There is a very common argument used increasingly these days to explain phenomena that men find difficult to handle, and that is, the fallacy of female domination of the field. We hear it used increasingly in France by divorced fathers over the right of access to their children. Many ex spouses claim that they are denied equal access to their children by female judges who are necessarily biased in favour of the mother. Without going into the details of the reasons for access being denied (violence, abduction, the usual), or of an access that doesn’t suit the father (like during the week when he has to work, unlike his ex wife of course who just sits around twiddling her thumbs all day), the criticism only arises because of female domination of the legal and judicial system. When it was male dominated, I don’t recall that argument being used to contest decisions made against women.
The same argument is used to explain why girls are doing better at school (at some ages) than boys. Boys apparently need male teachers to keep them firmly under control and provide role models, the father figure, and girls are more at home with sweet, soppy women teachers thus gaining an unfair advantage. Again, I won’t mention that woman have always predominated in the less prestigious realms of education (primary school) so it’s nothing new for boys to have female teachers for their formative years. And since until the second half of the twentieth century most children left school at fourteen, I rest my case.
We hear the same argument used for the lack of interest boys show in reading. Too many books about girls, by girls and for girls. Female domination of the industry striking again, banjaxing the pleasure our sons should be getting out of the written word. Where I would agree that there does seem to be a plethora of YA novels featuring on the cover a young woman wearing a swirly white frock such as Elizabeth Taylor wore in Rebecca, it seems to me there is a confusion between books featuring a female lead, and books for girls.
Books, if they are any good, are about an abstract concept; they tell a story. A good story in not about either girls or boys. If this is a recent phenomenon, that female characters take the lead in YA novels, thus putting off a male readership, why is it that women have for decades past been more avid readers than men? Women have managed to derive pleasure from books written by men, and presumably about men since novels were invented. Why should boys find it so hard to get anything out of a story that has a girl for a heroine? If you look at the number of influential nineteenth century novelists to use a female lead (Flaubert, Zola, de Maupassant, Wilkie Collins, Thomas Hardy, Henry James, Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, to name just a few that spring to mind) I think it becomes obvious that it isn’t the presence of a heroine that determines the durability of a book, but the universal truths it sets out.
This brings us to the question of what is a book about girls, or about boys. Is the book soley about things that interest girls, like nail varnish, cute boys and class bitch problems? Or the things that interest boys: physical appearance/assets, cute girls and class bully problems? If the answer is yes, then the book has no universal appeal and maybe isn’t worth reading: worth meaning that the reader gains something from the experience of reading. But if the book is about a boy/girl confronting difficulties and maybe doing something a boy/girl is not expected to do, succeeding or failing, making right or wrong decisions, then it shouldn’t matter if the protagonist is male or female.
If the parent choosing a book for their offspring thinks that it does, then they are perpetuating prejudices and narrow-mindedness. It isn’t a natural given that if there is a leader, it has to be a boy, nor that the victim, or emotionally fragile character has to be a girl. It isn’t a question of who is leading the field, but how, and most of all why are doing it.
Maybe parents should stop telling their boys that they have to be heroes to be fulfilled human beings. Maybe then we would get fewer boys thinking they have something to prove to the world.