A machine went through nearly 3.5 million books to analyse the adjectives used for men and women, revealing in the process the gendered gaze so prevalent in literature. According to the report by World Economic Forum, the machine found that that adjective ascribed to women tend to describe physical appearance, whereas words that refer to behaviour are used for men. So, while women are commonly described as “beautiful” or “sexy”, men are usually described as “righteous”, “rational” and “courageous”. The machines scoured books written between 1900 to 2008, across genres of fiction and non-fiction. But then isn’t what we read and write a reflection of how we think?

KEY TAKEAWAYS: 

  • A machine analysed 3.5 million books written between 1900 to 2008, across genres.
  • It found that adjectives attributed to women were largely physical, while for men they were behavioural.
  • So women are mostly described as “sexy,” beautiful” and “cute” while men as “courageous” and “rational.”
  • Such objectification of women is subconscious, often a result of centuries of conditioning.

The machine found that that adjective ascribed to women tend to describe physical appearance, whereas words that refer to behaviour are used for men.

Being an author, the research not only caught my attention but forced me to analyse if my own writing was prone to falling for the attribution of gendered adjectives. I realised that while writing my first few works, I easily fell for stigmas around gender that most of us carry subconsciously. But it was not a deliberate act, in fact it stemmed from my conditioning, which often reflected in the books that I read and more than that, the society that I grew up in.

Doesn’t it come naturally to us, to call a woman beautiful, svelte, stylish or curvy? And to focus more on behavioural qualities when it came to describing men? Don’t women face judgment for their looks? Doesn’t their physical appearance decide their status and desirability? A fair girl gets more attention, and not just from men. A conventionally beautiful woman is known for just that, her beauty, and not any other quality that she may have. Is it a surprise then, that female objectification finds its way to what we read?

Authors are after all products of the same society. We grow up being processed by the same conditioning, education, and value system that is commonplace. Only a few select ones have parents or peers who encourage them to challenge stereotypical notions. This conditioning finds its way easily to any author’s writing.

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But then how does one get rid of this conditioning as a writer? All budding writers are encouraged to read more, to get better at their skills. But one has to remember that this machine went through 3.5 million books and came up with these findings. So reading more could also lead to reinforcement of such stereotypical vocabulary. The solution then can be conscious unlearning, and of course, reading works of women and men who challenge stereotypes, both in their own writing and storytelling, across genres. It doesn’t matter what kind of books you like to read, but it does matter what the books give you back. And this is something we all as readers need to keep in mind. And why just books though, we need to question how women and men are written/talked about across all mediums to raise awareness. Films, news, and text-books, all these mediums are plagued by the similar stereotyping that this analysis has brought to our attention.

These adjectives are a proof of how complex female characterisation is a rarity because most writers barely venture beyond the physical appearance of women characters.

Objectification of women isn’t always loud and stark, as we see on the silver screen. It can often be sublime, existing right under our nose, paragraph after paragraph. While one doesn’t advocate dissociation from all literature on these grounds, people do need to read and write books with a more conscious gaze towards women and men.

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Yamini Pustake Bhalerao is a writer with the SheThePeople team, in the Opinions section. The views expressed are the author’s own.

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