There’s been a lot of talk this week on Twitter about the different ways men and women are treated in the children’s writing industry, and why.
Go to any SCBWI meeting, and you’ll find a group that’s around 70% female. But try and name some of the biggest names in kidlit and who comes to mind first? Dr. Seuss, Mo Willems, Robert Munsch, Jon Scieszka, Jon Klassen, Drew Daywalt, Dav Pilkey, Jeff Kinney, John Green…? They’re the ones that seem to get most of the press, awards, and attention.
And I’m not trying to say they’re bad writers. Their books are great. But so are books by Mem Fox, Debbie Ohi, Helaine Becker, Ame Dyckman, Shannon Hale, Rachel Renee Russell, Raina Telgemeier, Kate DiCamillo, and Sarah Dessen, to name but a few.
So why, when it comes time to hand out awards like the Caldecott medal, or name “rockstars” of the industry, do so many of the accolades go to the men?
Is it because writing, reading, and children are still seen as primarily women’s domains, so men are given extra credit for choosing to go into this field?
(Side note: at one location I worked as a makeup artist, the male artists got paid more money because it was assumed that all women know how to put on makeup, but if a man went out of his way to learn it and pursue it as a career, it must mean he was exceptionally talented, and therefore automatically deserved more money.)
Or is it because male authors write more boy characters, which are presumed to be “for everyone,” while female authors write more girls, which are assumed to be only for girls? (If you think I’m exaggerating, check out this post by Shannon Hale about her experiences with gender-segregated school visits. Or see this post about why J.K. Rowling had to invent a middle initial to hide the fact that a woman wrote Harry Potter.)
And before you tell me that that’s just what boys naturally like, reflect on the little ways society reinforces these stereotypes: how many kids’ movies, books, and tv shows have a minimum 5:1 male to female gender ratio in a “show for everyone”* (I’m looking at you PAW Patrol, Smurfs, SpongeBob Squarepants, and pretty much every Pixar movie ever made). How, despite the overwhelming popularity of Disney’s Frozen, it was impossible to find any boys’ clothing** with either of the two main characters (aka the girls) on it. And how the PAW Patrol sheets my kids received for Christmas were conspicuously missing the only female main character (I guess because boys wouldn’t use sheets with a girl dog/pink on them?)
Kids are bombarded from a very young age with the idea that girls and girls’ things, are worth less, so is it any wonder it carries over into the grown-up world of writing?
So, what can we do to combat this?
As readers and parents we can make a point of buying or borrowing books by both male and female authors, and featuring both male and female characters. Present these to your kids without comment, or apology. And don’t spend money on books that only feature one gender, or feature a really gender-imbalanced, or stereotyped cast.
As you can probably tell between this week’s post and last week’s, I really believe that reading is the way to opening minds and changing the world. I think we all owe it to ourselves and to future generations to read responsibly. (And, don’t forget, when you’re looking for those gender-balanced books, to make sure to include authors from a diverse range of backgrounds as well.) With any luck, between speaking with our wallets, and broadening the minds of our children, the future of children’s lit will look a little more balanced.
*Personally I think all shows should be shows for everyone, but for right now I’ll go with which aisle the toys end up in at the (sadly still gender-divided) stores. Note also, any show with a 5:1 female to male ratio would automatically be considered a “girl show.” (My Little Pony, Strawberry Shortcake, etc ).
**Again, as much as I’d love to say there’s no difference between boys’ and girls’ clothing, the way girls’ shirts are cut, with frilly sleeves, scooped necklines and tapered waists, give them a noticeably “feminine” look, which is somehow socially unacceptable for boys (but no one seems to notice when my daughter wears a boys’ shirt – again with the double-standard of boys = for everyone, girls = just for girls).