This post recently got me thinking about the issue of “books for boys” and “books for girls”, and the different things we can mean by phrases like that, and whether such phrases are inherently pernicious or not.
I mean, is there such a thing as a “boy’s book” or a “girl’s book”, and even if there is, is this a useful distinction or one that tends to reinforce negative stereotypes?
Let’s take it as a given that we don’t want to discourage boys from reading books in which the protagonist is a girl. Actually – and I know others’ experience may differ – but I can’t personally remember ever noticing a boy (or a grown man, for that matter) refusing to read a book because it had a female protagonist or because it was written by a woman. But I’m not a librarian or a bookseller, so my sample size isn’t very large. Seems extremely strange to me, though. Let’s just say that though my imagination is pretty good, I definitely can’t wrap my mind around the notion of anybody in my family caring about the gender of the protagonist, or the author – even though everyone in my family prefers a different kind of genre novel.
But the question of whether that kind of bias exists and if so how prevalent it might be, that’s a different question. Here’s the question I’m interested in at the moment: Are there “boy’s books” and “girl’s books”? And is this distinction useful? If a woman asks you to recommend a “SFF novel for boys” for her son, what would you tell her? That there’s no such thing as a “boy’s book” and the kid ought to understand that girls can be great protagonists, too? Is such an argument, even if gently put, actually the least bit helpful? Is it even true?
The fact is, I think there is such a thing as “boy’s books” and “girl’s books” – or, more precisely, I think there are “boy’s-and-girl’s books” and “girl’s books.” And I think those are actually useful categories when:
a) you are trying to get boys to read in general; or
b) you are trying to encourage boys to read books with complex, realistic girl protagonists; or
c) you are trying to recommend books for any particular kid of your acquaintance and he wants a “boy’s book.”
But the gender of the protagonist is definitely not what puts a book into one category or the other.
There’s no point declaring that boys should like all the same books that girls like, if in general they just don’t. Sure, you can declare that sexism is deeply embedded in society, or that society encourages boys and men to disregard books written by or about girls or women, and all this may well be true, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t also real differences between the sexes.
Parents out there have probably noticed that boys generally prefer toys that involve propulsion and moving parts – toy trucks, for example, and toy guns – whereas girls may like those toys, but they also tend toward play that involves dolls and stuffed animals. And sure, socialization and all that, yes, let’s take that as a given, shall we?
But here’s where my background in animal behavior comes in. Because did you know that infants as young as three months already show clear gender differences in toy preferences? Already at that age, male infants prefer to gaze at toy trucks, whereas female babies prefer to gaze at dolls. At that age, babies do not yet even know whether they are boys or girls; they don’t know what the toys are for; they cannot be guided to play with one kind of toy over the other because they are not yet anywhere close to being physically able to play with those toys. But the difference in interests is still there.
It gets even more interesting than that, because young vervet and rhesus monkeys show the exact same gender biases in their preferences for human toys. Young male monkeys strongly prefer wheeled toys, whereas young female monkeys show much less of a preference, playing about equally with wheeled toys and plush toys. See the references at the end if you’re interested in this sort of thing; these articles are all available online, and really they are very interesting.
But the point is, obviously young monkeys have not been socialized by contemporary human society to prefer one type of toy over another! Instead, it seems quite clear that toys favored by male monkeys — and, we may reasonably assume, boys — provide a different kind of rewarding experience than those preferred by female monkeys (and girls). And both boys and girls are then attracted to the sort of toys that provide the right kind of experience – or even look like they might provide the right kind of experience, before they even touch the toys.
And if boys generally prefer one kind of play over another, then I don’t think it’s a surprise if many boys generally prefer one kind of book over another, too – intrinsically. Or that boys strongly reject “girl’s books” whereas girls may like both “boy’s-and-girl’s-books” and “girl’s books” – this is exactly what we would expect. It is not very helpful to declare that boys should be interested in girl’s books, because boys are not going to change just to suit anybody’s idea of how gender is a purely social construct. Because that just isn’t true. But boys certainly can learn that books with girl protagonists can be great stories, as long as you offer them books they have a genuine chance of loving.
What makes a book a “boy’s book” – or, more precisely, a “boy’s-and-girl’s-book” – is that it emphasizes action, adventure, and movement. The gender of the protagonist has nothing to do with anything. But sometimes boys probably think it does, because of the kinds of books they have encountered in the past, or the way books are marketed, or the comments their peers and parents make. That’s the bit that is pernicious.
If you want to encourage a boy who likes reading but isn’t sure about “girly books” to read books with female protagonists, you might be well advised to skip the prom-dress-girl-paranormals that emphasize romance and relationships, even if they are very good books of their type, and go straight for adventure stories that are more likely to appeal to boys who like action. There are plenty of choices out there besides The Hunger Games. How about Divergent by Roth, say? Or The Scorpio Races by Stiefvater, if the kid is okay with a slower-paced but amazing book? Or Partials by Dan Wells? Or if your kid is allergic to even a shred of romance, then maybe Thirteenth Child by Patricia Wrede? And on and on – it is not going to be a short list.
Once boys who like adventure stories discover that fabulous adventure stories can feature girl protagonists, I don’t think you’ll find many boys insisting that they won’t read girl’s books. And that’s a blow against bias and embedded sexism right there, regardless of what aspects of gender are socially constructed and which are intrinsic.
Alexander GM, and M Hines. 2002. Sex differences in response to children’s toys in nonhuman primates (Cercopithecus aethiops sabaeus). Evol.Human Behav. 23:467–469.
Alexander, GM, T Wilcox and R Woods. 2009. Sex differences in infants’ visual interest in toys. Arch Sex Behav 8(3):427-33.
Hassett JM, ER Siebert, K Wallen. 2008. Sex differences in rhesus monkey toy preferences parallel those of children. Horm. Behav. 51:359–364.
Hines, M and GM Alexander. 2008. Commentary: Monkeys, girls, boys, and toys: A confirmation comment on “Sex differences in toy preferences: Striking parallels between monkeys and humans”. Horm Behav. 54(3): 478-481.
Williams, CL and KE Pleil. 2008. Toy story: Why do monkey and human males prefer trucks? Comment on “Sex differences in rhesus monkey toy preferences parallel those of children” by Hassatt, Siebert, and Wallen. Horm. Behav 54(3): 355-358.