This is the fourth installment in my series of posts on the way society talks about boys reading young adult fiction. The purpose of this series of posts is to critique the rhetorical arguments used when people talk about girls and boys reading, looking specifically at whether the structure of these arguments is logical and whether they include sexist rhetoric. This week I’ll be looking at a doozy of a mind twister, the idea that more books that ‘suit’, or ‘are friendlier towards’ girls are being published, than books that suit, or ‘are friendlier towards’ boys.
If we look at the real life situation (the number of boys reading young adult fiction is falling, boys are said to be struggling to find young adult fiction they want to read) it’s easy to focus solely on the genuine concern that boys not reading young adult fiction raises in the minds of readers, educators, parents and people in general. While it is important to focus on why boys aren’t reading young adult fiction, it seems like this topic has been and continues to be focused on plenty
. What is rarely discussed is the construction of the argument that rises along the way in many of these conversations: it is presumed that girls have more books around them that suit their needs (the covers being used are traditionally feminine, the books are female orientated, or contain traditional areas of female interest, or the female sex is represented positively), or that more books are being produced ‘for’ girls.
I think it’s important for us to discuss the construction of a phrase like ‘more books are being produced that suit girls' needs’ (which is admittedly paraphrased from blog posts and comments I’ve seen over the last couple of years
) because the content of such a simple snippet reveals much about common, negative arguments put forward for why boys aren’t reading. This kind of phrase contains a logically flawed argument, as do the rest of the arguments I’ve talked about so far. It treats girls as a homogeneous cultural group, and I outlined in my first post why it is incorrect to do so. And it poly-fills its logical hole with many pointing fingers, keen to indicate that women and girls are conspiring against boys' enjoyment of young adult fiction. By examining this statement, we can learn a lot about the construction of unhelpful, distracting arguments that pretend to explain why boys don’t read young adult fiction and work our way towards really understanding the real situation. Unsound logic
My biggest issue with this kind of phrase is that it is based on unsound logic. ‘More books are being produced that suit girls' needs’, but as I said in my second post, girls seem to be recognised as omni-readers
. Being omni-readers, girls will, in general, read a bit of everything. They don’t need to find anything especially gender related in their reading to be encouraged to read. It’s tough to maintain that girls are recognised as omni-readers by society AND that they read because they are receiving a wealth of books that ‘are friendlier’ to their gender.
It can be done. Of course it can be done, rhetorical arguments that look logical to many people can be constructed to justify anything, but that doesn’t mean that they’re based on factually correct information. A lot of educated people thought witches existed because rhetorical arguments that seemed to make contextually logical sense justified their way of thinking. A lot of women died. The arguments continued to make contextual sense to many. There still weren’t any witches.* Imprecise language
But for the minute I’ll keep exploring this argument as if there isn’t a gigantic logical hole in the middle of it. I will avert my eyes from the hole, while being careful not to fall into it. Now I need to address the idea that phrases similar to ‘more books are being produced that suit girls’ needs’ can be described as examples of good points being made with imprecise language. What someone using this phrase actually means, some would claim, is something along the lines of ‘more books are being produced that are designed to appeal to girls’, ‘marketers seem to think that using X, which is culturally difficult for boys to embrace, will attract girls to books’, or ‘more books are being produced that focus on traditional feminine subject matters’.
If that is what these people mean, WHY DON’T THEY BLOODY SAY IT THEN?
Saying that ‘more books are being produced that suit girls' needs than books that suit boys' needs’ makes girls sound complicit in the destruction of boys' reading enjoyment. Here’s the chain of thought I hear laboriously clicking into place every time I hear a similar phrase used: first, girls (all girls, as no distinction has been made about a particular group of girls) have these needs, which they apparently can’t control and telegraph to book marketers through their buying habits. The market reacts to these needs by creating more books to suit the girls’ needs. Such a large amount of resources are being dedicated to satisfying girls’ needs that boys’ needs are being ignored. If only the girls could stop having these stupid, exclusionary needs and validating how important those needs are to their reading experience, then the market would stop producing so many books that respond to these exclusionary needs! OMG girls needs are the reason why boys don’t read.
In case I haven’t said it enough in this series of posts. Um…no.
This phrase and its like implicitly connect girls and their stupid needs to boys losing out when young adult fiction is created. It makes girls an active part of disenfranchising boys in their reading experiences. It points the finger of shame at girls and says, ‘your reading is costing boys their reading enjoyment’. It contradicts all the work people who genuinely think deeply
about boys not getting something positive from young adult fiction put into saying that they well understand that girls reading more does not harm boys' reading experience.
Let me be clear, the girls who are reading and shaping ideas about what sells are not in any way enemies of boys reading. Using imprecise language that implies that girls who read take part in destroying boys' reading enjoyment is harmful and it distracts the focus away from a proper search into why boys really aren’t reading young adult fiction. Sometimes people who use this kind of phrase have good intentions and sometimes they don’t. I’m finding it harder and harder to automatically give people the benefit of the doubt when I have to decide whether someone is being a dick, or whether they have just picked their words badly. People with good intentions might like to choose the words they use with care. Womanly Needs (I just threw up in my mouth a little)
My final problem with this kind of phrase is the way it alludes to girls’ ‘needs’. ‘Needs’ (and other words such as ‘tastes’, ‘interests’ and phrases like ‘books that are friendly to girls’) are such vague terms that they can encompass a wide variety of things. No clarification is provided as to what these ‘needs’ might be. The vagueness of these terms makes it harder for anyone to engage with the arguers points and they allow the arguer plausible deniability. Again here is a hypothetical, hyperbolic version of the way this vague terminology seeks to hide the lack of knowledge and precision this argument is built on:
'Oh no, Ms Opponent, we did not mean to imply that girls have those kind of needs, that would be a sexist claim. No, we meant some other needs that we will again fail to clarify. These needs are still girl specific, but they’re not sexist. Even if you can get us to tell you what we think those needs are and then explain why thinking girls have those needs is sexist, we can still use the vagueness of the term to say ‘Ahha, you have proved us wrong on that count, but there are other nebulous needs we do not have time/all the information to identify right now, but they totally exist. You can’t prove they don’t exist, which means we can prove they do!'
Circular, bad logic at its best there.
Since the nature of girls' ‘needs’ (and every time I write that it feels a little creepier) are often left unspecified, I thought I might present my best guess at some of the things people are really talking about when they say ‘lots of books are being produced that suit girls' needs’. It would take me a long time to debate all these points and this is a long ass post already. So instead of reiterating all these points from scratch, I’ll use links where necessary to explain what I think the points people are referring to when they mentions girls’ reading ‘needs’. I'll also show off some of the good work others have done illuminating the sexist rhetoric of similar arguments: 1.) There sure is a helluva lot of young adult romance out there… 'Over the next several years, the Sci-Fi channel became increasingly feminized, losing many of its traditional male viewers in an attempt to go after female viewers...Scripts were rewritten to have “more relationships” (more drama) and fewer “space battles.” '
- 'The Spearhead'
I’ve seen (and other people like Candy at Smart Bitches
have also seen) a few posts from sci-fi fans saying that romance is killing their genre by feminising it. 'But somehow, everyone has a very firm idea of what the average romance reader is like. We bet you already know her. She's rather dim and kind of tubby — undereducated and undersexed — and she displays a distressing affinity for mom jeans and sweaters covered in puffy paint and appliquéd kittens. So even though repeated surveys conducted by independent research reveal that an astonishingly diverse and often affluent population reads romance novels, in popular depictions, we're all the same.'
- 'Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches Guide to Romance Novels'
Readers of adult romance often ask questions about why a genre/subject that has a mostly female readership is so often derided
, despite it being extremely commercially successful and despite rallying cries from many genre fans in defence of other, male dominated genres.
I think it bears considering that when people link young adult romance and female needs with the fact that boys don’t enjoy reading young adult fiction, there may be an element of sexism in this argument. 2.) …and there are tons of books that look like they suit the traditionally feminine girls needs too.
This comes back to what I was saying in my first post
: girls are not all part of a homogeneous cultural group just because they are all female. While many books may look like they’re designed to project traditional ideas about femininity to attract female readers, these tactics often do not work, because not every girl responds positively to traditional ideas about femininity. Saying that this kind of book suits girls’ needs is to make assumptions based on false premises (that all girls are the same and that because something looks traditionally feminine it suits a girl's needs). In doing so, the arguer makes an incorrect link between marketing and real women. 3.) There are an awful lot of books with heroines as well. 'We've stripped boys of substance and we did it to empower girls. Somehow, the message "girls can do it too" became "only a girl can do it," and men became the weaker sex in YA.
' - 'Invincible Summer'
I don’t mind the general argument here (that maybe there should be more and varied young adult novels with male leads because boys need representation - although I still want to see some numbers on this). On the other hand, I reject the idea that novels featuring heroines are expanding outside their segment of the pie, and in doing so are knocking out available resources for books featuring male leads. That argument seems to claim that because there are novels about girls flying on dragons fighting with swords, no one is going to publish any more books about boys flying on dragons with swords, so boys miss out on seeing themselves represented. I really don’t see that – if books about fighting on dragons with swords are popular, surely publishers will rush to publish all books about fighting on dragons with swords, right? And again, the idea that books with heroines are eating the slice of the pie allotted to books with heroes seems to link boys not enjoying young adult fiction with girls expanding their areas of representation and reading interests. 'Backlash is when a movement toward equality for a marginalized group gains momentum and the privileged group(s) freak out. This usually takes the form of denying that there's a problem or firmly announcing that the problem has been taken care of, all while doing a little dance in the opposite corner of the room to refocus the attention on who's really suffering.'
I say hell yes to this post and the way it corrects the mistaken idea that as girls grow more empowered and see more diverse representation of themselves in young adult fiction boys automatically see less representation and find less to enjoy in YA. It turns reminds us that when someone points a blaming finger at the ladies in error three fingers point back at them. 4.) It’s time to make vague gendered assumptions about what girls' want and need. Again. Hurray, I never get tired of this carousel ride.
Girls like pink covers, or reading about romance. They are actively involved in the pink cover/romance domination of the young adult market. Blah, blah, blah, these arguments progress in a predictable way, probably with assumptions about natural behaviour thrown in. Need I repeat myself? Assumptions of homogeneous culture…. link to girls actively encouraging market to alienate boys…total fucking crap. 5.) Girls reading actively keeps boys from reading. 'Let’s face it guy readers, we are pwn3d by female book bloggers, let alone female readers. And considering the fact that we are tremendously outnumbered by them, we will continuously be pwn3d over the next millenia.'
- 'Guy Gone Geek'
Please see the rest of this post and hear me shout NO, NO, NO, NO, NO. To borrow some words from Renay: 'the WHAT ABOUT THE MENZ?!?!?! meme is a staple of being a lady in the world who sees arrows in her entertainment.'
- subverting the text
These are the kinds of implicit sexist rhetoric I hear behind every bit of vague talk about how the majority of young adult novels being published are 'friendlier' towards girls because they fit with girls 'needs'. Prove me wrong - clarify your ideas opponents.
With this post (and with this series in general), I hope to affirm that there is a sexist slant to arguments about why boys don’t read young adult fiction. In doing so I want to demonstrate that a false barrier has been identified between boys and how little young adult fiction they may read (girls and their needs). Focusing on this incorrect barrier distracts people from defining and combating the real barriers that keep boys from enjoying young adult fiction. Focusing on this barrier also reinforces sexist culture. Neither of these things get me any closer to the cultural society I want to live in.
* Yes, ok, my dissertation topic was rhetorical arguments for witchcraft – it is still a good example. Next Wednesday
: The final installment (or thankfully I can stop talking about this after one last, angry post) Previously
: 'Ladies, Gentlemen, Somebody Ring the Alarm'
, Girls Omni-reading
, Girls Like They're Boys