When I asked my friends for fantasy book recommendations for an 11 year old, they had many wonderful suggestions. I hadn’t mentioned the gender of the child in the original post and a few posters made assumptions which appeared to influence the recommendations they gave (much to their chagrin). When I noticed this was happening I pointed it out, and that led into some great conversation. One friend, Lynn, had recommended books that her son enjoyed, but noted that she “assumed the child in question was a girl, but only because she liked the Princess Bride — interesting huh? I kind of hate to admit that.”
“It’s incredibly frustrating that parents, educators, and librarians continue to say that boys don’t have to read books that center on girls. There’s no reason that boys can’t empathize with girls, other than that we don’t teach them to. And as we continue to not teach them, this painfully harmful myth continues to dominate both parenting and publishing.'” –Rebecca Croteau
While I was having this conversation with friends, Shannon Hale (an author I really enjoy) was running head-first into the same issue. When she goes to give author talk at schools if is often only the girls that are automatically excused from class to attend the talk. One particular instance of this caused her to take to twitter about it (the tweets have been storified if you want to read them) and she also wrote about it on her blog.
“I heard it a hundred times with Hunger Games: ‘Boys, even though this is about a girl, you’ll like it!’ Even though. I never heard a single time, ‘Girls, even though Harry Potter is about a boy, you’ll like it!'” – Shannon Hale
There are many layers of issues at play here, at the moment though I am focusing in on this concept that, for some reason, there are books that are “girl books.”
We construct this societal expectation, that a boy won’t be interested in a story because…. Because the lead is a different gender than them? Because a girls experience in a world is going to be different than a boys? I have yet to hear a phrase to follow the “because” that is appropriately convincing.
Girls regularly read books with male protagonists and no one seems to bat an eye at it. As though we are saying to girls: It’s okay to look up to, admire, and follow the adventure of a boy; there are things you can learn and relate to there.” But then turning to the boys and saying: It’s NOT okay to look up to, admire, and follow the adventures of a girl; there’s nothing for you to relate to or learn from that.
When we say to boys that a book is a “girl book” and discourage them from reading it, we are telling the boys something about the importance (or lack thereof) of female stories in their life.
When we say to boys that a book is a “girl book” and discourage them from reading it, we are telling girls something about their own life experiences and stories.
This attitude and these assumptions need to change.
Just because a story has a female lead does not mean it is a “girl” story. It doesn’t mean that boys won’t be able to understand and connect to the main character. It doesn’t mean it won’t draw him in as strong to the story as it would her. There are some simple ways we can start changing these assumptions and attitudes. The easiest that comes to mind is this: when picking or suggesting books for an individual, remove the consideration of gender.
Do as my friend Michelle did in her recommendations on that Facebook thread. She “almost didn’t recommend [a particular book] because it has a female protagonist but decided ‘Fuck-it. Boys can identify with a female lead as easy as I identified with a male lead…'”
What if we think instead about interests and personality when we suggest a book? What if, when you see gender assumptions taking place and holding influence, you say something?