bookgazing: (Default)
[personal profile] bookgazing
White, yellow and red book cover of Kameron Hurley's The Geek Feminist Revolution featuring an illustration of a llama

It's the start of July. I am trying to review Kameron Hurley's essay collection, The Geek Feminist Revolution. In my wisdom, I have decided an analysis of her essay, "I'll Make The Pancakes: On Opting In And Out of the Writing Game", would make a great entry point for my review. I reread it to remind myself of the piece's fundamental points:

The more women writers I read, from Margaret Atwood and Octavia Butler to Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Toni Morrison, the less alone I felt, and the more I began to see myself as part of something more.

It wasn't about one woman toiling against the universe. It was about all of us moving together, crying out into some black, inhospitable place that we would not be quiet, we would not go silently, we would not stop speaking, we would not give in.

It's hard to see the keyboard when you're trying not to cry.

Read more... )
helloladies: Horseshoe icon with the words Lady Business underneath. (Default)
[personal profile] helloladies
Like last year’s study, Coverage of Women in SF/F blogs (2012) has generated a range of reactions. Much has been reasoned, and we’re grateful to everyone who took the time to look closely at the data. However, some responses have been, well…interesting. Oh internet, you all know what 'interesting' means in the context of discussions about gender, right?

Luckily, because we’re bloggers, we have our own space where we can deconstruct that kind of response. And that’s what we propose to do below: each of us will be taking apart particular reactions and trying to explain just why we found them suspect by examining the language used or the critical ideas expressed about our data. Since the 101 derailing nature of these reactions made us angry, we’re just going to let that anger roar in places, while simultaneously producing a clear outline of just why we are angry and how several respondents to our study hope to misrepresent our findings.
Read more... )
helloladies: Horseshoe icon with the words Lady Business underneath. (free tl;dr)
[personal profile] helloladies

In ‘Young People’s Fiction: Feisty Girls, Feckless Boys’ Eleanor Updale, Costa judge, posits a link between the domination of a ‘feisty’ cliched female character and a negative ‘bias’ towards male characters, that she thinks can be found in young adult fiction. She then goes on to suggest links between this negative bias and female publishing executives, as well as female consumers.

Our journal is called ‘ladybusiness’ everyone. I’m sure, you can guess we are less than supportive of the kind of argument that links the destruction of male characters with women who are out spoken, or in control. Ana and I decided to take a really hard look at this article, so we could spell out our own objections to the construction of Updale’s article and the logic she uses to support her arguments.

This got long. )
bookgazing: (charmed)
[personal profile] bookgazing
At least once a year, probably more, a conversation starts about how boys aren’t reading, because there aren’t enough books which represent boys' interests. Let me put the complications of what kind of books represent boys interests phrasing away for a moment, as I think I’ve spent enough time deconstructing the idea of ‘boys books’ in earlier posts. The issue I want to focus on in this post is that participants in these conversations often neglect to consider the overall context of gender representation in which their conversations must take place. Their ignorance of this context, can resulting in an exclusionist focus that ignores the true shape of reality.

What is, ha, I want to say shocking, but that would be ridiculous, instead I’ll say what is troubling, is that male commentators on this issue (and let me make this absolutely clear, even though I’ve tried to qualify any reference of men in this post: I’m not talking about all men here, just men who engage in specific behaviour, this post will not apply to some men, but it will apply to others) often appear totally uninterested that there are many, many areas (large and small) where the female gender is not overwhelmingly represented. Every year the English male rugby team competes in the six nations tournament. Their matches are shown by the BBC, who control some of the main television channels in my country. The English women’s team took the Grand Slam this year as they did in 2010. They also won the Grand Slam three years running from 2006 - 2008. The Grand Slam has famously eluded the men's team since 2003. And the women’s six nation tournament is shown...where, exactly? Are male commentators so concerned about the exclusion of men from areas of literary representation rocking up to engage in conversations about the lack of representation for women? Are they fuck!

We know that when women see themselves represented in media sources, these representations are not championed by much of male society. In fact, when women are represented that representation is actively scorned, usually by men (discussions on The Orange Prize, or the encroaching feminising of sci-fi are good examples of this kind of disparagement). When women aren’t represented in media sources that lack of representation is ignored, or explained away by these same men. These men’s sole focus is on the small areas where women have made a space for their own gender and how this may exclude men, or boys. Men who engage in these conversations rarely consider that society has and continues to create vast plains of spaces for maleness, which it is even now desperately trying to keep free from female involvement.

When people start passionately proclaiming that there is a ‘boy problem’, or that boys may be underrepresented in a few areas, it is hard for many ladies to keep from rolling their eyes. It is hard for some of us to keep from questioning why men, and society in general, talk so little about the many, many, many areas where women are underrepresented, or poorly represented, or just fucking pushed to the side.

Men who engage in conversations about boys and reading will often conveniently ignore the widespread lack of representation for girls and women, then refocus the conversation on one of the few areas where boys may, may, lack representation. Add that tunnel vision approach to the way these conversation quickly spin off into women blaming and you reach a situation where some ladies need to open their mouths, because if they don’t their heads will explode. I imagine that is why Maureen Johnson felt she needed to tweet, wondering why we don’t ever talk about the WMBA, even though it caused some people to question the relevance of her contribution to the conversation. The calls come that ‘It’s not time for talking about women’s issues now, it’s time to talk about the men.’ and it feels like, well, when isn’t it time to talk about the men? Men control the dialogue on representational inequality. They decide what we’re talking about and not talking about, but unfortunately the direction of their focus is not determined by looking at what real inequalities of representation exist, but by deciding what they want to talk about. These are not conversations about gender inequality, they are conversations about men. Again.

When women want to talk about the sexual and gender inequalities perpetuated in so many areas, or take a look at how many areas of power are dominated by men, it is typical to find lots of men in the comments sections mansplaining. “What is happening is not sexist, dude, it’s just not!” Alternatively these men remain silent on these subjects, instead of offering support. It is not like we can expect these men to step outside their gender box and stand as allies when there are dudeboys to be talked about at length, forever. They simply do not have the time and it is implied that women must be ‘strong’ enough to continually create their own spaces of representation. They must continually counter slander again and again if they want to prove the worth of these spaces.

Dudes I get it, I think all the feminist and female positive women got it long ago. Ladies have to make it on their own, carve their own space for these arguments. We cannot and should not rely on the opposite gender to do so for us. If a guy asked ‘Why is there no Orange Prize for the mens?’ (y’know after cursing and rehashing years of literary inequality under my breath) I’d refer him to the official Orange position. If men want something gender specific, then they need to make it their own damn selves, and the same applies to women. I’m not asking these men to do the job for us, I’m just asking that they not make the same repetitive points over and over until I feel so damn tired that I sequester myself away from the world with books and booze, vaguely hoping that a giant tidal wave is on its way. And maybe, if it’s not too much trouble, they could listen to what women are saying instead of imposing their own agenda in our spaces.

If I put these thoughts to the kind of men who fill blog posts with derailing comments men and maybe they’d start thinking "Damn, this isn’t equality*. You’re saying it’s not acceptable for men to talk about the way the world fucks guys over in spaces given over to feminism. But then you say it’s fine to talk about how society fucks women over in spaces where the original conversation is about male equality. How the fuck does that work?” Let me explain: ours is not an equal society. Although women really are equal to men and strive for recognition of this equality, they often experience dramatically unequal treatment. Anyone throwing round ‘reverse sexism’ arguments should take a minute to ask the women around them about women’s representation. Can these women watch a sports team representing their gender without having to buy a special tv package? Can they watch a female team play their favourite sport at all? How many consecutive years have women won their favourite non-gender specific awards? How many female politicians are there in the party they support? When did they last see an Oscar nominated film that was all about the ladies**? How many all female indie bands have they heard about in the last twelve months? To sum up: Areas where women are represented more than men are rare.

In an ideal reality, we would see spaces created for discussion about a few very real inequalities that may exist for men and we would happily note the worth of these spaces, these discussions. However, because we live in less than ideal circumstances where similar discussions about the many very real inequalities that face women are systematically derailed and shut down in a mess of anti-productivity, it is hard for many women not to laugh in the face of these discussions. Women are being asked to care deeply about issues of inequality that affect men (and let us acknowledge that often we do not even agree that the issue at hand is correct) when many men could give a short, unsatisfactory fuck about issues of inequality relating to women, many of which have existed for decades.

That, thank goodness, is the end of me pounding out a series of posts about the rhetorical inequality at the heart of arguments on boys and young adult fiction. Gendered argument inequality extends past the specific points I’ve deconstructed, and responses to arguments are often based on sexist simplification, or gendered rhetorical inequality as well. For resources about that aspect of rhetorical arguments you can visit our Education Manifesto.

As much as I’ve tried to keep it tamped down this series is built on anger and I could write a lot more posts built on angry foundations. I’m not sure what use these posts are, but they do make me feel at least a little better – tired, but calmer, like all the words mobbing my brain are out of my head. Next Wednesday no angry shouting I promise. Next Wednesday, lady spies and happiness.

Let me Catch You Up: Ladies, Gentlemen, Somebody Ring the Alarm, Girls Omni-Reading,Girls, Like They're Boys, The Pointy Finger of Blame: Girls, Needs and Boys Not Reading

*Link courtesy of Ana
** Link courtesy of Renay
bookgazing: (charmed)
[personal profile] bookgazing

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.' - 'Manifesta'

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
bookgazing: (charmed)
[personal profile] bookgazing
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'
bookgazing: (charmed)
[personal profile] bookgazing
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


Lady Business welcome badge

Pitch Us!
Review Policy
Comment Policy
Writers We Like!
Contact Us

tumblr icon twitter icon syndication icon

image asking viewer to support Lady Business on Patreon

Who We Are

Ira is an illustrator and gamer who decided that disagreeing with everyone would be a good way to spend their time on the internet. more? » twitter icon tumblr icon AO3 icon

By day Jodie is currently living the dream as a bookseller for a major British chain of book shops. She has no desire to go back to working in the real world. more? » tumblr icon icon

KJ KJ is an underemployed librarian, lifelong reader, and more recently an avid gamer. more? » twitter icon tumblr icon AO3 icon

Renay writes for Lady Business and co-hosts Fangirl Happy Hour, a pop culture media show that includes a lot yelling about the love lives of fictional characters. Enjoys puns. more? » twitter icon pinboard icon tumblr icon

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently over-flowing. more? » twitter icon pinboard icon AO3 icon


Book Review Index
Film Review Index
Television Review Index
Game Review Index
Non-Review Index
We Want It!
Fanwork Recs
all content by tags

Our Projects

hugo award recs

Criticism & Debate

Indeed, we do have a comment policy.

What's with your subtitle?

It's a riff off an extremely obscure meme only Tom Hardy and Myspace fans will appreciate.

hugo award winner
Powered by Dreamwidth Studios