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‘Gendered’ books and other thoughts on boys and girls, reading and equality in general

Gendered booksI had a heads-up recently that the issue of ‘gendered‘ books might raise its head at the Society of Authors Independents’ Day, where I was taking part in a panel event with Simon Mason of David Fickling Books, Kate Wilson of Nosy Crow, Liz Bankes of Catnip Publishing, and Mal Peet in the chair (no pressure to sound vaguely intelligent there, then). The topic didn’t crop up, in the end, but it did exercise both panel and attendees at our own Girls and Reading event last summer in London, where things got quite heated and Meg Rosoff, Karen McCombie, Kaye Umansky, Sally Nicholls and Annie Dalton had the politest of ding-dongs. And it’s been in the press again, thanks to author Jonathon Emmett, of whom, more later.

We struggle with this question. Like all publishers, we exist within a commercial reality, and unlike many, our context is further complicated by the fact that our books tend towards the niche variety, (or at least to be viewed as such). To get the books out there we have to understand the market as well as we can, and the reality is that the market is segmented, with gender as one variable informing the segmentation. And we know to our cost that attempts to transcend market segmentation can be a one-way street to market turn-off.

We try to be responsible. We don’t publish many fairy-princess books, and we don’t do much of the monster-dinosaur-car variety – that’s just not what our list is about. This means we don’t come up against the questions these raise about how to market this content and the way these marketing decisions reflect and/or influence the messages society sends to boys and girls. Many of the books we do publish consciously set out to ensure children aren’t pushed into stereotypical roles. Our marvellous Mary may play with Barbies, but thanks to the genius of Eoin Colfer, Barbie wins the World Boxing title and saves the ozone layer. Teenage boy Taka may be the protagonist of Chris Bradford’s Ninja trilogy, but he’d be lost without his female sidekick Cho. Most of our authors think inclusively without any input from us; we challenge any who do not.

Some of our books definitely have what we’ll call a gender bias. Our witty and wise Karen McCombie titles, for example, have relatively few male characters and our Tom Palmer WWI novel Over the Line has few girls and women, reflecting the reality in which it is set.

But here’s a rub. We suspect the Tom Palmer will be read by quite a lot of girls, but that the Karen McCombie books will not be read by boys. There’s an old nugget of broadcasting wisdom to the effect that girls and women will watch programmes with male protagonists while boys and men will abandon a programme if the protagonist is female.

What’s up with that? Are we saying that girls and women are interested in a wider range of experiences than boys and men? Or that there’s something lacking in a ‘girls’ book’ or ‘woman’s film’ that is not lacking in a ‘boys’ one’? In the world of children’s books, Jonathon Emmett thinks the answer to the latter question is ‘yes’. Specifically he finds content relating to technology, peril and threat, irredeemable villainy, male protagonists, rude humour and ‘cool’ missing in books aimed at younger children. He identifies these as key to engaging boys.

As feminists, we’re going to raise a red flag here. As we focus on boys and their lower reading attainment at certain stages, we can forget that it’s girls who still face the greatest inequalities as they progress through life. Do girls and women perhaps watch and read about male protagonists without complaint because they complain less in general? Or are they used to having little choice in the matter, given that they are surrounded by a society and its media in which girls and women are still routinely under-represented?

Take Hollywood films, where the ‘Bechdel Test‘ was born out of the fact that women don’t direct big studio pictures, female leads don’t carry ‘serious’ films, only 28% of roles are for women, and many of those are nothing more than arm candy for a male character. Think this is an adults-only problem? Look at Toy Story and think again.

Sticking with the theme of equality – or lack thereof – we feel that some of Jonathon Emmett’s content identified as good for lads could bear some scrutiny. Emmett cites Star Wars as the sort of thing that excites boys. First off – surprise! – Star Wars is a perfect example of the massive gender inequality of Hollywood with its galaxy of ‘roughly 1000+ men for every one woman‘. What does that tell boys – and girls – if not that it’s a man’s world? Secondly, while the one female lead – to seven male – does wield various weapons and run around fighting, she also does time in a metal bikini in the harem of a large slug, is on the sharp end of the infamous ‘I love you’/’I know’ exchange and actually loses her mother as a child because said mother ‘lost the will to live’ over the loss of… a man.

Men do, women feel. And expire when they’re not loved. And, erm, become sex slaves. (Wired and The Atlantic are great on the Leia problem).

Back with Emmett, we discover the thesis that – unlike in Hollywood – the ‘problem’ with children’s books stems from the fact the industry doesn’t recognise or value ‘stuff boys like’ because it’s staffed by and filtered through women, and women with a ‘liberal arts’ bias at that.

So, is it true that women dominate in the children’s book industry and among its customers? Yes.

Now, we’ve never seen a person spec in children’s publishing that demands a set of ovaries, we’ve never seen a sign banning dads from the children’s department of a bookshop or library and we’ve never, ever heard of government policy barring men from teaching or librarianship. So where are the men?

Emmett recently complained that he has been misrepresented and always claimed adult men self-exclude from the children’s book world. But in his report he says that men ‘simply don’t seem as interested as women in publishing books for the very young, in the same way that men don’t seem as interested in teaching the very young in our schools.’ (P7, COOL not CUTE! What boys really want from picture books).

May we suggest that, in fact, the lower-earning and lower status areas of children’s publishing (and early education) have been left to women while bookish males have headed for the better-paid, higher status and more securely traditional world of ‘grown-up’ publishing where the gender gap is firmly in place, in the traditional direction?

It’s simply not OK to excuse men a lack of interest in the developing minds of young people and find women at fault for being the ones to roll their sleeves up and get on with the work. So what do we need to do for a healthier balance in future? Emmett suggests some positive discrimination, including placing men on judging committees for book awards.

We’d prefer to see men challenged for what they’re not doing than women challenged for not doing it the way these self-same men think they should. And we also think there are much wider discussions to be had about the lessons we teach our children about gender, in books and in society as a whole.

And while we’re doing the challenging… We all like to find ‘ourselves’ in a book, but books are also about widening our horizons. I know a pretty brilliant guy who just read Things Fall Apart and Burial Rites on my recommendation. These are two radically different books, set in Africa and Iceland and written half a century apart, but what we both found was that each made us think in new ways about the aspects of home that interest us (the Western Isles and Gaelic). Not once did he say he’d found Burial Rites irrelevant to him because its protagonist is a woman and the novel focuses heavily on her relationship with another woman; nor, I think, did he find Things Fall Apart more relevant because it’s about a man and there’s as much peril, violence and weaponry as Jonathon Emmet could wish for. Although, of course, Achebe has the attendant horror, the shades of grey and all the humanity that ‘irredeemable villainy’ does not allow.

A long post, this, and one with no answers, but I was moved to write it because I’d like there to be more men around in the future who like and respect women as equals – enough to see that Burial Rites and Things Fall Apart can be equally relevant to a male reader, and to look at a film devoid of women and wonder just what happened long, long ago in that galaxy not so far, far away.

Here’s a shout-out out to a few equal opps reading heroes of the male variety:

Lewis Grassic Gibbon, who created one of the most vibrant protagonists in literary history – Chris(tine) Guthrie. He repeated the feat with Meg Menzies in Smeddum.

Alexander McCall Smith, another man writing women with as much care as men. There must be something in the water in Scotland.

Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, proving that it’s not all happening in Scotland after all.

Joe Craig for his brilliant and very funny rebuttal of Emmett’s article.

One thought on “‘Gendered’ books and other thoughts on boys and girls, reading and equality in general

  1. What a brilliant piece. I too think that it’s a more complex issue than is sometimes suggested, and I do think worry sometimes that the backlash against “gendered” books is in danger or becoming a backlash against books which predominantly girls like, and which feature predominantly girl characters. After all, back before books were supposedly so “gendered”, in the golden days people keep harking back to, often the girls were simply expected to read or watch the stuff about the boys. I was interested, for example, when Royal Mail recently issued a set of stamps commemorating children’s classic TV, that ALL the characters featured were male, with the exception of Peppa Pig (who is also the most recent). Maybe girl characters have simply become more mainstream?

    I also think adults could do more to encourage boys to take an interest in girl-lead books and other media – I’ve noticed boys are very happy to read my books, despite the girl leads, once they’ve heard an extract. I think there’s more adult acceptance of girls liking the “boys stuff” and sometimes adults are uncomfortable when it’s the other way round.

    I also think although Jonathan Emmett is right about some of the things he says about picture books – that sometimes they could do with more danger and peril, for example – I think blaming that on the female-dominated publishing industry is a red herring. Pre-school TV in the UK and US is just as protective of young children (absence of peril, villains, and all the other things Jonathan complains about) but LOTS of men work in the preschool TV. I don’t think it’s actually a gender issue.

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