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Having established that I have some strong things to say about the way people talk about boys and reading, let me turn to one suggestion that seems to be coming up more and more as people continue to talk about how to get boys interested in YA.

The solution that seems to be coming from many commentators is that publishers should get rid of gendered, girl-centric covers and replace them with ‘boy friendly’ graphics. Every time I see this solution appear I find myself so frustrated. I’m dying to see the back of gendered marketing and the idea that girls all respond positively to books with pink covers, but the campaign for ‘boy friendly' covers rubs me wrong.

Renay wrote a really great post about why calling for more male book representation isn’t a particularly helpful solution to the get boys to read more, if we consider the discussion of boys not reading in the context of a continual, world wide fight for gender equality. My ideas on the issue of creating have formed are absolutely indebted to that post and I don’t intend to restate Renay’s points because her writing can speak for itself, so I encourage you to bob over there now so that you’ll understand the rhetorical standpoint I’m using to deconstruct arguments about creating more covers that will appeal to boys.

The creation of more ‘boy friendly’ covers is a solution that several kick-ass feminist commentators have embraced, so it is in no way an easy, lazy piece of sexist skulduggery. While tweets like this one, which appeared during last week’s Twitter chat about ‘Why Men Write YA’ show a clearly sexist slant, creating ‘boy friendly’ or non-gendered covers appears to be an attractive, practical, non-problematic solution to the problem of boy’s lack of interest in young adult fiction. However, it is a solution that places boy’s practical needs above a fight for genuine, all encompassing equality.

Twitter quote reading: can hardly blame boys for taking one look at the jackets on the YA shelves & heading for the hills.
As Renay said when we discussed this tweet 'Of course they do, they're sexist and our culture is making them that way! The solution isn't to remove the feminine, that's just erasing girls.' No one is jabbing the pointy finger of blame at these boys, who are 'heading for the hills'. Feminist commentators are declaring their issues with a culture that tells boys they should be fleeing from these kind of jackets, that in fact it's ok to drop these books and leg it because normal boys should be against anything that looks vaguely traditionally girl-centric. When they march feminists carry signs declaring themselves against the social system of sexism, not against boys.

Let me suggest a comparison argument to illuminate why I think the dicussion about 'boy friendly' covers has strayed from the task of promoting genuine equality. Last year there was some talk over at Book Snob about the repercussions of allowing female soldiers to fight on the front line. One line of rhetoric that was discussed, suggested that male soldiers would be unable to perform their front line duties effectively if women were on the front line, because they would find it distressing to see their female colleagues injured. In this argument supposed male practical needs (to be protected from seeing something so distressing that their professional effectiveness would be compromised1) are placed ahead their female colleagues right to equality (to be given an equal chance to work in any kind of job a man works in)2.

The idea of putting ‘boy friendly’ covers on books is far removed from the subject of women on the front line and the scale of practical importance is hugely different, but the structure of the rhetorical arguments used about the importance of ‘boy friendly’ or ‘gender neutral’ covers is much the same. In the discussion about the army, some of the links cited are leery about using ‘natural arguments’, which rely on establishing a biological difference between men and women in order to show that women are unsuited for a task. These arguments seem less than reasonable to some involved in the discussion. I can remember seeing posts for ‘boy friendly’, or gender neutral book covers where the author makes it clear that boys don’t need these kind of covers because of a natural antipathy to pink, or a natural inclination for blue.

In the discussion at Book Snob, cultural arguments against women serving on the front line that are mentioned by commenter’s and in a linked article, are given much more credence. Men’s instinct to protect women is mentioned, and linked to the mental destruction of soldiers who see female colleagues injured. It appears that this may be used as a reason for keeping women from serving on the front line. Implicit in this line of thinking is the idea that culture has shaped men into protectors and Rachel explicitly mentions that men’s idea of themselves as protectors of women is a problematic internal image created by societal pressures. Cultural conditioning is a well established, respected idea among liberal commentators who reject biological determinism. The discussion at Book Snob includes people who recognise that culture shapes our perceptions of the opposite gender in problematic, undesirable ways which limit our society’s struggle for equality. Participants in discussions about putting ‘boy friendly’ or ‘gender neutral’ covers on books also frequently acknowledge that boys culturally created unwillingness/inability to read books with traditionally girly covers is created by societal sexism and is very much a problem.

Although the people involved in the Book Snob discussion and the people discussing boys reading recognise that cultural conditioning exists, after this realisation they focus on how near impossible it would be to change male attitudes. It seems that over at Book Snob everyone is just stymied by how huge a task this seems and I don't blame them. It is a huge, scary task. Some of the people involved in thinking up ways to get boys to read are very aware of the need for practical solutions right now, so that the boys that exist now don’t end up alienated from reading. Undoing centuries of gendered conditioning doesn’t look like the strategy to take when there appears to be a more practical solution, fast track that they can campaign for. People involved in these discussions believe cultural conditioning can be undone, even though it would be incredibly difficult (although I do think that the comments on Renay’s show there are plenty of other people who are hostile to the idea that working against gendered social conditioning is the way to get boys reading). People, at least in the discussions about book covers boys will like, are just focused on creating strategies that could immediately fix the highly visible problems affecting men and boys. And while they’re focusing on those strategies, the less visible problems of equality facing women and girls go into second position.

I get why, really I do. The idea that any boy might leave school illiterate scares the hell out of me. The idea that boys might not enjoy reading makes me a little sad for complicated reasons. And focusing on getting boys book covers that appeal to them doesn’t immediately seem to equate with keeping girls from achieving deserved equality. The problem is that if people keep telling boys that they don’t have to be interested in anything that looks traditionally female then it’s just another perpetuation of the idea that something which is linked (traditionally, or really) with the female can never be as good, or as interesting as something linked with the male. Pink can never be as good as blue, forever and ever and ever.

I know that might not seem important in the face of potentially illiterate boys. It sounds like the ramblings of a theorist with no eye for the practicalities of the world and I can imagine people saying that girls read a lot, women have a lot of literary representation, okay, the picture’s not perfect but women are at least in it. What does it matter if creating covers that are friendlier towards boys makes unfortunate suggestions? Let’s get those boys reading! I just have to maintain that idealistic theory is important, otherwise what are we aiming for? What’s the point if we don’t want to achieve everything? Ideas about intersectionality (specifically how not to hurt one group while empowering the other) need to be applied in these discussions on reading and boys, or we're all just going to end up with the same gendered mess we've always had.

1Personally I find the practical need I’ve identified at odds with the idea of what the army does. Everyone on the frontline sees a range of horrifying things that can affect their professional effectiveness and it seems that since the army is sometimes rather powerless to protect soldiers from these sights, they concentrate on ways to help them after the event.

2Disclaimer to say that I’m not accusing anyone who took part in that discussion of being deliberately anti-feminist and trying to keep the ladies down – sexist analysis can get in anyone’s brain, including mine and it is hard to combat. Nor am I saying you have to agree with my analysis of that exchange. I was very pleased to be able to have such a respectful conversation.


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