Bookish Musings: Feminism and Double Standards in Books – Emotion


A few weeks ago I talked about the double standard of sexual promiscuity in books, but this week I want to talk about characters getting emotional.

If you know me, you know that emotion is my favorite thing about books. I love to FEEL things, and I do that through the characters, by feeling what they feel. So this particular topic is something I’ve thought about for a while and that really stands out to me in the books I read.

I’ve never seen this discussed anywhere, so I have no clue if anyone will feel the same way as me about this or has had similar reading experiences, but I can’t wait to hear what you all have to say!

If you haven’t yet seen my first post about feminism, double standards, and sexual promiscuity, you should head over and check it out! But as a reminder, I talked about my favorite female character and how shocked I was when I discovered the way some readers treated her due to her sexual history.

Well, another one of my favorite female characters is Jehenne Corbeaux from the Les Corbeaux: The French Vampire Legend series by Emma V. Leech. She’s still a teenager so all of her decisions are not perfect, but I always found them to be understandable. She’s smart, strong, and stands up for herself. And in the second book, she especially stands up for her right to make her own decisions about her body and won’t let anyone rush her or pressure her into things.

But yet again I was shocked to discover that many other readers thought she was too emotional. And also yet again, for some of those readers, it was as though that one trait overshadowed every amazing thing about her. Don’t get me wrong, everyone is allowed to have their own opinion, these things are subjective, but it was genuinely surprising to me.

The thing is, I thought her emotion was one of the amazing things about her. It wasn’t something I felt I had to overlook—it was one of the very reasons I loved her so much. I felt her emotions were completely realistic and justified. The fact that she actually had these emotions was what made her relatable and great to read about.

And what’s wrong with being emotional anyway? With crying? With sadness? With anger? With shock? With getting overwhelmed?

But then I thought for a moment, if it had been reversed and she were a male character, would the reviews have been different?

When a male character breaks down and cries or screams out in frustration because his relationship is in shambles, or because he misses someone he lost, or because he’s completely overwhelmed by some truly awful situation he’s in, do we as readers scoff and call him emotional? Or do we become even more into him because he has a soft side and awww he’s so sad that we just want to give him a hug because for a man to cry wow it must be really bad and he must be feeling so much pain šŸ™ šŸ™ šŸ™ …?

I do. I admit that. It breaks my heart when male characters get upset. So I’m not condemning anyone for that. But when someone likes a female character less for having emotions and then turns around and likes a male character more for having the very same emotions, it makes me sad because it’s yet another double standard.

We’ve been taught our whole lives that women are just dramatic, so, when one is emotional, we have a tendency to just see it as dramatic. And we’ve been taught that men do NOT get emotional, so, when they do, we have a tendency to automatically think whatever they’re feeling must just be terrible and their emotions must be justified.

I’m not accusing every single reader of thinking this way or even attacking anyone who does—as I said, I fall prey to these things too. I love me a brooding and tortured hero. I don’t dislike female characters for showing emotion, but I’m pretty sure I feel emotion more powerfully when it’s coming from a male character because that whole “men don’t get emotional” thing is so deeply ingrained in me. It’s how I was raised by society. And things like that are hard to truly break away from, even when you consciously try.

I’ve noticed something else though. It seems to me that male characters, especially protags, are being purposely written with more emotion than females. Maybe it’s just the genres I read, or maybe it’s even just the specific books. But regardless, my theory is that maybe it’s because readers/viewers/society in general are often bashing any female character who shows emotion, so authors are trying extra hard to write “strong” female characters because of all the pressure. But when did “strong” come to mean emotionless and stoic? I firmly believe people can be both strong AND emotional. In fact, I think emotion makes a person even stronger because it means they’re passionate about things and it allows them to have empathy for others.

So I LIKE emotional characters, of all genders, and think we need more of them!


More Feminism and Double Standards in Books Posts:

Love Triangles
Sexual Promiscuity
Strong Characters


Talk to me!

Do you find male characters to be more emotional than their female counterparts in the books you read?
Do you think females in books are judged more harshly when they do show emotion?
Do you like emotional characters?


Your Thoughts


39 thoughts on “Bookish Musings: Feminism and Double Standards in Books – Emotion

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  1. Christy LoveOfBooks

    Agreed. I often read in order *to* feel those emotions of the characters, so if they don’t feel anything, then I don’t either. At the same time, I’m most attracted to the stoic, harder heroines – I identify with them more. So I’m usually the one who loves the ‘bitch’ of a character that others slam for being unlikable. When those types of characters do show a certain amount of vulnerability, though, it’s even better. The outward emotionless character feeling strong emotions … that’s my ideal. But, I enjoy reading all different types, ya know? I can’t recall ever faulting a character for being too emotional. I think there were a time or two in a contemporary romance when a character’s personality exhausted me with all the emotional outburst that continuously caused fights. I avoid that kind of stuff in real life, so don’t want to feel drained from it in fiction. But that the only instance I can think of that comes close to an ’emotional’ heroine I didn’t like.

    1. Kristen Burns

      I agree with your first statement about feeling the emotions, but I don’t like those stoic, harder heroines. But I feel like the ones I’ve read about didn’t have a lot of inward emotion either? Because I’m fine with a character being outwardly pretty stoic but still having lots of emotion for me to read about feel on the inside. But I agree there is such thing as too much. It’s hard to quantify something like that, but I’ve also always avoided “drama” in real life, so I don’t like it it in books either. I have to feel like the emotion is justified. I have to at least be able to understand why someone would be upset about that.

  2. Nicola

    I haven’t really found that male characters are portrayed as more emotional than their female counterparts. In fact, a lot of ‘strong female characters’ in YA, like Katniss Everdeen, Celaena Sardothien, and Mare Barrow, *do* have emotional breakdowns and make choices based on their emotions. That said, I absolutely agree that there’s a double standard in the perception of them by the audience, both in the way they’re criticised for showing emotion and in the way these emotions are often overlooked because they don’t fit the ‘strong female character’ mould they’ve been pigeonholed into.

    1. Kristen Burns

      I actually have to disagree with the first part of your comment. The reason I didn’t like The Hunger Games books was because I felt Katniss was one of the most emotionless characters I had ever read about. So I don’t consider her an example of a female character in YA who’s emotional. But I guess that shows how subjective these things are and everyone perceives books differently. Emotion is hard to quantify in a discussion. I do agree with the rest of your comment though. They are being pigeonholed and criticized differently than the male characters.

      1. Nicola

        I consider her an emotion-driven character because her choice to volunteer as tribute was driven by the desire to protect someone she loves; it wasn’t rational, it was based on fear for Prim’s safety. But I can understand how you consider her unemotional given her manipulation of the Capitol and Peeta’s feelings; to me those came across as emotion-driven as well because they were driven by her desperation to survive and return home to her family. But, yes, I agree that it shows how subjective these things can be.

        1. Kristen Burns

          Ok, I can see her as being emotion-driven rather than logic-driven, but I still didn’t feel she was portrayed with much emotion. Even if someone doesn’t express their emotions a lot on the outside, I like to be shown their emotions on the inside, to feel those emotions myself since I’m in their heads, but I didn’t get that with her. And I guess that’s what my definition of an emotional character is, whereas yours seems to be about the motivation behind the actions. Both valid, just different šŸ™‚

          1. Nicola

            That’s an interesting point; I’ve never really thought much about feeling characters’ emotions, I suppose because for me they only feel real if they drive their behaviour. But I can definitely understand why you don’t feel like Katniss’ emotions were apparent or not šŸ™‚

            1. Kristen Burns

              I’m not sure I’ve ever consciously paid attention to emotion vs logic-based motivations, but maybe that’s one reason some emotional characters don’t come across as well, because their driving force doesn’t match their behavior.

  3. Caitlin @ Words and Other Beasts

    Great discussion! I agree that sometimes I can fall victim to judging a female protagonist if she has an emotional breakdown, thinking things like “I thought she was supposed to be strong? Why is she crying?!” But in reality, if a character never got emotional, we’d see them as heartless or 2D. A woman can be both emotional and strong because to allow yourself to feel emotions is a strength in itself. I agree with an earlier commenter that this is portrayed excellently with Katniss Everdeen. She’s strong but allows herself to succum to her emotions when the time is right. Some authors, however, struggle to find this balance and it can make their protagonists seem whiny, whether they’re male or female I think. Thanks for pointing this out!

    1. Kristen Burns

      Thank you! I agree that allowing yourself to feel emotions is a strength, so I’ve just never felt that strength and emotion were opposites. Except as I was saying to Nicola, the reason I didn’t like The Hunger Games was actually because I felt like Katniss was one of the most emotionless characters I had ever read about, so I just can’t agree that she’s a good example of a strong yet emotional character. But these things are so subjective, and emotion is such a hard thing to quantify. I definitely agree though that there is such thing as too much, but I guess that would also be subjective too. Poor authors, how are they ever supposed to get anything right when it’s all so personal and subjective? Lol. But yeah, I like emotion, but whiny, overdramatic characters are just annoying.

  4. S. J. Pajonas

    YES YES YES. This drives me nuts too. And I get the same problem in real life as well. I have ONE BAD DAY where everything goes wrong and suddenly I’m emotional ALL THE TIME? I don’t get that. Why do women carry this burden, like we’re not allowed to have emotions, we’re not allowed to feel? How does this make us less of a person? I see it in books. I see it in real life. This is definitely a double standard all around. šŸ™ In the end, I also think it comes down to the craftiness of the author as well. Can the author make us feel empathy towards her? If me, as a reader can’t connect with the heroine, then I’m probably not going to like her emotions either. I may think they’re overblown or repetitive. So while, I agree that this is a horrible double standard, a lot also has to do with the reader’s level of empathy, and that can be anywhere between 0 and 100.

    1. Kristen Burns

      No, see, in real life whenever a woman has a bad day or gets upset about something legitimate, she’s just on her period -_- Seriously though, it is DEFINITELY a double standard in real life as well as books. You have a great point though that I hadn’t thought of! If I already just don’t like and connect with the character, then I probably won’t understand their emotions either and am more likely to feel like they’re overreacting or to just be annoyed, whether it’s a male or female.

  5. Greg

    There does always seem to be a conflict between how we think things should be and how society norms have sort of “trained” us to think a certain way. I find that a lot too- I’ll be praising a strong female character in a review and I’ll think why is it noteworthy that she’s strong? Is it because she’s female? And I have to admit if a guy started crying I’d probably be like suck it up dude. So maybe I’m sexist lol. Seriously though, on the other hand I do like when male characters are written with emotion, I mean there’s only so much you can do with a stoic type right, if that’s all they do? So I agree- characters written with emotion are much more interesting.

    You’ve got me thinking about this now. I don’t know if males are written more emotional in the stuff I read, but yes females are judged more harshly, sure.

    1. Kristen Burns

      Yep, that’s basically life. But I guess that’s why I like to bring these things up and like to read other posts that bring them up.

      Lol well at least you’re not bashing the females as being overemotional. But, see, I can actually understand why you, a man, would just the guy to suck it up, but I feel like it’s a really common thing that when women read about a man crying or upset, it suddenly endears him even more to us. So there’s another gender thing going on there. But I feel like that’s more to do with our, like, genetics? Wiring? Caveman days? What the hell is the word I’m looking for, haha. I don’t even know. Now we’ve stumbled onto a whole ‘nother facet of the discussion lol.

      I think it is highly dependent on the books though, since I’m sure there are plenty out there with stoic male characters. But I probably actively seek out the emotional ones since that’s what I enjoy reading.

  6. Lola

    I actually strongly dislike the term strong as it often means the female turn out to be good at fighting and such and have less personality. And I instead always focus on realistic instead of strong in my reviews as that’s what’s important for me and the word strong someone can mean so many different things depending on who uses it.

    I rather have a realistic character and if that means he or she is more emotional than that’s okay with me. Just like you I like to see a character their emotions and I wish sometimes less people would blame characters for being emotional. I mean why can’t someone be devastated because their relationship ended, if they are all stoic and move on then it just feels like that relationship wasn’t important. And I don’t get why it’s to frowned upon when character behave that way. I want characters to care about things and show those emotions.

    I read many different genres and I have noticed the thing you noticed about males versus female emotional behavior less, but from reading some reviews I do know many people love a tortured brooding male hero and I do too, but I also want females to be allowed to be emotional as well.

    Although there is a limit on how much emotions I want to read as you know I often avoid books that are too emotional, especially the more negative emotions as I don’t handle reading about that as well. But I still prefer the characters to show some emotions, just not always so much I get sucked into that much? if that makes sense. For example The Halfling had a depressed character and while it was obvious she was depressed it wasn’t all the book focused on, so it never got overwhelming for me.

    I also feel that overall most readers are harder on the female characters, it’s like we give them this ridiculously high standard and I wonder if that’s because most readers are females themselves too and set those high standards for themselves as well or maybe as well because we are thought by society about those norms and what’s normal. Great post again Kristen!

    1. Kristen Burns

      Yes! You see it too, the weird definition that the word “strong” has come to mean. I like that you focus on realistic instead of strong. You’re gonna love my next double standards post as I get a lot more into that, and I’ll be looking forward to your thoughts on that!

      Exactly, I love your example about the relationship. I would feel the same way, that they must not have even cared about that relationship since they’re completely unaffected.

      I think it probably is really dependent on the specific books you read, but I do like brooding, tortured heroes, so I’ve probably just sought out a lot of those types of books. But yeah, I like when the females have emotion too since I feel the emotion through them just as much if not more since they’re often the main POV character.

      I do like getting sucked into the emotion though, and I like those super emotional books. But see, I don’t like the ones that are just make-you-cry and that’s kind of all they’re about, you know? I like the ones with struggles and lots of negative emotions but also some good and usually at least a somewhat happy ending.

      But yeah, it’s sad that people are harder on female characters. Like, it must be so hard for authors to write them at this point with all the expectations. But that’s a really interesting point about how maybe women hold themselves these standards and that’s why they feel that way about the characters. I would never have thought of that. Thanks, and thanks for your thoughts!

  7. Molly @ Molly's Book Nook

    I don’t think I’ve ever actually had this reaction about a character because they’re a male or female. For me, it’s just how it’s written. I don’t mind when either male or female characters have emotions, but I do think there’s a time when it needs to end. I’ve read some books where whoever was the emotional character is ALWAYS emotional. I get it, it happens in real life, but it’s just not a character I wish to follow. I’d like to see progress with the character. Anyways, I think that’s why I’ve never felt like I placed a double standard on emotions with male or female characters. It’s all how it’s tackled for me.

    As always, great discussion! I’m loving all your discussions!

    1. Kristen Burns

      That’s true, it always depends on if the character and the emotion are well written. I agree that there is such thing as being dramatic or over-the-top, for either gender. Like, the character needs to have their priorities straight, not get upset about something trivial if there are bigger problems.

      Thank you!!! <3

  8. Emily @ Loony Literate

    Bloody patriarchy screwing everything up. Actually I think it’s interesting that male emotion is kind of condemned in real life but it’s the opposite in books? I definitely agree, though – it’s like male characters have to prove their angst less or something, but females have to “earn” it. Complete bullshit.

    1. Kristen Burns

      Haha, right? That is so true though! The way we treat men in books is the opposite of the way we treat men in real life, though I suppose condemning men in real life for being emotional is just as bad as condemning the female characters. Then again, females in real life just get dismissed as being dramatic. So apparently no one is allowed to be emotional in real life -_- And that’s a great way of putting it, it does seem like female characters have to earn it, which is, of course, ridiculous.

  9. Bookworm Brandee

    I think this goes along with my enjoying the progression of a romance…I like seeing how each of the characters deal with the emotions they experience – in all sorts of situations, not just falling in love. Or like. Or lust. Or whatever. LOL I like the emotion from both. I *WANT* the emotion, the passion from both because it’s how I get a better connection to them as characters. And I’m certainly not going to hold a display of emotion, from either side, against them. I hadn’t given any thought to whether or not the female protags in my books (the ones I’m reading) are showing a smaller amount of emotion as compared to the males. It’s something I’ll keep in mind as I’m reading though. I will say that I love a man who can cry. šŸ˜‰

    1. Kristen Burns

      Yes, exactly, I want to feel all the emotions along with them! So what you said about how it goes along with the progression of romance makes complete sense, even though I hadn’t actually linked the two together like that. I’ve noticed that in the books I’ve read the males do often seem to be portrayed with more emotion, so I’ll be curious if you end up noticing that too. Sensitive men for the win! šŸ˜›

  10. Becky @ A Fool's Ingenuity

    I think this is really interesting because I may have potentially fallen prey to this same thing. A male character getting emotional does have more impact on me than a female character doing the same because it’s more unexpected. That being said, I have gotten better and I think the reason a male character getting emotional has a greater impact on me as a reader because they are normally very restrained so it’s nice to see the emotional difference. I have the same feelings when it comes to a female character who is stoic letting it out a bit.

    I do think I do find myself annoyed with any overly emotional character, though. I’m not that open when it comes to what I’m feeling so I don’t like people who are to openly demonstrative. When it fits in with the character I can accept it, but it can be annoying. That’s not a double standard as it’s a blanket rule on all characters. I think I prefer it when it takes a bit more time for the emotions to come out and then I don’t mind when characters get crazy emotional because they’ve kept it all bottled up.

    1. Kristen Burns

      Yeah, it’s just hard to get away from that societal standard that males aren’t as emotional, so if one does get emotional, it seems… more powerful somehow.

      I didn’t really consider this when I was writing, but I think I prefer characters who aren’t necessarily overly and obviously emotional on the outside, but who are emotional on the inside, and I get to be in their perspective. Or when it’s not their perspective but they do kind of more subtle things that still convey a lot of emotion. I agree that there does need to be a balance though, regardless, for all genders.

  11. Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

    I definitely agree that I WANT my main characters to be emotional – I want to feel their joy and their pain and their confusion and everything else right along with them. Unless a character is getting ridiculously emotional over a situation that doesn’t at all warrant it, I don’t see how this could be a problem. (But I do also agree that I’m a sucker for the guy who shows his feelings in a book.)

    1. Kristen Burns

      That’s how I am too, I like getting to experience all those emotions! But I definitely agree that there can be such thing as too much or just getting emotional for reasons that don’t make sense, and that does come across as annoying whether it’s male or female. And *phew* at least I’m not the only one who feels that way about the guys showing their feelings!

  12. Laura

    Great discussion!
    I definitely agree there is a double standard in books in regards to emotional characters. I feel like there is such a trend these days for these super tough heroines, that authors maybe worry that by making a female character too emotional they’ll be perceived as whiny (which again is a sexist thing – I’ve never heard an emotional male character described as ‘whiny’. That seems to be a word reserved for women!).
    I think a lot of the thing with male characters being shown as emotional could be to do with the whole real life double standard where men are supposed to be unemotional and tough, so when women read books and see a man getting upset they aren’t that used to seeing it and are all like ‘aww, that’s so sweet!’.
    This is definitely such an interesting topic, and one I hadn’t thought about too much, so it’s great that you’re talking about it! šŸ™‚

    1. Kristen Burns

      Thanks! And I COMPLETELY agree with what you described. The trend of super stuff heroines is basically what inspired this post. That’s how I felt too, that maybe authors are worried about how the female characters will be perceived if they show emotion because of the double standard.

      And yes, that societal standard of men always being tough and unemotional does contribute to making their emotions seem more powerful or acceptable somehow. I feel like you completely get everything I was trying to say!

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  14. Katie @ Doing Dewey

    I might actually feel as though the opposite is true – that men are portrayed as less emotional than women in books. I agree with you that women are more likely to be given a hard time about being emotional than men are. It seems women are more likely to be viewed as irrational while men are applauded for being sensitive.

    1. Kristen Burns

      I think that whether the males are more emotional is highly dependent on the specific books we read, and I just end up reading books in which they are, probably because I like tortured heroes. But yeah, the way women and men are treated because of it just spans all the books and genres, unfortunately!

  15. AngelErin

    I love this post!! I’m a super emotional person (love it in books too) and I totally agree with you here. Why does women having emotions equal weakness? It doesn’t! I also dislike when people say men who show emotion are weak or girly. No, everyone is just human! I do think this is a very important topic that no one discusses so kudos to you for bringing it up! I feel like as a woman I’ve struggled my whole life with trying not to be overly emotional because I want to show people I AM strong and I don’t want people to say, “oh there goes a woman being emotional again.” Or something like that. Which is ridiculous! :/

    1. Kristen Burns

      Thank you! I feel like I’m emotional inwardly but I don’t really show it outwardly? But then maybe it’s because I’ve been conditioned to be like that, like I learned that people just wrote me off as dramatic if I was emotional so I stopped showing it or something. I don’t know. But it’s stupid that we as women just get written off as dramatic if we show emotions, and it’s also stupid that men get written off as weak. Why can’t we all just let people be people and consider the possibility that maybe people have good reasons for being emotional?! Or the possibility that emotion doesn’t equal weakness?! So I totally agree šŸ™‚

  16. Eva @ All Books Considered

    Great post! I think that female characters are always judged more harshly than male characters for every little thing, be it promiscuity or emotions. It’s odd to wonder and consider what people must feel is a “normal” level of emotions for a woman and why any sort of reaction to the events/plot in a book is too emotional? It’s one thing to read about something — it puts a sort of distance between you and the action but it is another to wholly imagine how you might react in a similar situation. I want the author to write about the latter, critics be damned.

    1. Kristen Burns

      Unfortunately, I agree that female characters do seem to judged more harshly in general about everything. It must make it so hard for authors writing female characters because there’s always going to be someone complaining.

      And yes! There is a huge difference between reading about something and actually experiencing it. And you never know how you would actually react in a situation, so it is kind of unfair for people to sit back on the outside, just reading about something fictional, and say the character is being too emotional. I also would prefer the authors just write what feels right and not worry about the critcs because there will ALWAYS be critics.

  17. Got My Book

    I tend to be a character oriented person and to prefer books where I like spending time with those characters. It would be interesting to see if there is a difference in judging the emotions of characters based on the gender of the reader.

    I do have to add my support to those who dislike heroines being described as strong only if they can fight and ignore their emotions.

    1. Kristen Burns

      Actually yeah, that would be interesting to see whether men and women judge characters differently. I only have one male commenter, so that’s unfortunately not exactly enough to judge the entire male gender on. And I agree, I can’t relate at all to what has become the stereotypical “strong” character, the ones who don’t seem to have emotions.

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