Gendered Reading & Growing Up

Posted May 22, 2014 by Stormy in Books / 21 Comments

I’ve been trying to write this post for along time now, and I haven’t found a good way to structure it, but it’s important so I wanted to talk about it anyway. As long as I’ve been blogging, there have been discussions about gendered reading, and the way we so often teach children that there are “boy” books and “girl” books. These posts aren’t going anywhere any time soon because we keep doing this in our culture. I’ve read so many (important) pieces on the subject, and I acknowledge that. It’s time we look at this critically, but I’m not really doing that today. I wanted to discuss my personal experience.

In our culture, we’ve decided pink and princesses are girl “things”, including in our books, and boys get the toy swords and Tonka trucks. This often crosses into our reading, when we talk about “books for boys”(the idea that boys are more often reluctant readers) and to a lesser extent, “books for girls”. There’s a bit of an underlying assumption too that girls can like boy things too, but boys can’t like girl things. However, even girls who like boy things can’t like boy things too much. They have to grow up and become lady-like at some point. This is a rather vague and generic look into how our culture treats these things, but you get the point.

I want to discuss my experience growing up with gendered reading. Now, I was the girl who liked to play with the “boy” toys growing up. I never quite fit into anyone’s label, because I wasn’t a tomboy in the way most people would describe a tomboy. I liked dresses just fine and I didn’t like climbing trees or roughhousing. But all my friends were boys, and I played more with toy dinosaurs and a Tonka truck than with my Barbies.

I also had a large imagination growing up, so I would often make my friends and I go on “adventures”. These adventures usually involved knights & dragons. And even then, at maybe six or seven, I remember feeling like I was suppose to be the princess in the tower to be rescued. I didn’t do that, by the way–I was as much of as knight as one of the boys. But I remember thinking that wasn’t how it’s suppose to go, that I was playing “wrong”.

What does this have to do with reading, you might wonder? Well, I’ve always been a voracious reader. And most of my childhood was spent reading the standards–the Boxcar children, the Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter, the Baby-Sitter’s club. My school did the Accelerated Reader program, or AR. Now, the merits of AR are hotly debated, but I didn’t know that at the time, of course. I just knew that meant I had to read at a certain reading level, and when I was in sixth grade, my reading level jumped up to one of the highest. That meant I was transitioning out of chapter books and middle grade books into older novels.

I had always loved the fantastical, so when my reading level went up I was immediately drawn to the fantasy books my school library had. I read The Lord of the Rings in sixth grade and loved it. I made my parents watch the movie several times, and from there I branched out to other fantasy books. I read The Sword of Shannara series and some others I don’t remember. I even tried a few science fiction titles, though I was less enthused about those.

I started visiting the science fiction & fantasy section at my public library too. I loved the thrills, the adventures, the look into a different world. I loved them, but I always felt weird for liking fantasy so much. And you know why?

I had internalized the message that adventure stories and fantasy were for boys.

I thought this all through Jr High. I have no idea where this message came from. NONE of my teachers ever said it. My parents NEVER said anything like that. I don’t remember my classmates making remarks of that sort. But I had learned as a child–adventures were for boys. I even remember thinking that it was okay for a bit because I was still young, but when I grew up I would have to stop reading fantasy.

Really.

I tried reading the books I thought I was suppose to read. I liked some and others I didn’t. I kept reading fantasy. But when I got to high school, I stopped. I knew, technically, that I still could, but fantasy and science fiction were genres for boys.

We can debate the WHYs and HOWs of this message for a long time. Was it because of the whole Princess-in-a-tower trope? Was it because I never found a fantasy with a female lead character? I don’t really know. For me, that’s not the point anymore personally(though I think it’s still important to talk about, of course).

It wasn’t until I got to college that I stopped caring about the fact somewhere along the way I had labelled adventure “for boys”. It’s only been in the past few years that I realized I could unabashedly love science fiction and fantasy AND love to wear dresses all the time.

This is why I’m so fascinated and grateful for the discussions about gendered reading for children. It clearly impacted me. I have friends who managed to mostly avoid this message or ignore it, so I know this pattern isn’t true for everyone. But it was for me.

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21 responses to “Gendered Reading & Growing Up

  1. Very interesting post. I have a whole theory drafted about boys reading girls books but I haven’t worked it through enough to post it.

    But I think the idea if gendered reading can be so harmful on both sides of the equation. I grew up without any of those messages – I always just read whatever books I was interested in. It wasn’t until I was an adult and guys started marveling that I could have a conversation with them about all these different subjects that I had any awareness of that sort of thing.

    I’m so glad that you got to a place where you could defy that message and let yourself enjoy whatever books you wanted 🙂 this post connects so closely with your post about the book police, and the freedom to just enjoy reading the books you want to – but with a much more specific focus.

  2. Very interesting post, Stormy! I can see where you’re coming from, especially since I never really labelled science fiction/fantasy as “for boys” in my head. I guess I could start from the beginning.

    When I was a kid, I liked “girly” toys and “boyish” toys as well. I was friends with both boys and girls, and we would do stuff like ride bikes together, play outdoors a lot, and even play make-believe with our toys. Fast forward to high school where I started reading with other people, like borrowing each other’s books and talking about books together. Again, I was friends with boy boys and girls, and we would read the same books. We would all read fantasy books, so I guess that’s why I never thought of fantasy as a “boy” genre.

    I do know some boys who are hesitant of picking up a book because it might look too “girly.” I had a great English Lit professor in uni, who would assign us books from all sorts of genres. Fantasy, mystery, non-fiction, etc. He assigned a book that we would call “chick lit,” and one of our discussions centred around the stigma surrounding chick lit.

    Our professor said he picked up the sequel, a book with a hot pink cover, and while he was in line to pay for it, he encountered one of his friends. His friend took a look at the hot pink book and went “Are you seriously reading that?” Our professor, a man with an A+ mustache, puffed out his chest and went “Yeah, what of it?”

    He challenged the guys’ views of “chick lit” and gendered books. Yes, it’s marketed primarily towards one group or the other, but it doesn’t mean that we should feel restricted. The guys also did enjoy the story, which they found pretty funny. 🙂

    • Stormy

      I love that story of your English Lit professor! That’s so perfect. I wonder if I had been friends with a lot of readers my experience would have been different? Most of my friends weren’t readers, so I didn’t have that borrowing books and talking about books. I really enjoy your perspective considering your mixed-gendered friend group–that makes a lot of sense!

  3. What a wonderful post! I think that younger you could have used some of Tamora Pierce’s fantasy books. All the main characters are strong girls/women. Have you had a chance to read any of them?

    • Stormy

      No, but I’ve heard so many amazing things about Tamora Pierce’s fantasy works. I think younger me could have used them too! I wonder if they were in my school library. I’m sure they were, and I never discovered them. I did discover Sherryl Jordan’s Winter of Fire, while not exactly fantasy(more post-apocalyptic) did show me a really great female character. Other than that, I don’t really remember any other great female-centric fantasy books, sadly.

  4. Great post, Stormy! I was tomboy growing up and I loved adventure/mystery books. I read a lot of books that were probably marketed towards boys and I didn’t pay too much to the gendered marketing until high school. I think I became a lot more aware of the gender divide and society’s tendency to box people into specific roles, then. I read whatever’s interesting, not what things society dictates is suitable for my gender.

    It’s frustrating to see books being drastically marketed towards one gender and how different the covers can be for genders, but if cover changes towards gender neutral is what gets people reading, then I’m all for it.

    • Stormy

      I know, I hate the marketing towards just one gender! I like neutral covers, but I wish we’d get the point where a boy could pick up a hot pink cover if that’s what he wants and no one says anything, and a girl can pick up a cover with a bunch of swords on it and no one says anything about THAT either!

  5. I was always very much into the “girl” toys growing up. My mother, because she is totally amazing, always gave me to opportunity to like whatever toys I wanted. I would have little toy tool sets and basketball hoops. But for the most part, I wasn’t interested in that at all. That’s just how I was. I liked princesses and pink. But I also loved adventure playing. And I love that my mom (and my dad too of course, but I think it was a concerted effort on my mom’s part) gave me the opportunity to like whatever I wanted, whether it was “for boys” or “for girls.”

    I don’t think I ever had a kind of thinking like you, where I thought that certain books, like fantasy, where for boys, and that girls who read them were odd or different. Again, I think this is a lot on my mom’s part. I’m older than you too, so that isn’t why I never felt that way.

    I’m a librarian now, and this who gendered reading thing has really made me think on how I promote books in the library. In the last few years, I’ve made a pointed effort to recommend books to boys that have girl main characters. It’s not always that successful, and I find it works better when I get the kids when they’re young. It makes me sad, because certain books might have a main character princess – but she’s totally kick butt and awesome and the boy would love the book, but he thinks it’s “for girls”.

    • Stormy

      I’m so glad my parents did that too!(Which makes it even more amazing for me that I still somehow got the idea of gendered reading in my head).
      It warms my heart to hear that about recommending books with girl MCs to boys! I can imagine it would get frustrating at times, but I’m still glad! I think it’s so important too.

  6. Great post! I’ll be sharing this. Seriously though, if a topic is well written, it should be interesting to boys and girls both. Society really needs to let go of the stereotypes and let us be more gender-neutral where possible.

    • Stormy

      Exactly! When I started writing this post, what really got me is how ingrained it all is. I mean, my parents never forced gender roles on me. They happily bought me new dinosaurs and such, and supported whatever I wanted to read(especially because when I was young, one of my favorite thing to read was non-fiction science. I wanted to be an astronaut for awhile until I realized how much science required math). Neither did my teachers. But yet, it was so ingrained in me that adventures were for boys.

  7. Cait

    I LOVE THIS POST. YES. YES. AND MORE YESES. I honestly think society is still incredibly sexist and it isn’t changing fast and sometimes I don’t think it’ll ever change. *sigh* But our culture has, what? A couple of thousand years of sexist history hanging off it, so I guess it’s going to take a long time to get rid of it. Which is downright depressing.
    But as a kid I wore dresses but still climbed trees and did archery…so not really fitting the tomboy category or the girly-girl category. AND I WISH “CATEGORIES” DIDN’T EXIST ANYWAY. It’s very frustrating to me.
    I don’t believe books should be “Just for girls” or “Just for boys”. I totally hate that that is a Thing anyway.

    • Stormy

      It WILL change. I have to believe that! Not as quickly as I’d like, but I am an optimist(though sometimes it’s hard!). I’m with you on categories! I mean, really, how many kids really fit into categories anyway? We give little girls two categories: girly and tomboy. Like, it’s quite obvious from the stories in the comments and my own that most of us didn’t fit into those boxes. Like hey, girls can like dresses AND adventures too! What a concept!

  8. I definitely think the gender “issue” won’t go away any time soon. On the one hand I celebrate and embrace the fact that male and female perspectives are different, and that that is ok. While it is perfectly fine for either gender to read books supposedly created for the other, I agree that it is more “acceptable” for females to read and enjoy male work than it is the other way around (and I think covers play a massive part in that). Interesting point, I’ve never read high fantasy, I recently bought the 6 (7?) Game of Thrones books because I’d heard SO much about them, but I haven’t started them yet, and I very much thought they would be “boy books”, in fact part of me still thinks that way. I went to an all girls school and our library had The Lord of The Rings, and I never read it (and still haven’t) because, you guessed it, it’s a book for boys. No one ever told me this either, and I don’t really know where I got the idea from. Similarly, I was a tomboy growing up, and spent a lot of time in dungarees with my dad but still didn’t really read books for boys. In fact, I still don’t know what I would class myself as – I wear dresses, but work in a male dominated industry, I wear makeup but hate pink, I can wear steel-toe work boots with the best of them, but I get my nails done every fortnight… Perhaps it’s time the publishing industry realised that people can’t be pigeon-holed into a neat box…

    R

    • Stormy

      I have no idea where we get these ideas from! Yes, time to get rid of those boxes for books. There’s writing from different perspectives, and then there’s saying those books are for people from THAT perspective. And it works both ways, too. I know guys who like romance, but they’d never admit it, because hey, those are books(or movies, or whatever) for girls. Like, guys get into romantic relationships too. Girls go on adventures too. It winds me up because it’s really not a difficult concept.

  9. Thanks for sharing that, Stormy! I find it really nice to be able to read different peoples’ experiences with things like this. I had a pretty similar experience actually, particularly in middle school.

    Like you, I read a lot of fantasy. I too read the Sword of Shannara books in middle school! As well as Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series, and I will forever get the two series mixed up because they’re both written by men named Terry and called Sword of _______, but I digress. I’ve always found it so disheartening that there is such a gap in the number of fantasy series about young men versus young women. Thankfully I was introduced to Tamora Pierce’s books at a young age, which I honestly believe have had a profound affect on my reading tastes over the years.

    Once I hit high school, I found myself reading fewer fantasy books, more inclined to pick up books with “girlier” covers – you know the ones I’m talking about, shiny, pink, often glittery. I liked those books (and still do at times) but I’ve always found myself especially drawn to fantasy. I’m so happy to see more and more fantasy books featuring female protagonists being published, though I’ve noticed that they are much more common in YA fantasy than adult fantasy. The female-fronted adult fantasy books that I see (mostly on goodreads and netgalley, I’ll admit) are more along the sex-filled, romance-fuelled Urban Fantasy lines than the good old fashioned High Fantasy that I adore and long for.

    One thing I’ve noticed is that girls get shit for reading “girly” books because they’re deemed frivolous and wasteful, but I always felt shamed for reading “boy” books too. I felt like I was crossing an invisible boundary into a space I didn’t belong in – first as a child, but also as a girl/woman. I still feel kind of uncomfortable in the fantasy section of the bookstore or library, and I don’t know why. It’s very strange and something that I find very frustrating. I also find a lot of the portrayals of women/girls in “boy” fantasy to be absolutely dreadful (if there are any women in the first place).

    Wow, that was an essay of a comment! What can I say, I’m a gender studies student…

    • Stormy

      Ahh, hey, I love comment essays!
      You’re the second person to mention Tamora Pierce and I REALLY wish I had been able to discover her works. I think it would have helped a lot in my thinking about this thing! I loved(and still do) books like Shannara, LotR, etc., but I wish I had read some female-centric fantasy, especially now that I know it exist. Perhaps those books aren’t as numerous, but they ARE out there.

      I’ve noticed that too about fantasy with female leads–I see more being published, but normally in YA. Which, I love YA, but it makes me curious. Books like Throne of Glass are YA, when I could easily see them being marketed as adults. Especially considering the series is planned on being so long, and I assume those characters will be out of YA range by the time it finishes. Interestingly enough, though, my local Barnes & Nobles doesn’t shelve ToG in Teen fiction–it’s just shelved in science fiction & fantasy. I’ve also noticed that most fantasy with female characters is urban fantasy! That genre is popular, and I understand why, but like you, I’m all about the epic high fantasies.

      Yes on the book-shaming. If you read “girly” books it’s just shallow without substance(see all the articles about YA being written). I totally understand that invisible boundary and that’s what I was getting at in this post–like no one ever told me these books were for boys, but that boundary was there. I also still feel weird browsing the fantasy and science fiction section, though I’m getting better at it.

      Argh, I just feel we do our young girl readers who love fantasy & adventures such a disservice!

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