Friday, March 10, 2006

Reading 'girls' books / this explains so much

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 [1] 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 [2]. 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 [3]. 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.

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The ramblings of a shoe fiend said...

"I would sit quietly in place with tears running down my cheeks and wait for my Mummy to come find me.."


useless said...

Interesting.I, for one liked Hardy Boys,Phantom and Louis L'Amour for just the reasons you quote. St.Claires had too much people/ emotional bagggage for me to relate to.But then our society/media seems more tolerant of girl benders than the boy ones.Tomboys ok sissies not ok.

Veena said...

Isn't it spelt Malory Towers?

Falstaff said...

Shoe-fiend: Well, I would.

guptavati: Interesting. That figures, doesn't it - if the established order is that males have higher status then it's only to be expected that some woman would want to pretend to be men - it's only men wanting to be women that would be 'subversive'.

veena: you're right, of course. Have made correction. But two errors in two days. You'd better be careful - before you know it this could become a habit.

km said...

LOL@ Footnote #2!

At the age of 10, something (or someone) gave me the impression that Nancy Drew books would feature some good stuff, nudge nudge wink wink. What a disappointment.

But Malory Towers? Well, even at nine, the books seemed a little....twee?

Sony Pony said...

ahh nostalgia:)

I lovvedd George from the Famous Five series. She was the only girl I knew who, like me, thought girl-things were stupid. And she solved mysteries!
And Jupiter Jones! I must admit, since he was all fat, I displaced my crush onto Pete.

Oh, and Nancy Drew was way cooler than the Hardies. She had a nice, handsome boyfriend who would pop in every now and again and offer support. And she was super stylish. Between her and George, you have one powerful woman:)

Aishwarya said...

I don't suppose you ever read any Elinor M. Brent Dyer?

Falstaff said...

km: :-). If you think about it, Nancy Drew is pretty much the worst girlfriend a guy could possibly have - I mean you spend half your time risking your life so she can be a big crimebuster and stuff, and then, when you she promises you some action, she really means action.

Also, yes, but I'm all for twee-ness.

Sony Pony: Completely agree about George. Totally think she was the best of the Five (though come to think of it Timothy wasn't far behind).

Nancy Drew's boyfriend was actually the big reason why I didn't like her. Aside from the fact that this meant she wasn't single, I think I kind of resented the idea that she needed to have a boyfriend to support / protect her. Real crime-busters, I felt, should do their own dirty work. I would have had a lot more respect for Ms. Drew if she'd actually gone around shooting people with Uzis for instance.

Aishwarya: Ah, the Chalet School series. Yes, I have read indeed. Though I can't say I was that impressed.

dazedandconfused said...

Finally, I seem to have read something that you have too! :)
Nancy Drew, Hardy boys, Famous five (never liked George though, preferred her eccentric uncle), The Three Investigators, The Five Find-Outers and Dog, The Secret Seven (Too many cooks...), Malory Towers. What about Perry Mason and Agatha Christie? Wouldn't you say they were children's books as well? Girls or boys, you reckon?

MumbaiGirl said...

One reason I fell for my husband was because he'd read Austen and Alcott, and Harper Lee and Tove Jansson-I do think that books only about cops and robbers and cars closes of an entire world of literature and reading in general. Similarly a diet made up of Sweet Valley High would do the same for girls.

Falstaff said...

dandc: Nice. Almost certainly would not call either Perry Mason or Christie children's books - read Mason mostly for the book titles, loved Christie.

Mumbaigirl: Ah, now that's what I consider a sensible reason for choosing to get together with someone. If only more women saw things your way. :-).

Tabula Rasa said...

Nice proposition, but what price William?

Anirudh said...

This makes me nostalgic. I was more 'boyish' perhaps- I didn't fight criminals but I did play many sports and played some of them quite well- but I remember liking these books a lot when I read them.

My friends and I formed a secret society too, inspired by the Secret Seven. We were, for the two hours that we existed, called the Secret Six.

We held just one meeting though. We had lemonade (unfortunately, no scones) and were very happy till we had to decide the leader. We voted, fought but couldn't agree on one guy and that was the end of the Secret Six.

tilotamma said...

Ha, ha, ha............

The Soliloquist said...

Why is the focus mainly on the detective guys??? what about the classics? Oliver Twist, David Copperfield.. Alice in wonderland... Little women and the sequel Good wives and books of that genre do merit something more than a mention... although cliched, pride and prejudice was also an early introduction to gritty romance.. Jane Eyre, Emma.. I ve read abridged versions of all these, those cheap illustrated pocket books that come with a bold typeface.. and they remain fresh in my memory compared to the multitude of Hardy Boys and Nancy Drews...These characters may have made their mark.. But the story didnt ..
Felt like mentionin this, since stereotypes were being discussed...

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