Desegregating Our Bookshelves Is A Good Start. Now What?

If boys won’t read books with girl protagonists, the solution is not to create more explicitly “boy” books, the solution is to delve deeply into “why,” says Soraya Chemaly.

Last week, The Independent announced it would no longer review books that were specifically marketed to either boys or girls. As they put it, “Gender-specific books demean all our children.” This was welcome news that came in the wake of both Parragon and Usborne publishers revealing that they will not publish books with titles “for boys” or “for girls.”

As I’ve written here before, children’s books remain very gender imbalanced, are plagued by stereotypes, are not racially or ethnically diverse, and do not tell stories that meet a pluralistic society’s needs.

Not everyone is happy about this decision or this information, however.

After I wrote about gender bias revealed in the largest-ever national survey and analysis of children’s books, I got many irate messages and heard from gender equality advocates who had similar experiences when they shared the piece. In one instance, a reviewer of children’s books for the Denver Post insisted that the research findings, which looked at more than 100 years worth of books, were “wildly inaccurate.” The problem, she insisted, based on her reading experiences, is a dearth of books for boys. I was curious and genuinely interested in any information that contradicted the study’s findings, but when I called her to ask if she could possibly share any sources, other than anecdotal experience, she had none. She is, she insisted, not an academic with an agenda, but a journalist. What struck me the most was the hostility of her disbelief and her insistence that the research was wrong because she didn’t herself see this pattern.

This is common. We all rely on what we see.

It’s human nature to organize the world into schemas that simplify our progress through life. There are three primary filters that humans use in our assessments of other people: age, race, and gender. In different countries they have different weights. Gender is a global primary meta filter. In the United States, unlike other countries, race is a very close second, but neither age nor race is as immediately determinate as the automatic assignment of sex and the domino effect it has. Identifying babies by their (almost always binary, intersex is still rarely used) sex instantly becomes a matter of gender and performance. People decorate rooms, buy clothes, and inform their offsprings’ identities though their interactions and environments. When they don’t, it is cause for societal irritation, confusion, and no small amount of alarm.

Consider the worldwide outrage at parents Beck Laxton and Kieran Cooper’s five-year refusal to tell anyone their child, Sasha’s, sex.

Sasha, who turned out to be a boy, grew up wearing pretty much anything he wanted, reading anything that interested him, and, as was his parents’ intent, was as free from the oppressive demands of gender conformity as they could manage. What Sasha presented to people around him was the preschool variant of the Pat problem. By not telling anyone what Sasha’s sex was, they both invited and avoided some of the very difficult problems that Ruth Padawer describes in “What’s wrong with a boy who wants to wear a dress?”—her profile of children who express gender fluidity. For Sasha’s family, this situation had to be insanely difficult and they decided to stop when it was time for him to leave home and go to school.

Gender plasticity elicits feelings of anxiety and anger in some people. As we keep seeing, enforcing commonly accepted ideas about how boys and girls should behave can be deeply destructive and sometimes tragic. Last month, 11-year-old Michael Morones attempted suicide after children in his school bullied him relentlessly for loving My Little Pony—a toy made “for girls.” “Michael was upset because the kids were calling him gay for liking a girls’ TV show,” explained his stepfather.

There was another recent case in the same state—North Carolina—in which a 9-year-old boy was similarly treated. Grayson Bruce’s favorite lunch box also featured My Little Pony. So, his classmates beat him up, threw him to the ground, called him names, and told him he should go home and kill himself. The school’s response was to tell Bruce to stop bringing his girly lunchbox to school because it was a “trigger” for bullying. Really, that’s what they did.

It is common to hear that that this kind of bullying is homophobic. Less so to say that the homophobia is rooted in the intrinsic degradation implied by feminization used this way.

These boys experienced what a first grade Chicago girl did in 2010 after she made the mistake of taking a Star Wars water bottle to school. She came home to explain to her mother, the “boys are teasing me…they say it’s only for boys. Every day they make fun of me…I want them to stop, so I’ll just bring a pink water bottle.” Her mother started a grassroots anti-gender bullying movement with the hashtag,  #MayTheForceBeWithKatie. Interestingly, even though what she experienced was almost exactly what the boys did, this incident was not commonly referred to as homophobic.

The counselor at Bruce’s school told him he should “hide his lunch box in his backpack” because “when you carry things like that, these things happen.” And there’s the real issue: The problem isn’t children, it’s adults. While adults would never be so obvious, they convey the same principles every day in subtle and consistent ways, like dress codes, ladies and gentlemen rules, “sex ed” classes, and more.

Studies show that highlighting differences in gender makes children more likely to engage in gender profiling and the use of stereotypes. In one school my kids attended, the library generated book lists for girls and for boys for summer reading. These lists were confusing to my elementary school daughters. They read and liked many of the “boy” books, did not understand the distinction, and asked if it meant they had to stop reading them. Subsequent to the lists being published, boys started rejecting “girl” books in disparaging ways. Color coding in classrooms, book lists for “boys” and “girls,” lining kids up side-by-side by sex, separating kids for sports when there is no physiological reason to—all of these common gender producing habits create a slow accretion of bias that is both internalized and imposed.

However, there is a growing trend in the opposite direction. Movements like The Representation Project (formerly Miss Representation) have K-12 curricula to help schools examine gender in schools. Advocates for gender equality are creating powerful campaigns. The Let Toys Be Toys campaign persuaded more than a dozen retailers in the United Kingdom to end “girls” and “boys” aisles. Toys “R” Us jumped on the bandwagon in Sweden and the United Kingdom, but not in the United States, where the store claims not to market by gender. (We’ll just let that go.)

Also, some institutions are attacking problems at their roots. Consider last year’s decision at a preschool in Sweden, a country with the highest dedication to gender egalitarian principles. The school created a new, gender-neutral pronoun for its classrooms. Many people found this top-down approach to removing linguistic and symbolic difference ridiculous, but it’s interesting to note that children in Baltimore have done the exact thing, without any adult intervention. The pronoun, while justifiable considering linguistic realities, is not the point. Sweden, which ranks fourth in the world for gender equity, has a gender-aware education system, which we decidedly do not.

Like all of the Nordic countries (ranked 1, 2, and 3) gender equity is a matter of systematic policy. Their goal in developing gender aware curricula and programs, as early as preschool, is simple: to make sure that all children have equal opportunities. (It is notable that one of most recognizable childhood characters of Nordic literature—for girls and boys—is Pippi Longstocking: an unorthodox, self-sufficient girl who breaks rules that ill-serve her and doesn’t care what people think of her behavior.) Gender studies are a key component of education at all levels. I have yet to find a school in the United States in which this exists as a detailed, programmatic, explicit goal—and the fact of single-sex schools does nothing to contradict that. It is more likely, indeed, that most single-sex schools exacerbate deficiencies in our understanding and outcomes, rather than enhancing them.

I like the Independent’s decision because it opens the door to non-threatening conversations about this topic. Despite hostility and given what we know about the profoundly negative effects of stereotypes, the Independent’s decision remains a step in the right direction. Now we need libraries, bookstores (what’s left of them), schools, and teachers to likewise desegregate their shelves and reading lists. Parents need to take this information into those institutions and make sure something happens. The decision to stop reviewing gender-stereotyped books can be extended to a whole host of other unnecessary segregation when it comes to children. Books become plays become movies become games become imagination become ambition.

Parents who might be striving to create a home environment that cultivates equity are often fighting cultures their children are emerged in. What goes on at home is routinely undermined at school or places of worship—by traditions, sloppy language, text books, software programs, history lessons, sports cultures, and more.

Take, for example, school plays and performances, often highlights of the academic year. In more than nine years of taking part of school plays, performances, and skits, my three daughters gleefully played spiders, fairies, pigs, boys, and allegorical females. Never once, between kindergarten and 7th grade, did they play an actual, historic, or fully dimensional girl or woman. I take that back. In second grade, one actually walked around a stage, holding a frame, because her character was “pretty as a picture.” People thought it was clever and I raged quietly as I tried to talk to her about how great her performance was while simultaneously trying to counteract the effects of the message her role imparted.

Books, plays, and games have critically degraded our children’s imagination when it comes to boys and girls and their confidence in female competence and ability. In the United States, the peak age for girl’s political ambition is 9. Boys, on the other hand, remain infinitely and dangerously confident. Parents need to get involved before sad things happen to children and they lose their ability to grow up to be happy or empathetic adults.

Of course, if you’re not already engaged with institutions but want to be, be prepared, because objections begin quickly and in earnest. I’ve spent the last several years talking to school administrators and teachers about these topics and, frankly, it can be a difficult slog. When it comes to the content of media, “Girls are OK. It’s the boys who aren’t reading. They won’t read if they don’t have boy books.” I hear variations of this all the time and this formulation is the crux of objections to moving culture toward a more equitable neutrality. As with lunch boxes, dress codes, hair length regulation, and more, more gender polarization does nothing but make things worse for boys and girls.

If boys won’t read, and they especially won’t read books with girl protagonists, the solution is not to create more explicitly “boy” books, the solution is to delve deeply into “why.” Why don’t they see value in reading, and what is wrong with the stories of girls? The problem is, of course, as the saying goes, you can’t reason people out of something they didn’t reason into.

The impact of socialization on identity and gender is not really up for debate any longer. If you doubt this, make the time to read the studies—the hundreds of them—cited by Cordelia Fine in her excellent work on neurosexism, Delusions of GenderThe question is what do we do now—parents, teachers, coaches, and educators—that we understand more about how this all works? Books are a good place to start. But they’re just that: a place to start.

Soraya L. Chemaly writes about gender, feminism and culture for several online media including Role/Reboot, The Huffington Post, Fem2.0, RHReality Check, BitchFlicks, and Alternet among others. She is particularly interested in how systems of bias and oppression are transmitted to children through entertainment, media and religious cultures. She holds a History degree from Georgetown University, where she founded that schools first feminist undergraduate journal, studied post-grad at Radcliffe College.

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