More about girls, boys and books
‘When are we going to study a book that’s not about a sulky teenage boy standing on a beach?’
I laughed when this remark was repeated to me by a Year 9 English teacher from one of his disgruntled female students. But the sad truth is that many young people pass through secondary school in co-educational and boys’ schools without reading a book that features a female protagonist. I have met many young people who have encountered only one female protagonist in their secondary school study of fiction – Scout from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. As much as I love Scout, having a seven-year-old girl as the only complex female protagonist that you encounter in six years of studying literature is pretty sad. It is common for students to leave school without having any sense of the importance of female narratives or the talents of female writers. I believe this is a loss for both genders and a disaster for young, aspiring female novelists.
I have met teachers who presume their male students are loathe to read books by female authors or about female protagonists and use this excuse to justify the selection of texts that they present their classes. But on what grounds do we assume male children are so inherently misogynistic and why do we collude in promoting centuries old cultural bias? In my experience, boys who read and are genuinely literate, read regardless of the author’s gender. Boys who are reluctant readers may be harder to cater for but aren’t we pandering to the worst in their cultural education by reinforcing stereotypes and assuming that they will only read books by or about men? Discovering how female culture operates through reading fiction could prove to be the single most valuable life skill they will acquire in their education.
We live in a culture of increasing superficiality where the loud and flash garner our attention and praise, often at the expense of the subtle and meaningful. Advocates of youth literature have a vested interest in ensuring that voices of both genders are heard equally, that their stories are celebrated without bias. and that aspiring young female writers can find role models as easily as their male counterparts. It may take conscious effort to overturn entrenched prejudices, but surely, it’s an effort worth making.
* This is an excerpt from my article ‘Invisible Women’ published in Viewpoint Magazine – vol 16, No 1 – Autumn 2008