Should the Lead be a Woman or a Man?

A survey recently revealed the top ten all time favourite movie heroes and heroines and the heroines won out with more ladies in that list than men. At the same time movie star Charlize Theron claimed in an interview the reason Hollywood doesn’t make so many films with female protagonists is because punters don’t go and see them. I wonder if there is a poll (and I am sure there is, there is a poll for everything) which shows how many bestsellers which have women as their heroes have been made into movies? I am guessing there is probably more books out there which lead with a woman and more films from books which lead with a man. Curious.

When I think back to my childhood in the seventies, all orange sofas and flared cords, racism and homophobia were pretty standard. No one batted an eyelid at Love Thy Neighbour or Jim Davidson’s jokes about Chalky White, we laughed along. I didn’t know any gay people and if two chaps or two ladies lived together it was quietly accepted without anyone actually acknowledging it. A veil was discreetly drawn.

When Christopher Biggins won I’m a Celebrity, at the end of the rope bridge to greet him amongst the fireworks and paparazzi was his boyfriend. How lovely. Embracing with the joy of seeing each other again after three weeks apart. As it should be. Shows like Don’t Tell The Bride and Grand Designs have plenty of same sex couples, all perfectly ordinary with no fuss and fanfare. Yet despite there being a few more girl bands on MTV than there were on Top of the Pops it feels like we haven’t taken such great strides forward in equality between the sexes. There is still the pay gap, women are in more of the lower paid jobs than men, the bulk of childcare is left to women, there are fewer women than men on the boards of top companies. On Sunday night Chris Rock presenting the Oscars questioned why we had to have separate categories for male and female acting. I think we all know why.

I was reminded of a conversation I was having with some girlfriends recently. We all work and have important jobs yet those who were married confessed frustration that despite the fact that their roles were of an equal status to their husbands’ they were the ones assumed to be staying at home when the children were ill or there were appointments at school. Despite parity of seniority and pay, their jobs were perceived to be the less important of the two. There were two things that struck me as out of place here, firstly that the assumption was made in the first place, and secondly that their womenfolk allowed it to happen. Why didn’t they stick up for themselves? Have the conversation about sharing the burden of childcare responsibilities?

I have just started the monumental mountainous task of writing my second novel. The story is about a parent deciding whether to run away with their child. My first set of notes had the mother as the protagonist. After a while I realised that this was too obvious and it made a better and more compelling story if it was the father contemplating this act. But there was also a little part of me quite delighted that it made a better story because I felt that the audience would be wider if the protagonist was a man and not a woman. More men would be likely to read it.

Perceived wisdom has it that women will read books and watch movies with male leads but men are less likely to do the same if the hero is a heroine.

I was a journalist at the time when Royal paparazzi stories ruled the front pages. There was outrage at the behaviour of some of these reporters and photographers (I knew quite a few of them) but the defence of the newspaper editors was that this was what people wanted to read. When they put a juicy story about a royal on the front then sales went up. They were only responding to the demands of their readers they claimed. I guess Charlize Theron is making the same point. Hollywood is a business and will only consider films it believes will return a big profit and to date those have been the blockbusters with male leads. But I wonder whether or not this is because these are the only kind of films we can get to see in the multiplexes? The number of superhero comic books films being churned out at the moment is overwhelming but I feel quite sure that if a few of these had female lead characters then the boys would still be very happy to go and watch. I never thought I would consider Lara Croft as a pioneer!

I applaud the news that star actresses with a bit of clout like Sandra Bullock are asking that scripts be rewritten to change the male lead to a female one and that these films are going on to be great successes and, most importantly, money makers. I don’t want to feel that when I am writing a story I have to make the lead character a lady to make a point, or wave the flag, I want to do it because it is best for the story.

It still amazes and frustrates me that in the 21st Century with such great strides in equality being made in so many areas of life that we still feel we need to have these conversations about parity between men and women.


2 thoughts on “Should the Lead be a Woman or a Man?

  1. That’s interesting. I think you can only write the story it feels right for you to write, though. Hollywood is and always has been amazingly sexist, I know. As for publishing, I often wonder if the pushing of chick lit has men behind it – let’s keep women reading their ditzy heroines who know their place! I am tempted to write a blog post about why I think chick lit/chick flicks are potentially damaging to women, but don’t know if I could be bothered with the arguments from all the chick lit readers and writers.

    Generally, in books, I think men like to read about men and vice versa (I actually prefer to read male protagonists, but am not in majority). BTW, I lost quite a lot of an existing readership after my first 3 books by giving the next one a male main character. All those readers of contemporary women’s fiction didn’t want to read about a male would-be rock star; although a few said ‘I read it because it was yours even though I didn’t think I’d like it’, I expect many others didn’t buy it at all. A lesson learned.


    • Hi Terry. Thanks for your comment. Interesting that you lost readers for putting a male as a lead character – that’s depressing. I’m not sure there are any answers but I think it’s a fascinating point to consider. You are right that it shouldn’t make a difference, the character should be whatever the story needs it to be, but evidently people have strong views about whether they want to spend time with a woman or a man driving the story.


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