Does rejecting gender stereotypes mean there are no meaningful distinctions between strong girls and strong boys?
Not so long ago, librarians and publishers were concerned about Why Boys Don’t Read. Why the gap in boy-girl reading scores? Did boys need special handling, or special reading matter? The “Guys Read” initiative by Jon Scieszka sought to write, develop, and recommend books that would be of special appeal to the Y chromosome crowd: fast-paced, humorous, gripping fiction and nonfiction. No one doubted that boys, in general (and allowing for plenty of exceptions), might need a little extra “oomph” to hook them on the joys of literature and hopefully lead to more challenging fare. At Redeemed Reader we did our part (see “Stalking the Elusive Boy Reader”), and we still tag books we consider of particular interest to boys.
But the push for boy books soon ran up against the opposite tide of girl power. Within just a few years, the very idea that boys and girls might prefer different kinds of reading was considered anathema. Advocates for the girls ran to the front lines to declare “Let books be books!” To label one story as “good for boys” was automatically seen as privileging males and excluding girls.
I don’t think that was the issue at all—no one said anything about steering females away from Captain Underpants or The Wimpy Kid. But according to current gender theory, we’re not supposed to see any difference in boys and girls—unless, of course, some boys identify as girls, and vice versa. Then, the differences are obvious and must be celebrated.
The gender battles going on all over our culture are too knotty and extensive to detail here, but one facet of it is how girls are now portrayed as “strong” in books, movies, and TV. The kick-butt heroine has been around since even before Katniss Everdeen, but it gets a little ridiculous when pirates, gladiators, knights, and other naturally male roles are played by girls. Surveying recent YA and MG titles, I found a female gladiator, several knights, and a whole series of pirates. (And yes, I’m aware of two historical female pirates and I know that women sometimes served as gladiators—but they fought dwarfs, animals, or other women, not muscly guys like Russell Crowe.) Even when they don’t stretch to such obvious lengths, girl characters are routinely portrayed as tough, analytical, and risk-prone. In real life, some girls do fit that profile, but physical toughness, etc. are not generally characteristic of females in any species.
It seems a whole lot of girls may be are learning that “strength” looks exactly the same in male and female, with no clue that women have their own kinds of strength. Loyalty, helpfulness, sympathy, steadfastness, and virtue are not as dramatic as swordplay, but they are essential to healthy societies. Does contemporary children’s literature still reflect strengths like these?
Recently I got together with Alexis Neal and Victoria Farmer at the Christian Feminist Podcast to talk about it. We delve into the strong characters we admired as young readers, share recommendations of current favorites, and talk about historical anachronisms in portraying female strength today. The podcast is a little over an hour long, but if you’re cooking or cleaning up (my usual podcast time), give a listen here:
Show notes with links to related podcasts and recommended books are here:
What “strong girl” heroines would you recommend? Let us know in the comments!