Sunday, January 22, 2006

Empathy is for Girls

Jon Scieszka has put together a great anthology and website in order to help encourage boys to read. The book is a collection of short stories about being a boy, all written by writers that boys love. The website has some great info and links. They're both called Guys Read.

Which, quite frankly, is part of the problem.

Ok, so, not really. But still, I find it interesting that "guys" was chosen over "boys" even though some of the book recommendations are for toddlers. It may have just sounded better that way, but I suspect that it was also done for the same reason I think boys are in trouble to begin with: we don't ever let them be kids. Kid stuff is feminine - boys must try to be men as early as possible; everything is serious from the start.

I'm not going to rag on Jon, 'cause I kinda think the guy who's responsible for Time Warp Trio and Science Verse is quite well aware that we don't let little boys be little boys long enough. I'm sure he's as frustrated as I am with parents who push their sons to read something "serious" rather than Captain Underpants when it really doesn't matter as long as it's challenging enough (or something else they are reading is). He probably agrees with me that parents and teachers need to stop dissing comic books and not be so worried if their sons want to read just non-fiction. I just think the fact that feminism can be referred to as "girl power!" but, on the other hand, it's guys that read, is indicative of the arbitrary gender divides that are the root of the problem in the first place. Until women are referred to as adults, and boys are considered proper children, the attitudes that discourage boys from reading will still be around.

It also bothers me that every author that the site links to is a guy. This isn't because I think that Scieszka was wrong for doing so. I understand that it's important to provide boys with material they can relate to, especially since most of their school reading is picked for them by women. God knows I wished for more adventure stories featuring girls when I was younger, and I love the fact that there are lot more out there now. Like lists that celebrate female scientists, this list is simply meant to be a small step in the right direction. Nevertheless, I'd like to point out that I was able to find plenty of reading material I liked that didn't feature girls and wasn't written by women. (The two books that inspired both the name of this blog and my current pseudonym being perfect examples of the latter.) Girls have more options, in part, because they are willing to read stories about boys that were written by men. If, few decades from now, we still need to make sure that books are written by men in order for them to be interesting for boys, then we are still going to be dealing with the same problems. We need to keep in mind that lists like this are only a small step, they aren't the ultimate goal.

We've learned to relax gender roles for girls and let them cross over into what was once considered "boy" territory (most of the time). Sometimes, though, it feels like we've actually become more rigid in our gendered expectations for boys. We certainly haven't relaxed them much. I expected, and got, no arguments when I gave my niece and nephew both trains for Christmas. But what kind of reaction would I have gotten if I gave my nephew a doll, or a bunny? The kid just learned to sit up; as long as he can put it in his mouth, I really don't think he cares much what I give him. I'm not so certain about his parents, however.

As long as boys refuse to read books about girls and by women, as long as there are places they can't go, toys they can't have, ways they can't act, we are going to have problems when it comes to boys reading and women being full citizens. Not only because either girls or boys are going to be shortchanged as we try to keep kids that have different options on equal footing, but because it is both a symptom and a cause of the lack of empathy we teach boys and expect of men. It's this attitude that makes everything childish girlish as well, and everything adult the purview of men. It's this attitute that keep adult men from having an active role in children's lives and education, which is, in turn, a big part of the reason why reading is not considered somthing guys do.

It's possible that boys and men are, on average, "naturally" less empathetic than girls and women. However, this doesn't need to be something we accept, and it shouldn't be something we accept. We should never accept the idea that anyone is so unable to relate to people that are different from them that they cannot empathize with fictional characters that are not exactly like them. A group of such people would be frighteningly dangerous in their inability to care for or listen to anyone who is not like them or disagrees with them.


TP said...

Thanks for that interesting post Mickle. I think your point is a good one, lauguage surrounding desciption of boys is more biased towards early use of adult terms, and women to later use of childhood terms.

Mickle said...

You're very welcome.

I've been aware of the language regarding women for years, but it's only recently that I've started to notice the whole "little men" attitude. I think it's because I've been around little boys - and their parents - a lot more these last few years.