‘Girls can’t run fast’

When Amelia Hill’s pre-school son started com­ing out with ‘sex­ist guff’, she was de­ter­mined to find story books in which the boys didn’t dom­i­nate. It turned out to be sur­pris­ingly dif­fi­cult

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My pre-school son and I were snug­gled up, read­ing, when it hap­pened for the third time. I had men­tioned that our new book was writ­ten by the same au­thor as one of his old favourites. The au­thor was a woman and my son frowned: “But that’s not usual, is it?” he asked. “I mean, for a woman to write books?”

I was dis­con­certed. I had been pre­pared for all sorts of strange new opin­ions when he started re­cep­tion, but this was the third time he had come out with sex­ist guff. How had he ab­sorbed th­ese sorts of ideas in his cos­seted, pre-school world?

More to the point, girls now out­per­form boys in school and fur­ther ed­u­ca­tion. If my son was go­ing to start his school life with a ten­dency to un­der­es­ti­mate girls, might that ex­tend to him putting down their will­ing­ness to work hard? Might he also learn to de­spise the abil­i­ties tra­di­tion­ally con­sid­ered to be fem­i­nine, such as co­op­er­a­tion, em­pa­thy and dili­gence, which are in­creas­ingly val­ued in the mod­ern-day work­place?

Be­fore hav­ing children, I as­sumed it was daugh­ters, rather than sons, who re­quired help to avoid the ele­phant traps of gen­der-based par­tial­ity and prej­u­dice that the world would strew in their path. It wasn’t un­til I had first a boy and then a girl, that I re­alised re­al­ity is more com­plex. I still twitch with hor­ror at the pro­lif­er­a­tion of girls dressed per­ma­nently in bil­low­ing pink princess dresses – my daugh­ter al­most ex­clu­sively wears her brother’s castoffs – but the truth is that de­spite their crino­lines and sparkly tiaras, th­ese princess-wannabes rampage over bouncy cas­tles and hur­tle down the steep­est slides in the play­grounds just as en­thu­si­as­ti­cally as their male peers.

As a friend of mine said re­cently, gaz­ing out over a back gar­den strewn with sac­cha­rine play­things. “I’ve given up the fight against pink. I’ve de­cided it doesn’t mat­ter: my daugh­ters are still go­ing to be lawyers and doc­tors, they’re just go­ing to col­lect their de­grees wear­ing pink dresses.”

Boys, though, are an­other story. The gap in at­tain­ment be­tween boys and girls in the UK is stark and starts young. At key stage 2, the gap is six per­cent­age points. For GCSEs, the gap for five A*-C grades, in­clud­ing English and maths, is nine per­cent­age points in Eng­land, and more than seven in the other three home na­tions.

The im­pact of this un­der­achieve­ment by boys is di­rect. An­nu­ally, 30,000 fewer young men than young women be­come ap­pren­tices and 60,000 fewer go to uni­ver­sity – 460,000 fewer over the past decade – an un­der­achieve­ment that has been called a na­tional scan­dal. More young men than women are not in ed­u­ca­tion, em­ploy­ment or train­ing. Fewer men are en­ter­ing nearly all of the pro­fes­sions, and be­tween the ages of 22 and 29, young men earn less an hour on average than women, in both full-time and part-time roles.

There are, of course, a mul­ti­tude of ways in which par­ents can try to pre­vent their sons slid­ing into this slip­stream. But all too soon, our in­flu­ence is first di­luted, then trumped by our children’s peers. Nev­er­the­less, I’m a strong be­liever in the power of books to nuz­zle deep into children’s heads in a way that par­ents and peers can­not, pro­vid­ing the blue­print for what is right and wrong, what is beau­ti­ful and ugly, what is at­tain­able and what is out of bounds. Books be­stow a neu­tral and ab­so­lute au­thor­ity as to the way life is, can be and should be lived.

I have bought books to pre­pare my son for every­thing sig­nif­i­cant he has ever ex­pe­ri­enced, from his first visit to the den­tist to the ar­rival of his baby sis­ter. I bought creepy-mon­ster books to sat­isfy his crav­ing to be scared – and nice-mon­ster books when that plan proved a bit too suc­cess­ful. I’ve bought cul­tur­ally di­verse books to go some way to ame­lio­rat­ing the pre­dom­i­nantly white cir­cles he moves in.

So I had al­ready tried – and failed – to find age-ap­pro­pri­ate, lit­er­ary ri­postes to the first of his ear­lier two sex­ist pro­nounce­ments: “Queens aren’t pow­er­ful,” he an­nounced, when we were read­ing about the Tu­dors. “They just look out of win­dows.” An­noy­ingly, ac­cord­ing to the fic­tional world of lit­er­a­ture for the very young, I found this is true: at their best, queens de­spair over their messy princesses but, mostly, they play a silent and usu­ally fret­ful, sec­ond fid­dle to the king.

My son’s sec­ond dec­la­ra­tion, how­ever, to­tally blind­sided me. When read­ing a book that fea­tured a girl win­ning a run­ning race, he protested that it wasn’t true. “Girls can’t run fast,” he in­sisted. Com­ing as it did just after a sports day at his nurs­ery in which he had been beaten by vir­tu­ally ev­ery girl in his class – and from a child whose mother is more phys­i­cally bois­ter­ous than his fa­ther – this was quite an ex­er­cise in prej­u­dice trump­ing re­al­ity.

I de­ter­mined to stock up on books that would counter his “al­ter­na­tive facts”: books that showed cool-yet-am­bi­tious boys who worked hard to achieve their dream – whether that be dragon-catch­ing, alien-be­friend­ing or pi­rate-thwart­ing – along­side strong, coura­geous, funny, clever peers who just hap­pened to be girls.

This proved harder than I ex­pected. Ac­cord­ing to a study co-authored by Pro­fes­sor Jan­ice McCabe, from Florida State Uni­ver­sity, a quar­ter of children’s books have no fe­male char­ac­ters. While of Time Mag­a­zine’s 100 Best Children’s Books of All Time, 53 fea­tured fe­male char­ac­ters who didn’t even speak. It is not lim­ited to books: across children’s me­dia, only 19.5% of

A study found that a quar­ter of children’s books have no fe­male char­ac­ters

fe­male char­ac­ters have jobs or ca­reer as­pi­ra­tions com­pared with 80.5% of male char­ac­ters.

Nev­er­the­less, with a bit of ef­fort, I found a rich seam of fan­tas­tic books fea­tur­ing girl pro­tag­o­nists who were coura­geous and scrappy, in­ge­nious and fal­li­ble. As great as th­ese books are, how­ever, their cen­tral char­ac­ter al­most al­ways has her ad­ven­tures on her own or with other girls. What has been sur­pris­ingly dif­fi­cult to find are books where the gen­ders play to­gether, with­out the boys dom­i­nat­ing, out­num­ber­ing or oth­er­wise over­shad­ow­ing the girls.

Re­fer­ring to her study on the dearth of fe­male pro­tag­o­nists in children’s books, McCabe said: “Such find­ings are sig­nif­i­cant. It is a trend of sym­bolic an­ni­hi­la­tion of fe­males in children’s lit­er­a­ture, which has im­pli­ca­tions for children’s un­der­stand­ings of gen­der.”

McCabe was talk­ing in the con­text of girls when she said this, and their in­cip­i­ent feel­ings of gen­der-based in­fe­ri­or­ity. But what about the im­pact on boys who read ex­clu­sively about worlds where girls are “an­ni­hi­lated” or dom­i­nated? As Glo­ria Steinem says, “I’m glad we’ve be­gun to raise our daugh­ters more like our sons, but it will never work un­til we raise our sons more like our daugh­ters.”

If we want to cre­ate an eq­ui­table so­ci­ety in which ev­ery­one can thrive, we need to give boys more choices. Let­ting them de­velop a sense of gen­der-dic­tated birthright that will be whisked away from un­der their noses by high­achiev­ing girls, as surely as the tor­toise tri­umphed over the hare, is a recipe for re­sent­ment be­tween the sexes.

Nan Fro­man is a se­nior edi­tor at Ground­wood Books, an in­de­pen­dent children’s pub­lisher com­mit­ted to pub­lish­ing books that are dif­fi­cult or po­ten­tially con­tro­ver­sial. She thinks “gen­der equal­ity in children’s books is very much on peo­ple’s radars” but ac­knowl­edges an is­sue with de­mand. “Par­ents of daugh­ters may more ac­tively seek out books that en­cour­age fe­male em­pow­er­ment [rather than gen­der equal­ity] and per­haps that is just a re­flec­tion of where we have come from as a so­ci­ety,” she says.

Ground­wood Books is tack­ling the is­sue head on. It will shortly pub­lish a pic­ture book – Me and You and the Red Ca­noe by Jean E Pendzi­wol – fea­tur­ing two sib­lings who can be “read” as be­ing of any gen­der the reader wishes to at­tribute to them. Also on Ground­wood’s list is Morris Mick­le­white and the Tan­ger­ine Dress, about a lit­tle boy who likes to wear the dress in the dress­ing-up box at school. But Fro­man ad­mits, “So­cial jus­tice is one of the touch­stones at Ground­wood, so the kinds of authors we at­tract and the manuscripts we are drawn to prob­a­bly tend to be con­scious of gen­der equal­ity. This is some­thing we are aware of in the edit­ing and il­lus­trat­ing process.”

But the larger pub­lish­ing houses, sadly, are a dif­fer­ent mat­ter. A se­nior edi­tor at one, who pre­ferred not to be iden­ti­fied, said, “Par­ents of daugh­ters buy books that en­cour­age fe­male em­pow­er­ment but nei­ther they, nor the par­ents of boys think it’s a pri­or­ity to buy books that fo­cus on gen­der equal­ity.” She also sug­gests there is an as­sump­tion among some pub­lish­ers that it is harder work to get boys read­ing. Their so­lu­tion, she said, is to com­mis­sion and pri­ori­tise books aimed at boys that fo­cus on sim­ple, whiteknuckle ac­tiv­ity and ex­cite­ment, rather than risk los­ing their au­di­ences for the sake of a few mildly chal­leng­ing char­ac­ters and friend­ships.

But the big­gest rea­son for the dearth in books show­ing girls and boys as equal is that there is no money in it. “Pub­lish­ers need a clear fi­nan­cial in­cen­tive to change their jug­ger­naut-like di­rec­tion of travel,” she says. “Un­til there’s a loud and clear call for books that en­cour­age boys to think it’s cool to in­ter­act with their hardworking, high-achiev­ing fe­male peers – like there was a call for books fea­tur­ing strong fe­male pro­tag­o­nists – I’m afraid they’re not go­ing to hap­pen.”

Pho­to­graph by David Levene for the Guardian

Amelia Hill with her children

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