Stories Are Genderless

Posted: April 6, 2012 in Political Wrangling
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Back in 2010, my publisher organised a multiple author event at an all-boys primary school. The oldest students were twelve or so,  and though children from other, co-ed schools were brought in for the day, the audience was still primarily male. Most of the other authors present wrote middle-grade or children’s books, making me just about the only one there whose books were aimed at older teens. This being my first school event, I was nervous and feeling rather glum. On the long walk from the train station to the school, I privately resigned myself to making the best of an awkward situation: no one there would have heard of me, my books were for the wrong age-group, and in any case, my protagonist was a girl – surely the worst possible combination for the situation at hand.

Being one of the first to arrive, I helped the publisher set up, which involved lots of back-and-forth trips between two different buildings on opposite sides of the main quad. While we were ferrying chairs and goody-bags across this route, students began to appear: some in teacher-supervised groups, others alone, but all of them clearly destined for participation in the event. And then a strange thing happened: I heard one of them whisper my name. At first, I thought it must have been a mistake, but then I heard another boy say, louder, ‘That’s Foz Meadows.’  Then I remembered the programmes, which contained our names and author photos, and which several of the students were holding. That must be it, I thought, and carried on moving chairs.

Only, no, that wasn’t it. The school library carried Solace & Grief, their wonderful and dedicated librarian had promoted it to her students, and I had fans. A number of them, as it turned out. They’d known who I was before the event, and had recognised me, not from the photo in the programme, but because they’d looked me up on the internet. (The librarian told me that they’d known I was young “Because she has a blog and a Twitter and stuff”.) Throughout the day, one group of boys in particular kept me company. They waved to me during the event, talked about how much they loved to read, and told me what they wanted to be when they grew up. One boy was particularly specific about his ambitions: he wanted to be a army sniper, so he could learn how to do all the maths about cross-winds and distance and line of sight necessary to calculate and execute a shot. It was a brilliant day: every copy of my book was sold, I spoke to some awesome students – and I was presented with definitive proof that boys can and will read books with female protagonists written by female authors.

I didn’t write Solace & Grief for teenage girls. I wrote it for the sort of person who likes that sort of story, regardless of how old they are or what gender they happen to have. And yet part of me was still startled to find that I had young, male fans – not because I hadn’t meant for such people to read it, but because our culture so rigidly enforces the idea that anything dubbed Female isn’t for men. And the thing is, even though all the boys I met were bright and engaged and interested, their exposure to and enjoyment of the book didn’t happen in a vacuum: it happened because they had an awesome librarian who, above and beyond caring about her students, understood that stories are genderless, and that there was no good reason why curating the library for an all boys’ school meant she shouldn’t stock and promote a YA vampire novel with a female protagonist.

As has been pointed out by Saundra Mitchell, Seanan McGuire and Maureen Johnson, the current panic about the so-called dearth of books for boys is both hypocritical and deeply problematic: hypocritical, in that it ignores the fact that up until quite recently, the vast majority of all literature was written by and for men, with women just being expected to cope with it; and deeply problematic, in that it hinges on the idea that it’s both impossible and unreasonable to expect boys to read books that are aimed at girls (which, see above, re: hypocrisy). Let me just say it flat out: if you think there’s something inherently wrong with boys reading about romance, empathising with female characters or enjoying books aimed primarily at girls, your outlook on gender is skewed beyond the ability of a single blog to correct it. If you think there’s nothing inherently wrong with it, but that we still need more boy-friendly books: no. For centuries, no one was concerned that books weren’t girl-friendly, because no one really cared if girls read; but even so, we persisted for long enough that literature has slowly come to accommodate us. Modern boys, by contrast, are not trying to read in a culture of opposition. Nobody is telling them reading doesn’t matter, that boys don’t need to read and that actually, no prospective wife looks for literacy in a husband. Quite the opposite! Male literary culture thrives, both teachers and parents are throwing books at their sons, and the fact that the books aren’t sticking isn’t, as the nature of the complaint makes clear, because boys don’t like reading – no. The accusation is that boys don’t like reading about girls, which is a totally different matter.

Because constantly, consistently, our supposedly equal society penalises boys who express an interest in anything feminine. The only time boys are discouraged from books all together is in contexts where, for whatever reason, they’ve been given the message that reading itself is girly – which is a wider extrapolation of the same problem. Thanks to the advent of feminism, certain previously male-dominated activities have become gender neutral; but offhand, I cannot think of a single traditionally female pastime to have achieved the same status (except, possibly, for cooking, and even then only on the domestic scale, male chefs and waiters having a longstanding and frequently sexist tradition of their own). And as women have integrated themselves into literature and education, we’ve seen a subtle shift in perspective happen. The majority of primary school teachers are now women, and have been for some time; at high school, the stereotypical English/humanities teacher has become female; and then, of course, there’s the recent explosion of YA novels written by and for women to consider.

The fact that these changes have paralleled the decline of teenage males’ interest in reading isn’t a coincidence. However, this is not, as certain people would have it, because women have feminised literature with our magical vaginabooks and therefore made reading inherently unpalatable to the masculine half of the population. No: it’s because everything in our culture tells men and boys to avoid any interest, activity or community dominated by women – and when article after article insists that boys are reading less than girls; when the pop cultural discourse shies away from portraying boys as readers, or closely associates male reading with male unpopularity and outcastness; when the humanities is widely touted as being the feminine alternative to the masculine sciences; when finally, after centuries of exclusion, girls are actually getting a break at something, the consequence is that boys are keeping away in droves.

Let me tell you a story. On annual camp in primary school, I became amazingly good at a game called box hockey, an activity I’ve never encountered before or since, which none of us kids at the time had otherwise experienced, and which we therefore came to completely free of gender expectations. All of us tried it out at first, but as the boys soon proved their dominion, the majority of girls drifted away to do other things. I, however, loved it, and played at every opportunity – and I got good. So good, in fact, that soon I was the best player at camp. And do you know, internets, what happened when this became known?

The boys stopped playing. Because my repeated victories had demonstrated, not that I was a skilled player, but that box hockey itself was so easy that even a girl could win at it, and was therefore unworthy of further effort. I was, quite literally, left with no one to play with. Feeling this to be rather unfair but still wanting to play sport during the lunch break, I decided to join in at cricket instead. Unlike box hockey, cricket was well-established as a masculine domain. None of the boys wanted me to play, because I was a girl and would therefore clearly be terrible, a hindrance to whichever team was lumped with me. But even though they came from a different school to me, the boys finally, grudgingly and after great conference agreed to give me a go. They sent me to the farthest reaches of the outfield, where I could do as little damage as possible. But luck was with me. One of the batsmen made a fantastic shot to where I was – and I caught it, because I was good at fielding. The nature of the catch was such that they had to recognise my skills. I was allowed to bowl, and to bat, and by the end of the day, having proved that I was just as good at anyone at all those activities, I was declared one of the boys. Unlike box hockey, cricket was too noble a game to be sullied by female success: my prowess here made me exceptional rather than ruining the sport, and so while no other girls were allowed to play, whenever some new boy questioned my right to be there, every boy who’d seen me make that first catch vigorously defended me. I was OK, they said. I was one of the boys.

I learned two things from this experience: that if a girl was good at something boys had no history with, they would promptly declare it uninteresting and force me to quit from lack of acknowledgement; but succeeding at something they loved meant I could transcend being called a girl, which was clearly a sort of insult, and therefore reap benefits denied to other females. At the age of ten, I had been successfully indoctrinated in the fallacy of Equality Means Acting Like A Man by a group of children who’d never heard of sexism, feminism or gender politics, but whose use of the former and rejection of the latter had nonetheless been encouraged their entire lives by a culture that said Girl Things Are Bad And Girls Are Bad Too, Unless They’re Willing To Act Like Boys.

And, as we’re now seeing when it comes to books, this bias is a sword that cuts both ways. Having been raised to exclude girls from manly pursuits, boys are also reluctant to pursue female ones. If that means reading – and in some cases, sadly, it does, reading and other sedentary or indoor hobbies being viewed as the antithesis of sports, and therefore by extension the enemy of all things masculine – then writing more boy-centric books won’t help. (Unless, of course, your ultimate long-term plan is to take reading away from girls and return it to boys, in which case, you fail everything.) If, on the other hand, you want boys and girls to be reading with equal passion and in equal numbers, then a very clear alternative presents itself: teach your boys that there’s nothing wrong with girls, or girl things, period. Take away the stigma, and let everyone read without judgement. Stories are genderless, no matter who writes or stars in them. And if we can’t bear to teach our teenagers that, then we need to seriously rethink our sstatus as an equal and fair society.

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(Side point, while we’re on the topic: I’m so sick of hearing about how it’s unfair to expect boys to read Austen or Bronte because of how ladybooks don’t appeal to teenage boys, and really it’s better to set them Golding or Fitzgerald. Here’s a thought: how about finding some literature written during their lifetimes? I’m sorry to have to point this out, but regardless of gender, the vast majority of teenagers aren’t yet interested in the classics, not because they’re all badly written or unworthy or irrelevant (although some of them probably are), but because they’re almost always an acquired taste, and school is quite possibly the single worst environment in which to try and convey their worth. OK? I know that school is meant to teach teenagers about things they might not otherwise encounter, but if you’re presented with a choice between instilling in students a lifelong love of reading or making sure they’ve read Hemmingway, I’m going to vote the former every time. Almost universally, I hated every single book I was forced to read for school, because their content represented the exact opposite of what I found interesting, and in the rare instances when that wasn’t the case, being forced to analyze them in class made me want to put out my eyes with a fork. Thanks to high school, I cannot so much as contemplate David Mamet, P. D. James, Tim Winton, Tim Flannery, Peter Goldsworthy, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tom Stoppard or Ruth Park without experiencing a strong desire to set fire to something. Which isn’t to say I’ve never revisited anything I read in school – it’s just that, even with the few books I actually liked, it still manages to feel like a form of literary Stockholm syndrome.)

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Comments
  1. Osutein says:

    This is really great, thank you. That librarian deserves a medal.

  2. Andrea says:

    Although there are some who may be set in their ways, boys seem open to reading books by women, or books with female main characters, so long as the focus of the story is one which matches their interests. From my own strictly limited experience, I’ve had fan mail from everyone from grandfathers to teen boys, even though my books are all female protagonists (so far) and have a high number of female characters.

    It would be fun to do an experiment with covers, seeing how much “floaty girl in a dress” or “excessive amounts of pink” impact on the inclination of a boy to pick up a book.

    • fozmeadows says:

      I definitely think the covers are a factor. Something that might have helped in my case is that the cover is black with a key on it, which doesn’t signify to either gender. Whereas quite a lot of YA has a heavily gendered presentation.

    • Brendan says:

      I think an appropriate cover is vital to marketing. It seems though a lot of publishers have believed the “boys don’t read” line and are pushing girl focused covers.

      A case in point is the cover for “The Demon’s Lexicon” that I recently found. The author says it has l

      • Brendan says:

        Oops, sorry. My big fingers and a small iPhone screen connived to post mid typing. Now where was I?

        The author says it has lots of good action scenes and boys who have read it have loved it. But the cover features a Brooding Boy with photo coloured Lucious Lips and wearing a glowy necklace. There is zero on the cover to encourage a young male reader to take that book off the shelf.

        Another writer last year admitted to becoming indoctrinated by her publisher’s marketeers who kept telling her the female market was the one that would sell. It wasn’t until she had a boy come up and say how much he loved her books that she realised how silly that idea was. Of course boys could relate to her female protagonist.

  3. Jason Black says:

    > For centuries, no one was concerned that books weren’t girl-friendly, because no one really cared if girls read; but even so, we persisted for long enough that literature has slowly come to accommodate us.

    That is true, and it is a tragedy that I am delighted is now being rectified. (For many reasons, selfishly not least among them, that those are some of the best books being produced today.)

    > Modern boys, by contrast, are not trying to read in a culture of opposition. Nobody is telling them reading doesn’t matter, that boys don’t need to read and that actually, no prospective wife looks for literacy in a husband.

    Here, though, I see what you’re saying but I can’t wholeheartedly agree with it. Because, well … You explained it better than I could:

    >it’s because everything in our culture tells men and boys to avoid any interest, activity or community dominated by women.

    There IS a culture of opposition for boys who want to read girl books. That, too, is tragic in its own way. When I was a kid, I remember the girls in one of those single-digit grades being into Scott O’Dell’s _The Isle of the Blue Dolphins_. I mean, they were INTO it. They were carrying it around and reading it at recess and so forth. I had really enjoyed _My Side of the Mountain_, and remember thinking that Blue Dolphins sounded really cool. It was another kid in the wilderness, surviving alone story. But I also knew what I’d get if I was seen carrying a copy, so I never did.

    But it’s not just “girl books.” No. It’s ALL books. And that same “everything in our culture” is telling ALL our children, not just boys, that reading, that intellect, that the written word, is not only not worth their time but is to be actively shunned. I’d have gotten called a sissy or a fag and so forth had I dared pick up that copy of Isle of the Blue Dolphins. But I got the same treatment even for reading “boy books” like My Side of the Mountain, and Encyclopedia Brown, and The Mad Scientist’s Club.

    When I was a middle-grader and a YA myself, it didn’t matter that I was reading books that would clearly be labeled as “boy-oriented.” I still got teased and shunned and shoved and punched, called “bookworm” and many other worse names besides, simply because I preferred the company of my fictional friends over that of my real-world tormenters. (Go figure.)

    I got pressure to not read. But I didn’t get that pressure because books and reading was an activity dominated by women. That wasn’t the reason. I got that pressure because books–any books–aren’t what society values.

    Books bring the world to us even when we don’t have the resources to go out and experience the world for ourselves. They help us to understand people who are different from ourselves by any metric you care to name. And as #yasaves so beautifully demonstrated, they can make isolated and marginalized among us feel less alone.

    But “everything in our society” devalues those things. The TV/movie/tabloid/fast-food and paparazzi culture we live in tells us that reading is lame, not cool, or at the very least isn’t as worthy as whatever the latest insta-celeb said on Ellen yesterday.

    That’s the culture of opposition both boys and girls face when it comes to reading.

    It’s horrible for all of us. It’s horrible for society as a whole.

    I know this is somewhat tangential to the main point of your article. I would never claim that ugly, sexist forces aren’t still out there trying to push kids into and out of certain molds. Hell, I have young kids, and my wife and I fight against it every day. But no matter how hard we’ve tried to teach them that they can be anything they want, my son still wants to grow up to be a railroad engineer and drive a steam train, and my daughter talks constantly about how she’s going to be a ballerina.

    Culture is unavoidable, and our culture is still sexist, and it sucks.

    But that problem, at this moment, is manifesting in the context of a supposed dearth of books for boys, which you’re quite correct is total crap. The question of the day (spurred on by that School Library Journal article here: http://www.schoollibraryjournal.com/slj/home/894179-312/school_library_builds_the_cave.html.csp ) seems to be whether gender-oriented approaches to book promotion are inherently harmful to the other gender.

    We can, and evidently should, have that discussion. We can and should discuss whether trying to promote books to boys harms girls, and vice-versa. I don’t have any answers to that question, although I do think we should be asking the kids themselves how they feel about it. (And I’m glad that there’s social media these days so they can tell us whether we ask them or not.)

    Sexist culture is clearly bad, and clearly hits girls harder than it does boys across the whole spectrum of life. But books additionally face an anti-intellectualist culture, one that gives negative reading messages to ALL our kids.

    I can’t know what it’s like to have grown up as a girl, as a girl reader, as a girl sports enthusiast; those weren’t my paths. But I can know what it’s like to have grown up as a boy, and a boy reader. I got pressure against my love of books. But it wasn’t because books were a girl thing. It was because books were an intellectual thing.

    Culture is unavoidable, and our culture is anti-intellectualist, and that also sucks.

    Thanks for posting this blog.

    • fozmeadows says:

      Thanks for your excellent response! I wholeheartedly agree that the problem of anti-intellectualism in our culture is an obstacle that hits at both boys and girls; perversely, though, I do think this is one area where girls get off a little lighter than boys, simply because the stereotype of geeks and nerds – that is, unpopular intellectuals – is predominantly a masculine one. Sometimes I’d be teased or hassled at school for reading outside during lunch, but that was nothing compared to what any boy who did the same as me copped. Bullies see a girl with a book, and it’s noteworthy because in their eyes, no one should be reading voluntarily – not because *girls* shouldn’t be reading. Thanks to sexism, even bullies have no expectation that a girl with a book should be playing sports or running around instead; but a boy with a book? Well, that’s just weird. He clearly must be a nerd, enjoying books because he can’t get a girl or kick or a ball or talk to his real-world friends. And that is, as you say, a deeply detrimental pressure. The whole problem is multifaceted and awful, and until we can take away both the problems of gendering and the pressures of anti-intellectualism, the problem isn’t going to get better.

  4. [...] I know there is a lot of discussion about this online right now (see posts on this topic by authors Foz Meadows and Seanan McGuire), and I agree entirely that no matter who the characters are, or what the [...]

  5. [...] of books/movies/stories featuring good, interesting female characters: A Mighty Girl. See also Stories Are Genderless from Foz [...]

  6. cbjames says:

    Ana’s year in review pointed me to this post today. While I basically agree with your main post, I can’t help but feel that the rant at the end undermines much of it. Are you really saying that English teachers should only present their students with reading material they find immediately appealing?

    • fozmeadows says:

      No; I just think there should be a lot more variety, with less preeminence given to classics simply for the sake of tradition, and more thought given to encompassing a wider range of books – not just straight, adult fiction, but YA and genre novels as well. As much as many classics are still wholly relevant and worthwhile novels, it just strikes me as being a missed opportunity to teach them exclusively, rather than broadening the curricula.

      • I kind of felt the same way, I have to admit. The main article was so very, very, very on the nose! I kept thinking: yes. To everything. So correct and cogently presented. (I will have to look up your book.)

        But I think most schools do try to encourage kids to read their own books AND assign books. Ours does. (Although there’s only so much time, I realize.) I see this complaint about reading and analyzing classics so often; worse, I see complaints that being assigned anything ruins it. That makes me sad; teachers ought to be able to introduce great works of literature. Maybe we just need a better handle on which books work well, and better ways to teach them. I seem to recall my whole English class loved Macbeth junior year, but I also had a great English teacher.

  7. [...] boys” x “books for girls”) is probably at the root of all of this whinging because newsflash: STORIES ARE GENDERLESS. Also, NEWSFLASH: girls have been reading books by men, for men, since books started being [...]

  8. [...] men writing fan fiction. That gender roles play a huge role in determining our interests is not news. Typically, girls who excel at traditionally male activities gain prestige as “one of the [...]

  9. zdmarriott says:

    I want to add this to the discussion, which is me ranting on almost the same topic, and making almost but not quite the same points as you, last year, in response to a gender survey of children’s and YA writing: http://thezoe-trope.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/women-dominate-in-what-universe.html

    After seeing you talk so eloquently on this subject, I feel a bit like I can hear a chorus of angels singing, actually. Hurray! Foz talking about this now! It really must be as important as I thought (but couldn’t prove) it was!

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