Thursday 13 February 2020

If males don't read books by, or strongly featuring females, do they build up a disregard for female opinions and worth in later life? This Week's #ReadItTorial

Sorry about the long drawn-out title of this week's #ReadItTorial2020 but I wanted to try and capture the essence of a tweet by fantastic author Joanne Harris - the author of the divine "Chocolat", "The Gospel of Loki" and many other amazing books.

Joanne's Tweet was:
At first I understood where she was coming from with this and it's something I've read other authors saying before. It is very true and very fair to say that boys in general do disregard books either about girls, or featuring girls in the main roles, or as the primary character, whereas girls are more magnanimous and don't mind books where lead characters are male, female or nonbinary.

But does that automatically lead to the sort of sexist behavour we would all like to see stamped out for good? Where women are treated as second class citizens, abused or attacked, shouted down and generally given short shrift in many aspects of their lives?

Given that in this day and age books are such a small influence on our youth (I would say that books are probably right down there in 5th or 6th place trailing far behind the internet, peers, family influences, visual media and ads) would it be easy to tackle this thorny issue at the root?

Kids are tricky little blighters when it comes to any form of pattern analysis and a broad brush tweet like Joanna's makes assumptions that books somehow insidiously cause sexist behaviour - when in fact it's far more likely to be as a result of the way children are brought up, and what they take away from their key influencers as they grow up and begin to take more than just a bit part in the world around them.

I grew up reading anything and everything I could get my hands on (quite literally - if stuck at a relative's house I'd just trawl through their bookcases until I found something to read, whether it was copies of Woman's World magazine, old Readers Digest mags, encyclopaedias, cowboy novels - you name it, I'd read it if I didn't have an armful of books of my own with me)

I also grew up in households that quite often lacked 'strong' male authority figures, and these were the key influences on my current belief that men and women are equal, and that strong female figures and characters in fiction and non fiction deserve as much respect as anyone else.

I'd also consume books by the bucketload thanks to a decent school and local library (things that in this day and age are underused, underfunded, or are becoming more and more rare sadly) always with a sort of blissful ignorance about what boys were actually supposed to read (remember this was the 1970s, where despite the rise of sexual equality, there were still very hard lines drawn in school, particularly in peer groups of boys - and any deviation from those lines was seen as some sort of weakness). As I grew older I realised that I much preferred the company of bookish girls than boys anyway (if you couldn't care less about sport or 'scoring' or other 'bants' then it naturally follows that you'd always want to get into a conversation with a girl than a boy - and from what my daughter reports of what things are like in her school, it doesn't sound like much has changed in the last 40 years).

I loved books back then as much as I love books now, and read Heidi cover to cover, devoured "The Giant Under the Snow" (where, despite a couple of male accomplices, the awesome Jonquil Winters and her witchy mentor Elizabeth were undoubtedly the lead - and strongest - characters in the book). Now I'm trying to pass this notion on to my daughter so that she'll have a fairly broad (some might say 'adventurous') approach to what she reads and consumes, hopefully so she'll be far more well read than I am.

In ten years of reviewing children's books, there have been so many books that I dearly wished boys would read - but could understand why those books switch even the most bookish boys off.

Conflict is often an underlying initial setup or continuing theme of any books where a female main character features, and is oppressed by, bullied by, or constantly rolls her eyes about any male characters that are woven into the story (though again in the majority of stories, this is unfortunately good observation on the part of the author - that those conflicts really do exist in the real world, and that they make an excellent plot foundation - personally I find that horribly sad).

The rot sets in right from picture books for younger readers. Male characters are often set up as the pratfalling idiot in a story where parents feature. We've seen gluttonous dads who quite often need a mum to come along and show them how to do even the simplest parenting tasks. We've seen absentee dads more than absentee mums - even in some of our very favourite picture books. We've blogged at length about the 'dumb dad / missing dad' tropes in picture books and it seems that this also quite often continues well into middle grade books, where dads are undoubtedly (and perhaps more accurately) the parental figure who displays clear signs of immaturity, boorish behaviour, or will just muck about or behave like an idiot either through an assumption that they're less intelligent than their female counterparts, or follow a well-worn character cliche.

This is beginning to sound like a horrible "not all men" type of argument and believe me that's really not my intention at all. My point is that I want boys to enjoy character driven fiction without having any need to even consider that the main charactrer is either male or female, and that what they're going to read will be some diatribe against either sex.

Instead it should be the story itself, the theme, the setting, the moral (if there is one) and the twisting plot intricacies, the delicious descriptions and the writing that cuts through any gender gap.

For example consider that the truly amazing "Lockwood and Co" series by Jonathan Stroud is beautifully balanced, and not only female-narrative-led, but contains male and female characters that appeal to both sexes, treat each other (mostly) as equals in the course of each tale, and are hugely appealing to girl and boy readers. I'd probably mention the Harry Potter books too, though I'm still not convinced that JK treats the female characters in her books very well (apart from Hermoine, who still somehow manages to be written as the class know-it-all, the swot, the annoying whiny one, or the sensible one in a semi-detrimental way for all the moments when it's clear her character is the brains of the outfit - and some might argue the 'main' character in the books (because lord knows, Harry is pretty fecking useless most of the time, let's face it, and Ron is a very short step away from being a complete a-hole most of the time - sorry, my opinion, feel free to shout me down about it!)

So do we want to carry on with conflict in stories if we are ever to cut through toxic male (and to a lesser extent female) behaviour out there in the real world, if the opening chapters of most books do their level best to underline that conflict and make it one of the foundations of the plot?

What message does that convey and leave a reader with other than it's the norm, and really is that the root cause of the way boys treat girls and vice versa?