Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Girls Rule, Boys Drool, uh, Rule, Too

According to my kids, I grew up a looong, looong time ago. And I guess it’s true. I was a child of the last millennium. I grew up long enough ago that I remember checking out a book from our elementary school library that had wonderful illustrations of the jobs boys could do when they grew up – fireman, mayor, astronaut, cowboy. And the jobs girls could do when they became women – mother…and…teacher. That book really was there, and I remember feeling disappointed (though, I must say, having grown up and gotten all sorts of degrees, the thing that means the very most to me is being a mother and a teacher to my children - but, back to the point...).

When I was very young, before  I was introduced to sci-fi and fantasy, I read and read and read, all of Walter Farley’s books (The Island Stallion was my favorite), and all of Marguerite Henry’s works and My Side of the Mountain, and just about any adventure book I could find.

And because of the kinds of books I read (which nearly all had boy protagonists, and if there was a girl anywhere, they were more like a sort of semi-assistant if they weren’t a downright nuisance), I came to the conclusion that boys led much more exciting lives. When I wrote my own stories, it was almost exclusively with a male protag. I even remember telling my mother how much more interesting that was than an, ew, girl.

Microscopic Freshwater Organisms

It seems strange now that I could have had that view about boy and girl characters in books, because my personal upbringing was really quite liberal. My mother had been a Rhodes Scholar and received her Master’s degree summa cum laude in zoology. She would take us to the river to collect samples to look at under the microscope, or even a few times prick her own finger (!!) so we could look at blood cells. One of my grandmothers was an author, the other designed and built homes. In school I was always encouraged to excel academically and had absolutely no doubts about my worth or ability to do so. So why, oh why, such a skewed view in literature?

Today I still read, though not as widely as I’d like to. Of the recent books I’ve finished I have to say, about 90% have had a female protag. It’s mostly MG/YA, just like a lot of the stuff I read as a kid. But I know there weren’t that many kick-butt, take no prisoner girls in lit back then. I am happy there are more now.

But…I also happen to be the proud mama of three boys. And what I hear from them is that in YA books today they feel the boys are just arm candy to the girls – sort of a semi-assistant (though usually gorgeous), if not a downright nuisance. There's too much ogling and not enough action for them to be interested (I freely admit, though I've tried to keep my male and female protag equal, my WIP falls into the swooning category - my boys won't touch it with a ten foot pole). In MG I find a lot of boy protags who are anti-heroes, the funny slacker dude (There are notable exceptions to all this, of course, such as Harry Potter).

Is it just the books I’m picking up, or has the pendulum shifted way too far the other way? One way or another, older boys aren’t reading. It’s a conundrum for the publishing industry, I know – YA romance sells and so it’s an easy choice to publish more of that even if it leaves the Y chromosome population out in the cold. I don’t want to bemoan this, or gripe. But I do hope we come to a point of gender balanced literature with enough quality stuff that everyone can find something. I’ve wondered lately if the new interactive books for all the nooks and tablets and pads might be a way to bridge this gap and bring boys back to reading.

I’m obviously kind of rambling, because I have no grandiose solutions, only observations and questions. What do you all think? Is there a gender imbalance in books today? And if there is, what solutions do you see?


  1. I'm a 20-something guy who reads mostly YA. I grew up more with video games than books, but I still caught the Harry Potter fever and I still enjoy reading every now and again.

    To be honest, I haven't really noticed any significant gender imbalance in the books I've read recently. The Leviathan series has one male and one female protagonist, though I think the female's story was much more interesting. Meanwhile, when I read Incarceron, I found the male hero's story to be interesting while the female protagonist was kind of boring to me. The common thread here, I think, is that I'd rather read about characters doing adventurous things, rather than characters embroiled in politics. That's what I like to read, regardless of gender.

  2. I remember reading about a lot of male protagonists too when I started reading too. I have nothing against boy MC, but after a while, I started to think why don't the girls get to do anything fun.

    I do think there is an imbalance in YA literature these days to the point where I'm thinking why don't the boys get to have any fun.

    I highly recommend White Cat by Holly black. That one has a really awesome boy protagonist and is a fun story that I think everyone will enjoy.

  3. I think you hit the nail on the head with YA romance selling. I didn't read "YA" books when I was younger, nor did my husband. We just read books. I think with YA being so huge, and having found an enthusiastic female audience of ALL ages, it can seem like the boys are left out in the cold, but maybe they just aren't marketed to in the YA section? I honestly don't know.

    I asked my husband, who is currently re-reading LOTR in his brand-new "definitive" gilt-edged edition, what he read as a teenager besides LOTR. He said Asimov. Lots and lots of Asimov, who was ridiculously prolific. I know this because he won't get rid a single one of the darn books. Anyway, he read Sci Fi and fantasy but it wasn't marketed to kids. I suspect the gender divide has been widened by YA marketing. Great post. I wish I had better answers.

  4. Is if for this very reason that my aim at YA is to write stories that appeal to both. I can read male or female MCs just fine, but like you said, much of what I've seen lately is in the swooning, "arm candy" arena. I like a little of that, but when it takes over the plot ...

    Excellent post! :)

  5. I studied this question for my PhD dissertation, actually. Believe it or not, there is a gender skew--but it's not against the boys. Female stories and protagonists are actually *under* represented compared to their proportion of the market.

    I read a lot of research about why boys don't read YA fiction, but in spite of many, many theories and many, many attempts to garner more boy readers, the conclusion in the pedagogical world seems to be that the novel, itself, is a form more suited to female thinking. Boys read just as much, apparently, but they tend to prefer more visual formats.

    In fact, when you analyze the profit-loss economics, publishers are actually losing a lot of money whenever they attempt to "appeal to boys." And female audiences end up somewhat alienated, still having to see themselves through the eyes of male protagonists.

    Of course, this is only true for the YA genre. In middle grade fiction (the first Harry Potter book is late early grade, I think, not truly YA until later in the series), boys read fiction just as readily as girls do. It's around puberty that they stop. My theory is that there's something related to puberty that causes them to begin to prefer more "visual" formats, but I've never tested that or done any research to confirm it.

  6. I agree about the female slant in YA (all those gossip girl knockoffs, and vampire stories, and witch boarding schools...)

    To me, the biggest gender imbalance I see these days is in movies. Action is the worst (and we won't talk about romantic comedies), but they still can't seem to make a science fiction or fantasy movie with a heroine or lead female character who wears a normal amount of clothes.

  7. On my late, lamented blog, I used to do a shout-out whenever I found a book for teenage boys. The thing I began to notice was that most of the books that my son would read, my daughter would also happily read as well (though not all. He was a big fan of the Ranger's Apprentice series, and I still can't get her to open one). However, there were very few books with a female protagonist that my son would read (Hunger Games being the most notable exception).

    I hate that when we walk into Barnes and Noble, the teenage section appears to have forgotten that boys exist. But my son still reads--we just look a lot harder for books for him, and he reads them over and over.

  8. So many excellent comments - thanks!
    @Jaron - I really appreciate your perspective. And you're right, Leviathin is another good balanced book. I really need to get a hold of Incarceron, too. I heard it was great.
    @MaryAnn - I loved White Cat (and need to get the sequel). I always wondered how the book went over with male readers.
    @Sarah - I moved on to adult sci-fi/fantasy in my mid teens, too, but I mostly found the same - well almost, McCaffery had excellent female protags, didn't she?
    @David - the stuff you're writing sounds perfect!
    @Swilua - very insightful. Yes, I wondered, too, if the more interactive books (with sound, games and video clips embedded) that they've been talking about might entice teen boys more.
    @Sabrina - Shannon Hale is doing an excellent deconstruction of the movie industry right now - you should check it out -
    @Melanie - I hear you. I've been trying to push my boys toward those male protag books I read as a teen - oldies but goodies (who doesn't like some Robert Aspirin, Steven Brust, Piers Anthony, Orson Scott Card or Patricia McKillip (the Riddle Master of Hed, in particular)


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