Breaking down Barriers in Literature (or Discerning the True Strength of Perceived ‘Feminine’ Qualities)


The other day, on the Huffington Post, Soraya Chemaly wrote a piece titled What Does It Mean That Most Children’s Books Are Still About White Boys?

Chemaly made several good points in her article but the one that struck me most was the fact that restricting the protagonists of most children’s literature to young white boys not only works against girls, it also works against boys. As girls are taught to be nice and quiet and malleable, boys are taught to be loud and brash and rough. Essentially, we are raising our children to follow rigid behavioral guidelines, whether they be boys or girls, something which will inevitably work against them. Girls grow up without a voice and are more hesitant to speak up for themselves, trapped by the belief that they should be nice and sweet and pliable. On the other end, boys find themselves unable to appreciate the finer qualities of beauty or a sensitive nature without being told ‘they’re being wimps.’ We begin this culturalisation as early as

Why not let kids be kids – why not let them grow up unfettered and free to discover their true selves? Why not let a girl read  jump around and be loud as she wants to be – or let a boy sit back and sketch dreamy figments of his imagination if he wants to? Chemaly herself makes this observation when she cited researcher Isabelle Cherney’s findings that ‘half of boys ages 5-13 picked “girl” and “boy” toys equally… unless they were being watched. They were especially concerned about what their fathers would think of them if they saw them.’

I want to be clear on this – if a girl wants to play with dolls and wear pretty dresses or if a boy particularly enjoys playing pirates and robots, of course that’s what they should be allowed to do. But if a boy would rather play with a ‘girl toy’ or if a girl prefers a ‘boy toy’, they should be allowed to do so without being judged or criticized. The real point is to allow them the freedom to discover for themselves what makes them happy and to be as true to their nature as they possibly can. And when the child grows up, they would be the better for it – an adult, strong and confident and comfortable in their skin with who they are and what values they stand for.

And when we are comfortable with ourselves, it means we are more comfortable with each other, no matter how different we are from one another. As author Will Bowen says, ‘hurt people hurt people.’ People who are afraid of what they really are, people who are insecure deep down inside, people who are afraid of being judged and of criticism are the ones who judge the harshest and are the quickest to condemn. This isn’t just restricted to gender barriers but also to issues of race, sexuality and any other instance where someone is marginalised because of their differences. After all, why should we be afraid of a different colour or a different sexuality or any other different way of looking at life if we are strong and happy and confident in ourselves and in all that we stand for? For example, why should people be afraid that legalising gay marriage would weaken the sanctity of conventional marriage if they are already confident beyond doubt that conventional marriage is a strong and worthy institution in its own right – for if it was, it could easily withstand any blows that might come from the legalising of gay marriage or, for that matter, from divorce or de facto relationships or interracial marriages or any other such concepts that have previously been deemed ‘an insult to the institution of traditional marriage’. The fact is, conventional marriage has its pros. But like any other concept, it also has its failings and closing our eyes to those failings isn’t going to make them go away.


On The Toast, author Sarah Rees Brennan writes a very thought-provoking article about the hate and malice female authors – and usually outspoken female authors who aren’t afraid of voicing their opinions – face, and the double standard that sees the world often praising men who are outspoken and unafraid to self-promote, but then turning upon a woman who does the same. And then there’s the accompanying article by author Malinda Lo who writes about the prejudice and hatred she too has faced, not just as a female author but as a lesbian female author.

Now, imagine if we lived in a world where none of this was the reality. A world where women were accepted for their talents and weren’t verbally (and sometimes even physically) abused just because they’re women. A world where someone who was gay or lesbian or of an ethnic minority wasn’t marginalised simply because they were ‘different.’ A world where everyone was accepted – and even celebrated – for their uniquely different qualities.

Unfortunately, the reality is somewhat other than this and that’s something we have to face as well. But that doesn’t mean we can’t change it. And changing it doesn’t mean fighting back fire with fire, hurt with hurt, anger with anger. It means being open and compassionate and critically thinking things through before we speak or take action. It shames me to admit that I myself have often judged other women on their looks, their talents and even the way they speak, simply because they’re women. I’ve often caught myself out, realising that if these very women were in fact men, I wouldn’t be treating them this way or criticising them in this fashion. I would be a lot more lenient.

And that’s what I mean when I want us to be more careful in the way we judge others, to question the way we look at the world and perceive certain qualities in other people. To be more thoughtful in the way we speak and think and shape our beliefs and perceptions of the world. And to pass on to our children what we’ve learned as well, for it is true that it is the young who will inherit the earth and shape it to their own beliefs and ends. To allow ourselves to be free to be who we are and to allow others to be free to be who they are.

And sometimes this will involve breaking down some very firmly molded barriers. To realise that everything is all right. That to be rough and loud doesn’t necessarily mean something bad. Or that being girly and soft and gentle isn’t weak. I don’t want us to swing fully to the other extreme and assume that being a rough and tumble boy is a bad thing or that being in a conventional marriage or being a white straight male means you’re instantly on the side of Evil. What I want is for us to keep an open mind and to accept others for who they are, to realize that everything has its good points and its bad points and its place in the world, and it’s not for us to judge or isolate anyone or anything simply because they are different from us or because we don’t understand them (yes, folks, this means Miley Cyrus too). Let’s not dismiss all soldiers as killers and rapists, all women as weak and nervous, all people who live in country towns as rednecks, all Christians or Muslims are rigid unforgiving beings or all atheists are shameless, godless creatures. In short, let’s not force each other into tightly labelled jam jars or unyielding stereotypes. We are all so much more than that and we deserve to be so much more than that.

In the comments section of Soraya Chemaly’s piece, one particular commenter made this observation:

“Subject matter is part of the equation. Most boys would still find Anne of Green Gables boring if Anne were a boy and Ender’s Game thrilling if Ender were a girl. A lot of boys might have the knee-jerk, negative reaction to seeing a female protagonist, but if it’s a female protagonist who kicks butt in a post-apocalyptic dystopia or battles aliens or demons, boys can be persuaded to give it a chance a lot easier than stories about female protagonists learning to fit in and make friends in a new school.

A lot of young boys would probably enjoy The Hunger Games if it was assigned to them, and would then be open to more stories about female heroes, but after 50 pages of AoGG, most boys will decide any book with girls on the cover is just going to be boring young adult period soap opera, and never give another one a chance.”

But that’s my point entirely, and that was also the entire point of Chemaly’s article in which this commenter failed completely to understand. I have to admit, I was guilty of the same when I first read the article. I immediately started thinking up lists of children’s books featuring girls who are strong, multidimensional characters, books that would appeal to boys because the girls featured in these stories exhibited typical masculine qualities and weren’t ‘girly’ or ‘dreamy’ or ’emotional.’

But then in doing so, wasn’t I myself ignoring the ‘boy crisis’ Chemaly spoke of, of the error we are unconsciously making in glorifying ‘masculine’ traits and debasing ‘feminine’ ones? That we’re not letting boys be boys – and when I say that I  mean that in the truest sense of the word – letting boys be, yes, loud and spirited and strong and fierce and powerful and robust, but also sensitive and gentle and kind and yielding and nurturing. To let them explore all sides of themselves and pick the qualities they identify with the most?

And a big part of that would be allowing them free, unfettered, uncriticised access to all kinds of children’s literature. Yes, boys today might find Anne of Green Gables ‘boring young period adult soap opera’, but isn’t it  because we’ve already culturalised them to react that way to perceived feminine material? And for that matter, how do you know boys wouldn’t find Anne of Green Gables too boring or soap opera-ish or girly? It makes me wonder if the commenter had actually read Anne of Green Gables or was making assumptions on what little he knew about it. If he had done his research, he would know that L.M. Montgomery’s work was immensely popular with both the men and women, as she notes in her journal of receiving fan mail from “men and women who are grandparents, boys at school and college, old pioneers in the Australian bush, missionaries in China, monks in remote monasteries, and red-headed girls all over the world.” One male fan in particular was none other than the author Mark Twain who described her heroine Anne as “the dearest and most lovable child in fiction since the immortal Alice.”

Yes, Anne of Green Gables is a period book, and yes, it has a female protagonist that does long for puff sleeves and worries about the colour of her hair and her freckles, but it’s also a book about a child who is lonely and unwanted but, through a set of unforeseen circumstances, manages to find a place she can call home. It’s a book about a child who is smart and rebellious and gets into scrapes and learns some hard lessons about love and loss along the way. In essence, it’s a book any child might identify with, whether they be a girl or boy.

Perhaps if we approached Anne of Green Gables with an open mind or allowed a child whose mind and heart is yet unsullied by the rigid conventions we already have instilled within ourselves and in society to read the book without any preconceptions, he or she wouldn’t be so quick to judge the book as ‘too girly’ or ‘too dramatic’ or ‘too boring’. They might even love it. But if they don’t, that’s also fine. Because what really matters is that they were given the ability and the freedom to decide this for themselves without the burden of a hypercritical society’s judgments hanging over their heads.

I thought I’d finish this piece with a quote that’s been at the back of my mind as I’ve been writing this – a quote found in a book by a female author featuring some very strong (and feminine) female characters. It’s a quote from Robin McKinley’s Spindle End where one of its characters (and an early protagonist), Katriona bemoans, “Oh, why does compassion weaken us?”

In reply, Rosie (a later protagonist) replies, “It doesn’t, really…Somewhere where it all balances out-don’t the philosophers have a name for it, the perfect place, the place where the answers live?If we could go there, you could see it doesn’t.It only looks, a little bit, like it does, from here, like an ant at the foot of an oak tree. He doesn’t have a clue that it’s a tree; it’s the beginning of the wall round the world, to him.”

And it would, if we only allow ourselves to be free and unafraid and unblemished with hatred and fear and resentment. It would all balance out.

[Pic 1 source; Pic 2 source]


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