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[personal profile] bookgazing posting in [community profile] ladybusiness
I think it's pretty clear from last week’s post that I think that a rhetorical double standard is employed when discussions begin about the difference between boys and girls reading. Boys are said to naturally only enjoy reading that promotes one type of traditional gender culture. Girls are said to naturally enjoy aspects of fiction that can be associated with both traditional gender cultures. Biologically guided rules are used to explain both boys and girls reading habits, as they’ve been used to explain male and female actions throughout history. But this time girls are the ones said to be benefiting from their biological leanings, while boys are the ones losing out. The fact that the arguments about what is natural for boys and girl when it comes to reading young adult fiction do not use biology, or ideas about natural behaviour to exclude girls from enjoying anything allows the ‘it’s natural’ argument to pose as an argument adapted for time of equality.

The trouble is that even though these kinds of arguments no longer denigrate the female sex, they still suggest a link between the male sex’s ‘natural’ capability to read certain things for enjoyment and the disparity of how few boys read for pleasure compared to girls. The ‘it’s natural’ argument appears to have adapted itself for times of equality, but really it’s just switched it’s focusing and is now intent on belittling men instead. It's not so long ago that society thought women's interests and abilities were entirely guided by their biology. Now, when I hear arguments about what boys 'can' and ‘can’t’ be interested in I feel like I'm watching the same reasoning unfold, but few people seem bothered.

In the spirit of real equality let me take you on a quick tour of why I find some of the arguments about boys and reading unpalatable, by examining the way I and general society would feel if these arguments were used to explain how girls might be expected to read:

1.) In the last post I talked about arguments that claim boys naturally need exclusively traditional male culture in their reading, if they’re going to enjoy young adult fiction. Like I said, to my ear these arguments sounded remarkably similar to nineteenth century thoughts about the ‘natural’ limitations being female placed upon a woman. If anyone now said that girls could only be interested in X traditionally feminine thing people would immediately, loudly explain why this is wrong thinking. When applied to girls this argument about natural interests look outdated, sexist and limiting. Don’t they look the same when they’re applied to boys?

2.) It is sometimes argued that by saying boys can be interested in the same kind of books that girls are interested in people (read women) are trying to feminise the whole male sex. Again think about how people might react if someone said girls being encouraged to read about male culture might make them overly masculine. I’m imagining a chair flying across a crowded room.

3.) Then there’s the cover debate about how pink, or traditionally feminine covers put boys off reading many books. Most of these discussions now range around the sensible idea that boys are culturally conditioned to avoid traditionally female covers, or covers that suggest a story is less active. However, mixed in among this valid point are ideas that there’s an element of biologically coded naturalness to the way that boys avoid these kinds of covers. And inevitably ideas arise about how we have to play within the culturally created confines of boys cover likes and dislikes because boys can’t wait until we’ve changed an entire sexist culture, they’re growing up and they need to be reading now.

This conversation, ideas on how society impacts boy’s reaction to traditionally feminine covers and my feelings on this whole cover discussion are way too complicated to sum up in a paragraph. Perhaps I’ll have time to come back to that issue later in the years, or perhaps I will decide I’d like to spend my time doing something more productive. What I can do here is pose a couple of simple ideas for you to think around. Suppose that someone suggested girls naturally could not be expected to pick up certain books because of their covers. How might that go for them? Think about the unhappy noises that many women use when it is suggested that traditionally feminine pink covers featuring handbags are specifically designed to attract women to books. Finally, imagine that someone said we needed to get culturally conditioned girls reading by playing within a sexist system and handing them exclusively very traditionally female material. Just think about what the response to that would be. Now, are you wondering why society is so committed to validating arguments that boys ‘can’t’ read books with traditionally feminine covers, ‘would’ be excited by traditionally masculine covers and ‘must’ have their cultural conditioned impulses catered to?

By changing the focus of certain arguments and asking how society would feel if they were re-applied to girls reading, I hope to highlight that the majority of modern society would rightly never stand for girls to be talked about in such a way. It is insulting to suggest that a person’s sexual organs and biology place a set of barriers on their ability to enjoy, or benefit from something. It is weird to assume that because cultural suggestion operates in a dysfunctional, stereotypical way, it is to the benefit of a particular group to go along with cultural stereotypes. Like I said last week society should be appalled that men are being corralled into such a small space of reading territory, as arguments are made about what their sex can and cannot handle in young adult literature.

I get annoyed hearing boys spoken about in this way, because it’s insulting to boys and saying that traditionally feminine elements in young adult literary culture are inhibiting boys reading throws all kinds of varied insinuations at girls and female culture. Clearly other people are annoyed as well, but I feel like we’re not seeing the same kind of foot stamping, flag waving indignation that would be present if we were talking about girls in this way.

Why when society says limiting things about boys reading capabilities do we find people nodding their heads as if, of course it’s just natural that boys need these traditionally masculine things in order to be interested in reading? Well the theory I've come up with is simple, not exactly unexpected, but never the less still kind of depressing.

We encourage girls to be omni-readers for lots of reasons, but one of them is that if a girl is an omni-reader she's more likely to break out of the gender constraints the world imposes on her. Reading and enjoying books about pirates, spies, or rebel fighters will, we hope, keep her from conforming to society’s restrictive gendered expectations about what a girl ‘can' and ‘should’ like. We hope that being encouraged to break out of gendered stereotypes in her reading will lead her to understand that a girl can be anything she wants to be. And we're invested in young girls seeing beyond what gender stereotypes encourage them to like, because being unaware of gender stereotypes has huge, harmful potential consequences for a girls future feelings of self-worth, her career aspirations and her ability to make a really happy life for herself.

When it comes to boys it's not the same story. Society is not as invested in getting boys to break out of gender stereotypes. Oh it would be great if they could, but it’s also possible to see them (if we take the erroneous assumption that all men are internally happy living the default traditionally masculine life) having happy lives without breaking from gender stereotypes. In fact, they might actually live happier lives if they do conform, as society will be less likely to hassle them than men that do present themselves as different from the traditional masculine image. Mainstream society doesn't really see the danger in men pursuing traditional gender roles, but it does now understand the real troubles that can spring from women doing the same. So, when it comes to boys and reading is it any wonder that society doesn't quibble with the idea that boys need boyish subjects and covers to be interested in books, in a way that it would never let pass if someone said girls needed girlish subjects and covers to be interested in books. Is it doing boys any harm to read only these kinds of books? Might it not be doing them some active good to read traditionally masculine books to the exclusion of all else?

Well, this is where we need to turn to arguments about why diversity in reading is important. When we talk about what cultural groups need from books we generally talk about them needing books that are windows and books that are mirrors (sometimes these are the same books). Just like any other cultural group boys need to be encouraged to read both types of fiction and they need other things as well. They need books that present men in traditionally masculine situations and books that present situations totally outside traditional male experience. They also need something in between. They need books that present men in less traditional versions of masculinity and books that present girls in less traditional versions of femininity. I don’t think boys need these things because they are boys and I believe boys need correcting with educational young adult fiction strategies. That’s not what I’m saying at all. I think they need these things because they are a cultural group of human beings with the same need for both representation and information on people and situations outside their experience that all human beings need to develop and grow.

I don’t have a magic way to get boys interested in reading. I also haven’t a clue how to quickly whisk away the cultural barriers that society puts in the way of boys as they try to gain an enjoyment of reading widely. I know that makes people feel uncomfortable, because there are boys not reading right now and it seems like it would be worth the cost of play exclusively inside the system as long as it gets those boys engaged with books. I don’t have answers and I really wish I did, but I do know that arguments which deal in inequality need to be thrown out. Boys are equal to girls, girls are equal to boys and any arguments that disagree aren’t worthwhile.

Next Wednesday: What kind of book suits a girl's needs?

Previously: 'Ladies, Gentlemen, Somebody Ring the Alarm', 'Girls, Omni-reading'

Date: 2011-04-08 09:24 am (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
"I get annoyed hearing boys spoken about in this way, because it’s insulting to boys and saying that traditionally feminine elements in young adult literary culture are inhibiting boys reading throws all kinds of varied insinuations at girls and female culture."

Exactly. And to me that's the crux of it, really. Funnily enough I've heard people point out this situation as "proof" that Feminism Has Gone Too Far and boys are the ones who have it hard today, while all the while remaining blind to the fact that this situation is deeply rooted in good ol' fashioned sexism - if not, why this fear that masculinity would be tainted by femininity? Why the extreme avoidance of girl cooties? And meanwhile everyone is being cheated out of the freedom to be a complete human being.

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