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File this one under the category: Stuff Parents Notice But Don’t Discuss
You have a child. The child is quite young, let’s say two years of age. The child loves books about tools, ladders, and banjos (and you would be shocked just how many books for kids contain at east one of those three items). What the child loves most in this great big, wide, wonderful world, though, is construction equipment. Excavators and backhoes (don’t call them diggers). Cement mixers and forklifts. And so you, good dutiful parent that you are, go off and attempt to find as many construction equipment books as possible so as to feed this insatiable need.
Time passes. The child is very fond of the books you have chosen. So fond, in fact, that they’ve taken to having you read them over and over and over again in succession. And the adult brain, while capable of doing this, begins to realize that the information coming in is the exact same information that came in five and ten and fifteen minutes ago. So the brain begins to search for meanings in the books. Connections. Something, anything really, to keep it occupied. And that’s when you notice it. Right there. Clear as crystal.
The genders of various pieces of construction equipment.
Because, you see, you cannot check out endless books on crane trucks and steam rollers before you notice how these books choose to gender their anthropomorphized mechanicals.
Today, ladies and gentlemen, we pick apart precisely why one book or another chooses to make a wrecking ball a boy or a grader a girl. Bear with me here. I’ve read a LOT of these books. I need to do something with this information or I may burst.
But first, some history!
Go to your shelves and pick yourselves up a copy of Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever. A staple of the toddler set, and a fixture on living room bookshelves since the year of its publication, 1963.
Now if you’ll take out your copy of Wild Things: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature and turn to page 69 you will find a remarkably well-written passage (*puffs self up*) regarding Mr. Scarry and gender in his books. It reads, “By the 1970s, author/illustrator Richard Scarry was the object of much feminist criticism for his repeated portrayal of female characters in passive domestic roles in his many picture books showing community workers. But Scarry eventually heeded the cries of sexism aimed at him.” He updated the characters in his book. Back in 2013 I wrote a piece called “Are there any girl bears?”: Gender and the 21st Century Picture Book featuring this fun bit of side-by-side comparison between the original Word Book and its revised edition:
Of course, once you know about the update, the changes are shockingly obvious. Scarry didn’t really bother to match the linework when he redid his art. Or maybe it’s just that the printing technology of the day made for a stark difference in the original and updated characters. Here are two good examples of what I mean:
As you can see, the original images are using these deeper watercolor shades while the new images are much lighter and simpler. I do, however, have to give the man credit for the taxi driver in pearls.
And you know what? I don’t care if the female characters do look Photoshopped in. I’m grateful, dammit, that there are some women doing labor above and beyond secretarial work. Scarry even occasionally put men in roles traditionally considered to be the women’s territory. Mr. Bunny makes breakfast for the family, for example.
Which brings us, naturally, to the present day. In the 1970s there was a big push for diverse books and titles with gender equal characters. Time passed and this pressing need became just a bit less pressing. So let’s take a group of construction equipment titles as an example and see how the ladies fare. After all, if Scarry updated this bear to look like this:
Note that he just put a bow on a bear in this particular case.
then how hard can it be for books today?
I’ll separate these books into two categories. The first are anthropomorphized vehicles. The second, construction workers. This is by no means a complete listing. It’s just what I’ve observed in my own life.
Gendered Construction Equipment
Digger, Dozer, Dumper by Hope Vestergaard, ill. David Slonim
MAN, I love this book. I recently got a copy for my son to see, having remembered it a little late. The edition I received from the library was sparkling and pristine. You know why? Because it’s shelved in the poetry section of the library and few folks think to look there for their construction books. Now I love the way Vestergaard never cheats on a rhyme, that’s true. But really and truly what I adore about the book is the variety of genders she grants her unusually animate objects. The skid-steer loader, excavator, ambulance, steamroller, and forklift all identify as female.
Slonim does give big long eyelashes to all the female vehicles, which seems a bit excessive. You don’t need eyelashes on a Skid-Steer Loader, after all. But as it happens, eyelashes are the preferred method of gender identification on trucks. You can see this as well in:
Go! Go! Go! Stop! by Charise Mericle Harper
In this book there’s only one female piece of equipment and it’s the dump truck.
Not quite as extensive as Vestergaard’s book, but it’s still good to have her there. Again, Harper goes in for eyelashes. Scarry used bows. It’s all relative.
Mighty Dads by Joan Holub, ill. James Dean
An interesting case. Dean doesn’t go in for eyelashes and Holub seemingly gives some of the little construction vehicles female names (“Mitzy” is one of them). It’s not 100% clear, but you can read into it what you like. I think it counts.
Goodnight Goodnight Construction Site by Sherry Duskey Rinker, ill. Tom Lichtenheld
Ah. Alas. My son adores this book. He recently got a stuffed version of the excavator for his birthday and he simply could not be more pleased. But while the pieces of equipment do have genders, they’re all male.
Bulldozer’s Big Day by Candace Fleming, ill. Eric Rohmann
All boy, all the time too.
Gender of Construction Workers
I’ll be the first to tell you that of all the construction workers who have been helping to build the duplex next door to my house, not one of them has been female. Still and all, there is a benefit to young readers seeing girls build in some way. So with that in mind . . .
Dig, Dogs, Dig: A Construction Tail by James Horvath (and subsequent sequels like Build, Dogs, Build and Work, Dogs, Work)
I’m writing this at a bit of a disadvantage. I’ve seeing Dig and Build but I haven’t seen Work quite yet. Still, on the basis of the first two books in the series, I have one comment: Roxie needs to do some real work. You see, in the book there’s this pink dog named Roxie who joins the apparently all-male crew on their digs (yes, she has eyelashes). The problem is that Roxie doesn’t have much to do. For example, on the back of Build, Dogs, Build you can see her welding:
But inside they changed it so that the dog doing the welding wasn’t her. All Roxie got to really do in this book was install a doorbell. Dig, Dogs, Dig wasn’t much better. There she just handed down hammers. I’ll be looking at Work, Dogs, Work soon. Hopefully they put that gal through her paces. She needs to earn her keep!
Construction by Sally Sutton
Very nicely done. It’s not overt but the construction workers do include female crew members.
Whose Trucks? by Toni Buzzeo, ill. Jim Datz
These board books are fantastic. Men and women work together everywhere. Also, the kids playing with the trucks at the end of the book are a boy and a girl. If you haven’t seen this, as well as its companion piece Whose Tools? then you are missing out, my friend.
Diggers Go by Steve Light
My son doesn’t have many words but one word he does have is “man”. “Man? Man?” he asks as he points to the construction equipment in this book. He’s not wrong. You might argue that since the faces are in silhouette there’s no way to really tell if the drivers are men or women, and you’d be right. Still and all they look like dudes. When Light puts women in these positions, they tend to have ponytails. The sole ding in what is otherwise a magnificent series.
I was captivated by your account of Ruth Law’s record-breaking flight from Chicago to New York City one hundred years ago, and Raúl Colón’s illustrations are magnificent.
You are creating a wonderful collection of books about strong women from our past. How do you choose the women you write about?
I love to read and write about lesser-known women, who dream big, pick themselves up when they fall, and stay persistent.
These women might face poverty, racial or gender discrimination, disability, or other hardships. They’re not afraid of failure. They inspire me to step outside my own comfort zone and be brave.
What drew you to this story about Ruth Law?
Sometimes I’m drawn to writing about topics I fear. With fear, there’s always fascination—like when you don’t want to watch a scary movie, but you can’t help yourself.
I’m a nervous flyer, so I’ve always been intrigued by those who dared to fly the flimsy biplanes made in the early 1900s. Ruth Law opened doors for women aviators like Amelia Earhart to enter this male-dominated field.
I loved how Ruth immersed herself fully in flying, even mastering the mechanics of her plane. She could tell what was wrong with her motor by the sound of it!
Her passion and personality came through in her words—she had a lovely voice. I wove her words into the text, so Ruth helps tell her own story.
It’s clear a lot of research went into Fearless Flyer. Can you talk a little about your process?
Every book I write is a treasure hunt. I never know where a clue might take me. My initial research involved reading a lot of newspaper articles, and in one of those articles Ruth mentioned she kept a scrapbook. I tracked it down at the National Air and Space Museum archives.
Heather researching Ruth Law's scrapbook
Her enormous scrapbook was stuffed with newspaper articles, mementos, photos, and her own handwriting. It was a goldmine.
While I was there I visited the early flight exhibit at the museum, educated myself about her biplane, and learned about the evolution of flight. A lot of questions popped up about her plane and how she operated it, so I found a retired Navy Commander who pilots and builds these old-style biplanes. He had incredible insights.
I am always amazed how generous people are with their time and how eager they are to help.
What is one of your favorite things about writing for children?
Other than being able to wear sweat pants or pajamas all day, I’d have to say one of my favorite things about my job is the community. I can’t imagine a more supportive group of people than writers, teachers, and librarians. We all have the same primary goal—to have a positive impact on children, giving them books they can relate to and books that open them up to new people and places and dreams.
I’m in two critique groups. We share the highs of clever endings, successful revisions, and accepted submissions. We share the struggles of faulty plots, poor reviews, and rejection. I rely on them tremendously for support.
I’m launching a blog focusing on Girls With Grit and having a blast creating the content.
It will include real-life stories, psychology and science, classroom activities, interviews with authors, and of course children’s books with strong female characters.
I’m also adding supplemental materials to my website so readers can get to know even more about Ruth Law and her flying machine.
What do you have coming out next?
I’m really excited about my next picture book biography, Swimming with Sharks: The Daring Discoveries of Eugenie Clark, illustrated by Jordi Solano (Albert Whitman, 2016), about an amazing shark scientist AKA “The Shark Lady.”
Sadly, Genie (as she liked to be called) died last year at the age of 92. I had the thrill of interviewing her in person in 2014, and hearing about her remarkable adventures. Genie also reviewed the manuscript for me.
I look forward to sharing this amazing woman with kids everywhere.
Whether he fills his scenes with raunchy innuendos, or boldly writes erotic poetry, or frequently reverses the gender norms of the time period, Shakespeare addresses the multifaceted ways in which sex, love, marriage, relationships, gender, and sexuality play an integral part of human life.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about what pronouns to use for persons whose gender is unknown, complicated, or irrelevant. Options include singular they and invented, common-gender pronouns. Each has its defenders and its critics.
Title: What We Left Behind
Author: Robin Talley
Publisher: Harlequin Teen, 2015
Themes: Gender, binary identity, lesbianism, transgender, genderqueer, pronouns, starting college, relationships, romance
Genre: Contemporary YA/NA
Source: ARC received from publisher in exchange for an unbiased review. (Quotes from the ARC therefor subject to change.)
October … Continue reading →
Gender is a central concept in modern societies. The promotion of gender equality and women’s empowerment is key for policymakers, and it is receiving a growing attention in business agendas. However, gender gaps are still a wide phenomenon. While gender gaps in education and health have been decreasing remarkably over time and their differences across countries have been narrowing, gender gaps in the labour market and in politics are more persistent and still vary largely across countries.
One of the most uncompromising, unflinching, page-turning books I have read in a long time. It is a harrowing story that forces you to confront and challenge many important issues; gender, poverty, race and class to list but a few. Mireille is visiting her Haitian parents in Port-au-Prince with her American husband and baby son […]
Wrapping up 2014, the EU year of Workplace Reinvention, once again brings worklife balance (WLB) policies into focus. These policies, including parental leave, rights to reduced hours, and flexible work hours, are now part of European law and national laws inside and outside of Europe. For example, Japan has similar WLB policies in place.
The existence of these rights does not always, however, reflect the capabilities of individuals to claim them without risk to their careers, and even job loss, particularly when so many companies are downsizing. There is a gap between policies and practices, and, more broadly, a widening gap between aspirations for worklife balance—for more time for family, friends, and leisure activities—and the pressures for greater productivity and increased work intensity, alongside the growing numbers of insecure and precarious jobs. For men, this gap has become more tangible due to changing norms and expectations for them to be more involved fathers and the persistence of gendered norms around caring and earning in the workplace. Research, including the European Social Survey 2010, reveals that when looking for a job the overwhelming majority of men (as well as women), place a high priority on reconciling employment with family. They also show that majority of working fathers would choose to work less hours even if it meant a corresponding loss in hourly pay. Still, between 40-60% of them in European countries are working more than 40 hours a week (European Social Survey in 2010).
Firm and work organizational culture has become the central focus in worklife balance research, with a particular focus on increasing flexibility (flexi-times and flex workplaces) and telecommuting. Flexible working times, once a perk for the valuable worker, have been embraced by many firms as the hallmark of new management and work organization. It is a cornerstone in EU policy and discourse on WLB. In June, the UK granted all employees the right to request flex time. Flexibility is presented as the win-win situation for achieving WLB, allowing for changes over the life course as well as individual preferences.
But does flexibility actually increase one’s scope of alternatives and choice in worklife balance? This depends on the job/sector, the skill and education of the worker; gender matters, as do national statutory provisions and the practices at firms. Consider the following example. Flexibility in working times and especially the possibility to reduce hours has enabled many mothers to combine employment with family, but there are career penalties since part-time jobs tend to be considered “dead end jobs”. Can one adjust working times over the life course? The European Survey on Working Times (firm level data) show that only 18% of firms offer full reversibility (the possibility to move from part-time to full-time and from full-time to part-time).
Within the current debates on worklife balance and flexibility we see two cross-currents. On the one side, there are switch-off policy initiatives in France, which seek to set limits on the number of hours that an employee can be “linked-in” (accessing work systems and emails). In Germany, the Westphalia region is considering banning office communications in the evenings and during vacations, a practice that has already been established by VW, BMW, and Deutsche Telekom, which banned after-hours calls and emails to workers. On the other side, the solution to WLB is cast in terms of total flexibility with employees setting the pace of work and schedules and telecommuting rather than traveling to work. Work becomes an activity, not a place; rewards are based on performance and results, not on the hours you put in at the workplace. In this vision of future work, the workplace would become superfluous and employment conditional on evaluated performance. Is this a workers’ utopia that would enhance the capabilities of individuals for a better WLB and quality of life? Or is this a scenario with high levels of uncertainty, longer working days, the removal of boundaries between working life and other spheres of life, and lastly, the loss of community among workers who interact at the workplace?
Headline image: Seconds Out by dogwelder. CC BY-NC 2.0 via flickr
A ‘slobbering valentine to a member of the upper classes’, ‘an orgy of snobbery’, and ‘the apotheosis of brown-nosing’: Angela Carter’s excoriating dismissal of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1928), delivered in Tom Paulin’s notorious televisual polemic, J’accuse Virginia Woolf (1991), serves as a reminder that this work has as much potential as any of her novels to provoke heated disagreements. That it should be so might seem surprising, as it is one of the most easy-going of her novels, one in which she consciously simplified her prose style in the interests of drawing in the reader effortlessly; it is also the most comic of her novels, mocking the conventions of history and biography. That Carter in particular should be so violently opposed to the novel is particularly surprising, as its willingness to rewrite conventional fictional forms anticipates her novels, and its employment of fantastic elements anticipates the ‘magic realist’ mode that she was to employ. Like Orlando, Carter’s own The Passion of New Eve (1977) also centres on a change of sex, albeit more violently wrought. Mostly intriguingly of all, in 1979 Glyndebourne Opera House commissioned Carter to write a libretto for an opera, never completed, of Woolf’s novel. Carter’s dismissal of Woolf might appear to stem from unease about working in her shadow.
To leave it there would neglect the prominence of social class in Carter’s opinion. Though the fragments of her libretto were published under the title Orlando: or, The Enigma of the Sexes, another working title was Orlando: An English Country House Opera; the country house and the aristocracy are significant factors in Orlando. Woolf’s novel was inspired by her passionate relationship with Vita Sackville-West in 1925 and 1926. Vita had been brought up at Knole in Kent, her family’s ancestral seat since the early seventeenth century; she loved the house and its history, but as a woman, she did not stand to inherit it. Vita’s family history made a strong impression on Woolf: ‘All these ancestors & centuries, & silver & gold, have bred a perfect body’, she wrote in 1924, with a hint of critical awareness of Vita’s privilege; in the same diary entry she noted how Knole could house all the poor of Judd Street, then one of the slum areas of Bloomsbury. In 1927 she was more overawed, more deeply in love, and less critical: walking round Knole with Vita, ‘All the centuries seemed lit up, the past expressive, articulate; not dumb & forgotten; but a crowd of people stood behind, not dead at all; not remarkable; fair faced, long limbed; affable; & so we reach the days of Elizabeth quite easily.’ Politically Woolf was liberal, progressive, and above all anti-authoritarian; by the 1930s she was actively involved in her local Labour Party. Visiting Knole in 1927, however, she seems to have been enchanted by a conservative ideology in which the country house serves as symbol of continuity between generations, of the centrality of monarchy to the British constitution, and of a benign relation between the aristocracy and the people. It is ‘ideological’ in the sense of masking and normalizing exploitative economic relations.
The strength of Carter’s hostility in 1991 may well have something to do with the revival of the country house ideology in British mass culture in the 1980s. ITV’s adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, in the depths of the economic recession of the early 1980s, was a particularly pointed example. Critical works such as Patrick Wright’s On Living in an Old Country (1985) and Robert Hewison’s The Heritage Industry (1987) highlighted the ways in which ‘heritage’ serves political ends. However, Carter’s remarks don’t tell the whole truth, no matter how much they resonated in their moment. Important though the country house is to Orlando, it is less important than poetry and the hero/heroine’s dogged pursuit of the muse, and poetry in turn is less important than the question of personal identity. House-building and poetry-writing stand in direct contrast to each other. In Chapter II, it is the scorn of the poet Nick Greene that makes Orlando turn to the refurbishment of his house; though when the work is complete he holds banquets there, when the banquets are at their height he retreats to his private room to enjoy the pleasures of poetry. When Orlando travels to Turkey, his/her English values are put into perspective. To the Turkish gipsies, a family lineage four or five hundred years is of negligible duration, and the desire to own a house with hundreds of bedrooms is vulgar. Viewed from a certain angle, the established aristocrat becomes a vulgar upstart. Although the house still matters to Orlando when she returns to it triumphantly in the final chapter, and although the house still holds vivid memories of the people she has known, the cause of the triumph is the recognition of Orlando’s writing; and she recalls the sceptical perspective of the gipsies.
Focusing on the relationship between Vita and Virginia, Vita’s son Nigel Nicolson described Orlando as ‘the longest and most charming love-letter in literature’, a phrase that was Carter’s starting point. If Carter’s estimate is distorted by the demands of her time, Nicolson’s isn’t quite right either: Orlando is more than a purely personal document. It raises questions about personal identity and national identity, about history and its transmission, and about the value of writing, and it does so in a way that persistently mocks established values.
Headline image: Knole House, owned by the National Trust (2009). In the early 17th century the Sackville family re-modelled the old archbishops’ palace into a stately home. Photo by John Wilder. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
A key element of Vladimir Putin’s legitimation strategy has been the cultivation of a macho image. His various public relations stunts subduing wild animals, playing rough sports, and displaying his muscular torso, drew on widely familiar ideas about masculinity. The purpose was to portray Putin as a strong, decisive leader who could be counted upon to solve challenging problems with a convincing mixture of cool levelheadedness and the credible threat to use force as needed. But while masculinity is demonstrated through such displays, it is also reinforced by the sexualized attention of traditionally feminine, attractive young women.
The mobilization of masculinity as a political resource has been visible in Putin’s birthday gifts, as well as in other Putin-oriented cultural productions. While Putin has been receiving elaborate birthday presents almost since the start of his first term as Russian president, this post largely focuses on a handful of gifts in recent years that have come from organized pro-Putin activists and emphasized Putin’s masculinity.
In October 2010, as a gift for Putin’s 58th birthday, twelve female students and alumni of Moscow State University’s prestigious journalism department published a calendar featuring photographs of themselves looking as if they had walked out of a Victoria’s Secret catalog. Offering witty, sexualized quips, each young woman suggested herself as a potential lover for Mr. Putin. “You put the forest fires out, but I’m still burning,” smiled a student illustrating the month of March. In a similar vein, in July 2011 a group called Putin’s Army announced an “I’ll Rip [It] for Putin” contest with a video that got over 2.5 million hits. The clip featured a buxom young woman ripping open her tank top to demonstrate her dedication to Putin. In October, Putin’s Army continued its activity by filming a video for Putin’s fifty-ninth birthday. Promising that their birthday gift would be “the sweetest,” a handful of women wearing only underpants and white button-down shirts were shown baking their idol a chocolate birthday cake (decorated with a heart) while squirting whipped cream into their mouths. An email-hacking incident in 2012 revealed that the Kremlin-sponsored youth group, Nashi, had funded Putin’s Army along with a range of other pro-Putin web projects.
Nor did pro-Kremlin groups let Putin’s 60th birthday pass without a new proclamation of young women’s love for the president. In early October 2012, the United Russia party’s youth wing, Young Guard, produced a video for the occasion featuring attractive young women mimicking a variety of Putin’s manly exploits (flying a fighter jet, playing ice-hockey, and scuba diving for “ancient” pottery). In each setting, the women’s femininity was exaggerated, and most of them were shown receiving a text message from Putin (“The Very One”) while carrying out their feats. The final scene, over the strains of “Blueberry Hill” (which Putin had sung at a celebrity fundraiser two years earlier), showed all the women standing together on a city street, waiting in great anticipation — with a birthday cake — for Putin to arrive. The clip closed with the “Blueberry Hill” lyric ostensibly ringing in each woman’s mind: “My dreams came true.” The video playfully spoofed Putin’s stunts while upholding his image as a highly desirable man from the standpoint of the women who thrilled over his text messages and grew giddy at the prospect of seeing him in person.
If pro-Putin youth groups presented any public gifts to the president in 2013, none attained viral status on the Internet. Putin spent his birthday in Bali that year at the APEC summit, where he was serenaded with “Happy Birthday to You!” by Indonesia’s president. Putin was also the subject of a music video released the previous day, written and performed by a St. Petersburg artist, Aleksei Sergienko, who had made the news a year earlier after showing fifteen portraits of Putin at an exhibit titled “The President. A Kind-Hearted Man.” Sergienko’s song, titled, “Hang in there, man!” (Muzhik, derzhis’!), repeatedly encouraged Putin to “hang in there” as he resolutely confronted challenges ranging from Pussy Riot’s insults to European demands for LGBT rights. “We wish him strength,” explained Sergienko.
In 2014, playful presents from pro-Kremlin youth groups addressing Putin primarily as a manly sex object gave way to birthday offerings with a more grandiose and nationalistic tone. The latest such group, called Network — formed “from the ashes” of Nashi — produced two gifts starkly emphasizing Putin’s achievements as an unshakeable national leader navigating a hostile international environment. The first was an art exhibit, organized for Putin’s 62nd birthday, featuring artistic renderings of “The Twelve Labors of Putin” (modeled after the Twelve Labors of Hercules). Here Putin could be seen shielding Russia from the economic sanctions (rendered as serpents) imposed after Russia’s takeover of Crimea, and beheading the Hydra-head belonging to the US. Network’s second gift was a series of giant patriotic murals emblazoned on walls in seven Russian cities, each illustrating one of Putin’s achievements for Russia: Strength, Remembrance, Arctic, Sovereignty, History, Security, and Olympics — an anagram for the Russian word “Spasibo” (thank you). As Network’s press secretary explained, under Putin, Russia was winning. With Putin in charge, the state, like its leader, was now seen as strong, tough, victorious, and — naturally — manly.
Featured image: Russian president Vladimir Putin by World Economic Forum, photo by Remy Steinegger. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons via Wikimedia Commons.
I am a closet-case sci-fi fan. Or, as multiple book reviews on this blog have probably revealed, maybe not so closet case. I looked forward to reading Ancillary Justice when I'd seen it won the Hugo and Nebula awards. I cut my sci-fi teeth on the likes of Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles and Frank Herbert's Dune in between installments of Little House on the Prairie. That is the seventies in a nutshell. And I figured, if Leckie could beat Andy Weir's The Martian, which I love, in the awards category, I was about to fall in love again.
Let's just say Ancillary Justice and I got off to a rocky start. It was not love at first sight. In fact, the novel frustrated me (incidentally, it was the same when I first met my husband).
Basic plot - a space ship decides to take revenge on the leader of the culture that made - and ultimately attempts to destroy - it (Ancillary Justice, not my marriage; it's still happily intact).
It's fascinating stuff. AI taken to a whole new level. However, the AI can't decipher female from male and so refers to everyone as "she". Sometimes, gender is specified, but then the ship reverts to calling said characters "she". For me, it made connecting with characters really hard. And that made me wonder, why does gender matters in story? Or rather, does gender matter in story? Should it matter? What does Leckie gain by making her story more or less gender neutral?
I haven't finished figuring all of this out, but I have come to the conclusion that for the story, by making everyone gender neutral, characters become sentient beings. That's it. They have flaws and quirks, but in remaining gender neutral, they never became much deeper than that. This may, in part, have to do with the boundaries of my hermeneutics. I live in a world in which, for the most part, the gender of any person I interact with, is clear. With that comes mounds of unspoken data. Without that, I have to rethink my world. That is what Leckie forced me, as a reader, to do in her novel. I had to see it through a different lens, a new lens, one I haven't completely finished sanding down yet, and won't, without further interaction.
The absence of gender imploded my hermeneutic structure of interpretation. It made me feel uneasy. And it's kept me feeling uneasy. And thinking. In other words, it's genius.
Back in June, Laura Reiko Simeon wrote about how race is handled in Swedish picture books. We’re thrilled to host Laura again as she sheds light on how Swedish picture books handle gender and gender-ambiguous characters.
You sit down with your favorite 4-year-old to read a sweet, wordless picture book featuring a little duck swimming down the river. Quickly, without thinking too hard, what pronoun do you use to describe the duck? Do you say, “Look at him paddle past that shaggy dog!” or “What does she see in the sky?”
If you were like the mothers in a 1985 study, you would use masculine pronouns for 95% of animal characters with no gender-specific characteristics. A follow-up study from 1995 examined children’s use of pronouns and found that by age 7 they had absorbed and were repeating these same gender stereotypes. Listen to those around you: has it changed much since then?
In the US, Sweden is widely regarded as a leader in gender equality, although many Swedes still see a need for greater progress. Meanwhile, our own biases are apparent, for example when we consider gendered toys. Compare this 1981 Lego ad, with its blue jeans and t-shirt-clad girl to the pink-infused products targeted at girls today. As with other social issues, picture books reflect concerns in society at large – but how they’ve done so is dramatically different in the US as compared to Sweden.
Some American picture books encourage acceptance of kids who break free from gender restrictions: Charlotte Zolotow’s William’s Doll, Cheryl Kilodavis’s My Princess Boy, and Campbell Geeslin’s Elena’s Serenade, among others. The point of these stories is that a character is acting in opposition to gender norms, but for children who may not yet be aware that they’re “not supposed to” do or like certain things, these well-intentioned books could introduce self-consciousness.
What have largely been missing from English-language picture books are deliberately gender-ambiguous characters that are neither being bullied nor defiant. They just are. Rather than focusing on the consequences (good or bad) of pushing against societal restrictions or elevating the rebel as cultural hero, they turn the focus on the reader. Do we feel uncomfortable if we don’t know someone’s gender? Why? Do we make assumptions about gender based on what someone is doing or wearing? Why?
We do have some characters – e.g. the diverse, roly-poly infants in Helen Oxenbury’s delightful baby books – that are non-gender specific, but they tend to be in simple, relatively plot-free books for the very young. They are distinct from the Swedish picture books in which pronouns are cleverly avoided and characters send deliberately contradictory gender signals. My earlier post about
The anti-bias publisher OLIKA has published several titles of this nature, but the one that made the biggest splash was Kivi and the Monster Dog by Jesper Lundqvist, the first children’s book to use the gender-neutral pronoun, “hen.” (In Swedish, “hon” means “she” and “han” means “he.” First proposed in the 1960s, “hen” was mostly used in academic research and hipster neighborhoods of Stockholm.) In this funny rhyming story, a small person, Kivi, wishes for a pet dog and ends up instead with a demanding beast that runs amok.
Åsa Mendel-Hartvig and Caroline Röstlund write about Tessla, a preschooler clad in gender-neutral clothes and boasting a mop of brown hair. In Tessla’s Mama Doesn’t Want To! and Tessla’s Papa Doesn’t Want To!, the child, in an amusing role reversal, creatively cajoles badly behaving parents into leaving the park, washing their hair, waking up on time or going to work.
interior page from Pom and Pim
Pom and Pim by Olof and Lena Landström may be the only Swedish gender-neutral book that has been translated into English. The first in a series, it features an adventurous toddler, Pom, who sends mixed gender signals: a boyish-sounding nickname, sparse curls, a long purple sweater, and a little pink toy (Pim). The story is told without pronouns, yet two professional American reviewers assumed Pom was male and referred to the character as “he.”
In Maria Nilsson Thore’s Bus and Frö Each on Their Own Island, two gender-ambiguous animals reach out from their lonely islands to become friends. One is shown variously smoking a pipe and knitting. In Jonatan Brännström’s The Lightning Swallower, we never learn the gender of the narrator, who is terrified of thunderstorms.
The Lightning Swallower
These books make a reader consider what markers are “masculine” or “feminine” – and why. They don’t dictate what you “should” do – rebel or conform – or offer value judgments about those who do either. In English-language books, feisty heroines reject traditionally female pursuits as “boring” (what about those girls who do love sewing and cooking?) and boys are persecuted for their love of pink and dolls (making these preferences seem risky to express). With their gender-ambiguous characters, Swedes have tilted the lens slightly and given us a whole new perspective through which to consider this topic. Can we change the terms of the discussion instead of framing everything in terms of binary gender categories? Where could that small but crucial shift take us?
The daughter of an anthropologist, Laura Reiko Simeon’s passion for diversity-related topics stems from her childhood spent living all over the US and the world. She fell in love with Sweden thanks to the Swedish roommate she met in Wales while attending one of the United World Colleges, international high schools dedicated to promoting cross-cultural understanding. Laura has an MA in History from the University of British Columbia, and a Master of Library and Information Science from the University of Washington. She lives near Seattle.
Diversity is a really hot topic in the Kid Lit world these days. At the recent SCBWI International Conference in LA, hundreds of people attended a panel about diversity and a chat afterward. You hear the word being tossed around all over the place, and sometimes I wonder if everyone is talking about the same thing.
Blame it on my days in high school debate, but I always like to define our terms when talking about something that could mean many things. When I think about children's books/literature, I think of diversity coming in three ways.
First, there is a diversity in authors and illustrators. From what I've seen, the Kid Litverse is full of a diverse cross section of authors and illustrators. Dozens of various ethnic and racial origins are represented. Just off the top of my head I can think of Asian, Hispanic, African-American, Native American artists in every age level of our industry. I know many LBGTQ authors and illustrators, men and women. I know some of almost any religious affiliation. Sure it could always be a higher number, which is I think where the discussion starts. It's not that publishers don't want diverse authors and illustrators, nor do they discriminate. Talent is talent. It seems to me the challenge is encouraging, mentoring, and training more people, letting them know their voices are necessary and welcomed. There are many ways we could do this--scholarships for under-represented groups to attend conferences/schools/events, mentoring programs, and contests. SCBWI is on the forefront of this, offering a wide variety of opportunities for everyone, and some special programs for under-represented groups.
Second, there's diversity in the publishing industry. As we all know, the publishing industry does not always embrace change very fast. But there are publishers out there--Lee and Low comes immediately to mind--that particularly focus on diversity in their publishing program. Plus, with the rise of self-publishing, access is there for anyone of any age, gender, ethnic or religious background. The discussion continues into the blogosphere, where there are numerous blogs and other resources where diversity in literature is the frequent topic.
Third, we're talking about diversity in the characters portrayed in children's books, and this is where the discussion can get heated, but I also find it the most interesting. White, middle-class characters have dominated children's literature for decades. But, as we all know, kids come from all sorts of diverse backgrounds, skin colors, religions, genders, sexual identities, and economic status. In the last few decades, we've seen a few more characters of color, particularly in picture books, which is terrific. And in the last decade, we seem to be getting more ethnic backgrounds represented in novels, too. I think we need more LBGTQ characters. I'd love to see more characters with metal illness, handicaps, autism spectrum syndrome, ADHD. More characters from around the world. Not just Americans with different colors of skin, but different cultures from all over.
Here's where I think things get challenging when we talk about diversity. Who's writing or illustrating these characters? Some people feel strongly that the author/illustrator come from an authentic place in presenting these characters, by which they mean, I think, that only a Native American can authentically write or illustrate a Native American character, for example. I would love to see more people writing characters from their authentic experience, but I also don't think we need to limit ourselves.
Writers and illustrators have always portrayed characters outside of our own experience. We write about historical figures, when we never lived in that time period. We write fantasy, when we've never fought a dragon. It is possible to write characters that are outside your own personal realm of experience. That's why research is so useful and important. I am currently writing a book set during WWII in which one of the main characters is a Japanese American girl. I am Caucasian, so how can my character be authentic? Lots and lots of research. I have another WIP that includes a Native American character. I may not be Native American, but I grew up in a town just outside one of the nation's poorest reservations, and I had daily interactions with Indians both on and off the reservation, so I think I have a fairly authentic grasp of their struggles and issues, even though they are not my personal struggles and issues. I am a female, but one of my latest books is in first person from the point of view of a teenage boy. Again, I live with my teenage son, so I have a pretty good picture of his male voice and viewpoint. I have written gay characters, lesbian characters, and more. Because, basically, I think there are some universalities about our human experience that allow us to imagine and put ourselves into the shoes of people who might be different from ourselves by focusing on what unites us.
To me, this stance isn't a cop out. It's an acknowledgement that an African-American author, for example, is in the best position to authentically portray an African-American character. However, if that author wants to write about a white, middle-class character, I have no problem with that. If he is a good writer, he should be able to manage it. And I think if I do my homework, I can manage to portray an African-American character if I want to. And I want to portray diverse characters. I hope we all do.
I'd love to hear what others think about this.
For more information about diversity in children's literature, check out the We Need Diverse Books campaign, which just recently announced its inception as a 501-c3 non-profit organization.
And look for our Boise SCBWI conference next April, where we plan to focus on diversity in children's literature.
You may have remembered a few months ago, I begged for responses to a long thing about gender and stereotypes and then a few weeks later I begged for responses to a shorter one. HUGE THANKS TO ALL OF YOU FOR GIVING ME RECS OF WHAT TO READ AND THINK ABOUT AND/OR DATA TO QUOTE HERE!
This was for a level two project, also known as a higher project qualification or HPQ. We got to choose anything to research and come up with a 2000 word essay on it. It was finished in February 2014, and came back with an A* :)
Anyway, I chose to write about YA and how heavily gender stereotypes feature in it. A googledoc of this essay can be found here; the essay is uncut here, but there you can find the whole bibliography, and results of the shorter surveys.
What do you think? Does YA challenge or reinforce gendered stereotypes, or is it changing? Share your thoughts in the comments.
Does Young Adult Fiction challenge or reinforce gender stereotypes?
Gender stereotypes invade every aspect of life. From the moment a child is born and pronounced a boy or a girl, they will have the trappings of gender thrust upon them. However, by the time they are teenagers, they will have started questioning these, and many other things about the world around them. Literature written for teenagers, also known as Young Adult literature (YA), addresses many issues such as grief, bullying, drugs, suicide and rape. However, in my years reading a wide range of books on the market, I have not found many books that prominently challenge gender stereotypes, unless it is one of the few with a main character on the transgender spectrum. I have also often thought about the more general representation of gender throughout YA-the characteristics, traits and ideas attached to characters of different genders. In my time as a book blogger, I have also grown to know the methods of marketing YA literature, and I am going to analyse these, and if and how gender plays a part in these. Gender stereotypes are rife throughout all forms of media, not just young adult literature. But as teens question and explore life, and are influenced by the media they consume, the books they read challenging or reinforcing gender stereotypes will help form their ideas that will stick with them throughout their lives.
The majority of my research involved reading and rereading many books on the YA market. As the selection is much too large for me to read in its entirety, I selected major books and book series in the YA category, and books with protagonists that challenge gender stereotypes. I have also drawn on books I have read previously and have stood out to me as reinforcing or challenging gender stereotypes. To gain an idea of other peoples’ opinions on gender in YA, and the gender distribution of those involved with it, I conducted an online survey, read blogs and articles by readers and authors, and directly asked authors, both in person and over the internet.
Do major YA books feature characters that conform to gender stereotypes?
Stereotypes placed on women in everyday life include being emotional, passive, flirtatious, and dependant. Examples of passive and dependent women in YA include Bella (Meyer, S., 2005) and Nora (Fitzpatrick, 2009). Girls challenging this view a major feature in YA, as seen with Katniss (Collins, 2008) Celaena (Maas, 2012) and Tris (Roth 2011). However, as these girls are, in-universe, challenging the norm of women being submissive and obedient, it could also be said that these books reinforce the idea of most girls being weak. Even in these worlds, reinforcing the passive, romantic female adds value to their character; in The Hunger Games, Katniss’s worth increases when she has a boy-kissing Peeta earns her gifts to survive in the arena, and when presenting her as victor, she is made to look “like a girl. A young one. Fourteen at the most. Innocent. harmless” (Collins, 2009, p431), compared to the independent, fierce fighter she was in the arena. Katniss’ conformity to traditional feminine stereotypes is further reinforced when her story ends not with the end of the revolution, but her marriage to Peeta and her raising children (Collins 2010). Another common idea attached to female characters in YA literature is the idea that they need to have a romantic relationship with a boy, or possibly two, being in the centre of a love triangle. Not only is this heteronormative, it reinforces the idea that a woman must be dependent on someone, often a man, an idea that feminists have spent years trying to combat.
Boys also fit into one of a few major stereotypes. There are ones such as Four (Roth, 2011), Jace (Clare, 2008), and Gale (Collins, 2009), heroic and adventurous, who are providers, and independent when they are not tied in to romantic relationships. There’s the dark brooding immortal supernatural creature such as Edward (Meyer, S., 2005) and Patch (Fitzpatrick, 2009), who conform the idea that men do not share their emotions very well. There are also emotional and non-aggressive boys such as Peeta (Collins, 2008), who also challenges stereotypes by being skilled at “feminine”, creative activities such as painting and cake decorating, and Simon (Clare, 2007), Charlie (Chbosky 1999), Dash (Cohn and Levithan, 2011), and all of John Green’s protagonists. These have become so common in young adult literature that they are becoming a stereotype in themselves. However, as these boys do not conform to traditional views of men, they can be said to challenge stereotypes.
Some stereotypes grow in popularity due to high sales of a book that features it. Twilight (Meyer, 2005) is responsible for the popularity of vampires, paranormal romance and, unemotional boys with ordinary but special girls, selling one million copies in two and a half years in the UK (Alexander, 2009), and the series selling over 100 million copies worldwide (Sellers, 2010). Strong girls fighting against a dystopian system have exploded in the wake of The Hunger Games, which has sold over 65million copies across the trilogy (Scholastic, n.d.) in the US alone. Books with such a large audience will majorly reinforce any gendered stereotypes, as examined above, contained within them.
How are characters challenging gender stereotypes presented?
For a category of literature with such a wide appeal, the amount of characters challenging the stereotypes in their everyday life is surprisingly small. Within the small, slowly growing, selection of queer fiction, trans* and intersex representation is negligible, with only two books featuring trans or intersex main characters published by mainstream publishers being published in 2013 (Lo, 2013a), and 7 (4% of 167 books featuring queer characters) featuring trans characters in a decade by “the big six” and three other major US publishers (Lo, 2013b). Agender and nonbinary-gender characters are practically non-existent, unless mentioned in passing. The erasure of characters who, with their gender expression, challenge cisgender norms, aids in the reinforcement of the gender binary and attached stereotypes.
Cisgender characters challenging their gender stereotypes have often been girls attempting to pass as boys, for example Deryn from Leviathan (Westerfeld, 2009), Polly from Monstrous Regiment (Pratchett, 2003) and Jacky from Bloody Jack (Meyer, L., 2002) to gain freedom, owing to the repression of women in their respective worlds . Rare are characters challenging gender stereotypes in contemporary settings, although over the past few years, the selection has been slowly growing; for example Jesse from The S Word (Pitcher, 2013) and Eleanor and Park (Rowell, Eleanor and Park, 2012)who challenge gender stereotypes by the way they dress, and Ben, who takes up knitting, a conventionally feminine hobby, and ends up enjoying it, becoming the “only male knitter to have ever attended” the English Knitting Championship (Easton, 2014, p227 ). These help to challenge perceptions, both in-universe characters’ and readers’. What also helps challenge stereotypes is characters being supportive of these characters, for example Megan Hooper (Easton, 2014) and Angie (Pitcher, 2013). However, as the characters challenging stereotypes for them to support are few and far between, their effectiveness at challenging stereotypes is limited
Do covers reinforce gender stereotypes?
The marketing of a book is based mainly around a cover. Books aimed at boys often feature darker colours used in a more aggressive way, explosions, weaponry and technology, reinforcing the stereotype of boys being violent, active and dominant. Covers on books targeted at girls often feature a girl in a long flowing, especially in paranormal romance, even if the dress is not relevant to the plot at all, for example Gena Showalter’s Alice in Zombieland (2012), possibly because the stereotypical girl has through her life, in the words of Stacey Whitman, been “romanticizing…the fairy tale, including all the pretty things to wear.” (Wan, 2013). All these tactics used by publishers’ art departments reinforce gender stereotypes to do with the perceived audience of the book, and have the added effect of unnecessarily gendering genres and stories. The colour pink will also mark a book as girly, regardless of the content. An example of this is What’s Up with Jody Barton (Long, 2012), which features a bright pink cover, off-putting to boys, despite the fact that the main character is a teenage boy. Over time, book covers that are more gender neutral than others have emerged. Examples include the US first editions of The Hunger Games series, the Divergent series, and certain editions of John Green’s novels, particularly Penguin’s 2012 editions. Features of these covers include block colours, symbols, a lack of cover models, whose gender will assumedly influence the gender of readers, and no suggestion of romance.
Gender stereotypes in book covers may also be influenced by the author. In May 2013, prolific author Maureen Johnson (2013a) tweeted “I do wish I had a dime for every email I get that says, “Please put a non-girly cover on your book so I can read it. – signed, A Guy”, then challenged her 77000 followers to take any novel, imagine that the author was a different gender to what they are, and redesign the cover accordingly (2013b). This activity was performed on books from all genres, but you can see stark cover design differences by author gender. Books with female authors were given symbols in place of people, and books with male authors were given people in place of symbols. The altered cover designs reinforce the lack of emotion often associated with men, and the gentility often associated with women. Johnson (2010) also suggests that “female stories are consistently undervalued, labelled “commercial,” “light,” “fluffy,” and “breezy,” even if they are about the very same topics that a man might write about”. While books will be marketed on merits such as content and tone as well as the author’s gender, this labelling of women’s work and the Coverflip exercise shows that gender stereotyping is still, to some extent, present in the publishers’ marketing departments.
Are reading and writing gendered activities?
Genres are heavily gendered. Romance is seen as a feminine genre, due to the idea that women are emotional. Contemporary is also seen as a feminine genre, with the exception of John Green novels, as many contemporary books heavily feature romance, even though they also deal with harder issues. Thrillers, action and science fiction are seen as male genres, due to the stereotype of men being intellectual, active, and technical, which can lead to women using initials when publishing in these genres, which reinforces these stereotypes. Dystopia is a gender neutral genre; however many dystopian novels with female authors have a stronger romantic subplot, while dystopian novels written by male, or initialled, authors emphasise the control and destruction of the regime.
Women are often said to dominate the YA market. At first glance in a teen section of a bookstore, you would think so, and in my survey, 75.3% of the writers were female, but when it comes to bestsellers, it’s the men who win. In 47 weeks, two women topped the New York Times YA list for five weeks total (Jensen, 2013a), and at no point, women have had more than 4 books in the top 10. This seems strange considering that 75% of the authors on a selection of “Best of” lists in 2013 were female (Jensen, 2013b). The reason why more male-authored books have higher sales figures despite critics believing female-authored books are better are unknown; but it could be partially due to the idea that women are less likely to produce quality product.
The use of gender concealment reinforces gender stereotypes. Louisa May Alcott, Marian Evans and the Bronte sisters all used pennames to conceal their gender, (Anderson, 2011) in a time when women had strict restrictions on control over their rights, property, and money. The author who is often credited with kick-starting YA as a genre, Joanne Rowling, used initials J.K. to avoid a negative impact on marketing to male readers. Women who take on initials in modern YA include J.R. Johansson, S.J Kincaid, D. J McCune, and S. D. Crockett. They may use initials because they are all writing from male perspectives, and may not be taken as seriously as a woman, or because their books are not heavily romantic, as would be expected from a woman, and these two facts would impact the sales of the book based on the preconceptions about the book based n the gender of the author. Men taking on initials was common in classical literature, for example J.R.R Tolkien, T.H. White and J.M. Barrie, however I can only find two modern male authors using initials- M.T. Andersen, who wrote Feed, a science fiction novel, and T.S. Easton, who wrote Boys Don’t Knit. Easton, who uses pseudonyms, also wrote My Year in Agony and My Summer on the Shelf, two books about a girl who becomes the school’s anonymous Agony Aunt, under Lara Fox, a female pseudonym, (Easton, n.d.), and Haven, a thriller, under his full male name, which reinforces the gendering of genres.
A Canadian survey (Katz & Sokal, 2003) found that 24% grade 2 boys found reading feminine. A recent survey conducted by the National Literacy Trust found that 56.8% girls like reading “quite a lot” or “very much”, compared to 43.9% of boys (Clark 2013), and a survey carried out by the Canadian Council of Learning (2009) found girls outperform boys by 23 points in reading tests. That reading is feminine activity is reflected in the fact that, of the 149 people I sampled, 84.6% of the readers were female, 84.7% of the book bloggers, people publishing book reviews to the internet, were female, and 80% of the workers in publishing were female (see appendix).
There are many possible explanations for this. One is the fact that reading is not seen as a “masculine” activity-it does not require physical exertion, is not technically challenging, and often invokes emotion. Another reason may be that “as the majority of the teen publishing industry is female, boys see reading as a female activity, and are put off by it”, as suggested by Darren Hartwell (personal communication, 31 January 2014). I believe that a major factor is the androcentricism in society, combined with marketing. Jacqueline Wilson, writer of books for children that cover topics that affect many children, such as abuse, divorce, grief and mental illness, said that she had been told in the past that the books had to be pink because “it would sell “twice” as many copies among girls even if it put boys off.” (Bingham, 2013) This attitude is effective at upholding the stereotype of pink for girls, blue for boys. In the same interview, Wilson then “I do think that with books a boy is going to have to feel really quite confident if he is going to be seen in front of his mates with a book that is bright pink because it is immediately code for this being 'girlie'.” Bluemle (2012) says “We steer kids—no, we steer boys—away from stories they might respond to from a very early age.” Wilson and Bluemle are referring to the stigma that society places on boys who do “girly” things, even while accepting girls who do “boyish” things. Due to the majority of books being believed to have “girly” covers, as 88.5% respondents believed most books have covers aimed at girls, covers not only unnecessarily gender a book, they also gender reading as a whole.
Does YA challenge or reinforce gender stereotypes?
The aim of every author is to tell a good story, with an intriguing plot and fully developed characters. Many authors don’t go out of their way to include or avoid stereotypes. However, being ways of quickly conveying information about a character or situation, it is inevitable that stereotypes will appear in any form of fiction. The aim of this report was to examine whether or not gender stereotypes are reinforced by young adult literature as a whole. The extent of this research is limited by the fact that I am unable to analyse every book on the YA market, and that people have different ideas of stereotypes relating to genders; however, I believe my research has given me a good overview of the market. My findings have led me to believe that gendered stereotypes have grown in popularity due to high sales of books featuring these idea, and waves of similar books riding on their success perpetuates them, as seen in the dystopian and paranormal romance genres, which are full of romantically dependent girls and protective boys. Gender stereotypes are also reinforced by the marketing of a book, which is influenced by both the content and the author’s gender, and is expressed in a book’s cover and words used to promote it. As the selection of YA increases week by week, characters that challenge gender stereotypes are slowly gaining visibility, and as attitudes towards queer people change and we see more and more, gay characters, in time, maybe we will have a full range of characters, both trans* and cisgender, challenging stereotypes . However, as the market stands, I believe that YA fiction as a whole does reinforce gender stereotypes.
Lo, M., 2013b. LGBT Young Adult Books 2003-13: A Decade of Slow But Steady Change [online] Available at: http://www.malindalo.com/2013/10/lgbt-young-adult-books-2003-13-a-decade-of-slow-but-steady-change/ [Accessed 21 January 2014].
Long, H., 2012. What’s Up with Jody Barton? London: Macmillan
Maas, S. J., 2012. Throne of Glass. London: Bloomsbury
Meyer, L., 2010. Bloody Jack: Being an Account of the Curious Adventures of Mary "Jacky" Faber, Ship's Boy. Boston: HMH For Young Readers
Meyer, S., 2005. Twilight. UK Edition. London: Atom.
Pitcher C., 2013. The S-Word. New York: Gallery Books
Showalter, G., 2012. Alice in Zombieland. New York: Harlequin Teen.
Sokal, L. et al, 2005. Boys will be “Boys”: Variability in Boys’ Experiences of Literacy. [online]. Available at: http://ajer.synergiesprairies.ca/ajer/index.php/ajer/article/viewFile/550/537 [Accessed 15 February 2014].
Wan, M., 2013. An Insider’s Take on Cover Story. Forever Young Adult. [blog] 23 August 2013. Available at: http://foreveryoungadult.com/2013/08/23/an-insiders-take-on-cover-story/ [Accessed 11 February 2014].
Westerfeld, S. 2010. Leviathan. London: Simon and Schuster Children’s Books
Women are involved in many organized illegal activities, albeit in small numbers. Editors Rosemary Gartner and Bill McCarthy of The Oxford Handbook on Gender, Sex, and Crime have compiled important information about women’s involvement in organized crime. Here they’ve adapted some information from “Organized Crime: The Gender Constraints of Illegal Markets” by Valeria Pizzini-Gambetta (Chapter 23).
(1) Most organized crime falls into one of two distinct types – illegal industries and mafias — both of which are dominated by males. Illegal industries supply illegal commodities through networks that vary in shape and size according to the circumstances of the trade. Mafias are club-like groups defined by ritual entry, a territorially-based hierarchical structure, and the supply of extra-legal governance to illegal markets. Both types of activity have been dominated by men, but there are many historical examples where women also participated, particularly in illegal industries.
(2) There is historical evidence of mixed-gender groups of criminals. Several mixed-gender groups of criminals roamed the Netherlands and the German territories in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Some pirate groups in the Far East were also mixed-gender marauding communities. In the early nineteenth century, Chinese pirates were ruled by the widow of their late general for several years. They formed a nation at sea, in which junks were gender-mixed, with female captives and family members on board. Buccaneer and pirate communities in the Caribbean golden age were essentially gender-exclusive; nevertheless, a handful of women entered the world of sea piracy through love relationships, cross-dressing, and kinship.
(3) Female entrepreneurs have been involved in running illegal businesses in the modern period. Marcellina Cardena, Marie Debrizzi, and Stephanie St. Clair were part of the gender and racial blend that animated gambling in Harlem until the 1930s. These so-called “bankers” needed only cash and a network of policy vendors to conduct illegal gambling. They hired other women to go door to door to take dime bets in exchange for a small percentage of the win from both bankers and winners. Women have also played important roles in the drug trade. In Latin America, Eva Silverstein (arrested in 1917), Sadie Stock (arrested in 1920), and Maria Wendt (arrested in 1936) were part of international rings of traffickers that imported opium and its derivatives from China and Mexico for export to the United States and Europe. More recently, Mahalaxmi Papamani and her network of Tamil female neighbors managed an important share of the drug retailing market in Mumbai in the 1980s.
(4) Although less common, women have also formed gender-exclusive crime groups. The “Forty Elephants” was an all-female group that flourished in the shadow of The Elephant and Castle male gang in London throughout the nineteenth century and well into the 1950s. The young women of this group specialized in shoplifting in the West End. Their sorority was hierarchical and a “queen” was in charge of distributing targets among the group members.
(5) Women often play “traditional” female roles in organized crime. Women have been relatively less involved as active offenders in mafias; instead, traditional female roles remain the most important resource for this type of organized crime. Intelligence gathering, turf monitoring, and hiding illegal commodities or weapons are tasks that can be accomplished as part of women’s ordinary daily routines. In most groups, women are trusted auxiliaries in a number of capacities at times that are critical for the functioning of the group’s operations.
Three recent YA historical fiction novels by Australian women (all published by HarperCollins/ABC Books) inhabit times when girls had to bend to the influence of men and were comparatively powerless.
The Raven’s Wing is Frances Watts’s first novel for teens. It is set in Ancient Rome where fifteen year-old Claudia is strategically offered in marriage several times. Making an alliance which can best help her family is paramount. Primarily a romance, the book addresses Claudia’s growing awareness of human rights (here through the fate of slaves) which interferes with her sense of duty and makes her a much more interesting character than the docile cipher she is expected to be.
I am Juliet by Australian Children’s Laureate, Jackie French, is based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. French’s Juliet is a fleshed-out focal character. Superficially she shares some of Claudia’s privileged lifestyle features: attended by maids who wash and dress her and apply her makeup; elaborate meals; and protection behind high walls. Medicinal and other herbs and plants are a feature of their times; and Juliet and Claudia both face imminent arranged marriage, but are aware of a dark man in shadows. Their stories, also, contain a story within a story.
Jackie French has reinterpreted Shakespeare previously – in her excellent Macbeth and Son which grapples with the nature of truth. She has also addressed the role of women in history, perhaps most notably in A Rose for the ANZAC Boys.
Issy, the thirteen-year-old protagonist of Pamela Rushby’s The Ratcatcher’s Daughter, doesn’t share Claudia and Juliet’s privileged backgrounds. Set in a well-drawn Brisbane of 1900, Issy’s father is a ratcatcher during the bubonic plague. Issy is offered a scholarship to become a teacher but her family refuse it due to lack of money. The issue of the poor’s inability to take up opportunities that the rich assume is reiterated throughout the novel.
The Ratcatcher’s Daughter and I am Juliet include background notes about the historical period and other points of interest.
These three books unite in their exploration of girls who are prepared to defy tradition to control their own lives, where possible, in spite of general lack of female empowerment. I hope that this really was possible and is not just a revisionist interpretation.
It is interesting that this crop of YA historical novels has appeared now. Are these authors finding a story-niche or reflecting current concern? Although surely girls today, particularly in a country such as Australia, are more fortunate in their freedom and choice.
Here are highlights from the links that I shared on Twitter this week @JensBookPage. Topics covered this week include book lists and awards, diversity and gender, growing bookworms, the kidlitosphere, parenting, reading, writing, publishing, schools, libraries, and summer reading.
By Copyright by Fritz W. Guerin, St. Louis. [Public domain]
Gender seems to be perpetually in the air in the world of librarianship and children's literature. I have been in this field for a while now and have worked in some different settings, but my setting of well over 10 years now has been in a school.
Over the past month or so I have been paying more attention than usual to our collection, gender and circulation. I first started off simply with a post-it and two columns. Each time a student would check out a book, I would mark off the column with the gender identification. Every day the results would be similar. The boys and girls in my school check out a similar amount of books.
I then decided to utilize the catalog software. (Anyone who knows me knows that I *love* running statistics!) I started off looking at the top ten patrons (those with the highest number of check outs) for the month, then I ran it back to the last 9 months of the school year. The results? Out of the top 10 patrons, 7 of them are boys. Open the stats up to the top 50 patrons and the gender mix gets closer - 26 girls and 24 boys make up our top 50.
I have many thoughts about the why of this. We have 4 librarians shepherding our students through their years at school. Our early childhood librarian is a man, so one of the students first looks at what a reader looks like is Jesse. We are very mindful about the books we share with our students, and we try incredibly hard to make sure there is a variety with characters who are diverse in all sorts of ways. When we find stereotypes, we talk about them with the students. We don't go in for the "Girl's Read" "Guys Read" variety of booklists or book talks. In fact, two of my favorite anecdotes about assumptions helped make me more aware of my own gender bias after being steeped in this girls vs boys culture my whole life. We have a boy who is a super reader, and he mostly (to my knowledge) was a reader of graphic novels. He pretty much read everything we had for his age group by the time he was done with 4th grade. At the end of the year, I ask the students to reflect and I ask them their favorite title. His favorite title of all time? The Penderwicks by Birdsall. We also had a group of middle school boys who quietly came into the library and methodically checked out every single Clique book. They didn't hide them, read them out in the open, and felt no shame along the way.
It's really up to the adults in the room to set the tone and fight against the pink and blue tide. Create a reading culture, make sure you are not perpetuating the stereotype by handing boys sports books and girls friendship books. Highlight books that get outside of the gender box. Remember, there are no such thing as boy books and girl books, no matter what some marketing departments might say.
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The UK based organization Let Toys Be Toys has started a petition on Change.org to ask publishers to stop gender-labeling books. The image above shows how such labeling can send a powerful message to kids about what's important: beauty for girls and intelligence for boys in this case. Granted, this image is an extreme example, probably selected for its provocative nature. But any gender labeling, even less provocative examples, limits children's choices and perpetuates gender stereotypes. Please take a few minutes and sign this petition.
I wrote a picture book over a year ago. I love it. But it has never felt “right” to me. I’ve revised countless times. My kids are tired of hearing me read it outloud. And my critique partners are ready to put it to bed. But still… it felt like something was wrong. I didn’t…
Is our language inherently male? Some believe that the way we think and the words we use to describe our thoughts are masculine. Looking at our language from multiple points of views – lexically, philosophically, and historically – the debate asks if it’s possible for us to create a gender neutral language. If speech is fundamentally gendered, is there something else we can do to combat the way it is used so that it is no longer – at times – sexist?
What do you think can be done to build a more feminist language?
Simon Blackburn is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge. Until recently he was Edna J. Doury Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina, and from 1969 to 1999 a Fellow and Tutor at Pembroke College, Oxford. He is the author of Ethics: A Very Short Introduction.
Ever since the beginning of my involvement with the publishing industry, I’ve had the suspicion that its thinking is full of ‘accepted truths’ that are, in fact, not true. My suspicions are growing.
One of these so-called accepted truths - shall we call them SCATs for short? - is the idea that “boys won’t read books with a girl as the central character”. I was involved in a conversation recently where this was asserted as fact.
- Hmmm, I said; but is that true? After all, boys read Mr Gum, and the hero of those books is a girl.
- Yes, came the reply, but it’s sold on Mr Gum himself.
- The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe? It’s Lucy’s story, really. If there’s a central character, it’s her.
- Yes, but there’s Peter and Edmund and Susan, too, so it’s a gender-balanced story.
- Northern Lights?
- Yes, but Pullman’s exceptional, isn’t he?
- The Hunger Games?
- Well, sometimes a book comes along that just breaks all the rules.
…and so on.
Interestingly, the person who most strongly made such statements also quite blithely said that their company does no marketplace research; they just trust in instinct & experience.
This is not to denigrate anyone involved in the conversation; they’re all good people who have achieved much in the world of publishing, and it was a privilege to talk to them. But it did get me wondering - is there in fact any real evidence to support the idea that boys won’t read books about girls? Or is it simply an unfounded myth that has gained traction and now won’t let go?
On the same day, I responded to a tweet from the inestimable Let Toys Be Toys campaign about their Let Books Be Books initiative. They’re building a gallery - which is here and growing; do take a look - to challenge this idea. Examples there, and others I’ve spotted or thought of since, include:
Alice in Wonderland
The Silver Chair
the Sophie stories
A Face Like Glass
Peter Pan & Wendy (interesting, isn’t it, that since Disney the title has been shortened to Peter Pan, when really it’s Wendy’s story?)
the Tiffany Aching books
The Story of Tracy Beaker
And there are more. Does anyone honestly think boys won’t read Geraldine McCaughrean’s wonderful The White Darkness or Not The End of the World? Is Tony Ross’s Little Princess really rejected by half the toddler population? Does the possession of external genitalia truly impede enjoyment of The Secret Garden?
Then I started thinking about my own childhood reading. I was a very insecure boy, bullied by my classmates, and gender-shaming was one of their weapons. I learned early on that anything that marked me out as insufficiently masculine was to be avoided. So did that mean I didn’t read “girls’ books?” Nope. I just read them in secret. I rather enjoyed Blyton’s The Naughtiest Girl and St Clare’s series, for instance, and Pollyanna; and truth to tell if gender wasn’t signified on the cover in some way then it didn’t even occur to me to ask if the central character was a boy. The two things that sometimes stopped me from reading books about girls - or being seen to read them - were:
the fear of being shamed
being given the message in some way that these books were not for me
In other words, there was nothing about either me or the book that made us a poor match. It was external pressure that got between me and those stories. And despite what my classmates would have had you believe, I don’t think I was a weirdo.
This isn’t the only SCAT that restricts young readers and the adults who write for them. Malorie Blackman recently challenged the idea that white children won’t read books starring characters from minority backgrounds. And where did we get the idea that children won’t read about adult characters? Have we forgotten how successful Professor Branestawn was in his day - or that children are happy to read about King Arthur’s knights, or Heracles, or Superman?
Do we really believe that children are so closed-minded as to only want to read about characters like themselves? Do we honestly think so little of them? And if we think it true that children need characters to be like them even in age, colour and gender before they can identify with them, why are we happy to give them stories about rabbits and hedgehogs and guinea-pigs, about water-rats and moles and toads and badgers? Is there any sense at all in the assertion that a boy will identify with a different species more readily than with the opposite sex? That a white child will happily imagine himself to be a dog or a pig, but balk at imagining himself as black?
We need to challenge these SCATs. They’re bad for books; they’re bad for readers; they’re bad for our society. So thank goodness for Let Books Be Books. Thank goodness for Malorie Blackman. Thank goodness for those people who are prepared to say, “Is there any actual evidence for that?” - and let’s agree to be those people ourselves.
And if we ever feel unsure of our ground, and wonder if maybe the SCATs are right, let’s remember a film industry SCAT recently reported by Lauren Child. Let’s remember that she was told a Ruby Redfort film was out of the question, because a female lead in a kids’ film is box-office poison.
And let’s remember that the highest-grossing animation of all time is now Disney’s female-led Frozen.
Here are highlights from the links that I shared on Twitter this week @JensBookPage. There are a few more than usual, as I was traveling late last week, and then had a big burst of catch-up links on Monday and Tuesday. Lots of links this week about diversity and about libraries.
Here are highlights from the links that I shared on Twitter this week @JensBookPage. We are light on book lists this week, but heavy on events (World Book Night, Children's Choice Awards, National Poetry Month, etc.).
Author Tanita Davis on why she's supporting the ALTERED PERCEPTIONS anthology in support of author Robison Wells http://ow.ly/w84Wy
Normally on Friday I do a post that rounds up article/blog post links that I shared on Twitter over the previous week. But as I was working on my roundup for this week, I discovered that, what with the whole #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign and all, I had shared a LOT of links related to diversity. So I decided to pull those into a separate post. There's a lot here to absorb. I hope you all find things of interest. Also, please note that MotherReader's 48 Hour Book Challenge this year (the 9th annual) will focus on the reading of diverse books.