Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Reading for Boys and Girls, Or the Legitimacy of Girliness

First, a quick announcement that, for the Fall 2013 semester, the NCSCL is offering tutoring to undergraduates taking children's lit courses at SDSU. The scheduled hours are Mon 2-3 pm and Wed 11:45-12:45 pm, but students can also request appointments by emailing NCSChildlit@gmail.com. They MUST include "tutoring" in the subject line.

So, last year I was perusing some book review blogs, and came across one (author and title have since escaped me, lucky for them) that completely turned me off because the story and the review clearly typecasted girls into the role of princesses and boys into the role of adventurers. I distinctly recall the marketing on the website as speaking to the gender-inclusive merits of the book, something that could appeal to both boys and girls. I also distinctly recall that I was most annoyed by the fact that girls were evidently not meant to seek out wild and crazy adventures; those activities were reserved for boys!

Now, we all know that isn't true. Girls are as much adventure-driven as the young lads are. We have a whole new genre of dystopian Young Adult books that speak to this very call for girls to get out there and be fierce. I've pointed out the discussion this has spawned in previous posts, highlighting the underlying issue that these young women aren't out there by choice but by necessity. So, the adventure and thrill seeking young girl seems to linger only on the outskirts of identity, once more.

But instead of focusing on that, let's focus on the girlhood and boyhood culture that emerges with the kinds of treatment we give children, the kinds of stories we feed them at an early age, and the kinds of messages that unfold. This article on Book Riot addresses that problem: what we have taken for granted as typical girl and boy behavior, and how we both foster and address that.  The picture book that troubled me, the one speaking to the "inherent princess qualities" of girls, fits directly into this mold. And this branding transcends books of course; it pervades all arenas of material culture and media.

BUT, oh man, here is that irritating conjunction, come in to thwart my mental processes. Should we instead overlook -- even negate -- the girliness of girlhood? Is that the answer? Quite a while back I discussed the issue of cuteness studies. When considering that in comparison to girliness, we see that the status of the female does always come into question during the classification of "worthwhile" literature, children's, young adult, or adult. Is something only valid if it doesn't appeal to the feminine qualities? What message do we send if we only give credence to gender-role-dismantling texts? It only takes a quick discerning eye to notice that this need to upend what we consider the weaknesses of gender usually applies to the weaknesses and flaws of femininity in children's lit. We expect girls to be readers, but expect that the most successful depictions of girls they read should show girls NOT being girls. We expect boys to repel from books, so the books cultivated for them should appeal to that same interpreted boyishness.

Does this have to be the case? The princess should be a swashbuckler, if she so chooses, and it shouldn't be seen as an anomaly to her "kind" nor a proclamation that only now is she "worthwhile" by doing so. 

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