When I was a precocious preteen, I heard that boys struggled to enjoy reading. I found that hard to believe, because I found it hard to believe any actual human could dislike reading, but I accepted it. Boys seemed rowdy and sporty and unable to sit still, so it was conceivable they weren’t the best readers.
Around the time I learned this information about the sad state of boys’ reading abilities, I ran into a poster at the library encouraging boys to read. It listed around fifty titles to tempt the reluctant male reader. I stood there for a few minutes to read the whole list.
I didn’t find a single “girl book” on the list. Girl books, you ask? You know — girl books. The books with a girl as a main character. Ick. (Well, maybe I misspoke — The Hunger Games might have been listed, but precocious preteen Bailey didn’t know The Hunger Games featured a main female character because she was too busy reading through all the Newbery medal books. Girl books, mostly.)
Even with my patriarchal upbringing, I remember the distinct feeling of disgust: first, that R. L. Stine wrote a disproportionate number of the books on that list; second, that there was this unspoken assumption that a book about a girl would definitely not encourage my illiterate male peers to read.
Now, of course, the librarians who put together this list weren’t altogether off. What typical boy wanted to read a first-person account of a female coming-of-age story that involved first crushes and a period scare? What ten-year-old male wouldn’t stop an adventure series in disgust when the later books got too…girly? (“Girly,” this no-longer-ten-year-old male defined for me, meant “mushy.” To my chagrin I married him, anyway.)
Boys typically like adventure stories, pirates, war, and, apparently, R. L. Stine. Nothing wrong with that. And kids love to see themselves represented. American Girl started a “Just Like Me” line of dolls that look vaguely just like the girls who moon over them in the catalogs, so, of course, in the pre-pubescent era of cooties, a guy would relate more to a guy who does guy things. It makes sense that a boy would prefer Jedis over Judy Moody.
Again, nothing wrong with celebrating representation. After all, that’s why we feminists are all pumped about Rey, Wonder Woman, and Jodi Whittaker’s The Doctor.
What I found interesting, and slightly offensive, was that boys were not expected to have the same broad range of interests that girls did. As one girl wrote to American Girl magazine, “I love being a girl because I can do girl things and guy things!”
It’s true. Nobody makes a comment on a girl’s preferences if she loves Star Wars or Harry Potter. They’re just great, period. Girls read Lord of the Rings because it’s a fantastic series and relate to Frodo and Sam because they’re fantastic characters, even though it’s a book of primarily male characters doing traditionally male things. Tris and Katniss star in dystopian action novels without a hullabaloo. There’s always a token female sidekick in almost every “male-oriented” movie — but really, ladies, do we watch Supernatural for the female sidekicks, or do we watch Supernatural because Dean and Sam are objectively the best?
Women consume guy media all the time — action, adventure, plot-oriented movies, male-dominated stories. Women do guy things all the time — sports, video games, business. Women wear guy things all the time — pants, flannel shirts, fedoras. And apart from an occasional op-ed about how women these days want to be like men, it’s cool with almost everyone. Nobody except Mr. Op-Ed questions your womanhood.
It’s like masculinity is both distinctly masculine and the gender neutral expression of humanity.
Can you imagine men watching a chick flick just because it’s “such a good story”? Have you met swarms of men obsessed with Jane Austen to the level everybody is about the Lord of the Rings? Can you picture a straight, cisgender boy wearing pink sparkles or a dress? Do you know any male preschool teachers or stay-at-home dads? Have you ever been in mixed company and decided neutral territory was a rom-com over a Marvel movie?
While women are quite capable of enjoying “guy things,” men are not seen as capable of partaking in anything distinctly female. Femininity, it seems, degrades masculinity in a way masculinity does not degrade femininity. Femininity has way too much of women in it to qualify as a general expression of humanity.
Women don’t have a woman card to lose. And even if they do, they don’t lose it standing in line for the premier of Spider-Man: Homecoming.
I love this flexibility that living under patriarchy has required of any woman interested in interacting with culture. As a woman, I don’t balk at male priests or presidents, I read whatever genre of book I find interesting, I cry at tender depictions of motherhood, laugh at Bridget Jones, and cheer on the men as they save Private Ryan. I love the worst of rom-coms, the best of Marvel, and the classics. I am capable of learning from and emulating male role models. I enjoy the best of fiction and nonfiction, regardless of who wrote it or who features in it.
And I am not one iota less of a woman because of it.
I have to consume male media, because men have dominated, well, everything in the Western world for the majority of its run. I don’t find the literature, entertainment, or ideas of the men of the Western world something to snub my nose at merely because they’re thought up by men and not covering periods, babies, or what to wear to your friend’s wedding next weekend. (But seriously. What?)
This is, I think, the most crucial area feminism must focus on — not merely encouraging women to express their full humanity, whether in traditionally masculine or traditionally feminine ways, but encouraging men to express their full humanity, including their feminine side. We need to raise men who see femininity as equal an expression of humanity as masculinity. We need to teach men that their masculinity is not threatened or compromised by femininity — that girl things are just as good for men as guy things are good for girls.
We ought to encourage men to cultivate the broad range of experiences, tastes, and preferences women have had to even when there were no lead females in Star Wars.
HUGE DISCLAIMER THAT PROVES I AM NOT A MAN-HATING FEMINIST WHO WANTS TO ERASE NATURAL DIFFERENCES BETWEEN MEN AND WOMEN: None of this is to exclude or diminish male role models or representation for boys. They are vital. None of this is to force guys to prefer the traditionally feminine over the traditionally masculine. Generalizations happen for a reason. None of this is even to suggest that it’s necessarily wrong to lure reluctant male readers with Harry Potter instead of The Fault in Our Stars. Harry Potter is objectively better — objectively. And he’s not an angsty teenage girl in the first couple of books.
It’s just to say that after a boy has learned to enjoy reading with this reasonable ploy, he should grow to find a role model in Annabelle from Wolf Hollow; he should learn to appreciate a well-written romance, maybe even enjoy the occasional chick flick, definitely to quote Mean Girls obsessively; he should empathize with the angsty first-person narratives of both Harry and Hazel; and he should obsess over a range of good books — from My Side of the Mountain to Ella Enchanted.
Just like we girls do.