The problem with being an extremely vocal bibliophile is that not-so-close friends and family will never let you have anything else as a gift. Far be it from me to complain about such a thing; gifted books make wonderful anecdotes. But I had a decidedly puzzling experience on my eighth birthday when I merrily unwrapped a gifted book titled Adventure Stories for Boys. I thanked the person who gave it to me, and went to my mother with the gift and a million questions. Were there books especially for girls? Were the stories in the book meant only for boys? Did that mean I was not allowed to read the book ? My mother, a wonderfully practical woman, demurred with: “Well, you’re holding it in your own hands, why can’t you read it?” Why not, indeed?
This entire episode came back to me because I recently saw a pair of slightly alarming books at a store. They were treatises handily titled ‘Book for Girls’ and ‘Book for Boys’, instructing kids of the two genders as to how they could be ‘the best at everything’ (this incessant quest for master-of-all-jack-of-none perfection is a problem for another day). Every last aspect of the appearance of these books shouted out: Gender!
The cover of the book for girls was pink and its counterpart for boys was black. The covers were littered with sundry gendered symbols. The book for girls had flowers and purses and other symbols that are normally pejoratively labeled ‘girly’ or charitably called cute. The book for boys, on the other hand, had skulls, guitars and telescopes, things that are generally called ‘cool’. A girl is flying a kite on the book for girls, and a boy is fishing in the cover of its counterpart.
‘Covered’ With Gendered Subtext
It is obvious why gendering books like this is a bad idea. These books are one more way in which kids construct gender roles in their minds. And as they grow up, they spend their lives reconciling the rest of the things they see in the world with the ideas they learnt about genders as children. This kind of symbolism on books is yet another way of teaching children that girls must like pink and flowers, and boys must like telescopes and cars. Woe betide they wind up with a preference for a symbol that is considered a province of another gender. Additionally, this segregation further cements the notion in kids’ minds that there can be only two genders and that no handy shelf might make place for any gender that falls in between them.
It is not enough to simply liberate our books from these gendered symbols. That is a task that’s relatively easier to do. It is equally important to separate gender from the symbols in the first place. If we succeed in doing that, boys might be able to enjoy something which has a flower or a heart on it without worrying about parental or social pressure. Girls may be able to enjoy black and skulls without being labeled ‘not like other girls’.
The problem is not restricted to children’s books alone; it peters down to books meant for adults as well. A bibliophile can, even with a cursory glance at their covers, easily pick out books that conventionally fall under the chick-lit label. Their covers are replete with typically pink-and-pastel-heavy illustrations.
The other problem is that books have long shelf lives, literally. They are timeless in the messages they send, and books like these reinforce misplaced notions about gender every time the bookshelf is opened. Messages never stop seeping out of the covers of these books, regardless of their content.
Arguably, the books that I saw did not contain only forcibly stereotypical, gendered ‘how-tos’. For example, the book for girls did include a section titled ‘how to look your best in photos’ but it also included a section titled ‘how to whistle really loudly’. While the book for boys included how tos like ‘take a good photos’ and ‘eat at a posh restaurant’. The contents of the book are not the point, though. What’s problematic is the fact that some activities are persistently clustered under the ‘for girls’ category and others under ‘for boys’.
The topical segregation of books on the basis of gender is extremely harmful. It teaches children that certain topics are barred to them for discussion by virtue (or vice) of their genders. Children construct their ideas of gender in little ways and it is worrying if they come to feel that some topics are out-of-bounds for their gender because of the books they are ‘supposed to like’. Of course, there is considerable pushback from kids around the world about segregation of this kind. Recently, an eight year old girl living in the UK, found that a book about pirates was shelved under the ‘for boys’ category at a Scholastic Book Fair. As part of a campaign ‘Let books be books‘, she wrote to the publication asking why she was ineligible to read about pirates as a girl. Scholastic immediately withdrew gender based categorization of their collection. Several British publications followed suit.
When I picked up ‘Adventure Stories for Boys’ and began to read it from cover to cover, I did not raise any eyebrows back at home. It was not abnormal. I do not mean to deny my privilege here (I have a family that has consistently broken most gender stereotypes) but a boy picking up a book that was titled, say, ‘Glamourous stories for Girls’ would probably have had to face more censure, because our culture has a way of ascribing greater value for objects that represent the masculine as compared to the traditionally feminine.
As a girl, I am taught to make the best of whatever I can find. So if a book meant for boys is around, I’m taught that I must search out my pleasure from it. Boys, on the other hand, are taught to accept that a gendered space will always be available to them. So they’re taught to down their nose at books meant for girls, because those are less ‘cool’ than books meant for boys. This social pressure dogs us all the way into adulthood. In my privileged circle, it was not subversive for me to pick up a book dealing with traditionally masculine tropes. But when a male friend decided that he wanted to read romance novels and ‘chick-lit’, he was mercilessly ribbed.
Books define a way of life. When we weave strongly stereotypical, gendered subtexts into them, we make those norms a way of life. Cliché or no cliché: books do open up new worlds. It is time that they began to open up a world where gender roles are not forced into the mould of stereotypical binaries.
Featured Image Credit: Damini Kulkarni