I’m a feminist but by no means a hardcore, bra-burning, no-leg-shaving man-hater with an ax to grind about gender inequality. Yes, I believe in equal work, equal pay and gender equity at home and battling sexist stereotypes, but I’m not a women’s studies major who gets up in arms at every turn. Usually I only get this way when talking about photoshopping models and unrealistic portrayals of women’s bodies in the media. My point being that I’m not the type of person to go off on men at every opportunity about women’s oppression in the workplace, at home, etc. But today I’m going to argue against sexism and for women in books.
Fun fact: J.K. Rowling used her initials when publishing Harry Potter because her publisher told her that boys would not buy a book by a female author. Yup, that’s right, one of the most successful, most popular authors in modern times (perhaps ever, up there with Agatha Christie) had to mask the fact that she’s a woman on the cover of her books. Harry Potter appeals to all ages, both genders, and many demographics, both ethnic and socioeconomic, the perfect example of a crossover. So why dd her publisher fret over whether or not boys would know her gender? Because boys don’t read books by or about women.
I read an article (http://blogs.publishersweekly.com/blogs/shelftalker/?p=5713&utm_source=Publishers+Weekly%27s+PW+Daily&utm_campaign=138a83439c-UA-15906914-1&utm_medium=email) about this phenomenon. I recently decided to indulge in some literary candy and read The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. It’s a fabulous book–great storytelling, gripping, keeps you on the edge of your seat the kind of book you just can’t put down until you’ve reached the last page. It’s a bestseller; the first movie has just come out to rave reviews and blockbuster opening weekend. But the book wouldn’t have sold nearly as well if instead of a gold medallion on a black background on the cover, the female protagonist would have graced the jacket. Boys simply would not have been interested by a cover with a girl on it. Yes, I find this attitude to be a huge problem.
For one thing, girls make up half (slightly over half, I think) of the human race. Women are half of the human experience. To ignore their stories and their perspective is to shut out the views of humanity. Boys’ refusal to read books about girls is a sad story on how we market to boys, how we shun the feminine for boys in favor of cultivating the masculine. I understand boys’ reluctance to read Gossip Girl and the Twilight series and the like, but a publisher shouldn’t have to worry that a boy won’t buy a book because it’s about a girl. Think about the great female protagonists in young adult/crossover literature: The House on Mango Street, the books of Cynthia DeFelice such as The Ghost of Fossil Glen, Gathering Blue by Lois Lowry (author of The Giver), Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, Meg from a Wrinkle in Time, Hermione from Harry Potter (even if she isn’t the main protagonist, she plays a vital role in the series), the young women in Sharon Creech’s works of Ruby Holler and Chasing Redbird. The list goes on: Secret Life of Bees, Memoirs of a Geisha, Island of the Blue Dolphins, Charlotte’s Web, Matilda, Little House on the Prairie, Little Women, etc.
Students need exposure to the experiences of both sexes from all races, classes, and backgrounds. If not, we are ignoring the experience of the human race. The issue of ignoring other demographics in high school English classrooms is for another post, but female protagonists illustrate the experiences of women that cannot be ignored or pushed aside. Children of both genders can benefit and learn from the writing of both female authors and female protagonists.