Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Please Do Step Over the Gender Divide

You know the attitude: pink for girls, blue for boys. Cooking sets and cars are two very different toys for two very different groups. Same goes for books: There is no way a boy would be caught dead reading a book that has a girl on the cover (unless that book is Playboy magazine, in which case the boy should display his reading preferences for all to see, staring at it with his mates on a playground or on the street).

That’s the social opinion. But does this “crisis” mean women should stop writing YA because they are, in fact, only catering to 50% of the teenagers, and that 50% doesn’t really matter because we’ll end up barefoot and pregnant anyway?

You’re probably balking at the idea, and I don’t blame you – this is the 21st century, after all. We’re supposed to have outgrown our Victorian corsets (unless, of course, those corsets also feature in Playboy, in which case they are just right). But the thing about ideas is that they are never put so bluntly as I put it up there. No, they worm their ways into our hearts and minds, whether through religion or upbringing or even just social exposure.

So what is the problem? Obviously, that boys don’t read because all they find in the YA section is girly books for girly girls. Is that right?

*abstract muttering from the audience, several names are thrown out*

Yes, yes, there are male authors. But when I go into the YA section of my local Waterstones, I see covers featuring fainting girls in the arms of shirtless young man, or frail girls in prom dresses, or girls with long, windswept hair and artistically shining eyes. Would you see a boy taking such a book to the counter, even if he heard rave reviews of it? Would he even spend more than two seconds in the section, without being looked down on, or worse, called ‘gay’?

I don’t blame them.

Maybe they shouldn’t succumb to peer pressure and venture on into the section, and then yes, they would discover some wonderful, wonderful books. But the YA genre has a reputation. It’s Twilight, it’s Hush, Hush, it’s Fallen. Those few books that generate enough talk are often books that suck, and not just because of the horrible messages they send out. They just don’t have male character that boys can relate to (they're more like “women with man parts”, as a reviewer on Goodreads once said).

Even if the protagonist is female, it’s rare that she is the sort of character that is on par with the guys. And if she is, then the book isn’t in the YA section. Where are Mistborn and Daughter of Smoke and Bone and the Discworld books? To find them, I need a GPS and a map of the Fantasy and Sci Fi section.

And that, by the way, is where you also find the elusive male reader – among Azimov and Gaiman and Gibson, Pratchett and Sanderson, Anne McCaffrey and Ursula LeGuin and, as of late, Laini Taylor (I have no reason to believe that Waterstones shelves books differently in different stores). Because, apparently, that is where a book goes if it’s too good for the YA section.

Are you seething yet? Are you ready to tear me apart? Do you have examples lined up of how this is not true?

You are absolutely right.

You see, the reason why those ideas about the gender divide and boys not reading go down so easily is because they are washed down with a healthy draught of truth. Obviously not all boys read with a flashlight, just like not all boys look at lad's mags in the middle of the street. YA is diverse, but it is stereotyped as the girly genre for the creatively bankrupt, where you can succeed if you just follow an easy formula (Blank-slate heroine? Check. Chiseled hero? Check. Stalking? Cha-ching!)

So instead of yelling from our soapbox that ladies should stop writing these girly books, we should help those boys set foot in the section. Hide Silence in the deepest, darkest parts of the store and put David Levithan, Scott Westerfield, Laurie Halse Anderson, Laini Taylor, Patrick Ness, Moira Young and Philip Reeve on proud display. Highlight the quality stuff, and ignore the rotten apples, hoping that they would eventually disappear from the face of the Earth.

It’s not about boys and girls. It’s about social standards. And if you want the situation to change, start not by banning, but by changing attitudes.

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