Giving the gift of worlds

16 Jun

After my last blog post, I got talking with my mother about the gendering of books and the pressures on boys to avoid “girl things”. See, I have a little brother. Well, actually I have multiple little brothers, so we’ll call this one Brother 3. Brother 3’s in his first year of secondary school at the moment – 11 years old. He used to proudly read books branded as girly, because he enjoyed them. He proudly did all sorts of stereotypically-feminine things, like being the only boy in his school’s dance club, and I was glad to see him choosing his interests on the basis of what made him happy, rather than on the basis of what society told him boys should be interested in.

He doesn’t read so much any more. Some of this may be down to having other distractions (computers, game consoles, a phone), but some of it may be down to the fact that as he gets older, he’s feeling more pressure to conform to expectations of what boys “should” be like. Mum claims that he’s now “worried that he’ll be laughed at for reading certain books”, something which wouldn’t have bothered him a few years ago. Essentially this is yet another example of how gendered books are bad for everyone: they pigeonhole girls while shutting boys out.

So, what would happen if other people couldn’t see the covers? Obviously this wouldn’t fix all the problems with the gendered-books phenomenon: part of the issue is that people really are unwilling to buy books that are marketed as Not For Them. But I suspect another part is simply unwillingness to be seen with a book marked as not for your group: there can be pretty serious social consequences to non-conformity, and a decent read isn’t necessarily worth these consequences.

This, I think, is one of the great things about the rise of ebooks in recent years. Using an e-reader removes others’ ability to see and judge what you’re reading. It might give you the freedom to read something that you’d otherwise avoid out of social unacceptability. Of course, this doesn’t just apply if you’re a boy who wants to read female-authored books: it also improves freedom of reading for LGBT folk who aren’t yet out of the closet, or kids in certain religious environments who want to learn about evolution, or those in anti-religious environments who want to learn about religion, or anyone who’s ever been made to feel ashamed for their interests or identity.

And freedom of reading doesn’t just give you a better choice of entertainment media. It opens up worlds. Non-fiction opens up the world we live in, teaching us more about our surroundings. Fiction opens countless others. It lets you climb inside the head of somebody else and see the universe through their eyes for a while. If the character in question resembles you, it can make you feel less isolated. If they don’t, you gain understanding and empathy for people whose experiences of life are entirely different from your own.

I want my brother to have access to those worlds; as many of them as he possibly can. So, for his 12th birthday, I’m buying him a Kindle. I’m removing one of the social barriers to experiencing those worlds by making it harder for others to judge his books – and, ultimately, him – by their covers. But that’s not all I’m going to do. Before I give him the Kindle, I’m going to load it up with as many books as my present-buying budget will stretch to. I’m going to give the worlds to him.

Credit where credit is due: this idea is not my own. It comes from the brilliant Ana Mardoll, whose stealth-support approach to her niece’s coming out was to give said niece ebooks with incidental gay characters for Christmas. However, my reasons are slightly different from Ana’s. For one thing, Brother 3 hasn’t come out. Balance of probability says that he’s straight. He’s also male and white. It is not exactly hard to find fictional characters who share these attributes; they make up the vast majority of protagonists. So he doesn’t really need me to give him worlds that resemble his own: he’s got access to plenty of those already.

But you see the bit a couple of paragraphs up about characters that don’t resemble you, and how they can teach empathy? I think that’s a very important function of fiction. It’s part of the reason why boys should be reading books with female protagonists; why white people should be reading with protagonists of colour; why able-bodied people should be reading books with disabled protagonists; and so on. We should all be reading protagonists who differ from us in some of the many ways society treats as significant, but this particularly applies to people like Brother 3. He’s a straight white guy (to the best of my knowledge): the lowest difficulty setting there is. He’s also able-bodied, intelligent, and comes from a well-off family who love and support him. In other words, he’s hugely privileged in his life circumstances. And when life is set up to be that easy for you, a lot of the time, you don’t even notice.* Which can lead to you being kind of an ass – or something much worse – towards people whose lives aren’t set up so favourably, because you simply don’t understand the ways in which the world is different for them.

An excellent way to combat this phenomenon is to enter the worlds of the less privileged: read their stories and listen to their voices. But so many of the stories out there don’t let you do that. They focus on the straight white guys, endlessly propagating the myth that this uniquely privileged position is somehow the “normal” way to be, or at least the way that all heroes are. When was the last time you read a book with a non-white protagonist? A non-straight protagonist? Or, when did you last find such a protagonist in a story focused around something other than their skin colour/sexuality? Because so often, if a book does have a “minority” protagonist, it’s an Issue Book that’s almost entirely about the character’s minority status. And while having some Issue Books is a good thing, because the issues represented therein are real and affect real people, it’s massively problematic when these books become the only representation of minorities. When you find minority characters only in Issue Books, it makes it look as though simply being a hero isn’t available to Those People. Read enough books where all the complex, interesting people are straight white guys and you might just start to believe that real life works the same way.

So that’s what I want to counteract with my brother. I want to give him stories where the protagonists are dissimilar to him in some way. I want him to come to love and respect those protagonists. I know that he’s already started to do this: for example, he recently read and enjoyed the Hunger Games (which is, incidentally, an excellent example of a non-Issue Book with a minority protagonist: Katniss Everdeen is a great female character, but the story isn’t about her gender, it’s about a hero who just happens to be a woman). But I also know that one series isn’t enough, particularly in a world that’s so diverse. Yet it can be hard to find decent fiction with protagonists who don’t fit the standard privileged mould. And it does need to be decent, engaging fiction, or the whole point of the exercise fails: the reader gives up, possibly taking away the assumption that minority protagonists don’t have interesting stories.

So I’m going to end this post with a plea for recommendations. I’m looking for books that (a) have minority protagonists**, and (b) will appeal to a soon-to-be 12 year old boy who enjoys large helpings of action and/or comedy in his fiction. Whose worlds should I show him first?


* And yes, I am aware that this applies to me as well as to Brother 3.

** For the purposes of this statement, I’m counting “female” as a minority despite the fact that we make up roughly 50% of the world’s population. We’re still a numerical minority from a protagonist standpoint, and in the real world, sexism means that we’re often (mis)treated in ways similar to those experienced by numerical minorities.


6 Responses to “Giving the gift of worlds”

  1. May June 29, 2013 at 10:29 pm #

    I’m glad you clarified on calling women a minority group – perhaps a more accurate, although less succinct, term would be “under-represented protagonist characteristic”. Either way, good point.

  2. Anonymous July 2, 2013 at 1:06 pm #

    Lucky brother 3! Here’s a gender-advantaged protagonist equipped for life with gender disadvantaged sister. Let us hope that good intentions will not be squandered.

  3. Anna July 2, 2013 at 5:50 pm #

    May: your term is indeed far more accurate. Can I blame my lack of law degree?

    Anonymous: Thanks for the good wishes. Although I’d like to think that the sister is a protagonist in her own right, rather than just a piece of “equipment” in her brother’s story!


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