Gender Roles in Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code”

Can writers write of traditional gender roles, or does recent political correctness render this impossible?  This article studies Dan Brown‘s attempt at defying gender roles, but falling into the same old traps.

Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle give a typical literary gender representation in their analysis of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper (1892).  They write that ‘the man is active, “practical”, dominant, unemotional… the woman, appears to be passive, non-practical, subordinate, emotional.  The opposition between the man and the woman is underscored by the insistent stress on the man’s actions, qualities and characteristics and the corresponding absence of information regarding the woman.’   This is written about a short story written over a century ago, but this representation is present in literary works from every literary period and continues to this day in many forms, such as the male and female representation in romance novels, in action films, in pop music, etc.  In Victorian times, it was controversial to represent women as independent and active, such as Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre; in contemporary culture, due to feminist movements, it is now the opposite.  In Literature, if it is not controversial to adhere to conventional gender stereotypes, especially regarding women, it is at least frowned upon.  Critics expect deeper characterisation as opposed to plot, although mainstream audiences are less concerned with such issues.  This is often a criticism of The Da Vinci Code; for example, Sanford Pinsker writes in his review: ‘virtually every chapter begins with a contemporary version of “It was a dark and stormy night…” and each ends with a narrow escape or with reflections… that pile one abstraction upon another. That “style” no longer matters in an age of TV and computer screens is true enough, just as it is equally true that characters no longer need flesh, bones, or a pulse. What contemporary readers want is plot, plot, and more plot.’   To conform to any stereotype, then, is to make your work vulnerable to critics.  But literary critics are not the only type of critics that the contemporary writer has to concern themselves with.

In contemporary society, men and women have expanded from their expected gender roles over recent decades.  More women are rejecting the housewife notion and gaining independence through their careers, many penetrating the professional spheres that were previously considered to be typically masculine, such as politics, law and business.  Men are more willing to embrace the feminine roles, such as child care, primary school teaching, cooking and parenthood.  Moreover, men are less considered to be typically emotionless, rational, and intelligent and vice versa for women.  Political correctness discourages stereotyped representations to take place, even though in some cases, they may be true, and it may be completely plausible to have a helpless, dim, passive woman as a character.  Author’s somewhat lose the freedom (if they so choose) to have such a woman in their fiction, as it might cause offence, when in fact their character may need these attributes for their character’s sake, and not their gender’s sake.  I believe that Dan Brown chose to lose the freedom of the stereotype and it is this error that I believe he has made in The Da Vinci Code with his two protagonists.

Dan Brown clearly attempts to have Robert Langdon and Sophie Neveu have attributes that are not typical of their gender.  Sophie Neveu is represented as a tough, intelligent, quick thinking woman who is physically capable; qualities that go against the stereotype.  Brown plays on the stereotype of women in the work force before we meet Sophie, through the character of Bezu Fache, who clearly shows sexist attitudes: ‘Sophie Neveu had been foisted on Fache two years ago as part of the ministry’s attempt to incorporate more women into the police force.  The ministry’s ongoing foray into political correctness, Fache argued, was weakening the department.  Women not only lacked the physicality necessary for police work, but their mere presence posed a dangerous distraction to men in the field.’   Here, Brown seems to enforce conventional gender roles, but from this we learn not to trust Bezu Fache’s character as Sophie Neveu is the opposite of what he proposes.  Throughout the novel she proves herself to be a valuable asset to her partnership with Robert Langdon.  Soon after Fache has made this statement, Sophie comes to Langdon’s rescue in the gallery, and it is Sophie that leads the car chase away from the authorities, so she proves herself to have the ‘physicality’.  She is consistently shown to have a sharp mind and a formidable intellect as she is able to not only work out riddles and clues, but can also apply her mind under pressure, which she demonstrates when throwing the GPS tracking dot onto a moving vehicle.  Brown continues to use Fache as an epitome of sexism.  In his narrative, Sophie’s stern features are a surprise to Fache.   When Sophie remains calm and professional in her explanation of the numeric code, and walks off with certainty, Fache questions her sanity: ‘Is she out of her mind?’   Lizbeth Goodman et al, writes in Literature and Gender that ‘to be labelled “mad” is to be designated as incapable of conforming, to be made disposable, to be hidden away where surface appearance no longer matters.’   So Fache wonders at her sanity when Sophie does not conform to how he feels that women should behave.

Janet Maslin writes in a review of The Da Vinci Code that ‘even if he had not contrived this entire story as a hunt for the Lost Sacred Feminine essence, women in particular would love Mr. Brown.’   I think Maslin writes this, because on the surface, not only is Sophie a strong woman compared to conventional gender roles, Robert Langdon’s positive masculinity is toned down to the extent that he has to rely on Sophie as much as she relies on him.  Langdon lacks qualities that Sophie has.  Sophie is capable to be physically assertive, to plan, and to think logically.  Langdon appears to be physically inept, and rely on Sophie for plans of action and looking ahead.  In chapter twelve, Langdon also questions her sanity, but because he lacks resolve, he follows her lead: ‘Filled with uncertainty, Langdon had decided to do exactly as Sophie advised.’   This equilibrium that is reached between the two characters is another point that Brown tries to make against the conventional gender roles and is what Sanford Pinsker describes as his ‘archly feminist interpretation’

Previously, fiction focusing on gender could either be described as feminist or could focus on masculinity, I think what Dan Brown has attempted is a balance between the two.  By trying to make the genders equal, Brown potentially avoids criticism from feminists.  I think he failed in achieving this.  Despite their characteristics, their characters still perform typical gender roles in the plot, and the narrative is still more inclined towards masculinity.  Such instances can be found in narrative that is describing Sophie and her actions, which always focuses on her features, and whether a certain expression improves her appearance or not: ‘Langdon was surprised to see that her strong air actually radiated from unexpectedly soft features.’   Sophie is constantly sexualised, cut-out to become a Hollywood prototype and be the object of the male gaze.  Although she has strong masculine characteristics, she is also emotional, naïve and sentimental, especially regarding her family and grandfather.  Langdon, the male, is the main protagonist, and the narrative is mostly from his point of view.  He is described as handsome, but because I would argue that text is masculine, Langdon is not at all sexualised.  He is the hero of the story, and though Brown attempts equality, Sophie is still subordinate in the sense that she takes a lower place in the narration, and she turns out be to the prize of the hero at the end of the story.  Both characters lack any depth and so are built on stereotypes.  Qualities that contradict the gender stereotype are simply inverted (such as Langdon’s incapability at making his own decisions, which is usually the female stereotype).  I think Brown was fully conscious of his gender representation (enforced by his interpretation of the Holy Grail that insists on the ‘ying and yang’ system between males and females) but he still becomes trapped in their practical uses in the plot.

In conclusion Dan Brown has used both genders in his story and consciously attempts to mix gender roles, but I believe that he fails to achieve this as although he tries to insist upon gender equality, and perhaps considers Sophie to have many masculine qualities, and Langdon feminine qualities, the plot still leads to the male and female fulfilling traditional roles (such as the male narrative, the male gaze of Sophie, and the male winning the female as a prize for completing his quest).


Bennett, Andrew, Nicholas Royle, Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory (Hertfordshire: Prentice Hall Europe, 1999)
Goodman, Lizbeth, Literature and Gender (London, Routledge in association with The Open University, 1996)
Maslin, Janet, ‘Books of the Times; Spinning a Thriller From a Gallery at the Louvre’ The New York Times (March 2003)
Pinsker, Sanford, ‘The Da Vinci Code, and: Gilead (review)’, Prairie Schooner 80:3 (Autumn 2006)


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