Last Saturday at the SF Weekender I had a delightful chat with a very lovely lady who asked if The City’s Son was a ‘boy book’ because she was looking for something her son could read. So, I figured I’d jot down a few thoughts on the whole “boy book vs girl book thing”.
None of these ideas are original to me. I’ve seen them in various places around the interweb, and very eloquently put. I’m summarizing here because if you stand somewhere on a political issue then it’s good practice to let people know where, and because I’ve started thinking about this in a broader context around technology and politics and thought it was interesting.
So here’s the proposition: there are sorts of books that are/should be of interest to girls and sorts that are should/be of interest to boys and these are mutually exclusive categories, and the way to get boys to read more is to print more of the latter. This idea is a) divisive b)sexist, c) exclusionary d) counterproductive and e) incredibly persistent. I.e. It’s toxic.
It’s divisive because it creates and reinforces an idea that we want girls and boys to be interested in different things, to do different things and therefore to be different things. And what’s more, to lack the basic empathy to be interested enough in an other gender to want to read book about them.
It’s sexist because the content that we tend to put into books (and other media) for either gender tends to reinforce the gendered power imbalance we have. All too often, girls learn that they ought to be fulfilled by making house and having babies, while boys learn that they need to become comfortable with domination and violence. This is both toxic in its own right, and in the message it sends to those readers (and watchers and players) whose instincts run counter to those norms, that there’s something wrong with them.
Its exclusionary because it frames the debate in terms of a binary that’s not a true reflection of the world. There aren’t only two genders, and not all kids are sure of their gender identity, and the question ‘is this a girl book or a boy book’ shuts those kids out and makes them invisible, when quite frankly, they’ve got more than enough shit to deal with already.
And finally, it’s counter productive because once you’ve set up a divide like this, it just eats things. It’s like a fucking sarlacc, basically, a yawning chasm that actively drags things into it. Human beings taxonomise mercilessly, especially if we feel affiliated to one of the categories All manner of things become subject to the distinction, including sport, science and reading itself. The act of picking up a book and getting lost in the story becomes something that only a specific subset of the human race ought to do, which is both bonkers and ironic if your aim is to get people reading.
Like I said, none of this is new, but all of it is, I think, true.
Here’s the broader context I was talking about: Nick Harkaway, in his book The Blind Giant, tells us ‘We have to code the change we want to see in the world.’ In a world increasingly conditioned by technology, we have to consciously and actively choose the technology that will make it easier for the world to become the way we want it to be. For some people that means actually designing it, for everyone else that means buying it, because in a Capitalist society, paying=voting. Nick applies this insight to various internet technologies, including amazon’s ability to yank books off your kindle without your permission and I think he’s absolutely right, but it’s not a new phenomenon.
‘Code the change you want to see in the world’ has always been good advice. It’s easy to forget when you’re talking about things that have been around for millennia, but language and books are both technologies, mature, yes, but still evolving through their use. They’re tools we created to shape the world in a certain way, and as we choose the tools we want for the future, we have to think about the future we want. The phrases ‘boy book’ and ‘girl book’? Not tools on my list.
I, along with everyone else I know, would love a future where boys read as much as girls do. But more than that, I want a future where boys have enough basic human empathy that they can relate to Lizzy Bennet or Katniss Everdeen as a human being like them, rather than a ‘girl’ who’s nothing like them. Because if they can’t do that with a character in a book, why should we assume they’ll do it with the real thing? Anyone who’s seen any recent statistics on domestic violence think that’s not important?
(In the reverse scenario, Girls are supposed to be rather better at empathising with boy characters, a couple thousand years of masculine normativity doing what it does.)
I, along with everyone else I know, want to live in a world where any kid has the entire field of human endeavour open to them, because that’s what equality means: not that all girls and boys need to be the same, but that their differences are an expression of their individuality rather than defined by what society thinks the bits they were born with ought to mean.
If that’s the future we want, then we have to code it. We have to choose the tools, the books and the words.