Reading Gender Into It – Children’s Books and Beyond

There’s an ongoing discussion in the kid lit world about why boys don’t want to read “girl books,” meaning books that star female protagonists or feature fairies or princesses on the cover or in the title.

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Is this “preference” intrinsic, or are they steered away from such interests, starting at a very young age?

Shannon Hale, prolific author of many books with the word “princess” in the title,

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gave an eye-opening presentation about gender bias at the national Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrator’s conference in Los Angeles in 2015.

She pointed out how messages can be subtle or blatant, ranging from how parents, teachers, and librarians fail to recommend “girl” books to a young male reader, to how peers and adults  may say outright “You don’t want to read a girl’s book, do you?”

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During her presentation, Hale pointed out how it’s normal for girls to wear pants or climb trees  but boys feel much less free to wear skirts or play with dolls. They live in fear of being taunted for acting/being like a girl, a taunt that is used as the ultimate insult. Sooooo….

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I’m thinking about this now because I just read a Twitter thread at the intersection of face painting and male violence. A little boy wanted a face painter to paint a blue butterfly on his face, a request that his mother and father denied,

shaming him for wanting “something for girls.” Instead, they insisted that his face be painted with a skull and crossbones.

You can read about it here:

http://www.rearfront.com/clown-shares-face-painting-wisdom/

Back to Hale’s presentation…

Why do girls willingly read books about boys, while boys often resist reading books about girls? Why do boys feel free to booo books about girls with the word “Princess” in the title? (Hale said that this actually happened during one of her school visits.) Why do teachers in some schools only allow girls to attend Hale’s presentations because they assume boys won’t (or shouldn’t) be interested in her books? (Yes, this actually happened, too.)

When I asked my son to read one of Hale’s “Princess in Black” books, he said that it was good, “even though it was about princesses.” Hmmmm….where did he get this from? He goes to a progressive school, one that talks about and calls kids out on gender bias, but that pressure must still be there, percolating below radar.

When my son was five, he went to a basketball camp. Turns out he was wearing fingernail polish, and one of the instructors said “What’s up with that?” when we checked in at the registration table. My son immediately curled his fingers into his palms.  We live in San Francisco, folks. We should be beyond this.

In the moment, I tried to laugh it off, and said “oh, he loves the color” or some such thing. Lame, right? When I got home, I sent an email to the camp director and received a note back, saying that this person would not be coming back to camp as an instructor. But the damage had been done. My son asked me to remove the polish when he got home that night.

During her presentation, Hale noted that if a boy asks her to autograph one of her princess books at a bookstore, he’s usually home-schooled, ostensibly free of the peer pressure phenomenon.

Of course, we can then cross genres into film and the infamous Bechdel test that so many films fail. Does that “awesome” PG-13 sci-fi movie have any female characters? Are they strong, or do they scream all the time, expecting to be saved by a man? Do they have speaking parts? Do they talk about something besides men when they talk to each other?

When I asked my son more in-depth questions about Hale’s book, he said that it needed more action. He doesn’t care if the book he’s reading has a female protagonist, as long as the plot keeps moving and the subject matter appeals to his science-math-engineering-gadget taste. That’s true. He’s devoured books with female protagonists, usually when they’re mired in action, mystery, or gadgetry. But for school, he’s read and appreciated The House On Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, a book he wouldn’t have selected it on his own.

My son—like most human beings—is difficult to categorize. People have often mistaken him for a girl because he wears his hair long. He’s getting close to earning a black belt in a martial art, but he loves animals, and can’t stand the thought of someone being mean to a spider. Thank you, Charlotte. He loved Appliegate’s Crenshaw and The One and Only Ivan, and Ryan’s Echo.

Filmwise, he absolutely LOVED the recent Wonder Woman blockbuster. He got a kick out of all the humor directed toward male-female stereotypes and the cool ninja combat moves.

And yes, the movie was quite violent. He enjoyed the explosions and the fact that the bad guys got their comeuppance.

After all, superhero stories are all about saving the world from evil doers, right? And that usually involves explosions and weapons of mass destruction.

These are complicated issues to tease apart. But this I know for sure: a little boy shouldn’t be shamed for wanting a beautiful blue butterfly painted on his face. He shouldn’t be shamed for wanting to play with dolls, wear a skirt or something pink and sparkly, or for wanting to take ballet. Shame lights and then feeds the fire of anger and violence, something we already have far too much of.

And if you’re interested in reading more about the Disney-ification of princesses, check out Peggy Orenstein’s book: “Cinderella Ate My Daughter.” You’ll get a new understanding of how a marketing giant created the new cultural princess norm.

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I’d like to thank the fabulous Stacy Jensen for pulling this new website together! And many thanks to Russ Cox for creating the amazing chicken treehouse. Cheers to all those book-reading chickens!

27 thoughts on “Reading Gender Into It – Children’s Books and Beyond

  1. FictionFan says:

    Great look! Funnily enough, I’m re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird at the moment and have been surprised by the gender stereo-typing in it. I think we’re all so used to concentrating on what it says about racism that maybe the gender stuff hovers below the radar. I don’t know whether it’s nature or nurture. I can only speak from personal anecdote – my father was a boxer and fanatical about sport, especially football. As far as I could tell, he never treated my brother and me significantly differently when we were very young, trying to inspire us both to share his enthusiasm. He took us both to football matches regularly from a very young age and taught us both to box – I was the only three-year old in the neighbourhood with her own boxing gloves! But I never grew to love football, and though I did enjoy watching boxing, I never got fanatical about it. My brother did though. I preferred on the whole to learn knitting and sewing with my mum or “help” her in the kitchen. She tried to interest my brother in those things too and failed miserably. What does that say? Nothing much, I suppose, but I suspect nature had a good deal to do with it in our cases at least. Once we reached about ten or eleven they definitely treated us differently according to gender, but by then we were different in our preferences anyway.

    I never liked books about princesses much though, and my brother wasn’t particularly keen on adventure stories… 😉

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Yes, we are all individuals, aren’t we? At least you were given the opportunity to express your interests. They weren’t forced on you in subtle or not-so-subtle ways. I haven’t read TKAMB in years, so I’ll have to take a look at it. My son will be reading it during his 8th grade language arts class this year, so I’ll have the opportunity to read over his shoulder. He’ll love that. 😀 Perhaps I’ll ask his teacher to discuss this topic as well. Thanks for pointing this out!

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Oh, and I wasn’t one for princesses, either, although I did love the movie about Cinderella when I was little and memorized all the songs. But these pink and purple Disney creatures pretty much leave me cold. Hale’s Princess in Black series knocks the concept of fru-fru princesses on their poufy behinds. And Deborah Underwood’s “Interstellar Cinderella” picture book is subversive in that she doesn’t want to marry the prince, she just wants to be his chief mechanic, fixing all his spaceships. Let’s hear it for progress!

  2. Carrie Rubin says:

    It’s such a frustrating double standard, and it gets perpetuated every day. Sure wish I had an answer. The best I can do is try to raise sons who recognize this gender imbalance when it comes to fiction (and beyond). Hopefully I’ve done that.

  3. Mrs. P says:

    As an elementary school teacher for five years I can say that my “boy” students would read female character books. But, I think our program was unique. Firstly, it was a private school with a very strong reading requirement.

    The second and third grade students did at least three graded readers but could do as many as five if needed to master the level. They also had an additional requirement to read 200-300 but would read as many as 450 pleasure readers (picture books and early chapter books) at their reading level. They were expected to understand the vocabulary of what they read and random checks were done on the pleasure readers to ensure this was occurring. The graded readers were instructional and vocabulary was introduced prior to reading the story.

    The opposite of teasing occurred…kids shared with each other often, saying, “Oh, that’s a really good book but has a sad ending.” A sure way to get another person to read a book is when a book creates laughter…almost anyone will read that type.

    Being in a private school we really never had a teasing or bullying issue…it just wasn’t allowed. In the seventeen years that I taught we had one fight, really more of one student attacking another. The other students nearby pulled the attacker off and he was expelled because of it. Sure, we had arguments and conflicts but nothing like what you hear about today. I don’t think I would have been able to stick with teaching in today’s climate.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Hello, Mrs. P! Good to hear from you! I would have loved to have gone to your school. And I’m thinking my son would have, too. My worry is that some of this bullying and teasing appears to start at home, similar to what was expressed in the Twitter feed I mentioned. I’m not sure if it’s a fear of appearing to be weak, or what. I do know that where I grew up, you wouldn’t dream of acting outside the cultural gender norm. Your school sounds like it was a special place, one that fostered responsible and well-adjusted adults. Good for you to have been a part of that!

  4. cricketmuse says:

    As a high school English teacher I am faced with selecting reading that appeals to all. It isn’t easy. Typically I lean towards books guys will read because they are usually reluctant readers and I need the buy in. Last year I went with The Alchemist for sophomores and Frankenstein for seniors and F451 for juniors. Mostly, it hit the mark.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      You have a tough job. Do you change up your selection each year, or are these your “go to” books annually? I know it takes a long time to develop lesson plans, so teachers are often reticent to switch things up. (Given that you don’t get paid for all the time you work outside of school hours. )There’s been a trend in kidlit at the elementary level for authors to either pay an ed specialist to develop a downloadable teacher’s guide for a new book or to do it themselves if they’ve been a teacher. Do you see this happening for books at the high school level?

      • cricketmuse says:

        Lord of the Flies is the usual 10th grade choice, but I wanted something more world lit (and less violent). We do have a fairly set of novels for the curriculum. To Kill a Mockingbird for ninth and usually The Great Gatsby for juniors or Of Mice and Men. These don’t have gender bias. I have had some AP lit guys curl their lip at Jane Eyre (?!?)–Rochester is not a chick lit hero, that’s for sure.
        I haven’t seen the trend for lit packages. I actually find most of what I need on-line.

        • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

          Interesting. Maybe those young men are initially curling their lips at what they think is Jane Austen, LOL.

          Could be that the teachers’ guide trend is restricted to elementary school. They’re used to help teachers justify the reading of fiction in the era of common core guidelines. Or maybe the high school curriculum was already saturated with teachers’ guides and it is just now becoming more important in lower grades.

  5. heylookawriterfellow says:

    I never really thought about this much. My son was never the self-conscious type when it comes to reading material. That may be because I tried to introduce him to anything I thought was worth introducing. Whenever I came across any kid’s book I liked, my first instinct was to show it to Alex and say “This is awesome!” For years Alex and I were huge fans of the Ivy and Bean series. Maybe I introduced him to the series when he was too young to be influenced by peers, maybe my enthusiasm for I&B colored his view of the books. Whatever the reason, I’m glad he didn’t miss out. Now he is almost the right age for The Hunger Games. I’m certain he’ll take to that one, too, because, really, how couldn’t he?

    BTW: Love the look of your blog!

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Yes! I can see you doing that. I&B is quite subversive in its humor, isn’t it? I took a little workshop from the author a couple of years ago. She lives in the Bay Area and is pretty irreverent. I wonder if the gender of the “introducer” has anything to do with how kids respond. My husband is a huge SF reader, so he’s introduced Liam to SF. It’s now his favorite genre. But since he had to read a nonfiction book for school over the summer, I picked up a new MG book about the history of chocolate. He’s loving that, too, of course. He now runs around the house spewing facts about how milk chocolate was accidentally discovered and how people have made millions off candy bar sales. Liam loved the Hunger Games, too. My burning question is this: Do you test your books out on Alex before you send them to your agent? And glad you like the new look! It’s been in the works for awhile.

      • heylookawriterfellow says:

        Oh, I wouldn’t even *consider* sending a book to my agent without first reading it aloud to Alex and Ellen. They help me determine to book’s pacing and rhythm. Their help me to better scrutinize every line. They show me if the jokes “land.”

        And, Lordy, are they opinionated!

  6. Kate Johnston says:

    I love the new look to your website! The chicken theme is so clever!

    I’m with you about gender bias in books. As I teach creative writing in after-school enrichment programs, I often have to draw examples from MG books or films that are G-rated. I have a wide range of ages in my classes–from first grade to fourth grade, or fifth-eighth, so picking a book that is appropriate as well as relatable is very difficult! Actually, using films for examples is often easier, and I usually lean toward Disney films.

    But anytime I talk about Cinderella or Wonder Woman, I catch the sneers on some of the boys’ faces. Obviously, this kind of thnking is ingrained at a young age and perpetuated in school or through their peers.

    Now that I’ve run into these kinds of reactions, I often spend time discussing the role of protagonists in books/films and ask kids why they think or don’t think gender matters. Then we do writing prompts with female protags and female antags–because I think males are stereotyped as “the bad guy” just as much as women are stereotyped to be weak and vulnerable. The prompts switching up kids’ expectations of gender roles is usually quite successful.

    Great post!

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Ooooh, I love how you’re addressing this issue with your teaching! Yay! It is a bit distressing to see these cultural attitudes set in so early, isn’t it? Probably makes you feel a bit like Sisyphus, pushing the anti-gender bias rock back up the hill.

      Thanks for your comments on my website! I gave Russ a few parameters and he ran with it. He’s such a talented illustrator! I love my busy chickens! 😀

  7. Ste J says:

    Great post! I think the main factor about books being perceived for certain genders is that it takes time to move from the ideas that have been ongrained through the generations. There is still a lot of those ‘boy’s own’ story thoughts that are passed down through families. As society gets more progressive things slowly change but it does need the outside factors to boost a change.

    The Princess book actually looks good, I would read it but Peer Pressure is certainly a big factor when reading at school, on the other hand one could argue that using the word princess would automatically be devisive and would a book with the same contents but a different title/cover get more boys to read it, without that pressure. It’s an interesting subject.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      I think you’re right about taking time to change, but there does need to be some driving force behind the change. Otherwise, the status quo prevails. I think Hale is trying to remove the stereotype associated with princesses. Hence the MC and series title. There’s a book written by Peggy Orenstein called “Cinderella Ate My Daughter.” Here’s a link to a story on NPR about it. I think you’ll find it interesting. http://www.npr.org/2011/02/05/133471639/saving-our-daughters-from-an-army-of-princesses

      It’s about the Disney-ification of princesses as fueled by a marketing giant and how it came to define what a “princess” is supposed to look like.

      • Ste J says:

        Thanks for the link, it was a good read, the problem with people is that when they see something as traditional, no matter how out of date or silly it is, they dig their heels in as if it actually matters. These days the Disney parks at least are more interested in Marvel and Star Wars as that is where the money is, so perhaps there will be a marginalising of the Disney princess model, at least to a certain extent. Time will tell and hopefully common sense will prevail.

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