Just saw this article in Slate by Emily Bazelon on boys reading 'girls' books.
The article surprised me a little, because it had never really occured to me that gender was a relevant dimension on which to segregate children's books. You mean I wasn't supposed to be moved to tears by Little Women (forgive me, I was a kid)? You mean the Malory* Towers series should not have been my favourite set of Enid Blyton's? Now you tell me.
I mean okay, so I went through my 'I read Hardy Boys and don't read Nancy Drew' phase (though in retrospect it's hard to see what the difference between the two was), but the only 'boy' hero I ever truly had (well, unless you count George from Famous Five) was Jupiter Jones from the Three Investigators (he was smart, he was fat, and he got to hang out with Alfred Hitchcock - do you begin to see why I worshipped him?) and let's face it, he wasn't exactly the machoest kid on the block.
Bazelon argues that the reason boys like some girls books is that these books have the kind of 'how to' descriptions that boys love, and which are the only reason that boys read at all. Boys, it seems are not interested in story and relationship, they are only interested in information. (to be fair, Bazelon does admit that she's stereotyping hugely, but even so this seems a little extreme a statement to make). I sit and try and remember what information I could have got out of the St. Clare's series. Is this why, when I finally went off to school myself, I was disappointed to find that there were to be no trunks neatly stencilled with my name, no lacrosse, not even a goofy old French teacher to laugh at?
The more I think about it, though, the more it dawns on me that Bazelon might have half a point. (WARNING: STEREOTYPES AHEAD!) The reason I liked 'girls' books  better than I liked 'boys' books as a kid (and we'll have no cracks about my masculinity or lack of it, thank you) was because they seemed so much closer to the real business of living. I mean your stereotypical 'boys' book would be about some kid who stumbled upon some exotic crime, and managed (often singlehandedly) to bring the criminals to justice. The stereotypical 'boy' hero was brave, clever and confident - a little over-impulsive, perhaps, but in general an action star in short pants. 'Girls' books on the other hand, were so much more about the little intrigues and disappointments of the everyday. They were about coping with people you didn't like (or who didn't like you), and situations you happened to stumble into. And the heroines of these books were so much deeper, so much richer as human beings - oh, they were courageous too, of course, but it was a more neurotic bravery, a courage born out of self-doubt. They fretted, they were unsure - confidence, for them, was something to be achieved with great effort and by overcoming a great many qualms, not something that came to them naturally. 'Boy' heroes discovered buried treasure and saved it from the money-grubbing hands of evil men, 'girl' heroes managed to be school captain. And to me, as a kid, the latter was so much easier to relate to. The ups and downs of friendships that the 'girls' books talked of were lived experience for me, but when it came to fighting crime, I'd barely been able to stumble upon a parking violation . And anyway, who was I kidding? I wasn't brave, I wasn't tough, I couldn't climb ropes or use a penknife. If some criminal tied me up I wouldn't be all stoic and struggle with my bonds and find some cool way of getting out of them, I would sit quietly in place with tears running down my cheeks and wait for my Mummy to come find me. If anything, I resented these 'boy' heroes for implying that to be a real 'boy' was to be rough and physical, when the only things I was good at were Math and Poetry recitation. That's why I liked the Malory Towers series, not because of what it taught me about French verbs.
Plus, as long as we are dealing in stereotypes, I wonder if the distinction above has something to do with the fact that I know so many more women who are interested in fiction / poetry / literature than I know men with similar interests . Could it be that 'girls' books were a better preparation for adult literature than 'boys' books - that the shift from Alcott to Austen and James was much less of a leap than the move from Tarzan to Moby Dick? By encouraging boys to read cops and robbers stories or 'how to' books about cars and guns, are we systematically eroding their ability to connect to masterworks of literature? Probably not, of course, but it's worth thinking about.
1. I use the term 'girls' books and 'boys' books with extreme reluctance, and would be the first to concur that they are total stereotypes
2. And this wasn't for lack of trying either. When I was 9 or so a couple of friends and I had actually formed our own detective agency with the firm resolve to bring criminals to justice. If the group disbanded a week later, it was only because, having spent long hours stalking total strangers, or keeping watch on suspicious houses (not to mention one particularly memorable afternoon spent searching through the local garbage dump for 'clues'), we couldn't find any crime to fight.
3. Readers of this blog, of course, are important exceptions.
*Veena: Thanks for catching that.
Categories: Personal, Arts