Lately I’ve been taking a hard look at what my three year old daughter is reading. I’m especially interested in this for a number of reasons:
1. I UNDERSTAND THE EFFECT THAT CHILDREN’S LITERATURE HAD ON ME.
As a kid I went through a longish phase (directly corresponding to my Enid Blyton Famous Five phase) during which I wished I’d been born a boy. With the clarity of hindsight, I realise this was only because I perceived that boys got to do the fun stuff. Girls, too, got to do fun stuff, but only if they masqueraded as boys (eg.
I don’t want my own daughter to feel, at any stage — not even a little teensy bit — that she is shortchanged by her femaleness. I was a very keen reader as a kid, but I got stuck in ‘the loop’ (whereby I was still reading the books my grandmother had passed on to my mother). The old-fashioned values imparted by those books definitely had an impact.
It amazes me how many people keenly acknowledge the positive effect of literature on their own childhood lives without admitting that books can impart unwelcome messages equally.
It’s not okay to say, ‘As long as my kids are reading, that’s great.’ I used to think that, because I assumed the alternative was watching TV and playing (even more gender biased) computer games.
I don’t think that’s good enough anymore. It’s not okay for parents and teachers to be happy ‘so long as our kids are reading’; it very much depends on what they’re reading — most of all, the balance of it, more so than any individual book. My daughter would be better off watching nothing but thoughtful and inclusive TV shows than reading discriminatory and thoughtless books.
2. DESPITE THE MISDIRECTED FEMINISATION OF EDUCATION IN RECENT DECADES, RESEARCH TELLS US WE SHOULD STILL BE CONCERNED ABOUT OUR GIRLS.
During study for a diploma in secondary education 10 years ago, I was introduced to a variety of educational studies. The ones that stick in my mind involve gender bias in the classroom, mainly because the conclusions of those studies echoed how I’d felt instinctively during my own time as student of a large, co-educational high school.
My first job was teaching in a girls’ high school, where gender bias is a non-issue. But as soon as I left that environment and started working at a co-ed school, I saw plenty of gender bias — a bias that seemed invisible to my new co-workers — most of whom had never set foot inside a girls’ only environment. The fact that my first, and most formative, teaching job was in a girls’ only school primed me to notice such things whether I wanted to deal with them or not. And like any form of inequality, once you start noticing, you can’t ever become blind again.
One of those studies had put numbers on the very real fact that in a classroom with a 50/50 gender balance, boys will feel shortchanged unless the boys are getting more than 50% of total teacher attention. This perception leads boys to act in ways which ensure they end up with a higher proportion of their teacher’s time. Likewise, when teachers are asked after a lesson to comment on the sum of calls on their attention, they are likely to underestimate how much attention they afforded the boys and overestimate how much attention they afforded the girls. It is expected in our society that male people will get more attention than female people.
Here’s a similar study: The Chilly Climate by Bernice R. Sandler.
See also: Recognizing (Almost) Invisible Gender Bias in Teacher-Student Interactions, a study by Dr. Alice Christie, Arizona State University President’s Professor Emeritus.
It’s worth mentioning here that any observation of this kind involves writing of averages and totals — not of individuals. We all know girls who demand more than their fair share of attention in a group, and of boys who are quiet and unassuming.
There is another common misconception which affects girls. Fluent adult speakers of English understand that the words ‘he’ and ‘man’ often include both men and women; moreover, we know exactly when the word ‘man’ refers only to men, and when it refers to both men and women. This actually requires quite an advanced command of our native language, and one of the studies I read ten years ago outlined an experiment in a kindergarten which concluded girls of that age do not have the skills to understand implicitly that females are included in a sentence employing masculine personal pronouns. Whenever the researcher said something like, ‘Anyone who wants to go and play on the slide should put his hand up’, no little girls put their hand up.
By extension, little girls would surely exclude themselves from stories making use of ‘he’.
Personally, I find Old Tom hilarious and gender-irrelevant, whilst Fiona’s story was all about breaking down stereotypes about pigs!
To a little girl, a rabbit is not ‘gender neutral’ so long as the rabbit is ‘he’. Gender neutrality in animal characters is a common but completely wrong assumption, because related research shows otherwise.
Besides, personified animals in children’s books are not really animals. When they dress in human clothes, speak in words and feel human emotion, we’re no longer talking about animals.
English is not alone in its absence of a gender neutral personal pronoun (‘it’ does not suffice when speaking of people) but because of this developmental confusion, it really is important that when speaking to girls, especially, that we are hyperaware of the language we are using. When writing books, even more so.
What is mentioned less often, and what concerns me equally, is the message conveyed to our boys. They, too, are likely to interpret female exclusion whenever adults make use of the masculine pronoun. So what’s the result of a corpus of children’s literature whose default setting is ‘he’?
If a boy won’t read a book because it was written by a woman or features a female lead, then Darwinism will eventually take care of him.
The problem that needs to be fixed is not kick all the girls out of YA, it’s teach boys that stories featuring female protagonists or written by female authors also apply to them.
- from an excellently sane post by Saundra Mitchell, written partially in response to this uninformed claptrap, published in the very important New York Times. Here’s another intelligent response to that. And another one. Now, let’s hear no more from the old dude.
4. THIS POST BY MAUREEN JOHNSON REALLY CHALLENGED MY OWN ASSUMPTIONS LAST YEAR.
The assumption, as I understand it, is that females are flexible and accepting creatures who can read absolutely anything. We’re like acrobats. We can tie our legs over our heads. Bring it on. There is nothing we cannot handle. Boys, on the other hand, are much more delicately balanced. To ask them to read “girl” stories (whatever those might be) will cause the whole venture to fall apart. They are finely tuned, like Formula One cars, which require preheated fluids and warmed tires in order to operate—as opposed to girls, who are like pickup trucks or big, family-style SUVs. We can go anywhere, through anything, on any old literary fuel you put in us.
Largely because we have little choice in the matter.
Like most other people, I’d sort of resigned myself to the ‘immutable fact’ that While Girls Will Read Books With Boy Characters, Boys Will Not — and cannot be expected to — Read Books About Girls.
(Is this even true? That boys don’t read about girls? Some think not.)
This never struck me as right; it has always made me uncomfortable. But I assumed that it did no real harm, because if girls are reading AND boys are reading good books, what does it matter?
But Maureen Johnson’s post completely changed my view on that. She is absolutely right.
Related: Meryl Streep Says Guys Don’t Identify With Lady Characters, quoted at Jezebel. (And if Meryl Streep is right — about some men, at least — why might that be?)
5. gender bias is true of literature for all ages, and starts with picture books.
Males are present in significantly more books than are females.
When all books are combined, we find 1,857 (out of 5,618) books where males appear in the titles, compared to 966 books with females; a ratio of 1:9.
For central characters, the ratio was 1.6:1.
The greatest disparity is for animal characters (2.6:1).
from the McCabe study.
This podcast, even more than Maureen Johnson’s article, has shocked me. Here’s why. You see, I did know that literature from the early 20th century was sexist. Hell, the entire world was sexist back then. It was quite understandable that Enid Blyton would create the tomboyish character of George during WW2 — back then boys really did get to do the fun stuff. (Also some very crap stuff, but look at what women were doing too.)
I assumed that as long as I introduced my daughter to books which have been published recently — in the last ten years — that I wouldn’t have to worry about gender discrimination. I thought that had been fixed up.
McCabe’s study shows that I was absolutely 100% wrong about that.
Nothing much has changed, and that shocks me. If we want to ensure our children are exposed to a balance of male and female characters, we have to go out of our way to redress the balance, making a conscious effort to choose books about female characters rather than plucking good books at random from the library shelf.
6. VARIOUS DISMISSIVE COMMENTS ABOUT ‘POLITICAL CORRECTNESS’
From the comments section of the podcast mentioned above:
Girls love Hobbs’s work as much as boys, and for very different reasons. He manages to speak to them in ways that no politically correct, officially sanctioned work will.
Hobbs’s books are subversive and wonderful at many levels, and thankfully free from self-conscious ‘correctness’.
- Tiger mother
Notice that the word ‘correctness’ is placed inside quotation marks – the punctuation equivalent of rubber gloves.
But despite its mainly pejorative use, ‘politically correct’ is not a pejorative term.
Just imagine what it would be like to live in a non-politically correct society. You don’t even need to imagine. You can learn about some very non-politically correct parts of the modern world — countries where I doubt the phrase exists in common lingo. I’m talking about countries where men control the wealth while (uneducated) women are forced to stay at home and belong, like chattels, to their husbands.
There are more women living like this in our world than there are liberated people like you and me. (I make an assumption about you, because first you can read, and second you have access to the internet.)
‘Political correctness’ is not an evil thing. It’s a very good thing indeed, but mainly if you happen to be the sort of person who understands that discrimination still exists. If you’re the sort of person who thinks we’re there now, and that everybody should just shut up and stop whinging, then I suggest you’re the sort of person who makes use of phrases such as,’The world’s gone PC mad.” I suggest you haven’t had your eyes opened to it, regardless of which sex you happen to be.
I think what Leigh Hobbs says in that interview speaks for itself, and to me his lack of awareness on this issue is loud and clear. He has no awareness of his very own work, estimating that characters in his own books were be 50/50, yet when the interviewer added up the total, his own work reflected the exact gender discrepancy that was uncovered by Janice McCabe’s research. I’m disappointed he wasn’t challenged on this point, though I suspect the interviewer counted up his characters only after the interview had been conducted.
7. A QUESTIONABLE DEFINITION OF ‘STRONG FEMALE CHARACTER’
What also disappointed me was the fact that Sally Rippin, the other Australian children’s book author interviewed during the podcast, has now bowed to pressure to write a series featuring a boy protagonist, because boys (including her own 8 year old son) won’t be seen dead reading a book with a female character on the front cover.
Previously, Sally Rippin has written a series about Billy B Brown, who is bad at ballet and excellent at soccer.
At first sight, this looks like a wonderful example of a strong, female character in literature, but this description does not sit easily with me.
Basically, Billy B Brown sounds like a boy, bar the fact she was born with a vagina. The fact is, this is not a story about the typical female experience. It’s almost erroneous to count a tomboy figure as a strong female character — and it feels to me as if we’re still stuck on the Famous-Five-George prototype. And why is it mostly females who do most of the crossing of gender boundaries? It’s still harder to find a ‘sissy’ boy than it is to find a strong, ‘tomboyish’ girl. As ever, this feminist issue isn’t just in aid of girls.
To me, a ‘strong female character’ is one who doesn’t have to give up typically female pursuits in order to be ‘strong’. While tomboy girls exist — I was one of those myself — most girls are not. There is certainly a place for Sally Rippin’s books about Billy B Brown, and they are enjoyed by many, but it’s still a mistake to assume we’re ‘there’ when it comes to gender equality.
I’m reminded now of a Quentin Tarantino interview in which QT recommends all girls watch Kill Bill for a wonderful example of a strong female character.
Corollary: Strong female characters = strong male characters.
Note for Life: If you’re going to argue with someone with a cult following like Quentin Tarantino, wear an unobtrusive hat because you do yourself no favours. I don’t feel this woman was allowed to make her point. Also, here’s a nice feminist breakdown of female characters in the work of QT.
In other words, strong female characters hold their own during physical fights (despite the real-life discrepancy in size and strength between the sexes). In this definition of ‘strong’, women will never be the equal of men, except in fiction, and both sexes know it.
Strong women go on missions to kill.
As you might have gathered, I take issue with many examples of ‘strong female characters’ in fiction.
As much as I enjoy the Kill Bill movies, Uma Thurman’s character bears little to no relation to my own life. She is not a female role model — the Kill Bill movies are light entertainment, and we’re in serious trouble if we start using Quentin Tarantino’s disturbing tales as models for real life.
We’re also in trouble if our definition of ‘strong female character’ equals a ‘physically strong, violent character.’ Since we don’t see violence in picture books, that’s not a pressing issue, but what I do see as pressing: We’re in trouble if our definition of ‘strong female character’ equals ‘tomboyish character’.
If girls are reading books about boys playing soccer, why shouldn’t boys be expected to read about strong girls who happen to dance ballet? Instead of taking for granted that boys will shun these books (and I don’t live in a remote hippie commune, so I happen to know they do), why not open up with boys a discussion about why they won’t have anything to do with what they perceive to be girls’ stuff?
Related Link: Tomboys and Pretty Little Girls: Why Should She Have to Choose One or the Other? from BlogHer
So, what is a strong female?
A strong female resembles a strong male in most ways: She is honest, caring, considerate, humorous and all those other things we value in our own friends.
But a strong female is not necessarily a ‘tomboy‘ (read: honorary boy).
It is a huge mistake for children’s authors to create tomboyish female characters if the honest reason they’re doing this is to appeal to both sexes. Girls need to see themselves reflected in literature, just as boys do, and stories about ballet-loving girls should not be labeled and marketed as ‘books for girls’, thereby halving an author’s audience and income.
Obviously, this issue works its way right up into adult fiction. Books about feminine women are ‘chick-lit’ (when the protagonist is single and in her 20s) and books about grown women managing families is called ‘women’s fiction’, despite the fact that men are members of families equally. Note that books about men doing manly things (like solving crime and making lots of money) is not marketed as men’s fiction. In the local bookstore there is no section called ‘men’s fiction’ — it fits into some other genre like crime, or literary fiction.
In fiction as in real life, ‘man’ is the default setting; ‘woman’ is still the other.*
*Last week, waiting for storytime, I found myself privy to a conversation between 10 or so local librarians who’d gathered for a mini-conference. They were swapping stories from The Lending Desk, and all of them had male patrons who regularly borrowed women’s fiction ‘for their wives’. After the librarians each had a chuckle, one of them pointed out that it’s not for anybody to judge what someone else likes to read, and they all agreed with this. It did make me wonder, though, how many more men would be reading stories about women if they felt they were ‘allowed’ to do so. This issue is not just a women’s issue. Women’s issues never are.
I’ve since written more on the topic of Strong Female Characters.
8. THE IDEA THAT ‘ART IS ABOVE REPROOF’.
Leigh Hobbs’ response to McCabe’s study is lackadaisical, dismissive and shows his own lack of awareness. The idea that ‘books are art, and the artist must be given free rein to do as he or she wishes’ doesn’t sit well with me at all.
Sure enough, in the creating phase of any artist’s work, nothing should be constrained. Nothing at all. It’s during the editing phase that someone, at some point, needs to consider the impact of the story on a young audience (though I hasten to add I’m no proponent of censorship for art with an adult audience). Questions about gender (and ethnic) inclusion should be asked after the creation but before the production phase.
1) A picture book should have at least two female characters
2) Who talk to each other
3) About something other than a male character.
In other words, more picture books with plenty of characters should pass the Bechdel test too.
Max Barry has a great name for books like the one below: Smurf Books. His is a tongue-in-cheek post rather than a frustrated one like this, but his message is the same. (How refreshing to hear it acknowledged by a man. Does it require a man to have daughters before realising this gender bias, I wonder?)
McCabe found that Little Golden Books, for which new stories were published between 1942 and 1993, depict an especially small proportion of female characters: 3.2 males for every 1 female.
Running a story past the Bechdel checklist would not hamper anybody’s ‘creativity’*.
*since we all know artistic inspiration is a wild, flighty and ephemeral thing, subject to evaporation when questioned.
It would be a mistake to assume authors are experts in sociology and gender studies. By and large, they are not. Since authors, as much as anyone, are products of a gender-imbalanced society, it’s going to take first acknowledgement, and second deliberate action, before this balance is addressed.
Let us start first with the denial.
Related And Sort Of Related Links:
1. Most Common Words In Toy Advertisements (for boys and girls)
2. My son is a big reader. How can I tempt his twin sister? from The Guardian, which should challenge us to think a bit harder about why a seven year old girl might give up reading.
3. Art and Adventure: A Manifesto for Women and Grrrls, by Mary Pauline Lowry.
4. Games Take The Cake: A Digital Media Industry Report on Girls and Gaming, which explains that females are ignored in the video game market. (But you didn’t need a link to tell you that, did you?)
It’s possible that when it comes to YA, fiction is light on strong male characters.
5. Female authors with feminine given names are still expected to, or are choosing to, use initials rather than their full names on book covers. Here’s some thoughtful musing from successful self-published author, Joanna Penn, or J.F. Penn. I suspect all of this comes down to the way in which we still don’t expect male people to read stories written by… or about… female people. For more on this issue, see No Place For A Woman: Female Fiction, from Beth Carswell at Abe Books, who surmises, as I have, that ‘It started with the children’s books, of course.’
6. Women and Children First! Why anyone who cares about gender and literature should pick up a children’s book. Now, from VIDA.
7. Teaching Kids About Women’s Stories from Don’t Conform Transform
8. Will Boys Watch Stories About Girls? from Blue Milk, which is about film, but could equally be about literature.
9. The Title Of John Carter And Why It Has Everything To Do With Gender And Money In Hollywood, from The Mary Sue. This is about a novel turned to film. The novel is called A Princess Of Mars. The film adaptation is called John Carter. So, why did the director change this female-centric title to a man’s name? You may not be surprised at the explanation.
10. A Girl’s Love for Batman from Beyond The Margins, in which a little girl is better off after engaging with typically boyish things. It works the other way too, naturally.
11. Beyond Judy Blume: Books for children of all genders from Bitch Media
Irritated by gendered activity books! Boys get history, robots, maths; girls get dresses, cupcakes, cute animals #kidsbookbuying
I have a real issue with pink glittery books featuring brides, bridesmaids and weddings. But they sell. Ideology vs commerce #kidsbookbuying
- @lilymandarin: author, reader, bookseller, 8 Sept 2011.
12. Ruth Whippman is the first other woman I’ve seen write about the general terribleness of the Mr Men and Little Miss books. A welcome read at Huffington Post.
13. Mrs H, blogger/writer, comments on this very issue after attending a workshop about getting children’s books published. And here is Nosy Crow’s response, with an interesting discussion in the comments section. It even prompted a follow-up post from Nosy Crow. One of the most interesting links I picked out of that discussion was a compilation of books/movies/stories featuring good, interesting female characters: A Mighty Girl. See also Stories Are Genderless from Foz Meadows
14. My daughter craves stories about realistic girl protagonists… While both male and female authors are writing fantasy about primarily male protagonists, female protagonists dominate realistic fiction. – from Realistic Girls and Fantastic Boys? Middle Grade Fantasy, Realistic Fiction and the Gender Divide at From The Mixed Up Files.
15. Reel Girl’s Gallery Of Girls Gone Missing From Children’s Movies in 2012, and the follow up post. Reel Girl also introduced me to the concept of ‘The Minority Feisty‘.
16. Children’s Books And Segregation from The Society Pages
Highly Recommended: Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine, particularly page 219, for an amusing take on The Jetsons.