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, I 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?