Barnes & Noble, Harry Potter, and the Smurfette Principle: Part 1

Note: I’m going to ask that before you leave a comment, please read all the links in this post.  Otherwise, I will have to spend my time explaining things to you that you could easily read for yourself.  Thanks!

On Sunday, I was out with my family enjoying some much-needed time together after a very busy weekend.  We took the kids to Barnes & Noble, followed by dinner out.  A good time was had by all, and I was reminded again just why I adore my husband so much.  How many women can say to their husbands, “My inner Feminist Meter was pinging” and have their husbands nod in agreement?  While we enjoyed our ice cream, I told him I would explain after the kids were in bed what disturbed me while browsing the kids’ section with my daughter.  The good news is that later that night, I got about six words in when my husband’s eyes widened and he was shaking his head–he knew exactly what I meant.

Before I begin, I should define a term for those who may not be familiar.  A trope is a device or convention commonly used or expected in media (particularly storytelling).  You can read more about them here.  Fair warning, though: That web site is highly addictive and you will likely find yourself falling quickly down the rabbit hole.

Back to my story.  While at Barnes & Noble, I decided to have a look around for books that might be interesting to my kids.  I am aware of lots of wonderful books for their ages, many of which we own.  But we’re in a unique situation where we have two children who can read above grade level; that means that books for their ages are often uninteresting because they’re too easy.  So I’m always on the lookout for good stuff.  I figured this would be as good a time as any to see what was on the shelves.

That was a mistake.

I should learn to just walk away.  But since I am slightly obsessive about these things, I just haven’t been able to do it yet.  Once I started, I couldn’t stop.  By the time we left the store, I had moved past Mildly Annoyed and into I Need to Blog This territory.

Last week, several of my favorite bloggers posted about how most men tend to read books by men, while women often read a more equal mix of books by men and by women.  I wasn’t sure what to write; it seemed like it had already been said.  That is, until I browsed the shelves and realized that it’s actually part of a larger problem.  I don’t think that the author’s gender is the only important factor–it’s also the characters in the books.

What I discovered was that the vast majority of books available in-store feature boys as main characters.  This is true regardless of the author or the content.  Books aimed at boys feature boys; books aimed at girls feature girls.  That’s to be expected, and not all of that is bad.  I mean, not that I wouldn’t let my son read Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, but he won’t ever be able to relate to menstruation.  What I didn’t appreciate was that most books aimed at a “universal” audience also feature boys.

This is a particular trope known as Men Are Generic, Women Are Special.  In other words, something everyone can/should enjoy must feature boys/men as the main characters.  Girls end up as sidekicks, girlfriends, casualties, or all three.  There are a host of other tropes that usually accompany this theme–for example, there is often only one girl among the group, and she is seen as “not particularly girly.”  She might be unattractive in some way, or she might be intelligent but weak, or she might be a tomboy stereotype.  Sometimes, the girl of the group has very little personality–her uniqueness is related to being a girl (the Smurfette Principle).

Quite a lot of popular films and books fall into this unfortunate trap.  And really, it wouldn’t be a big deal if only some of what we read have these tropes.  When I browsed the shelves, though, I saw a disproportionate number of books with the same theme–boys are the “leaders” who drive the story, even when the audience is supposed to be universal.  Books featuring girls were nearly all (with a few notable exceptions) about girls doing domestic tasks and/or grappling with “relationship” issues.  An uncomfortable number of “girl” books don’t pass the Bechdel Test, despite having multiple girl characters (i. e. the plot is driven by a fight over a boy).

When I mentioned this on Twitter, I was accused of creating a “conspiracy theory” and informed that this is a problem with “marketing” not availability.  I agree that the problem is with the marketing; I never said it wasn’t.  I was expressly condemning Barnes & Noble for its poor choice in what to stock.  At no point did I say there aren’t enough women writing books or there aren’t enough books featuring girls.  There are!  There are lots and lots of wonderful books by women and men alike that feature girls.  Our public library contains many of them, and friends have recommended others.  If I want to buy the books, I can find them in all sorts of places.  That’s not my complaint!

My complaint is specifically about what’s marketed, what’s available on-shelf when one browses the book store.  Because the message being sent by this–or at least, what marketing believes to be true–is that girls don’t have universal appeal, but boys do.  The perception is that Harry Potter is the pinnacle of storytelling for youth because of the appeal of Harry, not the broad themes of the story.  (There were at least half a dozen Potter knock-off series on the shelves.)  Sadly, the Harryverse fits neatly into that belief system.  I want to unpack that a bit more, but I’ll save it for tomorrow.

The problem I have with the book store is the same one I have with toy stores and visual media: It’s split into boy things and girl things, with boy things the acceptable default.  The sexism is evident in what and how things are advertised, not necessarily what’s being created (though there are exceptions).  This is the thing that needs to change.  And if stores like Barnes & Noble won’t change what they put on their shelves, then we need to stop looking there for new material.

Tomorrow, I will expand on how Harry fits into this and why that series is potentially not a problem while the imitations potentially are.  Stick around this week to find out more (including what we can do about it).

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15 thoughts on “Barnes & Noble, Harry Potter, and the Smurfette Principle: Part 1

  1. I remember a prof mentioning the lack of female characters in a women’s studies class and shaking my head, thinking she was full of it. I had a little girl at home though, and I started paying attention. Starting with baby board books, the characters are overwhelmingly male. For years, I just changed the gender while I read, though I can’t do that now that she’s starting to read herself. 😦 I remember when she was three, she stopped me and asked when the trains in Thomas the Train were all boys (there were actually some girl train cars in the book – “Thomas had trouble keeping them in line” *shudder*). You know we have problems with gender in stories when a three year old complains about the lack of female representation!

    • Yup, my daughter says the same things. What’s crazy (to me) is that there are so many great books with girl characters that are pretty universal–Ramona, Junie B. Jones, even the American Girl books (they’re marketed to girls, but the stories are really good–my son loved them). But those books are advertised as “for girls,” so a lot of boys miss out on them.

    • that’s right, annie and clarabel! i haven’t seen them in awhile, not in the newer stuff, and also there’s a relatively new (and cool!) fire-fighting engine named Belle. There’s emily too, but she annoys me. and Mavis but i don’t know much about her. The latter two seemed to be token females, and maybe belle is too, but i still appreciate that they are slowly becoming more inclusive. The older stuff has a lot of things about it that i don’t like. Also i should blog about abuse and fear culture in Thomas and Friends… That sir topham hatt is one controlling controller…

        • There’s one where Thomas hides an old engine (Hero of the Rails) until they can fix him up so he can be ‘really useful’, because they’re afraid sir topham hatt would send him to the smelters. Sir topham hatt is appalled they think this of him, when he finds out, but sheesh it’s how he acts in all the things. Poor Toby is constantly in fear for his existence cuz he’s old and sir topham hatt acts like that’s silly but it doesn’t seem silly to me.

          • Yeah, I always had issues with the fact that the most important value in Thomas is “being useful”. Thankfully, my son was pretty much done with the show once the song was over and my daughter was always bored to tears by it. We like Chuggington better for trains. There are several girl characters now, including the disembodied voice on the loudspeaker that directs the trains.

            • I think my son had a brief phase when he liked Thomas, but he was always more interested in other shows. We used to love “Charlie & Lola” (back when we still had cable). There’s so much to appreciate about that one–siblings relying on each other, kids being creative, breaking walls between “girl things” and “boy things,” and kids navigating friendships in a healthy way.

              • I know it’s been a few days, but I LOVE Charlie and Lola! My kids both enjoy it too. My four-year-old daughter can even imitate their accents!

                • No worries. Yes, that show is just so cute. The books are good too. I think we own a couple, and our library has a whole bunch of them.

  2. I grew up with my mother reading to me and my three younger sisters, and we read books with male and female protagonists without it ever being an issue. I was always quite sad that Lord of the Rings had such paltry female characters, though. I loved Galadriel, but she didn’t really DO anything. Eilonwy was better, and Aerin and Harry (from Robin McKinley’s “The Hero and The Crown” and “The Blue Sword”) are pretty much awesome adventurers, though they are kind of Smurfettes and also Special. Even my beloved L’Engle protagonists are often the lone female in their stories. In fact, I’m having a hard time coming up with many YA adventure or fantasy novels with female protagonists who have strong or important relationships to other well-developed female characters. “The Mists of Avalon”, maybe? I need the Little Women to find a magic sword or something…

    • Ha! Yeah, that could be fun. Someone could probably write that, actually, the same as “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.”

      When I was a young adult, I used to read a lot of teen horror novels. Honestly, some of those were great–adolescent girls solving crime/mystery, and very little drama over boys. You’re right, though–when I think of my favorite literary girls, they were usually on their own–Meg Murray, most of the girls in the Narnia books (except the first two), Anastasia Krupnik. I think Ramona might be the ONLY girl who ever interacted with other girls on a regular basis, and even with her it’s often antagonistic.

  3. Pingback: Barnes & Noble, Harry Potter, and the Smurfette Principle: Part 1 | unchained faith

  4. Pingback: Barnes & Noble, Harry Potter, and the Smurfette Principle: Part 2 | unchained faith

  5. Pingback: Barnes & Noble, Harry Potter, and the Smurfette Principle: Part 3 | unchained faith

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