Dr. Jonathan Y. Cheng from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, analyzed 13,000 novels published from 1850-2000 and found that more and more descriptions of characters in novels focus on body parts. In 1850, male characters were described with body parts about 7% of the time, compared to 15% in 2000. Female characters’ body part descriptions rose from 12% to 17%.
To further analyze these novels, Cheng made his computer guess a character’s gender based on specific words used to describe body parts in a novel. After this, he divided the 13,000 novels into groups based on whether the book was written by a male or female author. He wanted to see if grouping them in this way would make a difference in the ability to guess the character’s gender as it is described with body parts. As a result, the analysis showed that it was much easier to determine the gender of the character when the author was male than when the author was female.
Cheng is not only making a case for current authors to break away from using body parts to describe women so often, but also encouraging authors to embrace new ways to discuss fictional characters through gender fluid terms and actions. Moving away from this traditional way of describing characters will also allow more readers to feel accepted and seen through novels if they make this change. Researching the frequent overuse of body parts to describe women, as Cheng does within this article, will hopefully bring awareness to this issue and allow both current and future authors to do better than authors of the past.