The Soft Tyranny of Low Expectations: boys shamed for empathising with female protagonists

Shannon Hale – No Boys Allowed: School visits as a woman writer – schools keep deciding that boys won’t/shouldn’t want to hear her speak about writing, while also deciding that whenever a male author visits the same school that girls will be just as interested in that author as the boys.

The belief that boys won’t like books with female protagonists, that they will refuse to read them, the shaming that happens (from peers, parents, teachers, often right in front of me) when they do, the idea that girls should read about and understand boys but that boys don’t have to read about girls, that boys aren’t expected to understand and empathize with the female population of the world….this belief directly leads to rape culture. To a culture that tells boys and men, it doesn’t matter how the girl feels, what she wants. You don’t have to wonder. She is here to please you. She is here to do what you want. No one expects you to have to empathize with girls and women. As far as you need be concerned, they have no interior life.

At this recent school visit, near the end I left time for questions. Not one student had a question. In 12 years and 200-300 presentations, I’ve never had that happen. So I filled in the last 5 minutes reading them the first few chapters of The Princess in Black, showing them slides of the illustrations. BTW I’ve never met a boy who didn’t like this book.

After the presentation, I signed books for the students who had pre-ordered my books (all girls), but one 3rd grade boy hung around.

“Did you want to ask her a question?” a teacher asked.

“Yes,” he said nervously, “but not now. I’ll wait till everyone is gone.”

He just wanted a copy of one of her Princess books, but he didn’t want anyone else to hear him ask her for it.


Looking for an index image for this post, I found this post from 2013 – Boys don’t read Girl Books and other lies my Society Told Me (plus it has Avatar: The Last Airbender GIFs):

I can’t stress how easy this “experiment” was. I mean, it was easy because I started early, before all the societal sexism could sink in. But it’s not like my brother’s Y chromosome was allergic to “girl” cooties. So whenever I read a Robert Lipsyte, say, spouting the old ” teenage girls will read books about boys, teenage boys will rarely read books with predominately female characters” line, I roll my eyes pretty hard.

You know what? I’ve got a teenage boy in my life, and he reads “girl” stuff just fine. My outlandish theory is that if boys aren’t belittled for reading books about girls, if they’re not taught that girls are lesser, if they’re not teased about cooties, if we don’t teach them to fear the feminine… they’d probably like more “girl” stuff.

Boys don’t read “girl” books because they’re taught, in a thousand small, subtle, insidious ways, that they’re not supposed to.

What if boys weren’t ashamed to read books that were coded “girly” because they didn’t think it was shameful to be a girl? (thanks, Iggy Pop!)

What if we taught them something else?

Iggy Pop wearing a dress

Think about it.


There’s also the problem of boys avoiding reading entirely, not just stories with female protagonists. Last I heard general wisdom is that the very best way to encourage boys to read is for them to encounter men who read – not just reading to the boys, but reading for their own pleasure in places where the boys can see them doing it. Imagine if the world was full of men shamelessly reading books with female protagonists just as often as those with male protagonists! Wouldn’t that be luvverly.



Categories: education, ethics & philosophy, gender & feminism, media

Tags: , , ,

6 replies

  1. There is a huge follow-on impact from raising boys to expect their stories to be about girls as well as boys. My seven year old is in the middle of constructing some kind of elaborate superhero adventure, and the person on his ‘team’ he’s been telling us about most the last couple of days is a girl called Yarrakuna. She’s from the jaguar tribe and she’s the best bomb thrower. When kids like him grow up to write screenplays for Pixar you can bet they won’t have the gender ratio of Ratatouille and Up.

  2. I would totally watch that movie, Orlando! That is some ace parenting you are doing.
    I, on the other hand, have a 10 year old who loves to read, sci fi and fantasy in particular, who is getting a steady diet of male protagonists. Does anyone have suggestions for his reading list?

  3. Young Australian male author Will Kostakis supports Shannon Hale’s observations over at ninemsn. No girls allowed: reading is a boys-only club in Australian schools

    Shannon Hale’s experiences in America echo my experiences of what sometimes happens here. As a speaker, I’m often asked to recommend other local speakers. I tell them about Claire Zorn and her incredible Aussie dystopian novel, The Sky So Heavy. I tell them how Simmone Howell can distil the entire teenage experience into a single sentence.
    And if it’s an all-boys school, I usually get the same response: “Do you know any male authors?” Simmone and Claire are engaging speakers with incredible books… and I’m saying this as a guy. Year after year, the best young-adult texts I read are by Australian women. Awards shortlists back this up.
    Why then, do we hesitate to have women speak to boys?
    […]
    It’s baffling — we should want boys to read about girls, to broaden their horizons. The more diverse characters — I’m talking gender, sexuality, race, religion — young readers are exposed to, the more they empathise. We’re selling teenagers short. They have the ability to read about characters who don’t look like themselves, heck, they even like it.

  4. Hmmm, I wonder if there are similar lists for comic YA. My sons tend to read Andy Griffiths and the like, and that’s an area that seems dominated by male authors and protagonists. *wanders off to look*

  5. My experience is that MG can be very boy-heavy (unless you specifically choose the sparkle princess type books), but moving into YA you have to work harder to find a male protag than a female, and there are also a lot of books with a two-PoV one-male-one-female structure.

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