I remember towing my kid brother around the library in a doomed attempt to inspire a love of reading.
“This one sounds cool,” I said, handing a book to my brother. It was an adventure story with a shiny gold spine. “It’s about a kid genius who tries to kidnap a fairy and ends up with high tech fairy operatives chasing him.”
My brother wasn’t impressed. He inspected the cover with a kind of resigned patience usually reserved for trips to the shoe store. With a furtive glance at me, he slid the book back into its slot on the shelf.
“What’s wrong with that one?”
“Dunno,” he mumbled. “It sounded boring.”
“Okay then, how about this one? It has a quest and dragons.” I said, pulling another book down. He was shaking his head before it cleared the shelf.
“No,” he said, looking relieved to finally have a good reason to veto my pick. “It has a girl on the cover.”
“Boys won’t read books about girls.”
Perhaps not as iron clad as in previous decades, this axiom still has its flags in almost all of the creative industries. It states that girls will read novels with both male and female protagonists, but boys will only read novels with male protagonists.
Therefore: “Would you consider turning one of your girl characters into a boy?”
Therefore: “A male character has a more universal appeal.”
Therefore: “Let’s put the boy on the cover. We don’t want to scare off readers.”
Hello publishing world. Hello movie world. Hello video games. Hello.
Before that library visit, I’d known in the abstract that the sex of a character could be a defining reading preference, like wanting to read about space ships, or high school, or romance, or dragons. I know I enjoyed books with girl characters, and sometimes sought them out. But preference for isn’t the same as preference against.
There is cultural, social weight here, beyond just preference. Compare:
- “I never read books with dragon characters.”
- “I never read books with black characters.”
You can taste the difference. Replace black with any social, racial, historical group and you can taste it.
“No, that book has a Korean kid on the cover. No, this book has a white character. No, I don’t read books with deaf heroes. No, I don’t read books about boys.”
Beyond the semantic, is there a difference between:
- I like books about boys.
- I don’t read books about girls.
Actually, I think there is.
Growing up, I read the Babysitters Club and Animorphs and the Hardy Boys. Then, after I had powered through a big chunk of the junior section, I discovered adult shelves with their long rows of science fiction and fantasy titles. I was in heaven.
It didn’t occurred to me that I could (or would want to) skip books with male protagonists.
I can only imagine how much poorer my life would have been if I had passed on Ender’s Game, Redwall, The Three Musketeers, The Hobbit, Neuromancer, Dune, Heinlein, Niven, Bradbury, Salvatore, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles books, Roger Zelazny, Orwell, Steven Brust, Ursula LeGuin, Douglas Adams… It never occurred to me to think that the experience of a protagonist would be uninteresting merely because the hero was a guy. (Not that it would have been feasible, even if I had.)
I fleshed out my reading list with beloved authors like Tamora Pierce, Patricia C Wrede, Robin McKinley, Anne McCaffrey, Mercedes Lackey, Margaret Atwood, Connie Willis, who wrote powerful, engaging stories with great female characters and fantastic plots.
And yet. And yet.I could have skipped these wonderful “girl” stories and still kept all my Book Geekdom cred. Not so much the opposite.
Imagine this conversation:
“I’m the baddest reader around. I love science fiction. Reading is my life.”
“Nice. What did you think of Asimov? Great books…but my favorite authors are still Heinlein and Herbert.”
“Naw, haven’t gotten around to reading them. They didn’t really seem like my kind of thing.”
“Oh. What about HG Wells? Orwell? Have you read Ender’s Game?”
“Uh, no, they all seemed kinda boring.”
“So, what have you read?”
There are more options today if you’re looking for female-fronted stories, though we still lack so desperately in diversity beyond that basic male-female binary. Looking through a list of recent sci-fi releases on Goodreads, there’s a mix of hard and soft science fiction, female and male protagonists, adventure and action and romance and literary fiction. The YA shelves are glutted with female protagonists wielding swords, riding dragons or spaceships, wearing sports jerseys, swimming, floating, flying.
And boys might still be passing the girl covers by, perhaps because we all like stories we can see each ourselves in and relate to. (The challenge of relating to a female protagonist? Always the high bar.)
But things are slowly changing. Maybe.
It seems that more authors are opting to split narrative between their female and male protagonists. Novels like the Hunger Games have hit the mainstream hard. Even my brother (now a bit older, and still a reluctant reader) has read the first book.
I like to think opting out of good storytelling because “girls” is phasing out of style.
Yet, even now, most of the stories I read that feature a female protagonist hinge heavily on a romantic (sub)plot. Dealing with romance is often the very definition of a woman’s coming of age, with action and adventure merely the framework and backdrop to her romantic struggles and love triangle angst. Even a strong plot is no guarantee against this trend.
When the odd bird crosses my path that breaks with this trend, it can feel like a revelation. Not because the book is some kind of manifesto against the status quo, but because it comes in a novelty flavor: a clever, interesting girl comes of age without a romantic story line.
Don’t get me wrong. I adore romance in my novels. I love romance novels.
But I can’t recall the last book I read with a male protagonist struggling with a love triangle.
But sometimes I want to grab the heroine by the shoulders and say, “If you can’t figure out your love life, maybe it’s time to let it go, move on and do some other stuff for a while.”
In these last ten years, I’ve seen the three small shelves of “young adult” section in my library balloon and take over an entire corner of the building. In Barnes & Noble, YA has flown the coop, slipped away from its home lining the outside shelves of the children’s section and has ventured onto the main floor. Those shelves have multiplied and now sport their very own subgenres. Dystopia. Adventure. Romance. Girls Gazing Into The Distance.
I don’t venture into YA world as often now, so I can’t say if the variety, depth and quality of these new novels with their spunky female leads or split narratives or male protagonists are making inroads into the deconsolidation of readers’ gender bias. Perhaps we are merely seeing the updated, more sexy versions of Sweet Valley High cloned across a variety of paranormal backdrops.
There is certainly more volume.
“It’s still a good story,” I told my brother that library afternoon, and put the book away.
- If Boys Really Won’t Read Books about Girls, We Have a Problem
- The Real Men Who Read Romance Novels
- Boys don’t read Girl Books and other lies my Society Told Me
- Gender Balance in YA Award Winners since 2000
- I Hate Strong Female Characters