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Screencap of tweet by Maureen Johnson saying: I've seen that sentiment a million times. I always come back to the same thing: everyone comments on how girls are OMNIREADERS...

Screencap of tweet by Maureen Johnson saying: As a girl, I read almost ENTIRELY male-authored (and centered!) books. Girls have no problems with that. Maybe ask WHY we became this way.

‘Omni-reader’ is a term Maureen Johnson used on her Twitter feed two week ago. She used this word as a way of describing beliefs that girls are readers who will read about anything regardless of whether the subject matter looks traditionally masculine, or traditionally feminine. Articles like this one by Sarah Pekkanen of The Washington Post agree that girls 'tend to accept a broad range of books' and will 'read a book featuring a boy on the cover' (and since non-fiction is not specifically mentioned in this article I'm going to assume that when commentators generally talk about boys and girls reading they’re talking about boys and girls reading fiction). My personal experience of seeing girls and women reading fiction is that they'll read a lot of stuff, because they're interested in a lot of stuff. They (and I am a woman who sees her own behaviour in this statement) don't shy away from books that are written by male authors, star male protagonists, or are focused on traditionally male subject matter.

Society cheers girls for being omni-readers and at the same time questions the hell out of why boys aren't omni-readers. What mainstream society and its cultural commentators like Pekkanen rarely question, is why girls have become omni-readers and whether we're cheering these girls' diverse reading habits for the right reasons. I’m not questioning whether girls being omni-readers is a good thing. What I'm interested in is how society's gendered perspectives might affect the way that people shape their arguments about girls as omni-readers, boys as non-readers (of fiction) and what these people think needs to be done to encourage boys to read more.

Many of the answers arrived at for why boys aren't reading are often along the lines of 'It's natural for boys to be interested in boys stuff and male ways of storytelling’ (there are areas I would more wordily call traditional male culture and male focused stories). Boys, as a consequence of their biology, can only gain enjoyment from entertainment if traditionally masculine culture is present. Asking a boy to be interested in anything that does not exhibit signs of traditionally masculine culture is asking them to deny their maleness and become girls.

People talk a lot about this made up thing called reverse sexism that feminists apparently use to justify hypocritical stances, but few people seem to recognise genuinely negative gendered arguments, like the one above, when they're being aimed at boys. To my feminist ear the argument that boys, can't possibly be expected to enjoy or take interest in areas that aren't traditionally masculine, because they’ve been born male, sounds like a neat reversal of the average Victorian man’s arguments on women. Having escorted her to a divan, lest she faint, he would have patted his lady love's hand, murmuring 'There there, you can't be expected to be interested in science/literature/serious thought/maths/politics -- these are men's areas and naturally your female brain cannot handle stepping outside its gendered comfort zone.' Imagine if we were to say something similar about girls and how their sex defines their reading interests…oh wait, some people do that, but we don't like those people so THAT'S OK. Anyway, the relevant point thrown up by this comparison is that boys should be outraged at being told that they are limited creatures, men should be outraged as well. I will talk about my theories on why the outrage seems to be lacking in a later post.

Now that the majority of society would disapprove of talking about girls interests as exclusively, traditionally feminine and pre-determined in this way by a girl’s sex, people must find new ways to describe girl’s reading habits. Let us assume that the general description of girls as omni-readers is agreed on by the majority of society and that it is correct. Let us also assume that the majority of society agree that boys are naturally influenced by their sex in what they enjoy reading. For complex reasons which would need someone much cleverer than me to explain, society needs to reconcile these two ideas. Now, how does society go about reconciling the idea that girls are omni-readers, whose reading interests aren't dictated by their sex, while boys are infrequent readers whose interests are dictated by their sex?

The easiest and in my opinion the worst way is to go the well travelled route of reminding everyone that boys and girls are different. I mean cisgendered girls have vaginas, cisgendered boys have penises and the differences don't stop there, they extend into the biological brain makeup of the different sexes. Someone wrote a book about it remember? ‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.' It must be true. Men and women are almost separate species. It's not a stretch, using this really stupid argument, to say that boys are naturally inclined to prefer traditionally male culture, while girls are naturally inclined to enjoy bits of traditionally male and traditionally female culture. We don't need to take note of the fact that until the late twentieth century society was determined to underline the fact that girls only naturally enjoyed and understood girls stuff, in the same way that boys are now thought to only naturally enjoy and understand boys stuff. Instead, what we can do is just say historical people wrongly identified quite how sex naturally influences the areas that girls enjoy, but continue to maintain that they were right, that sex does naturally influence girls bookish enjoyment in a different way. Yes, this is a smart argument.

From my sarcasm you'll guess that I'm against arguments that human cultural enjoyment is influenced by sexual biology. Sorry, but I think many ideas that see a natural relation between a person’s sex and behaviour are super creepy and pretty uninclusive of people with non-traditional sexual and gender presentations. I'm suspicious of ideas that human beings are naturally inclined towards any kind of culture because of their sex, because historically ideas like this have been proven wrong. Many girls do show an enjoyment of subjects like science or politics, when in decades past the thought of women being capable of understanding, let alone enjoying, these subjects would have been thought absurd by large numbers of people, because women were, well...women. Shifting the goal posts to ostensibly provide a more inclusive view of what women are naturally interested in doesn't seem like a positive shift to me. It seems like people are desperate that old ideas not collapse, so they rearrange their logic without changing their essential, previously damaging central position. Basically I have no faith in these kind of rhetorical constructs.

My own ideas about why girls are omni-readers and boys aren’t lie along cultural lines. Girls are not naturally inclined to be comfortable reading about masculine culture. They're also not naturally inclined to be interested in reading solely female centred stories. Girls (and boys) are not naturally inclined to align themselves with one particular gendered culture, they are taught which cultures to align themselves with by society. Typically boys are taught to align themselves solely with traditional male culture. Girls are generally taught something slightly more complex; they should align themselves with traditional feminine culture in certain areas (for example appearance) but align themselves with male culture in other areas (for example intellectual pursuits, such as literature). If we're very lucky (and it seems that with each generation of girls we're becoming luckier, if the widely accepted status of girl as omni-reader is anything to go by) they'll grow up aligning themselves with traditionally masculine literary culture, traditionally feminine literary culture and everything else that exists besides that binary set of poles.

So, as a general rule I believe the trend of girls being omni-readers is a socialised trend, not a natural one. That's not to say that all of girls' reading interests as individuals, aren't genuinely their interests just because there is the potentially for them to be socially constructed interests. Many girls like books about fashion (traditionally female interest), or about fighter jets (traditionally male interest) and I would never seek to rob any girls of agency by saying 'the only reason you like these things is because the gender culture in our world impacts on you', that would be as creepy as saying their sex naturally predisposes them to enjoy certain things. I'm just saying that gender culture has an impact on girls becoming omni-readers. At the same time it's not the only thing that has an impact, but the sex someone is born as is not, in my opinion, one of these other impacting factors.

If I apply the same rules to boys as I have done to girls hopefully you'll be able to see that I don't agree with the idea that boys are naturally unable to enjoy certain kinds of books. What puts them off these books? Again a combination of the gendered culture we live in (that reinforces the idea that boys shouldn't like certain traditionally feminine things, or even masculine culture that incorporates traditionally feminine elements and should only like traditionally masculine culture) and other factors, none of which are a natural link between a boys sex and book enjoyment. So, in my theory boys could become fictional omni-readers, the potential is there, but there are cultural roadblocks in the way – roadblocks that can, unlike perceived natural roadblocks of sex, be removed to the benefit of both boys and girls.

Please understand, I'm not saying that girls and boys aren't inclined to seek out representations of themselves in things like literature. I think everyone wants to see themselves reflected somehow in the entertainment they consume. Typically when we talk about racial diversity in young adult fiction we're encouraged to think that we need more racial diversity in the main characters who appear because people need books which mirror their experiences, as well as books that open up other experiences to them. I do think teenagers seek out representations of their own sex and gender presentation, whether they be cisgendered boys and girls or transgendered boys and girls. So once again I'm not saying boys need to just deal and start reading books about girls and traditionally feminine situations all the time, exclusively, any more than I'd be cheering if girls were told to read books about boys and traditionally masculine situations all the time exclusively. Boys need to see themselves represented in fiction, just as girls do. We need books featuring cisgendered male characters doing all kinds of traditionally masculine things, for the cisgendered, traditionally masculine boys out there just as we need representations of every other cultural group.

I'm just asking if we can knock off this idea that boys 'can't' enjoy books that are in some ways less traditionally male. Might we be able to stop pushing the absolute idea that boys can only enjoy reading if they're given a wide range of traditionally masculine boys engaged in traditionally masculine situations, or written in what might be seen as a traditionally masculine way (lots of plot, fast pace, romance not a central feature). I'd like to see people address the blocking culture in which boys live, in the same way that society has spent several decades recognising and trying correct the gendered, blocking culture that girls exist in. Maybe if society took a double pronged approach where it agitated for more traditionally masculine young adult books, but also encouraged boys to see the value in other kinds of novels boys might become omni-readers too.

The reason why society should be invested in helping boys to become omni-readers, like girls, is simple. All the cheering society does about girls being omni-readers must mean that omni-readers are viewed as having a positive approach to reading. Girls interest in reading about everything is often implicitly linked to their interest in being able to read and their large reading consumption, so if society is really invested in getting boys reading they might want to take the hint that encouraging boys to be omni-readers might have appositive impact on concrete things like boys literacy and boys views on reading for pleasure.

Book lovers have more personal reasons reasons for wishing boys were also omni-readers. Omni-readers get to read about everything and that just sounds so cool to us as booklovers. We want boys to be having the same experience and that's why so many of us become frustrated when boys seem to be culturally anchored to rejecting a lot of literature, because they are missing out on a whole heap of interesting things. I do not intend to make boys 'be girls' (although if society could stop using that phrase as if it should horrify men everywhere that would be cool) or say 'be interested in 'Twilight' because I think that to prove they're not sexist boys should fully embrace all culture traditionally perceived as female unreservedly. I just want boys to stop knee jerk rejecting anything that sounds bit like something a girl might like. I just want boys to really understand something, to really see something and make a fair assessment about whether something is 'not for them' rather than making a gender biased assessment.

Before I close out this post on the problematic culture that produces the positive effect of encouraging girls to be omni-readers I have to mention one final thing. I am fully behind the idea that if the majority of girls are omni-readers they'll be having a fantastic and diverse reading experience. However, I'm willing to be a grown up and admit that while girls being omni-readers is awesome for them, awesome for booksellers and fills the world with more pleasant shiny feelings for us booklovers, there is a certain amount of implicit gender bias swirling in all this cheering. Is society (including me) cheering so loudly because being omni-readers means girls will experience all sections of literature, or are we cheering because being omni-readers means girls won't mistakenly miss out on all the coolness we assume books that intersect with traditionally male culture have to offer them? Are we as excited when girls read books about horses AND fashion AND vampire boyfriends AND all kinds of different girls, as we are when girls show an interest in reading about all these things and battles on space ships? If your answer is closer to the former than the latter then you are a fabulous omni-reader supporter, when I really examine my mind I find my own answer is less fabulous.

It's an issue. I will work to correct it and I’ll have more on this in my next post.

You can go away now and think 'well she's a woman (and so naturally prone to thinking girl stuff is interesting, haha, oh, please refer to Maureen Johnson’s tweet again) and as a woman she's also an omni-reader, so naturally interested in everything, so of course she thinks girls stuff is interesting, but boys naturally wouldn't think that.’. I cannot control your thoughts and I cannot make you agree with me on any point. I can just show you my hand as openly and honestly as possible and we can discuss things in the comments.

Next Wednesday: How we would react if we talked about boys girls reading the same way we talk about boys reading

Previously in this much too long series: Ladies, Gentlemen, Somebody Ring the Alarm

Date: 2011-03-31 02:15 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I'm not entirely sure if my motivations are on the fabulous side either :S

Honestly, I wish I could hire you to write my thesis for me :P The assumption that it's natural just boggles my mind, because like you said many of the people who implicitly or explicitly defend it wouldn't maintain the same when it comes to girl. As with everything, we need to ask WHY a little more often.

Date: 2011-03-31 02:16 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)


Date: 2011-03-31 02:44 pm (UTC)
zachariah: (Default)
From: [personal profile] zachariah
In middle school one of my guilty pleasures was reading my sister's Sweet Valley High books. In retrospect, it was probably because they dealt with relationships a lot, which I wasn't getting anywhere else, but at the time I just really enjoyed reading them.


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