There is a lay belief that men and women have different preferences when it come to fiction, specifically that each may prefer to read a story with a protagonist that shares their gender. Do women really prefer stories that feature women, and men prefer stories that feature men? In 2010, Dr. Marisa Bortolussi, Dr. Peter Dixon, and Dr. Paul Sopcak published a study investigating this very question. Dr. Bortolussi is a professor of modern languages who frequently collaborates with Dr. Dixon, a professor of psychology, on questions related to the psychology of fiction. This team of researchers from the University of Alberta produced a clever study in which 4 story excerpts were chosen, 2 with a male protagonist and 2 with a female protagonist, and these were altered to produce version that changed the gender of the main character. Participants then read either the original version or the altered version with the flipped gender, for all 4 excerpts. In this way, the actual story content was held constant across participants and the only thing that changed was the gender of the main character. The researchers also used two separate samples, one from Canada and one from Germany. What they found was that both men and women seemed to prefer the stories that featured male protagonists, regardless of whether the gender had been flipped or was as originally presented. Moreover, these results were observed for the Canadian participants and the German ones, indicating that this effect is not tied to one particular culture. By utilizing several different excerpts and samples from two different cultures, this study demonstrates that the effects observed are not likely to be tied to one particular type of story or one cultural context. This is another interesting example of how our lay beliefs about reading and reading preferences can benefit from scientific investigation and how collaborations between disciplines can often yield some very interesting studies.
Bortolussi, M., Dixon, P., & Sopčák, P. (2010). Gender and reading. Poetics, 38, 299-318.
The sex of the lead character isn't the primary factor. Women prefer certain kinds of stories, particularly romances. Men prefer different set, particularly adventures. They overlap in areas such as murder mysteries.
The TV show about Navy lawyers, JAG, illustrates that. The show blended romance with adventure. In studies of the audience, the women's attention heightened during the romantic parts, the men during the military adventures. The combination made the show very successful. The success of Top Gun probably rested on the same two factors.
--Michael W. Perry, co-author of Lily's Ride (built around a female lead but with lots of adventure)
I'm beyond surprised by this. The books recommended to me by female friends normally involve a female protagonist, and vice versa (regardless of the sex of the author). Interesting study. I'd like to see some more take place, perhaps with different genres of story lines etc.
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