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Tuesday, 16 October 2012

A QUESTION OF BOYS ONLY

Hello, Dear Readers, and a very happy Tuesday to you all.

Today we're tackling a question from the comments in response to the WOMEN DOMINATE? post. It goes as follows:
...I know of a school library that opened up a Boys' Zone in the corner of the library. Like, a place only for boys, where there are books that the school believes may be good for boys only. So I felt that I should tell YOU about this, because I wanted to hear your opinion on this. Should a school be doing this? Opening up a 'boy zone' in the corner of their library, making an impression that it is only 'cool' for boys to read those specific books? What do you think?
Commenter, you are not alone. I have heard of several schools and libraries who have been trying to encourage boys to read in this fashion.

So what do I think of it? Well, I think it's great that schools and libraries are trying to remove the stigma of reading - the idea that it's boring, or nerdy, or something you have to endure 'for your own good' like a dose of Cod Liver Oil - and present books to young men as a source of fun and excitement. Because I believe that reading can and should be both of those things.

Unfortunately, I not think that segregated reading areas is going to achieve this. In fact, I think it's tackling the problem pretty much exactly backwards, and it's likely to do a lot more harm than good.

From here on out, commenter, I will address my reply to the people who have come up with this scheme, rather than you, just so that I can argue to the best of my ability.

I laid out the reasons that I believe boys drift away from reading in adolescence in great detail in my previous post so I'm not going to go through all that again. But the simple fact is that by making a special Boys Only area in a library and banning girls from that area, you are just deepening young men's impression that the female of the species is 'other'. What other impression would they get, when all the authority figures in this scenario (librarians, teachers, parents) are endorsing this view by their actions?

In your Boys only area 'girl books' - eg. books which have female authors, which deal with traditionally feminine subject matters, or which simply have prominent female characters - are excluded. This means that you are creating a special new library just for the young men. But what kind of library?

A library which offers them only a male perspective on life? A library full of books that reinforce only traditional western ideas of what it is to be male? A library which, by excluding feminine stories, tacitly confirms that they are not worthy of inclusion - and that to be interested in them is somehow wrong? A library that represents only 50% of the human race, but pretends that this is somehow entirely sufficient?

Men already dominate our literary tradition. We know this. The majority of the 'classics' that we study in school are by men, men get the majority of sales, of awards, of critical attention. But now, to take that a step further and create a new library within the library, a library within which any books tainted by the feminine are simply not allowed to exist? A library where it is assumed that anything so inferior as to be written by a woman, or about a woman, or preferred by women, is simply unnecessary?

What kind of a library is that?

In my opinion, it's not a library at all.

Segregating boys in this way may indeed make them feel special and privileged. But boys and men are already treated as special and privileged in this society. That is why they refuse to touch books written by women, starring women, or popular with women. In telling them that it is perfectly OK and natural for them to scorn the feminine, that women and girls and the stories and viewpoints of women and girls can and should be ignored, you are simply reinforcing that message of privilege which has been broadcast at them since birth by everything from toy displays in the shops to films, TV, magazines and advertising.

Is it possible to believe that this bombardment will achieve anything other than to deepen young men's prejudice and contempt for female authors and readers? It is possible to believe that while this huge barrier of privilege exists - that while young men are not only able but encouraged to live inside a Boys Only Zone, and treat the mere idea of empathy for women and girls with scorn - that they will grow up to be passionate and wide-ranging readers, who treasure the knowledge and sense of discovery that books offer?

I very much doubt it. Why would they ever want to come out from behind that wall and embrace scary new ideas and information, once they're firmly entrenched in a space where they are the centre of the universe?

Let's stop and think for a moment. You've created your Boys Only Zone. It's pretty small, just a corner. So now 85% of the library is for everybody, and 15% is Boys Only (or whatever percentage it works out to). Do you really believe that having created a special area just for them, the boys will now ever be persuaded out of it? Do you think they will be caught dead in the rest of the library? No, of course not. Because while you may believe that the other 85% of your library is for everybody, the boys have got the message loud and clear: if 15% of the library is for boys, then the rest of it must be for girls.
 
And they cannot go where girls go, or read what girls read, or even be interested in the stories they write. They know this, or else why would you have given them their own special part of the library, just for them, where girl's books do not exist? Where there is no female perspective and no need for one?

You can forget about the idea of those boys exploring the library and discovering new favourites elsewhere. They won't. Those other books are all for girls. The only books that they need - that they are allowed to need - are Boys Only Books.

Meanwhile, what message do you think young women are taking from this? When you ignore their passion for books, turn away from their love of words and stories and their achievements in reading with a dissatisfied frown because they're not boys? When you exclude them from parts of the library and dedicate resources that are supposed to be for all young people to boys alone, because they are more important to you?

Boys Only Zones are crazy. Not crazy in the good way. Just crazy.

Don't do it.

22 comments:

Emma Pass said...

This dividing up of things into boys- or girls-only (because it doesn't just happen with books - it's EVERYTHING) drives me crazy. How is society ever supposed to be equal if this way of thinking persists? How are we ever supposed to make progress? Grr.

Zoë Marriott said...

Emma: I'm also stunned at how often people (men and women) see equality as a *loss* for men. It's not. If we're all equal, then everyone has the same rights, opportunities, responsibilities. But there are some who honestly cannot get their head around that idea, and I think that's why this sharp division between men and women (and boys and girls). If we keep the girls away from the boys, the girls can't take the boys stuff, right?

Kompani said...

From a male perspective. When I was at school it was seen as 'girly' to be seen reading a book, comics being just about OK. The idea of sitting in a library with girls around would have been an absolute no go. Boys would automatically go into 'impress the girls' mode and spoil the experience for all.
By training and occupation I am an engineer but in my late 30's went to University full time and gained a degree in English literature. The men I work with see me as a little 'odd' because of my love of books.

Zoë Marriott said...

Kompani: When I was at school, frankly *anyone* who was seen with a book, or who confessed to enjoying reading, was seen as a freak.

But can you see how that phrase 'sitting in a library WITH GIRLS AROUND' gives away the horrible imbalance of our society? What is going on with us, when the mere idea of having girls around is terrifying and wrong! Girls are 50% of the young population and yet boys are encouraged to treat them like a strange fungi which must be avoided at all costs. How are young men who grow up with that feeling about women and girls going to become the kind of people that will help us create a more fair and equal world? Answer: they won't.

That's why Boys Only zones will not work. Because they act as if the SYMPTOM (boys don't want to read because books are 'girly' and therefore uncool) is the disease and try to treat it by banning girls from the areas where they want boys to read, rather than understanding that the idea of anything 'girly' being horrific and wrong is fundamentally to blame - and fundamentally WRONG. In order to make boys think books are cool, they need to learn that girls are cool. That girls are just like them. That anything even vaguely associated with girls is NOT anathema, and will not lead to their being laughed at and mocked by peers or even censured by parents or other authority figures. That's what will make books cool for boys.

Allan Bott said...

I still believe there is this weird mindset where "reading" is considered a social no-no where school is concerned.

I remember many English lessons at secondary school where we had to read excerpts from certain books, after the lesson many of the boys would complain heavily about it being "gay" or "un-cool" and they'd much rather "be playing football."

Girls never seemed to have an issue with it, but like Zoe says, anyone who was seen reading a lot was either Geek/freak/nerd *delete as appropriate* I enjoyed reading because I hated sport at school, I'd much rather lose myself in a realm of myths and magic than kick a diseased ridden football around a playground. Alas, I was the "Geek."

But I digress, the idea of a "Boy's Only" section in a Library just screams trouble to me. It'll be an excuse for the idiots of the school to mess about in a "boys only" area, leaving the genuine people who want to read feeling alienated. The way I see it, if people want to read, let them roam a library, if they don't - well you can be a loser and play football!

Laura Mary said...

Hello, I found my way here from twitter and couldn't resist jumping on a soapbox of my own!

A small side note - I used to work in a nursery, and we had a very strict policy there that no toys should be referred to as 'boys' toys' or 'girls' toys', they were simple sorted according to age group. True, the majority or girls picked out the toy kitchen and the dolls, and the boys fought over the cars, but we had a lot of girls who loved the train set (me included!), and one boy who couldn't wait to get the toy pram out!

I think what concerns me most about these 'boys only' libraries is who chooses which books are included?
Because young children are impressionable to say the least (I think I was at least 15 before I realised that adults could be wrong about stuff!), if an adult deems something suitable for one gender and not another, the kids will absolutely believe it.

Books, especially childrens/YA have a level of responsibility to those who read them, to provide good strong role models, to show that even superheroes go through tough times, that it’s okay to be the weirdo kid, the gay kid, the poor kid, the kids whose parents are aliens…
A LOT of youngsters find understanding through fiction, and children’s lives are varied and complicated things.

So back to my main worry… who decided what slim pickings the ‘boys’ should be reading?

This concerns me.

Kat Kennedy said...

If you keep writing posts like this then I will be forced to declare my undying affection for you. Dangerous ground, Zoe. Very dangerous.

Zoë Marriott said...

Allan: That thought crossed my mind too. At my school it would have ended up being the place where the biggest bullies hung around and intimidated the hell out of everyone else who wanted to use the library. What exactly are boys who do want to read going to do about that? They'll probably end up not entering the place at all!

Laura: Exactly; that's a great point. I mean, just what is too 'girly'? The original commentor said that there were many books she liked in that boys zone, but of course she wouldn't be allowed in there to borrow them. And conversely, I'm sure a lot of books which would be great for young men were excluded simply because these librarians seem to be terrified of scaring boy readers off with the faintest hint of a girl cootie. Not much of a library, right?

Kat: Ooh, how thrilling!


Isabel said...

I agree, that whole idea seems totally counter-productive! I had no idea Boys Only Zones even existed in any libraries.

Zoë Marriott said...

Isabel: Luckily they don't seem to be very common yet. Let's hope the idea doesn't catch on, or I might have a stroke from sheer fury.

Gellie said...

I agree with everything you said.Besides, if this were to happen in our libraries it would decrease *my* chances of befriending a male bookworm! Yes, I am in desperate need of finding a guy friend who loves to read the same books as I do if only to check whether the guys I swoon over are realistic enough. *puff*

Anyway, please don't stop preaching \m/

Zoë Marriott said...

Gellie: Another good point. They're acting as if boys and girls can't be friends, and never are friends or hang out together. Very sad.

CB Soulsby said...

Another excellent post, Zoe. Yours has become my favourite blog in two posts! I'll try to get the guts up to join in with the discussion next time :)

Zoë Marriott said...

CB: This counts as joining the discussion :)

Megha said...

OH MY GAWD YOU ANSWERED MY QUESTION SO QUICKLY! AND YOU ANSWERED IT AWESOMELY TOO!

CAPS LOCK IS NOT BROKEN, BUT I AM KIND OF HYPER AND SO I WILL LEAVE IT ON.

I LOVE YOUR ANSWER TO THIS! I KNEW IT WOULD BE SMART AND UNBIASED AND I WANTED TO KNOW YOUR PERSPECTIVE ON ALL OF THIS STUFF. I wish I could show this to that particular school I was talking about!

Zoë Marriott said...

Megha: Capslock away, my duckie - you are entirely welcome :) This was a great topic to follow up on the previous post with and it helped me get a lot of stuff clear in my own head, so thank you.

sarah said...

Oh, how times change - and yet how things always stay the same :-) In my day, our school had a Women Only room. I protested against it, despite being female, because I think any time you say one gender needs a dedicated space in order to equalise them, you are missing the point entirely. I certainly don't think boys will feel privileged because of a Boys Only Zone. I think they'll feel like utter dorks, and will stay away from it in droves. Kind of like those idiot benches they encourage kids to sit on if they're lonely and friendless. Also known as "bully victim despatchment zones."

However, I do think well-meaning people feel desperate to help boys with reading any way they can. The problem is that boys so often don't want to read and really you can't make them. I suspect its a biological thing rather than a cultural one. I personally don't see a problem in boys wanting to read about boy things - if we say that, shouldn't we also look down on girls for liking Jane Austen and relationship novels and "girly" things? (No, we should just do what we're doing - write books for them.) I don't even mind that because of their kinisthetic nature boys dont particularly want to read anything at all. Reading is awesome. So is fixing up cars and sailing and climbing trees and imagining stuff. (All of which may be stopping some girls from reading too.)

As for girl cooties, well lol! That issue has been around forever. It doesnt seem to have stopped the reproduction of the human race, so obviously kids get over it.

I don't think anyone intends to give negative messages to girls over this one. I think people feel desperate about boys reading, and are making silly choices.

Jazmin said...

This is super insightful, seeing as to this weekend I was talking with people,and I recommended some 'girls books' to a few dudes because those exact 'girls books' happened to be some of the subjects that boys found interesting ( p.s your books happened to be some that the dudes wanted to read). Already in my second year of high school I'm seen as a nerd because I spend a majority of my time in the library, reading. Creating a boys only zone just perpetuates the belief that reading anything to do with girls won't be useful to them, it's completely idiotic to even *begin* to try to make separate areas in the library.

Zoë Marriott said...

Jazmin: Thank you - and yes, I think you're exactly right. Take comfort from knowing that I was a geek, a nerd and a boff all through school - and who's got the last laugh now? Geeks rule the real world :)

Laura Mary said...

This issue has clearly stayed with me - whilst wandering around a bookshop this lunchtime I spotted some children’s books - 'Fairytales for Boys' and 'Fairytales for Girls'.
Girls’ book was full of princesses and castles, boys’ book was full of dragons.
I do understand how these books come about and how they would appeal to parents, but who blooming well decides these things!!! And why would you want to reinforce someone else’s opinion on what is 'suitable' for different genders.
It is possible I am getting disproportionally annoyed at this! But labels in general bug the HELL out of me.

Zoë Marriott said...

Laura: I don't think that's disproportionate at all! I'm very annoyed just hearing about it. We start telling kids what they should be, how they should define their identity, so early - but those identities are entirely artificial. There is no pink gene on the X chromosome. Almost everything we think we know about gender and gender roles and presentation is flat out WRONG. it's really damaging. I LOVED dragons as a kid. Why should I have had to buy a book full of princesses instead? Why should a boy who likes princesses have to put up with being teased and mocked for having a 'girly' book? Gah.

Laura Mary said...

I love dragons still! Think it's enormously unfair I can't have one as a pet...

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