‘I Like “Girl” Books’ | The Problem With Gendering Books

I was recently looking through my bookshelves to pick out some of my favourite YA fantasy novels for a blog post, when I noticed something that grabbed my attention: they were all written by female authors. I quickly began to look through my other YA books, and suddenly realised that the vast number of books that I owned within that genre, were written by women. At first, I thought that perhaps I was just subconsciously picking books written by women because they appealed to me more, as a girl. However, when I looked around at my books from other genres, within adult and children’s literature, those were dominated by male authors. That is, with the exception of the romance novels! This got me thinking about the problem of gendering books.

I read that authors such as J.K. Rowling, and V.E. Schwab chose to use their initials rather than their full first name, so that they wouldn’t be seen so obviously as a female author. Both write fantasy books. Is this because we somehow think that an epic fantasy written by a man is better than that written by a woman? Clearly some female authors are afraid of that judgement. If this is the case, why? The reason is quite clear: we have gendered these sorts of books. We have made books that are for girls, and books that are for boys, and this is a serious problem.

A “girl” book will follow a female lead character, will often discuss the issues facing the contemporary girl, and will inevitably always contain some sort of romantic storyline. A “boy” book, in contrast, will typically be filled with more adventure and action, and follow a male protagonist.

But this division should not be there, and it is only present because of the social distinctions we create for them. When I talk to many female readers, I notice that we tend to enjoy both “girl” and “boy” books, although we don’t use these labels, while some guys I know will stick only to those male books, and be judged for reading otherwise. Unfortunately, I believe that this can be traced back to school. The books I read on the curriculum were never these “girl” books and always the “boy” books. By this, I mean that they, 90% of the time, featured a male protagonist, and looked at the issues and coming of age stages experience by boys. So, as a girl, I read these books in my childhood, more than I did books with female protagonists, about being a girl growing up. This is quite sad, I think, because a book is such a powerful way of understanding people, the world, and society and the struggles within it, that I don’t think there is any better way to teach each other about these things, than through stories. I don’t think that there is a coincidence that girls feel they can read books geared for boys, and boys do not feel they can read books clearly marketed for girls. I also don’t think that there is a coincidence that some authors are hiding their female identity and writing male protagonists, within these “male” genres.

Personally, IΒ love a good romantic storyline – the dramatic, and also the flowery, light-hearted, fluffy ones. I also love an epic battle-filled fantasy led by a male character. I love a political drama. I love an action-filled, sci-fi space adventure. I’m sure that many of you can relate to me here, in claiming that I like a lot of different books. When I read them, I don’t think, ‘I’m reading a “boy” book’, however I will think sometimes that a book I am reading is a “girl” book. Because I never take one of those fluffy, ‘girly’ contemporary romances out with me to read around other people. The covers usually have a photo of a woman smiling or posing or splashing in the waves on a beach, and have a title revolving around “love” and “romance”, and I feel a little embarrassed to get that out in front of people; like I’m not reading a proper book, and like I’ll be stereotyped accordingly. And I’m a girl! How do guys feel taking these books out? How do boys feel reading these books at all?

Not only does this stop us from learning about each other, but it tells us that those “fluffy romances” and stories about a girl’s crush, and about falling in love, are somehow inferior literature. I don’t think that they are. Not at all. I think they are ways of understanding our emotions, and I don’t think that should be exclusively for girls.

What are your thoughts on gendered books? Have you noticed this distinction between books, or are your experiences with socially constructed gender-labels on books completely different to mine?Β 

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54 thoughts on “‘I Like “Girl” Books’ | The Problem With Gendering Books

  1. The novel I’m writing is an urban fantasy. My main protagonist is female. After thinking it over I’m not sure how many male authors have a girl as their protagonist no matter what the novel is about. For some reason it is assumed that reading is for female’s only which is ridicules.

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  2. My thoughts pretty much are in line with yours. I can’t tel you the number of times I’ve walked into a bookstore and asked for recommendations only to be presented with fluffy romance novels. While there’s nothing wrong with that, I do not read romance. I’m not a romantic person. And this gendering and the assumption are awful! It’s sad that authors have had to change their names to initials just so they won’t be judged by it. An Indian fantasy/mythology author mentioned this on twitter recently. Her first name is a typically male name here and this has led to some rather weird assumptions. I remember someone telling me they thought she was a guy because of how awesome her action scenes were.

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    1. That’s so unfortunate that they recommend the fluffy romance novels first! I like reading them, but I only read one or two in a year, to be honest. I’m much more of a fantasy/adventure reader. I do like a romance though, but usually as a side to the main storyline. And yes, it is really sad, and I’ve heard similar things about other authors and their action scenes too.

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      1. It’s one of my favourites this year. A brilliant read. It follows three timelines after two people bump into each other, one where they decided to go out, one where they don’t and one where they do but separate immediately.

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  3. Great post! It annoys me so much that fluffy or girly books and are often seen as lesser I don’t even like romance that much but no genre should be seen as lesser. I don’t anything should be labeled as for girls or for boys books are just books. My dad read and enjoyed The Selection one of the most traditionally girly books I’ve read so guys can enjoy girly books

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  4. Interesting post! I think it’s also worth considering for JK Rowling and VE Schwab that this something that a lot of fantasy writers do in the tradition of JRR Tolkein. I think it adds an air of anonymity. But there’s some truth in what you said about these being male-centric genres. I definitely don’t think these should be aimed at girls- especially if they appeal to both genders- I just think books are generally marketed more towards taste than anything else. Hope that makes sense (it’s been a long day)

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    1. Yes that is definitely a reason for their names too, although I’m sure I read something by V.E. Schwab that her main reason was because of this. I may be wrong though! And yes I agree that we shouldn’t target books at a genre, but at a taste in reading, but those tastes in reading have just been so gender stereotyped that we need to break them down. You make sense don’t worry!! πŸ™‚

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      1. That’s definitely possible, but she was already published as Victoria Schwab, so can’t really argue that she did it to get published or that she wouldn’t be successful otherwise (cos she was) haha thanks!

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  5. Fantastic post! I was actually thinking about this the other day when I was composing a Christmas book buying guide for kids. As I was compiling my list, I had noticed that I had selected books that I felt were overwhelmingly “girl books,” so I had to go back and throw in some “boy books” as well. After I was done I felt bad that I had labeled the books this way.

    For kids these days, I am actually seeing more acceptance in boys reading books that would have been previously labeled “girl books.” I remember my son coming home and asking for me to buy him Smile by Raina Telgemeier, which is about a 6th grade girl and her struggles with braces and other middle grade drama. I was surprised at first that he (a boy) would have chosen this book, but he told me that everyone else in his class was reading it.

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  6. I work as a kids/teen bookseller at a bookstore, and I absolutely see the gendering of books every day. It’s especially prevalent over the holidays when the grandparents are coming in to buy books. They always want a “boy” book about a boy character for their grandson. When I’ve tried to recommend books with a female character in a genre they’ve said he reads, they almost always turn it down, because “he wouldn’t want to read that.” Well maybe you should give him a chance to decide for himself!

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  7. Really nice post. I too have been contemplating many times about gender “casting” in novels in relation to the author’s gender and how the whole thing affects the reader’s choice to decide to read them or not. As a female speculative fiction writer myself, I was kinda worried about that too when my novel (with a female lead character) was out ~

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  8. I completely agree with you here! I can’t remember reading a book in school that has a female MC. Or even a book written by a woman for that matter. That makes me really sad to think about.
    A lot of my YA books are from female authors, and most of my Adult books are by males. I didn’t pick them out based on gender, or what gender the MC is, but it is definitely a pattern.
    Next time i’m in the book store, I need to pick up some male authors for YA and female authors for the Adult genre. Thank you for pointing this out to me!!! Great post!

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  9. Very nice meditation on gender and the “gendering” of writing and reading. I think it’s easy to forget that sometimes even the way we write (composition, content, etc.) is heavily gendered. Honestly, writing is such a versatile tool and I disagree with any attempts to label it as inherently “feminine” or “masculine” based on content and writing style. However, and this might be a little off topic, this discussion reminds me of Japanese male readers, who enjoy reading women’s manga. They find themselves attracted to the ease in which male protagonist and side characters freely express their emotions. I wonder if the same could be said for here in the West, or if there is something else going on.

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  10. This is a fantastic post! I’ve never really thought about ‘girl’ books and ‘boy’ books, but you’re right! Just today I was talking to one of my male friend about The Duff by Kody Keplinger and he was kind of put off by it because it was a romance (he prefers comic books).

    I don’t know if you have read The Thief’s Magic by Trudi Canavan, but I think it’s a perfect example of what you are talking about. In the book, there are two main characters: a girl named Rielle and a boy named Tyen. Whilst Tyen’s storyline was all about action and adventure, Rielle’s was about romance and it annoyed me to no end. Reading your blog has made it clearer to me why this has annoyed me so much – it’s because it’s unnecessarily gendered and the characters are forced into stereotyped plots.

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  11. Great post! Unfortunately this sort of rendering doesn’t just happen with books. I feel that we’re taught early on that being a girl isn’t a good thing – why else would people get their knickers in such a twist the second a boy deviates slightly from the gender norm? It’s so easy for both boys and girls to internalise these messages early on, and it doesn’t do anyone any good. On a positive note though, the situation does seem to be getting slightly better, with a greater number of female protagonists on display. This is certainly true in comics – as a child I didn’t really read comics, but it’s a medium I’ve got into as an adult because there’s so many more titles now that reflect my experiences. I’m optimistic that if we keep the conversation going about representation, as you have with this post, we’ll keep making progress! 😊

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    1. You are so right, this is something that is internal, as well as externally in the books we read. That’s great that you are finding improvement in this, in comics. Hopefully it will improve across many more mediums too!

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  12. My book is gendered. There is a hint of romance here and there but overall it is not fluffy (a bit dark I am told.). In any case. I do like female characters and female authored. I am with you.

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  13. Your post is so interesting and has led me to think about my library of books. I remember as a teen picking up a book from Dymocks written by a male author following primarily male protagonists. I decided to take a chance even though I felt wary and in the end loved it! I have mostly female authors but have more and more male authors and stories following male protagonists. Maybe subconsciously, as you wrote, books are gendered and I have needed to consciously change what I read. Now I’m going into psychology mode! Thank you for the post! πŸ™‚

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  14. There is definitely a distinction. It is one however, that I never really thought about. I am a girl and yet I also stay away from the flowery, cute looking covers as you described. I hate that everything is gendered. Tampons should be, but not books. Books are for everyone. And whether it’s a light hearted romance or a blood filed action book, everyone should feel as though they can enjoy it.

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  15. A very interesting insight. Honestly, I had not thought about that before. I do wonder if it is done intentionally by authors. Are many of them aware that they are being stereotypical? Awesome post! πŸ™‚

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  16. Love this post! I also feel like men feel almost…emasculated, if they’re reading any remotely emotional book. These actions are capable of subliminally influencing young children to like a certain genre or author for a trivial reason. The bookshelf is a place that needs to stay free of the sexist plague!

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  17. This is a really insightful post! I’ve definitely noticed that and I’ve felt the same way when I’m reading a book in public with a cover that’s really flowery. A lot of the times I’ll only read those on my e-reader or my phone so people won’t know what I’m reading as if it wasn’t a “real” book or I’m not a mature reader. I love YA books and I especially love romance and paranormal. I don’t think anyone should be shamed for the stories they like to read or made to feel like they can’t write a certain story.

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  18. Excellent post. I have noticed as well that the genre of adult fantasy is dominated by male authors. In fact in regard to the great fantasy novels – there’s Martin, Jordan, Rothfuss, Brooks, Goodkind, Sanderson, Williams and so many others. Plus, the only female fantasy writers that come to mind are Marion Zimmer Bradly and Tamora Piece. And Piece is often labelled as young adult/children, which proves your point very nicely. Not to mention the whole boy/girl categorization. In the realm of fantasy writing, novels written by male authors, about male characters receiving a grand destiny for male readers. It’s hard to find well written fantasy novels with a female protagonist and I feel like, myself included, that a lot of women are turned off by that. It’s also a quandary that I have thought a lot about as a female writer interested in writing fantasy series with a female protagonist. In other words, how screwed I am…

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    1. It is so true – the big fantasy books are usually written by men, with male protagonists, and I agree with you that this can be a turn off for some women. Especially in adult fantasy (I think YA fantasy almost has the opposite problem!). I also write fantasy, (although usually YA), but don’t think you’re screwed – think of it as filling the market with some much needed female input!

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    2. There are a legion of great female fantasy authors out there. Most of my fantasy books collection is dominated by them, so I can’t agree with the assertion that well written fantasy novels with a female protagonist are hard to come by. If you would like the names of a few authors to draw inspiration from, you could check out: Jacqueline Carey, Juliet Marillier, Robin Hobb, Glenda Larke, Kate Elliott, Trudi Canavan, Kate Ellitott, Janny Wurtz & Mercedes Lackey. That’s just off the top of my head; there are many more.

      Good luck with your own writing. πŸ™‚

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      1. Thank you for your comments! I totally agree with you about the financial aspects to the publishing industry. It makes sense that books that do sell best for women are the ones being published and sold. I just think that it is a shame that so many are stereotyped and marketed to fulfil those stereotypes.
        Thanks for your list of authors too. I’ve heard of about four of them, so I’ll definitely check out the rest!

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  19. You will find that the principal reason for the apparent gendering of books is financial. Publishing is one of the few female dominated industries, and female readers greatly outnumber male readers and purchase considerably more books. The end result is that publishers make a business decision to target female readers with books that are proven to appeal to large numbers of female readers.

    Whether it’s nature or nuture that leads to the difference in attitudes between male and female readers when it comes to certain genres can debated endlessly. But ultimately, from the big publishers’ point of view, financial considerations determine what type of books get published, how they are marketed and to whom.

    Excellent post, by the way. πŸ™‚

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