Heroines and “literary Darwinism”


Helen and Paris


Ask people to name a woman in the Iliad, the story of the Trojan War, and they will name Helen, the cause of that war, who was known for her beauty.

Ask people to name a man, and they will not name Paris, also known for his beauty but otherwise considered a pansy even though Helen eloped with him. Instead, they will name Achilles (or Hector, Odysseus etc), who were heroes.

So: beauty for women; strength for men (see Hercules). Right?

I began contemplating this when Solid Gold commented under a recent post in my thread on heroes and heroism that

the real question is whether a woman can be a hero.

I think that question deserves books. But I thought I’d share a tidbit from an article about storytelling (another big thread on The Hannibal Blog) that attempts an answer. (Thanks to Jag Bhalla for the link.)

It cites research by a professor of English at Washington & Jefferson College named Jonathan Gottschall, who is apparently one of the scholars known informally as “literary Darwinists.” (The ideas of that great thinker seem to be infinitely extensible.)




As far as I can tell, these literary Darwinists have corroborated the thesis of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell that all humans in all cultures and ages tend to re-tell fundamentally the same archetypal stories. But whereas Jung and Campbell used psychological logic, the literary Darwinists are using the (Darwinian) logic of relative reproductive success.

And so Gottschall analyzed “90 folktale collections, each consisting of 50 to 100 stories,” ranging from industrial nations to hunter-gatherer tribes, and found overwhelmingly similar gender depictions:

  • strong male protagonists (aka “heroes”) and
  • beautiful female protagonists.

We couldn’t even find one culture that had more emphasis on male beauty,

Gottschall is quoted.

In all, the stories had had three times more male than female main characters and six times more references to female beauty than to male beauty.


That difference in gender stereotypes, [Gottschall] suggests, may reflect the classic Darwinian emphasis on reproductive health in women, signified by youth and beauty, and on the desirable male ability to provide for a family, signaled by physical power and success.

Let me try to make this Darwinian logic more explicit:

  1. Let’s say you have two hypothetical tribes, each reflecting its values through the stories it tells.
  2. Tribe A values male beauty and female strength whereas Tribe B values male strength and female beauty.
  3. We might assume that, over time, Tribe B not only reproduces more than Tribe A, but even that it does so at the expense of Tribe A (resources, conflict, etc).
  4. Ergo, we, who are by necessity descendants of Tribe B, live to retell its stories, the B stories.


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The Economist’s women and men

Down under in Melbourne, Solid Gold Creativity has embarked on an intriguing investigation into sex (or “gender”, as the Americans among you might prefer in this context) in journalism.

She found that only 27% of the articles in The Monthly, an Australian magazine, were written by women. Counting only “major” articles, defined as those longer than 3,000 words, 20% were written by women.

With a research assist from Phillip S Phogg, she then turned her attention to America, where she found that women wrote:

  • 27% of the articles in The Atlantic Monthly, and
  • 30% of the articles in the New Yorker.

(Both of those are five-issue averages.)

So, naturally, I offered to supply the relevant metrics for The Economist.

At first, I started counting the articles in our current issue by author’s sex. (You out there cannot know who the authors are, of course, because we don’t have bylines, but I have an internal list to aid me.) Then I realized that this doesn’t give a good picture, because we are too small. If one or two people are on holiday, that skews the numbers. Then a freelancer writes the odd piece; or somebody writes a big piece and a box to go with it; or several people collaborate on one story, and on and on.

So instead I counted the editorial staff, both total journalists (ie, correspondents + editors) and editors. (I defined as editors only colleagues who actually edit a section in the magazine or a part of the website, not those who have editor as part of their title on their business card.)

Here is what I found:

Of the 84 journalists (I tried to correct for those on sabbatical, those half-retired, and so forth) 19, or 23%, are women.

Perhaps more interesting: Of the 21 editors, 8 are women, or 38%.

In other words, those women who do work at The Economist have twice the chance to become an editor that men at The Economist have. Innaresting, ain’t it?

And if I had excluded the website from the numbers and counted only the magazine, the share of women would have gone up both among total journalists and editors.

That said, the percentages are still well below 50%.

Now, I quite like something that Solid Gold Creativity said in her comments:

… I’m not so interested in the “reasons” for this absence of female thinkers/writers. I can always think up a hundred reasons why something is one way or another. My interest is not “why”; my interest is what’s so…

In that spirit, let’s find out more…

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Stuff and sex: It’s a female thing


The elephant in the room whenever you’re discussing stuff and clutter is sex.

(That’s sex as in gender, although our style guide at The Economist urges us to use gender only for words and sex for people. So the gender of ein Mädchen is neuter, whereas her sex is female.)

I believe we can stipulate that:

women need and keep and hoard, and cannot let go of, stuff much more than men do

Is this controversial? It shouldn’t be. It’s mostly women I’ve talked to who have said as much. If you go into a random house and count things, the odds are that “hers” outnumber “his” (although that need not apply to total weight or size, of course). It’s women who agonize over getting rid of things, not men.

(To pre-empt a Larry Summers situation, this is the time to remind everybody that I’m making a statement about averages and statistical dispersion. Of course, there are individual men who keep more stuff than individual women.)

So the question is: Why?

  1. One possibility is our hunter-gatherer past, which accounts for almost all of our time as a species. Whereas Neanderthal men and women hunted together, our ancestors sent the men to hunt and the women to gather, and benefited from this division of labor. A hunting party travels light. The less you carry the more fiercely you will wield what you do carry, and the more likely you will be to bring your prey back, which is the point. Stuff would only interfere. By contrast, gathering is about stuff, the collecting of it.
  2. Another possibility is that the nesting instinct shows up in females even outside of pregnancy, though perhaps to a lesser extent. Get a male (we’re not necessarily talking about our own species) to build a nest, then fill it up. All the way up. Don’t drop anything.
  3. The previous two points might just add up to a third possibility: That women have a stuff brain but men don’t. I read research somewhere (which applies eerily in my case) that men are usually better at, for example, such tasks as rotating an imaginary object in space, whereas women are better at remembering and locating objects in a crowded drawer that is briefly opened and shut. Men can’t find anything, women seem to find everything. (When I need something, I usually ask my four-year old daughter, and she always knows.)

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