Even in our books

Today marks the start of National Novel Writing Month.  Naturally, I’m participating.  (If you are as well, you can find me there under the user name Wifie29.)  I will be posting on this blog a bit less, because I intend to write every one of those 50,000 words this month.  I’m writing what might be most accurately called “low fantasy,” which means no elves/wizards/world-building/etc.; it also shares commonalities with Chick Lit (or maybe Women’s Fic, since it’s somewhat less light-hearted).

While browsing on my genre forum on the NaNoWriMo site, I came across a writer who has a very strong bias toward a complementarian view of men and women.  This translates to her writing, meaning that the women in her stories are often in traditional roles, as are the men.  Reading her posts had me thinking about the messages that girls receive from our culture.  One thing that stuck out to me is that my fellow NaNo’er had such a strong view on the ways in which women should be portrayed in literature.  She listed one of her pet peeves as being “strong” women who can fight like men.  Her belief is that this is impossible, that the strongest woman would not be a physical match for a barely average man.  She also dislikes women who aren’t skilled at domestic work, and she made it clear that she thinks that is a foolish plot and should essentially be abolished.

Well, goodness.  I guess this woman wouldn’t be keen on the women I know who are in the military.

You know, among the many benefits of homeschooling my daughter is the fact that she isn’t getting some of the social messages girls receive in public education.  Not that I’m perfect, mind you, or that I’m not guilty of passing on the wrong message from time to time.  I like to hope that I’m doing pretty well, though.  I don’t have to tell my daughter that girls are awesome; she already knows.  I don’t have to convince her that math and science are cool; she already discovered that on her own.  I don’t have to reassure her that her body is perfectly fine just the way it is; she already exudes body confidence.  I don’t have to explain to her that hair, makeup, and clothes are only one aspect of the way a person looks; she already understands that.  I don’t have to encourage her to be a strong, independent leader; she already does that.

Despite my best efforts, though, my daughter will still be exposed to those messages in other, perhaps more subtle, ways.  The societal and cultural attitudes about girls and women are often broadcast through books.  It is an unfortunate reality that there are still very few books that feature a strong woman or girl as the main character and which also have the broader appeal to all children.  A common complaint about fantasy lit, for example, is that when a girl is the main character, she is often the “plucky tomboy-princess” type.  There’s an unspoken sense that boys won’t relate to girl characters unless they are “less” like girls.  In addition, women authors still frequently use initials instead of their names in order to broaden their readership.

As a little test, ask yourself this: Would you have read Harry Potter if Harry had been a girl?*  How about Lord of the Rings?  Would you have read the former if you had known it was written by a woman?  (That wasn’t widespread knowledge at the time the first book was published.)  Would you have read the latter if it had been written by a woman?  No, it’s not a moot point.  If you feel uncomfortable answering these questions, maybe you can see what I’m talking about.  If you immediately jump to saying something like, “But the story wouldn’t have worked!” then you’ve just made my point for me.

I’ve mentioned these issues before, and I’ve often gotten reactions that range from, “Right on!” to “You must be kidding.”  Unsurprisingly, the negative reactions are usually from men who either can’t or won’t see the ways in which women’s voices have been silenced or altered to fit a cultural norm.  And unless something changes, it’s the message our daughters will continue to hear, many of them absorbing it and embracing it.

That’s not the world I want for my daughter.  Maybe it’s time we started teaching our girls a new message about the kinds of people they can be and the kinds of things they can do.  So here’s my challenge:  Find books written by women and featuring girls or women in the lead roles.  Read them aloud or give them to your children to read, particularly your sons.

Well, folks, it’s time for me to get cracking on my NaNo novel.  Don’t forget to submit your essays for the contest via the “contact” link on the right.  You can see all the rules here.  Everyone is welcome to write an essay!


*This post was about girls/women, but the same set of questions can be applied using other examples.  Would you have read about Harry if he’d been non-white or queer or disabled?  Would you say the story “wouldn’t work” any other way?  Women’s voices aren’t the only ones silenced in literature.


One thought on “Even in our books

  1. Remember whenI said there’s some value in being a little challenging in your approach? There’s a vast difference between some good-hearted gentle ribbing and being a complete cock. The idea of being cocky-funny as a way of getting girls tends to get translated as “act like a Jersey Shore extra” and turns women off. It’s one thing to be a little teasing in your first email, especially if you’re challenging her to, say, competitive air hockey or a Super Smash Brothers competition. It’s another entirely to “jokingly” call her a slut, insist that she make you dinner or joke about showing her your pimp-hand.

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