Despite the copious media attention paid to recent feminist progress, stereotypical ideas about gender still abound. We assign genders to everything from cars to toys and even pens, and this obsession with dividing our world into things meant for "boys" and things meant for "girls" begins from a very early age.
This is something popular children's book author Shannon Hale recently experienced firsthand. In a now-viral blog post, Hale recounted the experience of visiting a school while on tour for her new book, Princess Academy: The Forgotten Sisters. According to Hale, the school only let middle school girls leave class for her presentation. One young male fan had to receive special permission to attend, but was ultimately "too embarrassed" to do so.
"Because I'm a woman, because some of my books have pictures of girls on the cover, because some of my books have 'princess' in the title, I'm stamped as 'for girls only,'" Hale wrote in the post. "However, the male writers who have boys on their covers speak to the entire school."
For girls' eyes only: The double standard Hale encountered is hardly an anomaly. "The assumption that books about girls are only for girls is so deeply ingrained it's not even noticed," Hale told Mic in an email. "Boys (and girls) are more interested in the story (mystery? humor? fantasy? adventure?) than the sex of the main character." But by the time they're in school, Hale noted, "They've learned that 'girl' books aren't for them and are too ashamed and embarrassed to show interest in them." Thus while girls largely have the freedom to explore areas of interest traditionally deemed masculine, she added, "Boys are limited."
This division, Hale noted, is not generated by the books on their own. "It's not the stories themselves that keep the boys away from books they'll like, it's the strict gender coding. I have moms come to my signings, asking me to sign all the books for their girls, while the boys stand there, uninvited to have a book for themselves. They pre-decide for their sons, 'You won't like it, it's about a girl and not for you.'"
"The assumption that books about girls are only for girls is so deeply ingrained it's not even noticed."
Peggy Orenstein, the author of the best-selling book Cinderella Ate My Daughter, agrees, and further connects this gendered limitation with broader sexism. "On one level our culture is talking about and breaking down ideas about gender binaries," she told Mic, "And on the other hand, with kids, we are constantly reinforcing this hyper-gendered world."
Within this world, femininity is still largely deemed toxic: We restrict boys from anything coded as such, Orenstein said, as a way to protect "masculinity from the taint of femininity or homosexuality."
Rare heroines: Exposing boys to female protagonists is crucial but difficult, given that these characters are highly under-represented in children's literature. One study found that 57% of children's books published each year feature male characters, whereas only 31% feature central female characters. What's more, another study found that these male characters are almost universally white: Of the estimated 5,000 books released in 2012, 3.3% featured African-Americans, 2.1% featured Asian-Americans or Pacific Islanders, 1.5% featured Latinos and only 0.6% featured Native Americans.
The study's authors also note that when women of any race do appear in these books, they use "stereotypical and way out-of-date images of women," according to the Guardian.
"I didn't want to be a part of perpetuating the myth that women only have things of interest to say to girls while men's voices are universally important."
While this reality of under-representation is usually talked about as it impacts girls, and society typically is conscious of the importance of exposing young women to positive female role models, Hale and Orenstein argue we should also focus on the way in which exposure to female characters has the potential to benefit boys — and, conversely, how the current lack of exposure can cause damage.
"It's almost like boys grow up with the old culture but we've given girls a new culture to grow up with and we're expecting that to somehow integrate," Orenstein told Mic.
From children's books to rape culture: Hale agrees that exposure to books in which women are secondary or erased altogether only reiterates a cultural landscape in which young women are valued more for their appearance and sex appeal than their intellect. As she wrote on her website, this perpetuates "the myth that women only have things of interest to say to girls while men's voices are universally important." Failing to encourage boys to empathize with women and reinforcing the notion that women only exist to bolster men's experiences creates a reality in which "boys aren't expected to understand and empathize with the female population of the world," Hale wrote. This, in turn, "leads to rape culture."
"I do think that simply starting with inviting boys to read some books about girls too would create huge ripples of change."
Orenstein echoed this connection. "The boy this culture is trying to raise is a boy who bases his status on objectifying women," she told Mic. "I really think that boys do need to read books, to see films and experience the naturalness of female protagonists so that they, too, will see that as okay." Parental and educational intervention that humanizes women is therefore essential, according to Orenstein, "for boys to see positive female protagonists, to see female competence, to see female leadership, to see female triumph, to see females succeeding and failing and struggling."
The importance of empathy: For these reasons, Hale created the Twitter hashtag #BoysReadGirls and encouraged users to generate a list of books featuring female protagonists and start a conversation about the issue. "It's easy to point out problems, so I'm trying to find positive follow-up actions too," Hale told Mic. "I do think that simply starting with inviting boys to read some books about girls too would create huge ripples of change."
Ultimately, exposing boys to strong, interesting women and encouraging them to identify with them isn't just about combating objectification or other sexist attitudes: It's about actively creating a better world. "The more we read books about people different from us, the more empathy we have for them," Hale told Mic. "What a beautiful world if all the men had grown up reading about and learning to understand and empathize with women. How much easier for them to navigate this world with a population of 51% women and girls, how much better their relationships with family and colleagues and friends."