in social thinking; for example, you can insult them or praise them – it's meaningless either way.

So the stoic-men/neurotic-women trope is kinda like:

  1. Men act independently based on their own internal direction. They do what they need to do achieve their goals; what others think, whether good or bad, doesn't matter.

    • Men are typically dominated by one strong, overriding emotional disposition; their other emotions tend to be short-lived since their overriding emotional disposition will ultimately squash all other emotions.

    • Men tend to be less inclined to focus on social dynamics, but when they do, they're more direct. Men are often direct because they don't want to get dragged into a prolonged social engagement that'll require long-term maintenance; they just want to achieve whatever goal they're after, then exit the social frame.

  2. Women act dependently with a heavy focus on social dynamics. They'll act in response to others' desires, and they're obsessed with how others view them.

    • A woman's own agency may come from strong internal emotions, but they'll heavily manage the expression of those internal emotions according to social pressures.

    • Women tend to be far more inclined to focus on social dynamics, and when they do, their methods are often more indirect. Since women are comfortable living in a social frame, they can engage in elaborate, long-term social campaigns. And since women tend to anticipate participating in future social campaigns as well, they're concerned with maintaining a strong social standing that'll help ensure their future success.

Then for your story:

  1. The girls and women in the story, Eris, Marina, and Ezrith, display very little emotion--Eris represses her emotions so that they only come on rarely and in intense waves, Marina only shows emotional vulnerability to those she trusts, and Ezrith's fears and love for others only manifest in controlling behavior and frustration directed at her family and friends.

    These female characters sound neurotic, which definitely plays into common stereotypes. That they're suppressing their emotions for social reasons is again playing into that women-act-dependently trope, where they're altering their behavior due to perceived social pressure.

  2. However, the boys and men, Leo, Alexander, and Caspian, are very much in touch with their emotions--Leo, although gruff, communicates most everything he feels to his loved ones, Alexander is a humorous and empathetic man who constantly watches out for others, and Caspian is a patient and levelheaded dreamer who is unafraid to display affection and his own happiness, sadness, and anger.

    You know how when an author writes a character very different from themself, the result can feel a bit off? Sorta like the author started from something very different, then applied a bunch of stereotypes? These characters sound kinda female, but morphed to fit male stereotypes. As such, they're not particularly masculine-sounding, but they don't sound all that subversive, either.

Overall, all of your characters sound like they're built from a stereotypically female starting point. The female characters are then morphed by neurotic tenancies, which really just makes them even more stereotypically female. The male characters are morphed by outwardly displaying the emotions that they have, which actually makes them more masculine than they'd have been if you didn't morph them.

In short, you may want to give some consideration to understanding the masculine perspective to better inform writing masculine characters, but trope-subversion doesn't seem like an issue here.

0

Why do you think you have to stick to a trope? In my understanding, tropes are only the most common usages (or over use) of a theme, not an exhaustive list of paths an author has to follow.

As a reader, I like when a writer does something different, unless it doesn't make any sense. What you describe does make sense, as your characters express human characteristics seen in actual society, so you should be good, as long as it's not over exaggerated to the point of not being believable.

One of my favorite authors is Isaac Asimov. He wrote human built robots that sometimes had near human emotions during a time when robots were generally considered only death machines that wanted to kill everyone, take over the world, or were from alien planets. IMO, this is a major part of why he got so famous. He did something that was completely logical, yet completely contrary to the "tropes" of the time. He was a visionary besides, but not following along with peoples commonly (and often wrongly) held beliefs are why science has come to try following in his footsteps. Asimov's Laws of Robotics have greatly influenced today's robots, even if we still haven't built an AI powerful enough to actually following those rules. (I think we're close, but not quite yet.) There are many other instances where scientists and engineers have followed his lead, but I can't think of anything ATM.

Many great stories have come from challenging convention. Sometimes those stories tell and actual truth that's been buried under common misconception. Doing something like this doesn't guarantee your story will become one of "the greats", but you also shouldn't fear that it's going to be buried due to not following some formula.

Tell your story as you want to tell it. If people don't like it, fine. Hopefully you'll already be writing another story and the new one will sell. Most (if not all) of the Grand Masters of writing couldn't get published early in their careers. Some of them got 1-2 really good stories published and then publishers couldn't accept even their previously unpublished works fast enough.

Also, readers (and publishers) are fickle. If they don't know you, they aren't likely to read you, unless "everyone" is talking about you. Once they do know you, they might pick up a new story of yours just because it's you. Write what you want and you'll likely get followers. If you change and write something because it's mainstream, you'll lose followers due to becoming a "sellout".

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