What does it mean to be a man or a woman in today’s society? None of us can fit into a neat, tiny, little, stereotypical box based on anything, including our gender. How do we define gender and how are these roles presented in literature? Often, many of our favorite characters defy gender stereotypes and thus, are more three-dimensional, more human, and more relatable. The play of gender and society is not limited to the pages of books, but is also reflected in the literary choices of the authors themselves. Take the example of The Outsiders. Essentially a coming of age story, the characters are predominantly male, and the book explores adolescence, societal pressure and isolation from a male perspective. The realism of the book, the fact that it speaks to adolescent issues and yet appeals to readers of all ages, makes it seem like a starker, more contemporary Huckleberry Finn. Interestingly enough, the author, S.E. Hinton, was 18 years old when she wrote this book. Yes, she. S.E. Hinton described herself as a tomboy and her gender did not define her writing style or her experiences. She successfully stepped into terrain that is not traditionally female, rising above the confines of gender.

When we look at the work of William Shakespeare, we get an idea of what it was like to live during the Renaissance. In Shakespeare’s quest for writing three-dimensional, complex characters, he often played with the typical gender roles of that time. In the world of Macbeth it is made very clear that traits like cruelty, violence, power, and strength are masculine qualities while those like compassion, kindness, and obedience are feminine. In the world of Macbeth, the witches are off-putting because of the “masculine” qualities that they seem to possess. When Banquo says, You should be women, And yet your beards forbid me to interpret That you are so, he is telling them that they demonstrate too many masculine qualities to be women.

Lady Macbeth, like the witches, stands out because she doesn’t fit into the gender roles that are established in this world. She does not let those established roles get her down though. She actually uses the stereotypes to manipulate Macbeth and convince him to murder. To Lady Macbeth it is a simple biology and part of their genetic makeup: in order to murder, Macbeth must be a “man.” When she says things like, “Glamis thou art, and Cawdor; and shalt be What thou art promised: yet do I fear thy nature; It is too full o’ the milk of human kindness To catch the nearest way: thou wouldst be great; Art not without ambition, but without The illness should attend it,” she is essentially saying that he is too much of a woman, “too full o’ the milk of human kindness,” to do what needs to be done. Lady Macbeth continues to emasculate him until he is beaten down and committed to performing murder. It is also an interesting point to see that Shakespeare has made the evil qualities of characters a feminine quality in the play. Lady Macbeth is clearly deceptive, manipulative, and an instrument of evil. She is the mastermind behind all the trouble and yet, in the end, she ends up falling victim to “evil,” as she has a mental breakdown, loses her mind, and commits suicide.

Macbeth and Hamlet could have certainly sat down and shared a therapy session or some tears over a few beers. Hamlet, who is typically considered one of Shakespeare’s more sexist characters, associates all his own “weak” traits as being feminine. Right off the bat in the first scene, “Frailty they name is woman,” pretty much says it all. Hamlet beats himself up when he can’t avenge the murder of his father by calling himself a woman. (He clearly didn’t need Lady Macbeth to emasculate him, he was able to do it to himself.)

Shakespeare may have played with and explored gender roles deeply when you consider what those roles were during his time. What gender roles do you see in the literature of today? In the book you are reading now, are those gender roles typical? Do you see certain behaviors in characters that are against type or do you assume certain characteristics based on a character’s gender?