Barnes & Noble, Harry Potter, and the Smurfette Principle: Part 3

Pretty sure she had something to do with the on-shelf options at B&N.

This is the last part of the series on using men/boys as the default for readership.  Read the first two parts here and here.  Today, I’m offering some solutions.  We can’t solve everything, but this might be a start.

Time for the Big Question: What if Harry Potter had been a girl? (TRUTH)

I don’t just mean would we have read the books or would she have become a cultural icon.  I’m asking what would have changed if the story had been about a girl.

As written, the whole point of the story is The Boy Who Lived.  My guess is that if the protagonist were a girl, even though the story would have remained the same, in our cultural consciousness it would have become about The Girl Who Lived.  That is to say, suddenly it would have been about her femaleness rather than her spirit or her heart or her resolve.  (I like to give J. K. Rowling credit that this would not have been her doing, but that of cultural constructs that dictate male as neutral, objective, and default.)  The books would have been marketed toward girls, with a whole line of pink merchandise.

Because boy wizards are for everyone; girl witches are for girls.

(Interestingly, StoryNory has subverted this quite nicely.  You can listen to the original stories about Katie the Witch here.)

We could actually ask this question in a whole host of different ways, because the problem of the default is not limited to simply being male.  It’s also about being white, straight, neurotypical, able-bodied, and cisgender.  The moment a main character is not all of those things, it becomes all about being whatever else they might be.  (For example, if Harry had fallen in love with Dean or Neville instead of Ginny, it would have become a Coming Out story instead of a Defeating Voldemort story.)

The whole point of speculative fiction (which covers a pretty broad range–fantasy, science fiction, distopian, urban fantasy) is to leave our world and enter another.  Too often, those stories feature either a male main character or a character for whom their not-maleness (or not-straightness or not-whiteness or not-able-bodiedness or not cis-ness or whatever) becomes a key point in the plot.  You could have a story about a kid from the 25th century who travels back in time with a laser sword and a trusty sidekick to battle pirates in the 18th century.  Make the kid a girl and suddenly it’s all about how she has to “prove” herself among men or how she’s “atypical” in her culture for wanting to battle pirates.  You can swap out the girl for pretty much anyone who isn’t a white, straight, cis dude and the same thing happens.

That is not to say that there shouldn’t be anything different between the laser sword-wielding boy and the laser sword-wielding girl.  I’m not advocating for some unknown ideal of gender-neutrality.  I’m just explaining that when it comes to what’s on the book shelves, anyone who isn’t in the Approved Default Category gets a specially roped off section devoted to People Like That–which means that the story is often about dealing with both pirates and being a girl (or whatever) instead of just being about Saving the World From Pirates.

So what the heck do we do with that?  Let me give some completely unsolicited advice.

For writers:

  1. Be conscious of what you’re doing.  If you write a character that is Not You, please don’t make it all about how that person is Not You.  It might help to actually talk to (or better yet be friends with) people who are Not You so that you know what people might appreciate.  For example, I am done with princesses who rebel against expectations in order to go battle dragons.
  2. Discussing cultural norms works fine in historical/realistic fiction (when done well, mind you), but it doesn’t work well in fantasy.  Part of the appeal of speculative fiction is that these issues can be addressed sideways (as in Harry Potter with pureblood supremacy).  A girl dealing with sexism in her school election when she’s supposed to be dealing with sexism is great; a girl dealing with sexism on an alien planet when she’s supposed to be Saving the World is not.
  3. Be mindful of tropes.  Not all of them are bad, but racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist, and transphobic tropes are NOT EVER OKAY.
  4. Don’t make assumptions about what people will or won’t read.  Boys do, in fact, want to read about girls.  Not just adventuresome girls, either; boys do not naturally come with a setting that says, “Girls are boring.”  You can have an entire book that has mostly girls in it and guess what?  Boys will still read it!  Amazing, that.
  5. Stop limiting girls in “realistic” fiction to domesticity and relational drama.  Sometimes, girls have to deal with the death of a parent or a move to a new city or nerves about being the trombone soloist in the band concert–oddly, much like boys do.
  6. Same thing goes for any other characters that are not white, straight, cis boys.  It’s true that there are experiences unique to people who haven’t been considered the default, so those issues may come up in realistic fiction as things characters have to deal with.  But this can be done in a way that every kid can understand.  A good example of this is James Howe’s The Misfits and its companion books.  The kids in the books are dealing with things specific to them, but it’s done in the context of bullying–which makes it relatable regardless of the particulars.
  7. Most importantly, tell the story you have to tell.  Don’t stress about making your story an issues story, just make it a good story.

For readers (especially parents giving books to their kids):

  1. Don’t limit yourself.  If you can’t find the book at Barnes & Noble in-store, then look online.  Ask friends to recommend books.  Check with a librarian at your local branch.  There’s more than what’s on those store shelves.
  2. Make sure you give both boys and girls a wide variety from which to choose.  Read the back cover and the first chapter before handing something to your child–don’t just look at the cover and make assumptions.
  3. If you have a boy, don’t pass up books about girls because you think he won’t be interested.  The American Girl stories are really good (stupid, expensive product line aside).  The stories are not about “girlhood”; they are about friendship and family and kids experiencing changes in their lives, all within a historical context.
  4. A great way to find books for your child is to check out lexile.com.  If you know your child’s actual lexile, you can find books based on that.  If not, take a look at the last thing your child read.  Type the title into the search engine and you’ll come up with a lexile number for it.  If your child says that book is what my own son calls a “just right” read, you can enter the lexile number into the search to find similarly leveled books.  You can search by genre as well, including non-fiction.
  5. When you read, set the example by reading a broad range of books.  Interestingly, in the “new fiction” section of B&N, I found a completely different story from the kids’ section.  There were books by and about both men and women in approximately equal numbers.  The stories were varied–memoir, action, drama, romance, horror, mystery.  Take a chance on a new author!

Finally, I want to briefly touch on how this relates in particular to people of faith.  As a Christian, I take it seriously when the Bible says that in Christ there is no male or female.  For me that means that I need to work toward ending the injustice toward women, including the view that men are the default.  It’s important to me that my kids grow up knowing that real freedom, spiritually speaking, means being true to themselves and having the expectation that others will do likewise.  My daughter should not grow up believing the only thing God made special about her is that she’s a girl; my son should not grow up thinking that God put the burden of being the measuring stick upon him because he’s a boy.

Thanks for coming along for the ride this week, everyone.  Happy reading and writing–now go, change the world!

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