“Making a Pass” vs. “Throwing Oneself At”

I’ve been reading Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve by Ben Blatt. The book takes a statistician’s view of literature. One of the chapters was on gender difference. There are a number of common words that computer analysis can use to determine whether a text was written by a man or a woman.  For whatever reason (Blatt does not hazard a guess) male writers use “this” more often than female writers, and women use “because” more often than men.

Blatt discovered, not surprisingly, “that in books by female authors, men and women are described at close to equal rates. Yet male authors include women less than half as often as they write about men… Classic literature by men is about men by a quantifiable and overwhelming margin. Classic literature by women is about women more than men, but it’s within a short distance of an even split.”

Blatt went further, examining the words that authors use when describing characters of different genders. An interesting example was the word “scream.”

In the top 100 classic literature books, a form of scream appears after the word he or she a total of 158 times… “If we look at all the instances where male writers used the word scream, it is used twice as often after she than he. In other words, male writers make their female characters scream more often than their male characters. But that’s not enough to say that male authors have gone rogue. For if you look at the use of scream by female authors, the result holds at an almost identical rate. In other words, female writers also make their female characters scream more often than their male characters.”

Male characters do not scream. They shout.

Below are the top five words, like screamed, that are used most often in classic literature to describe women over men. Words Most Likely to Be Found as “She _________” as Opposed to “He _________” 1. Shivered 2. Wept 3. Murmured 4. Screamed 5. Married And here are the top five words, like grinned, that are used most often in classic literature to describe men over women. Words Most Likely to Be Found as “He _________” as Opposed to “She _________” 1. Muttered 2. Grinned 3. Shouted 4. Chuckled 5. Killed Women murmur yet men mutter. Men shout; women scream. Women neither grin nor chuckle, but smile is more likely to follow she. Each of these trends holds across recent popular and literary fiction…

And then there is interrupted.

It’s not the most common word in any writer’s works, but especially in classic literature it is used much more commonly in reference to female characters when the author is male.

I don’t have access to Blatt’s computer programs but I have a couple of phrases I would like to test. The expression “making a pass at” versus “to throw oneself at someone.”

Both expressions connote someone who is making a sexual advance toward someone else. To throw oneself is more degrading than to make a pass, and it carries a greater connotation that the object is not interested– although either a pass or throwing oneself at someone could end with either rejection or sex. If you were to run the numbers, I have a strong suspicion that they would show that “throwing oneself” is something attributed to women and “making a pass” is more often attributed to men. I suspect that an analysis of how these two phrases are used could be quite revealing.

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2 comments

  1. This is so interesting, Laura. And irritating, and disturbing. Does it make you want to write male characters who snivel, whine, and pout? I have a male character shriek in my latest novel.

    1. Actually, based on editorial feedback of my last novel I made some changes in the female lead character to bring her slightly more in line with gendered expectations because it seemed as though the audience would relate to her better and that wasn’t the main point point of the story. When I’ve tested my texts in computer programs designed to determine if the author is male or female, however, my language tends to come back as male. I don’t worry about it much.

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