Apr 20, 2014

Boys Read Girls

Ben (Aged 7) likes Harriet the Spy
Photo Credit

Boys Read Girls
The response to the recent Let Toys Be Toys #BoysReadGirls campaign was heartening: over the past few weeks I’ve seen pictures of boys and men proudly holding copies of favourite books with girls and women at their centre all over my Twitter timeline, and also on this gallery over at The Guardian — which disproves again and again the absurd but popular (and seemingly logic- and evidence-resistant) belief that any self-respecting man must be unwilling to and incapable of empathising with roughly half the human population.

This belief underpins many approaches to the so-called “boys’ reading crisis”. To quote from my go-to post on the subject, Saundra Mitchell’s “The Problem is Not the Books”,
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. Boys fall in love. Boys want to be important. Boys have hopes and fears and dreams and ambitions. What boys also have is a sexist society in which they are belittled for “liking girl stuff.” Male is neutral, female is specific.
Here’s how we solve the OMG SO MANY GIRLS IN YA problem: quit treating women like secondary appendages. Quit treating women’s art like it’s a niche, novelty creation only for girls. Quit teaching boys to fear the feminine, quit insisting that it’s a hardship for men to have to relate to anything that doesn’t specifically cater to them.
One of the reasons why I care about this is because boys (and girls, and non-binary teens) take their cues from adults, and literacy professionals have a particularly important role to play. As Cordelia Fine puts it in Delusions of Gender, kids are like “gender detectives”, actively trying to work out the full implications of belonging to the binary gender categories they’re told they must fit into:
It’s hardly surprising that children take on the unofficial occupation of gender detective. They are born into a world in which gender is continuously emphasised through conventions of dress, appearance, language, colour, segregation and symbols. Everything around the child indicates that whether one is male or female is a matter of great importance. At the same time (…) the information we provide to children, through our social structure and media, about what gender means — what goes with being male or female — still follows fairly old-fashioned guidelines.
As I’ve said before, what I try to do in my own work is normalise the idea that there’s nothing questionable or even particularly unexpected about a boy reading and enjoying a story by or about a girl. My experience is by no means universal (in fact, it owes much to the particularities of my context, which I detail in the post I link to above), but so far I’ve met with a surprisingly small amount of resistance. Once, the youngest boy in my reading group expressed some reluctance to read Legends of Zita the Spacegirl because it was “about a spacegirl”, but all it took was a gentle “Why don’t you try it anyway and tell us what you think next time?” for him to overcome it — and lo and behold, by the following session he was a convert. Again, I realise it’s not always this easy, but these are kids who are willing to follow my cues — just as they’d follow them if I communicated to them, in words or actions, that an interest in “whatever (…) gals read about” is unexpected or suspicious if you’re a boy. For them I represent reading authority, and that’s a powerful thing.

It was promising, then, to see a campaign based on the same sort of normalisation do so well and get mainstream media coverage. Of course, lest I become too optimistic, the world is only too happy to provide constant reminders that we still have a long way to go. Only a few days after seeing the Boys Read Girls campaign take over my timeline, I came across the following on Twitter:

Library sign featuring the sillouette of a man in a fedora and the caption: It's a Man's World. For those who are tired of the following: sparkling vampires, drama queens, royal snobs, obsessive angels, supernatural romances, cute critters, and whatever else gals read about, these books are for guys, by guys, about guys

Let me start with the obvious: the misogyny implicit to this sign isn’t even particularly subtle. It hopes to appeal to boys by showing (and therefore validating) contempt for everything tainted by association with femininity; it betrays a simplistic understanding of “guys” and “gals” as homogeneous categories; it has, as Ron Hogan suggests, hints of homophobia; and it assumes that boys should define themselves in opposition to “whatever else gals reads about”. The “should” is crucial here — you wouldn’t be wrong to suggest that we live in a world that encourages masculine identities to be constructed in exactly this way, but that’s precisely why there’s no reason whatsoever for literacy professionals to legitimatise this and exacerbate the problem.

Some people in my Twitter timeline expressed surprise that a library would put up a sign like this, but while I was dismayed I can’t say I was exactly shocked. As some of you might remember, this was the topic of my MA dissertation — while I know there’s no shortage of thoughtful and forward-thinking librarians out there, I also know that essentialist approaches have gained a worrying amount of currency among educators and literacy professionals. According to researcher Jeffrey Smith, these approaches are based on “recuperative masculinity politics”: using biological determinism, the idea that cultural constructs are immutable, or the assumption that social change is beyond the scope of education as points of departure, they argue that the only way to engage boys is to return to traditionally masculine values and areas of interest, which they assume to be universal.

The problems with this should be obvious: as the authors of the wonderful book Boys, Literacies and Schooling: The Dangerous Territories of Gender-Based Literacy Reform suggest, if you only attempt to encourage boys to read by presenting them with “manly” books, you implicitly delegitimatise the gender performance of the many, many boys whose interests don’t align themselves with hegemonic masculinity. These approaches supposedly value what makes boys “different”, but what they in fact value is a culturally dominant yet very narrow subset of masculinity, while belittling everything else (as well as belittling femininity, of course). They also patronise boys who already read by assuming that all boys need special intervention to get over their “natural” reluctance to read fiction. Last but certainly not least, they lend credence to the idea that interests culturally coded as “girly” are contemptible, and spare no thought for its troubling social and political implications.

Hegemonic masculinity is not only culturally dominant, but also widely perceived as the only “normal” or “natural” way to be a boy, while everything else is pathologised (for a fascinating look at the links between this sort of gender policing and homophobia, I highly recommend C.J. Pascoe’s work). Arguing against approaches that assume it to be universal is of course not the same as marginalising boys who happen to like, say, sports or cars or explosions. Instead, it’s about acknowledging that there’s nothing inherently “masculine” about these interests, that in fact many girls share them (while many boys do like “cute critters” or “supernatural romances”), and that there are many different ways to be a boy, a girl, or a non-binary person — all of which are equally legitimate and fully deserving of our respect.

As educators and literacy professionals, we get the opportunity to actively challenge narrow and rigid definitions of what it means to be a boy or a girl. We get to expand what’s socially permissible for boys to be interested in, to work towards broadening limiting cultural constructions of gender roles, and to contest the subordinate status of identities that fall outside of hegemonic masculinity. Why would we miss those chances and cater to reductive assumptions about what boys are universally interested in instead?

I want to finish by mentioning a third thing I came across on Twitter in the past week or so: this BBC news piece titled “Children’s Laureate’s plan to get boys back into books”, which relates to yet another major concern of mine. To be clear, I think Malorie Blackman is doing an excellent job as Children’s Laureate, and I like how at the end of the video she directly challenges recuperative masculinity politics and essentialism-based approaches. However, let me tell you what the main thing going through my mind as I watched the piece was. According to the statistics the BBC presents (which I’m going to take at face value while making my argument, partially because I have no direct access to the studies and can’t go over their methodology; partially because it’s their inclusion in a mainstream media piece and how that impacts popular perception that matters here), while 35% of teen girls read for pleasure, only 25% of boys do.

Now, a 10% difference is sure to be statistically significant, but what I couldn’t help but think was this: 35% is more than 25%, but it’s nowhere near the majority of girls. It doesn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, mean that girls are doing just fine as far as reading habits are concerned. The gendered focus of the piece makes little sense when you consider what the numbers actually tells us. It’s not like the fact that the stats are even lower for boys is mentioned as one of many possible literacy challenges faced by contemporary teens; instead, it’s their whole angle. There’s plenty more I could say about the piece (for example, the fact that digital literacy is framed only as a “distraction” and as something that doesn’t really count, even though a lot of what teens do online revolves around reading, is another thing that worries me), but my main concern is that we’re forgetting that girls’ literacy also needs attention. As yet another group of excellent literacy researchers (Mills, Martin, Francis, Becky and Skelton) put it, education is not a zero sum game. The specific challenges boys might be facing don’t mean that girls are “winning” and thus don’t require attention or face challenges of their own. When we assume that to be the case, we’re acting as if girls matter less, and again defaulting to treating women as second-class citizens.

Communicating to boys that stories about girls don’t apply to them and can safely be ignored; defaulting to gender essentialism and only valuing traditional masculinity while pretending it’s “natural” and universal; forgetting that girls also need attention and not so subtly implying that their literacy is a secondary concern: these are all sides of the same problem. To quote from my favourite book on the subject again, the work that needs to be done to normalise reading for boys “cannot be seen as separate to work concerned with the educational needs of girls”.

Lastly, look what I came across just as I was finishing this post (hat tip to Jenny for bringing it to my attention):

Newspaper headline: it’s no wonder boys aren’t reading, the children’s book market is run by women

Now there’s a thought worth considering.


  1. If I could publish a book that was nothing more than a collection of your essays on gender and reading, I would.

    I think what I finally 'got' reading this now, was the concept that widening the scope of who can read which books is, by default, a work of widening, in general, the definition of 'masculinity' itself. The argument that I have always heard in the verso was something along the lines of, "BOYS don't like reading mushy huggy kissy stuff. They want stuff to blow up." And the argument I've heard too often in response is the valid, but ever so limiting one that, "Well, if a female protagonist blows stuff up, why should it matter what gender she is?" And this is true, certainly, I'm not saying that's bad.

    But the larger point is the underlying assumption, to me (though it is the more difficult one to get currency on with children): that boys actually have just as much capacity to enjoy, say, Anne of Green Gables or (love it or hate it) Twilight as a girl does. A book is a book is a book is a book. And, a reader, is a reader is a reader is a reader.

    Being an adult, in a VERY masculinized industry, and one who people happen to know enjoys books, people often assume that a good point of entry for conversation is 'awful books' - which usually translates to literary fiction marketed towards women. I have never read Twilight, or Fifty Shades of Grey. But when someone comes to me talking about how they 'read the first part of Twilight and just couldn't finish it', the disturbing part of it is that what they cite is the 'feminizing' elements of the novel. Too much feelings. Too much focus on aesthetic description. Too much romance. Too much sparkling. There is an element of the description that veers from, "This is how I felt about this book," to "I assure, I'm manly enough to understand the valuelessness of this book."

    So, in your essay, when you said, "we get the opportunity to actively challenge narrow and rigid definitions of what it means to be a boy or a girl," I had a 'Yes, THATS it' moment (I know you've said this many times before I'm a little slow). What I DON'T want to do when I show my children books, is to say, "Look, boys, girls can be badasses, too." I want to say, "Look at all the different types of stories there are in the world, you might be affected by any of them, even the sort that society is not bothering to tell you."

    Anyway, sorry to ramble. Thank you for the wonderful piece.

  2. That thing Jason said about your essay collection--yep! But that will be only the first collection. I want collections of all your essays. Yeah, I know I've said it before, and I will likely say it again. But it's just so damn true. I learn so much from you. You are forever making my brain work harder, and I love you for it. Along with a lot of other reasons. :)
    (And then there's poor you, who gets pathetic, badly-worded, incoherent emails from me trying to talk about important things. You are so good to put up with me, you know.)

  3. It is so sad that on the same day, I promote an article on primarily racial diversity in lit and you focus on gender and lit. Specifically, we are both talking about people's ability to relate to and enjoy characters who are not just like them. What always amazes me is this idea that (for example) 21st century American Urban Middle Class White Male is more likely to relate to 19th century English Rural Upper Class White Male than to say 21st century American Urban Middle Class Black Male or White Female and so on. Really?

    Not to mention a large part of literature is learning about what is not us.

  4. As ever, thanks for being great. I get so frustrated with people who look at the world -- where gender stereotypes are in the air we breathe -- and somehow manage to see boys being natively one way and girls natively another way, rather than picking up instructions from adults around them about what boys and girls are supposed to be. Just got back from an Easter with my extended family, whom I love and adore, and some of whom are always saying shit like "Of course she's dramatic -- she's a girl, isn't she?" of my little cousins-once-removed. It drives me bonkers.

  5. I'm struck by this: "It’s hardly surprising that children take on the unofficial occupation of gender detective. They are born into a world in which gender is continuously emphasised through conventions of dress, appearance, language, colour, segregation and symbols."

    But hasn't that been the case for a very, very, very long time now? And yet it seems to me -- though I'll admit my knowledge is limited -- that men and boys used to be more interested in fiction of all kinds than they are now. At some point, in fact, the arts in general (opera, museums, theater, etc.) seem to have gone from "something everybody likes" to "something men hate and women like" in the popular view. With that kind of shift, it seems to me that there must be more to all this than simply "gender is emphasized in dress and appearance and so forth."

  6. Jason: There will never be an essay collection, but this blog exists, which serves the same purpose in a way? :P Anyway, thank you <3 And yes, that's it exactly - I don't want to just carry on privileging one type of narrative but flipping the gender of the protagonist. I mean, doing that is important too because I want all sort of roles to be available to girl protagonists, but mainly I want us to tell ALL THE STORIES about everyone, because yes, there is so much in the world, so many life experiences that are available to us all. Our circumstances already limit us in unfortunate ways - why would we impose further artificial limits? Lastly, no sorry at all. Thank you for the super thoughtful comment.

    Debi: *stares at inbox* *fails to see anything anywhere near pathetic, badly-worded or incoherent*

    Trisha: Yes, yes, exactly! How much does your average contemporary male teen have in common with the protagonists of the classics he's exposed to in class? And yet we (rightly) expect that emphatic leap to be possible - whereas relating to girls is just impossible.

    Jenny: Sigh, it's hard. I've had really difficult conversations about this with people I like and respect too. It's just so prevalent, and I have to take like ten deep breaths to avoid becoming a giant squid of anger :P

    Gina: Honestly, I don't see a contradiction, and I think you resolved it yourself when you pointed our there was a shift. Whereas it's true that children have been "gender detectives" for a very long time, the meaning society attributes to what it means to be a man or a woman has shifted over time, and thus what they learn is different. We did use to see the arts and letters as the exclusive realm of men, whereas now reading is perceived as feminised, or at least associated with less prestigious forms of masculinity for teens - and we communicate that very clearly to them. Of course, all of this is contextual, and I don't mean to say this is the whole answer to why some teens (of all genders) are reluctant readers. In fact, one of the things that worries me about this hyperfocus of gender is that it makes us ignore other factors (like, say, socioeconomic background) that I suspect play as large or larger a role.

  7. We were just talking about this yesterday, and I mentioned how frustrated I am that boys and men are pigeon-holed so badly into "appropriate" interests and behaviours (and the fact that it looks suspiciously like a devaluation of the feminine, just in a more subtle, and I think more damaging, guise). I think it's much harder, in some important ways, to grow up male in the particular society I inhabit now, because we women have "crossover" power - we can be interested in explosions and sports and that's cool, but men are stuck. If a man enjoys shopping for clothing he's an appropriate target for ridicule by everyone. He doesn't get to be a human being first, he always has to be a man.

    And I run into that at the library all the time, parents saying "oh, that's a girl's book" when I pull out Divergent to hand to their sons, or "my husband thinks that this book is too girly because it's purple." WTF. SO much policing of what is gender "appropriate" from people who are intelligent, thoughtful, generous, generally forward-thinking human beings. I have a hard time understanding why anyone would want to limit their child's viewpoint in such a way.

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  9. Whoops, posted twice. And just reading over my comment for clarity - by "we" were talking about this I meant that my husband and I. :) I just assumed everyone should know that, I guess?

  10. What Gina says was true to some extent in the 18th and 19th centuries with the association of novels as being for women. We still have some of that divide, with more men reading non-fiction as adults.
    We have jokes at our house about what a "chick flick" is--Eleanor and I had to find time to watch Pacific Rim when Ron and Walker weren't home, because they didn't want to watch it with us. They did go to see Mama Mia without us, which none of the four of us thought anything about until someone else indicated that it's usually thought of as a movie for women.
    We've all read and enjoyed most of the same books.
    And yet. I remember when Walker was very young that all the Disney movies were about brave young girls (the only exception was Hercules) and so many of the books we could find to read to him were girl affirmations like The Paper Bag Princess. We liked those, and yet we wished there were more books in which the gender wasn't made such a big deal. It mattered partly because he was so surrounded by girls--all his cousins and all our family friends were really smart and very verbal girls. He mostly held his own with them, but we occasionally wanted to find something that showed him how boys got along when they were together. I'm still not sure he knows that. It can be difficult for a smart guy from a small town to have any close male friends. There aren't many models for it, other than sports.

  11. Kirstiin: Don't worry, I do the same re: "we" usage :P You're right; it's incredibly hard. I think the way we pigeon-hole boys is really just anther side of the same old sexist coin - girls are allowed to crossover because anything associated with masculinity is prestigious, but because interests culturally coded as feminine are stigmatised, goodness forbid boys do the same. The homophobia angle Pascoe suggests is interesting too: people (wrongly) associated gay men with "feminized" men, and I suspect that many parents panic when their sons exhibit interests that aren't traditionally masculine because they're worried it means they're gay.

    Jeanne: What you're saying is close to what Jason was saying, I think, and I agree with you both: it's important to promote stories that expand the range of masculinities we see as permissible. I think these stories are out there, but my suspicion is that they're not included in "It's a man's world" type displays like the one I came across on Twitter. One of the arguments in favour of recuperative masculinity politics I've come across goes more or less like this: "nerdy", sensitive, thoughtful boys are in fact OVER-represented in fiction. The reason is that they're not in fact a reflection of what "real" boys are like, but an unrealistic fantasy by and for girls. "Real" boys are traditionally masculine (again, hegemonic masculinity is assumed to be universal) and entirely uninterested in feelings and other "sissy stuff" - and as long as the stories we give teen boys don't reflect this, they won't read.

  12. My son isn't much of a reader yet, he's still learning, but can I tell you how damn proud I am that he watches My Little Pony? Even without his sister around? And he watches Ben Ten, Avatar, Lego movies, Ninjago, etc, etc, etc. And his sister watches all of that too. And she reads whatever the heck she wants too. Because at the end of the day it doesn't matter to me or them, PLUS, in my mind they are learning not only about themselves, but they are learning about the other gender too and becoming comfortable with who they are and who others are. I just can't understand assigning titles. Never have, never will.

  13. Well said, Ana. I used to have to convince nearly every. single. freaking. parent. when I was teaching pre-kindergarten that it was perfectly normal and acceptable for their sons to play with dolls and cook in the pretend kitchen and playing dress-up, and for their daughters to play with blocks and trucks and science experiments. I even cited research showing that this play made the boys better fathers later in life and the girls more confidence and that it doesn't turn them gay or change their personalities. It was pulling teeth!

    I am just so over the whole "let's revert back to the 1950s" movement that has taken over lately where if we aren't completely separated in every activity than "family values" are under attack and morals are disintegrating. No, no, and no. First of all, if your morals and values are wrapped up in some outdated and disproven rhetoric, then you are the problem, you know?

    I always encouraged my students to play with what they liked, with who they liked (no matter gender), to draw what they wanted, and to read what they wanted. I made sure that they could empathize with boys and girls, all races, all cultures, people with disabilities. We need to realize that teaching our children that we are all equal is the only way we can move past the idea that some things are for girls and some things are for boys.

  14. I see this ALL THE TIME at the bookstore. I do my best to recommend books with female leads for boys (as The Hunger Games are hugely popular across all genders at the moment), but it's hard when the parents themselves are policing their reading.

    Brilliant post, Ana.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.