Girls in books

This week’s pondering, readers, was prompted by a post on Facebook. It was a video of a mother and daughter looking through the girl’s bookshelf and removing all the gender-imbalanced books to discover what a tiny selection they were left with. They started by removing all the books that had no female characters, then the ones where the female characters didn’t speak, then ones where the females had no aspirations beyond being rescued/looking pretty (princesses, basically). They were left with, frankly, a feeble percentage.

This prompted a lively discussion between myself and Offspring (who is also female). I am aware of the bias in my own reading (which is predominantly YA fiction), in that I actively choose books by women and which feature stories in which the protagonist is female (or at least one of the protagonists is, if it’s a dual or multiple narrative). I do that chiefly because I’m female and I want characters I can identify with. I think that’s a pretty universal human urge, and exactly why it’s important to have diverse books, so EVERYONE can see themselves reflected in a variety of ways in fiction. I’m quite sure that my bookshelf would be entirely unchanged if I removed any books where women don’t appear and take an active role in the story.

I can see that there’s a problem if the books that appear most on prize-winner lists, or “must read” top tens only reflect male experience, or if the books that get the shelf space in bookshops don’t have non-male characters and focus (because, let’s face it, the problem is larger than just women/girls being underrated – anything outside white, straight, western experience tends to be an ignored rarity). But is it really a problem if you just have to look a bit harder for books to read?

While visibility undoubtedly is a problem, I feel as though this doesn’t need to be a problem because what we do have now is choice. I discussed with Offspring how she chooses her books: whether she deliberately picks up books with a female main character (not consciously – but they are about 90% of what’s on her bookshelf, so identification-with-self bias is almost certainly happening for her, too); whether she notices if women don’t appear (generally not unless I also read the book and head off into a feminist rant – but again, I think that’s because actually women/girls do feature in the books she reads). While she’s a voracious reader and is constantly in need of more books, neither of us perceives a problem in finding books that reflect her experience as a female.

Most of my reading is of ebooks, which makes matters even easier. You really can find ANYTHING on Amazon (don’t believe me? – I tripped over a new genre called Mpreg the other week – gay fiction in which one of the men becomes pregnant. My mind is still boggling). But as a result of exercising choice in my reading, I know I don’t experience problems with female representation on my bookshelves. There are always women, they always speak and do things, and any princesses are also assassins, magicians or rebel leaders as well. Given that more books exist in the English language than I’m ever going to manage to read in my lifetime, I can easily find female representation just by being selective over what I pick up.

The only experience I had which chimed with the video was years ago now, when Offspring was tiny and her reading matter was picture books read to her. I did perceive a bias in a lot of picture books. Unnamed characters were overwhelming described as “he”. As a mother reading to a daughter who I didn’t want to grow up thinking she only belonged on the margins of life that made me very uncomfortable. Since Offspring was a bit young at that point to appreciate a polemic rant, I found a simple solution: I changed the hes to shes as I read. Woodland creatures and friends of the main characters became abruptly, overwhelmingly female, so my baby perceived females surrounding her in her fictional worlds. A blunt approach, perhaps, but one that worked for me.

So, I don’t perceive a problem for myself, and when I found it for my child I simply did what was necessary to neutralise the bias. Problem solved. And yet, that glib response troubles me. I’m a white, straight, educated female, which probably makes me the second-best represented group in fiction after straight, white males. I don’t want to suggest there isn’t a problem just because I don’t perceive it, or I’ve wrestled it into submission in my life. I’m going to keep a watch on myself now and see how easy it is to find books that reflect females who AREN’T just like me.

How about you, reader – are you aware of bias in what you read? Do you create bias deliberately? And do you have any recommendations for YA books that aren’t about straight, white protagonists?

1 thought on “Girls in books

  1. You make an interesting point about not noticing bias. I don’t really notice bias in books. I don’t think my daughter noticed it much either (apart from being very excited when she found a book with characters that looked like her – i.e. brown). She only started noticing it when she started watching TV movies. I’ve gone out of my way to find teen movies/shows with ethnically diverse casts. I’m pleased to say that if you look, you can find them. Of course, they may not be what everyone at school is talking about…


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