Do Readers Hold Female Authors to Higher Standards When It Comes to Violence and Profanity?

Image from Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain

Image from Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain

A few months ago a reader told me I write like a man. When I asked for clarification, the person said, “You know, the violence. Your killer is so twisted.”

It’s true, Eating Bull has short scenes of graphic violence. The novel has a serial killer, after all. It also contains profanity, particularly the scenes where my overweight teenager gets bullied. Something tells me a 17-year-old, inner-city Cleveland bully would not call his victim a “chubby poo-poo head.”

But while I expected people who knew me to widen their eyes at my words and cluck, I didn’t expect to be compared to a man for writing them.

So that got me thinking:

Do male writers enjoy more leeway when it comes to violence and profanity? Are female authors held to a different standard?

I remember reading the criticism J.K. Rowling received for her use of profanity in both A Casual Vacancy and her new detective series (published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith). Reviews for the latter also mentioned its violence.

In an article on DailyMail.com about A Casual Vacancy (“We Know You’re Grown Up Now, J.K. Rowling. So Stop Swearing), a writer laments:

“But wading through the torrent of abusive terms in a book by Ms Rowling – of all people! – made me wince with embarrassment.”

AND

“She’s perfectly within her rights to cuss like a trooper – but the fact that she has actively chosen to do it when she could have found ways around it  .  .  .  is just disappointing.”

After reading the article I wondered why reviewers don’t say the same about Stephen King. Some of his books have enough twisted violence and profanity to make Quentin Tarantino blush. But I don’t recall seeing reviews take him to task for it, at least not like J.K. Rowling’s have.

Image from Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain

Image from Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain

Of course, this may be because King is King and has always written that way, whereas Rowling is the mother of Harry Potter, a series for children and teens. One doesn’t expect f-bombs and severed body parts to fly from her fingertips.

But after having readers mention my own use of violence and language, I wondered if some of the bias is gender-related.

Yeah, But What About …

To be fair, plenty of books written by men have been called out for their violence. For example, Simon & Schuster canceled American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis on “grounds of taste,” after having paid him a $300,000 advance. The novel was subsequently published by Vintage Books.

I suppose as with most things it’s a combination of factors, gender included. As for how much violence and profanity is too much, well, that’s a topic for another day and not one I’m addressing here, other than to say I wouldn’t be opposed to a content advisory for books. Why shouldn’t readers know what they’re getting?

But in the meantime, I’ll just keep writing. Not as a man. Not as a woman. Only as me.

Do you think readers expect less violence and profanity from female authors? Are you for a book rating system, similar to movies and TV shows?

*     *     *

Rubin4Carrie Rubin is the author of Eating Bull and The Seneca Scourge. For full bio, click here.

279 Responses to “Do Readers Hold Female Authors to Higher Standards When It Comes to Violence and Profanity?”

  1. aetherhouse

    I definitely think they hold us to different standards. Gillian Flynn has already been mentioned but…yeah. People keep accusing her of internalized misogyny and stuff because her protagonists are all such awful people, but her point is that women CAN be awful! Because they are people!

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      Yes, her book Sharp Objects surprised me. I thought, Misogyny? From a woman author? And then I recognized my own bias and had to remind myself the author is not the character. Something I preach all the time but apparently forgot.

      Like

  2. Sue Archer

    Unfortunately gender bias does seem to be alive and well in publishing, and it’s not just on the female side. You hear about men changing their names to something more gender-neutral when they write romances, because they are worried their books won’t sell otherwise. I don’t know that I expect women to write less about violence – some of the latest paranormal/vampire fiction can be quite violent, for example, and a lot of that is written by women. Maybe it has more to do with the expectations around certain genres, and how violence is typically portrayed by those who typically write it.

    You’ve made me wonder if I would have liked Casual Vacancy more if there had been less language. It certainly didn’t help, because I don’t enjoy lots of bad language in a book – but it was true to character. Mainly I didn’t like the characters. Period. 🙂

    A rating system for books would be interesting. I find the experience of reading is not nearly as visceral as watching something, so I can maintain more distance from things like violence, even within a well-written book. Perhaps it depends on how “visual” a person is. Regardless, I’m not sure how you could define a standard. They have a hard enough time with that in movies – it’s all pretty subjective in the end!

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      After reading everyone’s comments, I’m leaning that way too–a rating standard would be hard to define. Maybe there could be a brief content advisory instead, something voluntary on the author’s part.

      It’s true male authors can experience some bias as well. Good point. As for A Casual Vacancy, I never read it. But I LOVE her new detective series. So good.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. philosophermouseofthehedge

    Although I rarely notice an author’s name when selecting a book, many people do. And I really believe there is a bias against women writers. “Women writers have to write a certain delicate way, and only certain topics – ones that they are familiar with” Gag. It may be changing, but still exists.
    Books aren’t movies or video games or music, so a strict rating system would be too much of a tight rope – who decides the “standards”? And as you say, different cultures are offended by different things and more accepting of other things for younger ages sometimes. I like your idea of a small alert or advisory statement.
    As far as swearing. That’s an issue? Easy to thumb through and read a few passages here and there to not only see if you like the style, but also check out the vocabulary used.
    Hard to believe swearing upsets people anymore – but I live in a very large city and around a lot of kids that would make you lock the car doors. Even the prime time TV shows and movies have changed so much sometimes they are offensive and deserve to be turned off.
    Having said that, swearing tends to be boring, boarish, and the sign of poor education or lacking the understanding of appropriate for time and place. OK to show extreme emotion once in a while, or in dialogue if it fits the character, but every other word? Not interesting. I’ll not buy that book.
    Congrats on your interview! Enjoyed it. You ought to feel like a big time author! Sooo coool

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      Thank you so much for your kind words and for your thoughtful comment. The Larry Brooks interview was a treat indeed. 🙂

      What you said here: “who decides the ‘standards’?” is very true. Probably wouldn’t be quite as easy to do with books as movies and TV. And I agree–too much swearing is a turn off, but if used non-gratuitously, it can indeed be a good way to show emotion.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Nicole Roder

    There probably is a double standard for some readers. It’s human nature. You make a judgement about what someone will talk (or write) like based on a number of factors, including gender. It could also be that King’s readers enjoy violence and profanity and are therefore less likely to complain, whereas Rowling’s fans just aren’t into that. I say, just be true to your story and your characters. You have to be honest in fiction. No, a teenage Clevland bully is not going to call someone a poopy head. You have to be honest and realistic with your dialogue and characterizations, or no one will believe it.

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      Well said. Thank you. Exactly how I feel. It’s not like I peppered in too much profanity, but for some readers even a few words is too much. And I get that. That’s why I wouldn’t be against a content advisory, but of course, that gets tricky to do.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. pegoleg

    Interesting idea- I’ve never noticed a gender bias in writing. But I don’t think that would be surprising. Statistically, men are more violent than women, so it makes sense to me that their writing would reflect that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Carrie Rubin

      It’s just unfortunate some female authors get called out for it. But I think many books have shown women can and do write about violence. Gillian Flynn is a perfect example. Very dark subject material.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Ally Bean

    I don’t think that the author’s gender is immediately indicative of how much violence/language is in a novel. I think that genre is what alerts me to the fact that there may be violence/langauge in a novel. And as for a rating system, I’m against it. Do we need more opinions + judgements in this world? We’ve got enough of that already.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Carrie Rubin

      I think I’m shying away from the rating system. People have left convincing comments to sway me. But I still wouldn’t mind being able to insert a brief content advisory statement. It could be voluntary. Just some way to inform sensitive readers of what they’re getting. Then again, the bloody knife stabbing a burger on my cover is a pretty good indication. 😉

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Rilla Z

    I’d support a rating system if it was consistent. But they never are. Oddly, the rating system depends on the moral direction of the society using it rather than adhering to objective criteria.
    And I don’t support reading profanity or graphic violence from anyone. No double standard there. But you knew that. 🙂

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      “the rating system depends on the moral direction of the society using it rather than adhering to objective criteria.”—That’s an excellent point and one I hadn’t thought of. What holds in one country might not in another. (Even a state or town.) Interesting.

      Liked by 2 people

  8. Zen A.

    Oh I would love a book rating system! I always check the Parent Guide on IMDb before watching any movie to know what I’m signing up for (it’s much more difficult to ignore a sex scene in the cinema than at home, haha). One for books would be fantastic… though unfortunately spoiler-y too, right?

    I generally try my best to avoid swearing, unless the situation really calls for it and it would be unrealistic to leave it out, but I think women should be able to use profanity if they wish to do so… it shouldn’t reflect on who they are as a person, just on their characters. Also I love JKR’s Cormoran Strike books. She is really amazing as a crime writer!

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      “it shouldn’t reflect on who they are as a person, just on their characters”—Yes, that’s exactly how I feel. Personally, I rarely swear, and if I do, it’s just in front of my husband. But sometimes my character calls for it, though it’s not like I’m peppering the pages with them. One here or there is all.

      I’m so grateful for parent movie guides. They’ve helped me a lot with my kids.

      And I agree–Rowling is a wonderful storyteller and crime writer. It’s one of my favorite series!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. UpChuckingwords

    you bring up a great point, Carrie. I love giving people Chelsea Cain and having them come back and say — she is SICK and then they say how disturbed I am for loving her. And their comments are always followed by the gender junk.
    The bias goes both ways though– as readers and as writers– the gender roles that we find ourselves crammed into. Men writing romance novels using a female pen name. Men that read romance are given the raised eyebrow too.

    And please , no no no on the rating system. Emphatically NO

    Great post. Thought provoking. Happy Hump Day 🙂

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      Thank you! I agree–the bias can go both ways. Some male authors feel it too, especially those who branch out into women’s fiction territory. (And I’m not really thrilled about the term ‘women’s fiction.’ Fiction is fiction.)

      A rating system would be difficult to do and probably would never fly. I’m seeing that now from these insightful comments. But even a short statement of a content advisory could be helpful to readers who don’t want to pay for a book with violence or profanity. It could be done voluntarily, I would think. But it’s a slippery slope for sure.

      Like

  10. BunKaryudo

    Funnily enough, I actually had a chance to start reading “Eating Bull” earlier this week and I’ve almost finished it. I’m at a very suspensful point In the story, but I won’t say anything more here in case I spoil it for others.

    I have no strong feelings about violence written by women compared to violence written by men. All I will say is that I will never look at a pizza box in quite the same way again. 🙂

    Like

  11. Diane Henders

    It’s interesting that one of your readers said you ‘write like a man’. I’ve had the same comment on my books, though nobody has mentioned whether it was specifically the swearing that prompted the comment.

    I think your question is actually more complex than “do readers expect female writers to swear less”. My books have been on the market long enough to get a lot of readership, and I find that readers fall into two camps: Those who aren’t bothered by swearing regardless of the swearer’s gender; and those who are bothered by swearing in general and find women swearing to be exponentially more offensive than men swearing. There doesn’t seem to be any middle ground.

    Based on the letters I’ve received, it’s safe to say that people who are already gender-biased definitely apply that bias to swearing. But I don’t have enough information to determine whether non-gender-biased readers also expect less swearing from women. I suspect it would be dependent on the reader’s personal environment – if they lived in a society where men swore and women didn’t, they’d likely expect that to be true of authors even if there was no value judgement associated with the expectation. To split a hair, a reader’s differential expectation may or may not indicate gender bias; but a reader’s differential tolerance definitely does.

    I’d be all for a rating system for books. Even though I don’t believe there’s anything morally wrong with using swear words in writing, I still feel badly when somebody tells me they were offended. I don’t expect everybody to like my books, but I don’t want to make people uncomfortable, either. A rating system would be a great way to match up books to readers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Carrie Rubin

      That’s kind of how I feel. At least then readers know what they’re getting.

      Interesting that you’ve had readers actually send you notes on the subject. Even though I rarely swear in real life, I don’t mind reading swear words in books. I really don’t think twice about it unless it’s so gratuitous it’s everywhere. It’s movies where I’ve found it can go overboard. It’s like the writer couldn’t think of any better dialogue!

      Liked by 2 people

    • BunKaryudo

      I’m not sure if I count as middle ground, Diane. I’ve never liked swearing much and almost never do it unless my thumb and a hammer are involved. I don’t like when other people swear in public. I can stand the shock, of course, and my annoyance isn’t motivated by prudishness. I simply think it’s rude to force others to listen to swearing whether or not they want to. I don’t see this as being much different from the way smokers shouldn’t force others to Inhale passively or people should wear headphones when listening to music in a library.

      If people are with their friends, all of whom are quite tolerant of swearing, that’s different. If I’m invited to a party and a bunch of people there swear their heads off, that’s fine. I don’t do it myself, but I don’t care if others do because I chose to be there.

      I feel the same way about fiction. If I choose to buy a book knowing that it may contain violence or bad language, then I’m not upset if violence and bad language do in fact appear. As to whether the book is written by a man or a woman, I don’t really care. I tend not to think about the author when I’m reading a book. (Sorry, authors!)

      Liked by 1 person

      • Diane Henders

        If you’re not thinking about the author while you’re reading a book, that’s a compliment to the author! 🙂

        And I agree with you on the swearing-in-public thing. I’m not bothered by it, and in situations where I know I won’t offend anyone I let ‘er rip (especially if thumbs and hammers are involved). But if there’s any doubt, I keep my verbal filters firmly in place. That’s why I like the idea of a warning system for books so readers will know what kind of company they’ll be keeping.

        Liked by 2 people

        • BunKaryudo

          The more I think about it the more I realize you’re right, Diane. I only really notice the author if he or she is throwing in clunky sentences, strained metaphors or whatever. When I’m enjoying a book, the author doesn’t enter my mind at all because I’m so focused on the story. That kind of obliviousness really is a kind of tribute to his or her writing talents. 🙂

          Liked by 2 people

      • Carrie Rubin

        I wish everyone forgot about the author when they read a book! (Well, except to remember to leave a review when they’re done. 😉 )

        Like you, I don’t want to be bombarded by swearing in public. It’s offensive to many people so why go there? I rarely swear myself. But sometimes I feel my characters would, and I want to make them realistic. That’s why I wouldn’t mind giving my readers a rating heads up so they know what they’re getting. It’s not like my manuscript is peppered with curse words, but even a few can upset some people.

        Liked by 2 people

  12. Jay

    I have no expectations of a writer based on gender. Unless it’s a preferred writer of mine, I hardly notice who wrote a book until after I’m done. I always like to go in as blind as possible. I never read the back or the inside cover. There are too few surprises in this life.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Arlene

    No doubt women writers are held to different / higher(?) standard … just as in so many other areas. But I love that you did it and that other women authors are writing about violence, and swearing, and female characters doing bad things … if that’s what the story calls for.

    It’s what I love about Gillian Flynn – I may not like all of her books or how they end (think Gone Girl) but I love that she could write such a wicked female character who was violent, foul mouthed, knew no boundaries and so out there! I haven’t read Eating Bull yet but it is definitely on my To Read list and look forward to it even more now.

    As an author you are stretching your wings, testing your limits, (what other cliches can I use here?) 🙂 but you get me … growing. I’m sure J.K. has other stories she wants to write and their not all about Harry Potter. So I say to all women writers, if you have a story … write it. The readers be damned! Oops, should I say “The readers be darned?” 😉

    Great post Carrie!!

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      Thank you, Arlene! I think Gillian Flynn is a great example of a female author who gets away with it.

      Personally, I rarely swear, and my two protags in Eating Bull don’t either. But my bully does, and so does the killer. Sometimes those swear words seemed called for, so in they went. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Smaktakula

    If somebody says you write like a man, I think you should just accept the compliment and move on.

    Are women writers held to a different standard? By whom? By some people, probably? But in general? I doubt it. We spend too much time wondering about things like that. We dissect our lives and compartmentalize our aspects, seeing these individual aspects at different times as the whole of our being–our race, our gender, our sexual orientation or gender identification, our political party, our religion, or region, our mental illnesses, our sports affiliations. After a while it seems a bit masturbatory, the kind of ephemera that grad-school students waste their time on.

    This isn’t to suggest that there aren’t differences between people or that, in some cases, particulars about our person may cause SOME people to hold us to a different standard. But if a person is looking for something, he or she will find it, and “double standards” are no exception. One of the current presidential candidates for president has built her entire campaign around such double-standards.

    With regard to JK Rowling, I can’t say for sure if the criticism of her adult work was based on her gender, not having read the work in question (or anything by the author). I would guess however (without having any of the facts, which is how I work best) that, as you say, the criticism probably stems more from making the leap to adult work. However, it would be interesting to see if Judy Blume faced similar criticism when she made the leap from children’s literature to adult work.

    And it’s always possible that there ARE too many swears in Rowling’s book. I enjoy the expressive qualities of curse words more than most people, but I don’t care for gratuitous cursing.

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      We may indeed waste our time wondering about these things, but these questions do stem from actual biases so there is merit in them. For example, the woman who submitted her thriller over and over again to agents and was repeatedly rejected. Then she submitted it using a man’s name, and she got quick requests for full reads. So it’s there. The solution may be to use an androgynous sounding pen name, and who knows, maybe someday I will. But I can’t help feel I’ll perpetuate the issue if I do.

      Of course, that’s not the focus of this post. I agree–gratuitous profanity and violence gets old. If I use it, it’s because it works for the character.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Smaktakula

        I was wrong to imply that these questions are a waste of time in and of themselves; they’re not. A better expression of my intentions would be that we shouldn’t become overly fixated on these things. However, I’ll concede your point on the “book submitted as a woman/submitted as a man” thing. There are, unfortunately, too many examples of that sort of thing.

        Like

        • Carrie Rubin

          I agree we shouldn’t overly fixate on them. That could lead us to writing paralysis. And ain’t nobody got time for that!

          I wasn’t bothered by the person’s comment; I just found it interesting. (And blog-worthy–that’s always a plus!)

          Like

  15. Annika Perry

    I guess there is some gender bias however there are many female writers out there with strong violence and language who I don’t think receive comments about this. J K Rowling is an exception – she wanted to get away from her image as the Harry Potter writer but that wil be nigh impossible. However, overall more men write those kind of books so the assumption will reign strong, no doubt.

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      I agree that some certainly get away with it without much comment–Gillian Flynn, for example. I suppose part of it is what readers are conditioned too.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. hilarycustancegreen

    I think it is quite probable that we have a, mostly unintentional, gender bias on violence and swearing. It would be great to do some gender blind studies. I believe that both sexes are very good at accurately sexing prose, which doesn’t prove anything as we have learned to write within the prevailing culture. Good for you if you are free of this. While I personally don’t enjoy violence in books, I have no problem with swearing in context, and judiciously used it can be great. I do get bored with the overuse, especially as the brain becomes habituated to it and it loses its shock value.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Carrie Rubin

      I agree–overdoing swearing gets old. It should fit the scene. My protags don’t swear, but my bully does and my killer sometimes does. It just seemed to fit.

      Like

  17. kaytisweetlandrasmussen83

    Though a casual passer-by may identify me as white-haired and over the hill, my husband has often told me I could never do a cooking show on TV because my language is so bad. Sometimes things just warrant a strong reaction. You just keep writing like yourself Carrie!

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Book Club Mom

    This is a really interesting subject. I think your suggestion is true. But you are also right that you have to use language and violence to make a realistic point. Don’t readers want some of that anyway? Keep on writing!

    Like

  19. A @ moylomenterprises

    Admittedly, I’m not into novels. I prefer books based on true stories. But I will enjoy a nicely done sci-fi flick or series or drama or comedy too. I think it’s primarily because I’m a slow reader and if I need to spend that much time to tackle a book it has to have lasting benefits. A TV show is basically an hour and I’ve been entertained and life goes on.

    The whole bias of men vs women in terms of obscenities and violence is unfair but present, in my opinion, simply because, unless a woman is a biker chick, hanging out with the rough crowd one does not expect such words to come out of her mouth. I often get taken aback when lovely women standing on the train platform, seemingly so gentile, blurt out obscenities to their friends or someone on the phone.

    It’s a mindset, preprogrammed from times past, where women were meant to be in the home caring for the little ones, minding her manners, tending to her spouse and being proper. Then with the advent of women’s rights, and equality for all the standards for women are slowly being changed. But one can’t erase preprogrammed ways of thinking overnight. And so comments and critics like the ones you mentioned will continue to trickle in. It just a matter of if you want it to bother you or just ignore them.

    Many authors avoid all this harassment by using a pen name or separate identity for each type of work they produce. JK Rowling is having all this backlash because her secret identify was revealed and folks are still trying to come to terms with it.

    I say do what works for you. You’re a public figure now and all this is part of the process. Best wishes on all fronts. You got this!!! 🌷

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      Thank you! It doesn’t really bother me; I was just surprised. I think readers need to remember that it’s not really the author using the profanity–it’s the character. Novels are fiction. In order to make them believable, we need to make our characters realistic. I personally rarely swear, but I felt my bully likely would. I guess it comes down to separating the author from the characters. That’s probably easier to do when we don’t know the author personally.

      Liked by 1 person

      • A @ moylomenterprises

        Agreed. I only swear when I’m angry while I know many who swear as just as a way of speaking where cusswords are adjectives. My ex husband had a potty mouth but I made him tone it down around me. Didn’t want munchkin’s first words to be cuss words or to have her take that language to school lol.

        People just need to lighten up!

        Like

  20. Jacqui Murray

    My experience is that female authors include less violence and cussing, though I’ve always thought it’s their choice. I never considered the expectation. My novel is military fiction–about a warship battling for its life against constant attacking forces. Military fiction is a man’s genre and I did have an agent suggest I use my first initial rather than obviously-female first name.

    So, yes, writing and genre bias appears to be alive and well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Carrie Rubin

      Military fiction–wow, that’s definitely a new territory for female writers. Good for you.

      I remember when I read Gillian Flynn’s ‘Sharp Objects’ how surprised I was by the misogynistic elements. So there was my own bias in place–expecting a female author to let go of some of that language.

      Like

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: