The Periodic Table of Storytelling and Cultural Gender Bias

Periodic Table of Storytelling by CcomputerSherpa

Here’s a very cool thing indeed. Over on DeviantArt, someone going by the name of ComputerSherpa has put together a Periodic Table of Storytelling. I’ve included a small image in this post, but you really need to click on the link and see the chart in its full splendour. The table is based on the TV Tropes Wiki which bills itself as a catalogue of the tricks of the trade for writing fiction. From the website:

Tropes are devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members’ minds and expectations. On the whole, tropes are not clichés. The word clichéd means “stereotyped and trite.” In other words, dull and uninteresting. We are not looking for dull and uninteresting entries. We are here to recognize tropes and play with them, not to make fun of them.

ComputerSherpa has used the info from TV Tropes and fashioned a spiffy, colour-coded summary of the most popular tropes — which do, in my opinion, include a lot of dull and uninteresting clichés — over which you could quite easily spend hours, especially if start drilling down through the TV Tropes site. Hours. You have been warned.

This is one of my favourite bits:

Periodic Table of Storytelling by CcomputerSherpa

Possibly because I read this post about clichéd gender stereotypes in fiction by Ann Leckie over the weekend and in the discussion that followed, one commentator (eljaydaly) actually pointed out how sadly commonplace it is to see so-called ensemble casts with only one female character:

Her character is, you know, “the woman.” Because males get to have various flavors of character: the nerd, the jock, the genius, the bad boy, the opportunist. But females only get to have one flavor: “the woman!”

And there it is, smack bang middle of the Periodic Table. One of the things I love about this chart — aside from the fact that someone obviously put a lot of time and love into it — is the way it unintentionally highlights the implicit gender imbalance present in popular culture storytelling. In particular, take a close look at the elements pertaining to character: Heroes, Character Modifiers, Archetypes, and Villains. Now consider how each of the elements is gendered. Some are explicitly gendered — “knight in shining armour” as opposed to “plucky girl” — while others could be seen as more gender neutral, especially if you decide to allow for traditionally masculine words like “hero”, “bastard” and “master” to be applied equally to both men and women.

Of course, the problem is that even the supposedly “neutral” character roles are not equally occupied by men and women when it comes to actual cultural artifacts like moves, televisions shows, comics and books. How many females can you name who have occupied the role of gunslinger, tragic hero, adventurer archaeologist, captain, ace, chessmaster, corrupt corporate executive, magnificent bastard, brute, amoral attorney, mad scientist, fool, lovable rogue, and so on? By contrast, you could probably fill a page with male characters without even having to think.

Now, I’m not saying that ComputerSherpa or even the TV Trope site is in any way responsible for the gender bias present in their work.  Far from it. But their work does deal with common tropes and clichés — essentially, the most popular representation of plot, setting and character to be found in our collective cultural artifacts — which makes for a rather significant snapshot of the way gender is presented in pop culture. And it’s not exactly what you would call a balanced picture.

So, as much as I genuinely love this Periodic Table of Storytelling, it also makes me somewhat sad and more than a little frustrated. Which, coincidentally enough, is too often the way I find myself feeling about pop culture these days. Hopefully, sometime in the none-too-distant future, we’ll be able to add a lot more elements to the table. A lot more flavours, shall we say. Until then, here’s another periodic table for you to enjoy. A bit old now — in internet years anyway — but still very much relevant:



4 thoughts on “The Periodic Table of Storytelling and Cultural Gender Bias

  1. “One of the things I love about this chart […] is the way it unintentionally highlights the implicit gender imbalance present in popular culture storytelling.”

    When I first saw the chart last week or whenever it was, I, too, was immediately struck by the starkness of that little box. “The Chick.” Except, I didn’t think it was unintentional at all. I took it as a fairly intentional highlight of the short end of the stick female characters get in popular storytelling.

    I mean, you can’t miss it. It’s like that old Sesame Street thing, “one of these things is not like the other.” You read The Hero, The Lancer, The Smart Guy, The Big Guy, and then bam! The Chick. It jumps right out as being the odd member of the group. Tacked on. _Intentionally_ presented as the last box in the group of five.

    As you say, someone obviously put a lot of time and love into that chart. I don’t think anything on it is unintentional. I take your larger point very well, but if anything I think that the periodic table of storytelling is _helpful_ to the cause precisely because it makes it that much harder to ignore the disparity in character types across popular storytelling.

    Also: After reading your list of examples I now want to write a western novel with a female gunslinger. That would be awesome!

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