Where are the English texts about Girls?

The visibility of minority groups in our popular culture is a topic that is very important to me. Popular culture is a reflection of our societal values. It’s a place where our lives are reflected, speculated on and fantasised about. It’s also a place where we can escape and dream. However, in order to do any of these things, we need representation in that world. Without popular representation, our very existence is undermined. Without visibility in our cultural texts, we are ignored, unseen and, most importantly, designated as unimportant to the social texture of the world around us.
Usually when I send myself into a panic about this sort of problem, I’m worrying about the visibility of minority groups such as queer and trans people, who still have a long journey ahead of them. However, while I find myself questioning the way women and girls are represented in our popular culture, it has honestly never occurred to me to be worried about their basic visibility, until recently.
Of course, women are visible and represented in our popular culture, and have a long, if somewhat tumultuous representation in our literature. Despite this, I was recently informed that they are not always represented as part of the literary education of children in Australian schools.
A friend of mine, a Victorian teacher, informed me that sexism is a defining factor in the choice of English texts taught to Australian high school students. Under the current system, there is no national curriculum directing the texts which are taught to Years 7 -10 students, rather individual schools in Victoria manage the text choices. The English study texts at her own school, she informed me, are almost all centred around male characters. Except for one book about growing up under Islam, all the protagonists are male. Many of the texts are only about boys and men, for example The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, while others possess only secondary female characters, the majority of whom are depicted as in need of protection by the male protagonists.
The lack of female characters did not go unnoticed by her students, as a number of girls approached her at the end of the last school term to both thank her for teaching them, and to ask “…but why aren’t there any girls in our books?”
I have no doubt that my friend’s school is not alone in this focus on male characters, rather I suspect that this is a far reaching problem in Australian schools. The reasoning behind these text choices is driven by the admirable hope to encourage male students to read. The lack of readers among young boys is distressing and certainly a problem that the education system needs to confront, however, this is not the way.
The failure of our male children to be active readers is hardly because of a lack of accessible and relatable content, as it continues to be the case that more books centre around active male characters than female. The problem begins far earlier, and perhaps we ought to consider the role of our teaching boys to play and girls to be quiet, as remains the case throughout childhood education beginning with the types of gendered toys we give to toddlers. But I’m getting off track.
Certainly, we should not punish girls for their enjoyment of a good book by limiting them to texts from which they themselves are absent. This sort of policy does little to encourage boys to read, but it has significantly damaging results for girls.
When we teach children about literature, we teach them that literature is the popular culture of the ages. We teach them that it is the most important form of popular culture; it’s culture that lasts. As a result, when we teach them only texts which glorify the representation of boys while relegating girls to supporting characters, we are teaching them dangerous gender relations. It teaches boys that they are more important than girls, maintaining a misogyny that we should be well beyond by now. Equally, it teaches girls that they are irrelevant in literature and other cultural texts; they are not important enough to make it onto the page. But more importantly, it teaches girls that they are without importance or relevance to our society.
Visibility in our cultural texts, teaches children about their significance and potential in our culture. Consequently, we are teaching girls that they are silent and invisible in our culture, and should be silent and invisible in life. Unlike boys, who we encourage to take on the world, what more can a girl do, but go read quietly in the corner about the adventures she might be having, had she been born a boy?
My friend who brought me this information has raised the issue with the head of the English department at her school, and has been assured that the texts will be reassessed for next year as a result. I urge students, teachers and parents to consider the texts taught at their own schools and to discuss these problems with those who choose the texts, in the hope that we can make some changes.

Author: Stuffed Olive

My awesomeness intimidates some people, others just point and laugh.

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  1. >How depressing to think that there's no active criteria to address gender in these crucial years! It's not as though the female-centred youth books don't exist. I wonder if the situation is different in Tasmania (as opposed to Vic.).

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  2. >It is extremely depressing. I'm intending to do more research to explore the extent of this problem, including the differences between the states, and whether it will be affected by the implementation of the National Curriculum.

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  3. >We did Tess of the d'Urbervilles… Which is probably the exact opposite of helpful.

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  4. >Yes, Anon. That's a significant point. It is important to consider the content of books about girls, not just whether they have girls in them.

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  5. >As an early childhood educator, I resent the comments about teaching girls to be quiet and boys to play, but accept that it is considered a social norm.
    Also, I think we have to remember that children have other forms of popular culture available to them that arguably have more influence on the majority (e.g. TV) than the small number of books they may read during their high school education. WHAT do we do about THAT?

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  6. >Hi Apple Butterfly!
    Well said!

    I apologise. I've reread my quote about teaching girls to be quiet and boys to play throughout their childhood education, and realise that my meaning was a bit unclear (or very unclear!). I didn't mean that childhood educators specifically teach children these gendered roles, or even that childhood education is the sole purview of such educators.

    Childhood educators teach children, of course, but childhood education is experienced in far wider terms and is the responsibility of our entire society. As you've suggested, the popular culture available to children is arguably (I would argue this) one of the greatest influencers on our children’s learning. Toys are the earliest form of popular culture our children receive and these are often highly negatively gendered, but as you've said, television and film rapidly become more important, and these can be just as, if not more, negatively gendered and gendering. Television and film, in combination with toys, are part of how our children develop identities, and a sense of which identities are seen as "wrong" and "right" by society. I certainly don’t think that, as an issue, can be underscored enough. However, in writing this piece I was primarily concerned by the way schools aggravate the situation by, in effect, suggesting that the most important and relevant part of our popular culture is texts by and about boys and men. In the world of books, there are definitely more options for expressing a cultural world with broader gender definitions, but, it would seem (increasingly so, if the responses I’ve received are anything to go by) that schools are specifically choosing texts which render girls invisible.

    To return to your wider concern about popular culture, however, you have asked “WHAT do we do about THAT?” And to this I say:
    We can encourage broad representation of sex, gender and sexuality in popular culture, and we can show our children where broader representations are available. We can demand representation that encourages a fluidity of gender roles, rather than a restriction of them. We can teach (all of us can teach) our children that their identities are not limited to the images offered by popular culture. Most importantly, we can continue to question and discuss the culture around us, with each other, and with our children.
    What else can we do? So much. You sound like you might have some ideas too!!

    I will definitely be writing more about sex, gender and sexuality in popular culture and the role it plays in youth identity development on this blog. This is something I feel especially passionate about. I had been trying to ease my readers slowly into some of my more rage inducing concerns amongst apparently innocent and humorous stories, but I can’t be restrained. You have poked the beast and she has so much to roar about!

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  7. >I love poking beasts.

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  8. I had a long think about this after I first read it, as I said on the forums. However, don’t expect my comment to be hugely deep or philosophical, as I read it at about 4am when I was up with the baby. Sleep deprivation does all sorts of things to a person, not least affecting their ability to think and communicate clearly. So forgive me if I’m not particularly enlightening here.

    I was thinking about something I read about JK Rowling, who of course wrote the Harry Potter books, and the fact that her publisher suggested that she use initials rather than her first name, because they thought boys wouldn’t read a book by a woman. Of course, this has now been proven wrong, but there is that assumption about gender and young people – girls will read books by (and by extension about) boys, but boys won’t read books by (and about) girls. This is not something I agree with, and my sons are surrounded by books by women (my 4yo’s favourite author is Pamela Allen),but I do suspect that this assumption has a lot to do with the books chosen as school texts.

    I confess that my own schooling was long enough ago (class of 91, anyone?) that I struggle to remember what books were on our reading lists, beyond the obligatory Shakespeare texts and Coleridge’s The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner to make sure we reached the 1000 lines of poetry we had to study. I don’t remember an absence of female characters (or writers, for that matter), but then again perhaps life was patriarchal enough for me not to notice. If it’s happening here and now, though, then there is a problem. Boys are happy enough to read strong female characters, and I believe (though I could be wrong here- baby brain could be active in this) that a study has been done which states the gender of the characters is less important than the type of story it is. (A quick google search came up with nothing, so I may well have dreamt this. Apologies if I did.)

    Anyway, I think this is definitely something that needs to be brought to the attention of our schools and those who set curriculum. It’s likely that it’s not deliberate, much as the media’s preference of male authors over female isn’t deliberate (more info here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/feb/04/research-male-writers-dominate-books-world), but without recognising that it’s happening, we can’t address it. So thanks for this blog entry. It gave me, at least, a lot to think about, and to keep an eye on during my kids’ schooling.

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    • Emily! Thank you for your thoughtful response.

      Of course, you’re right, girls will read books written and about boys and girls, just as boys will read books written and about girls and boys. The question is, why are we teaching our children, through text selection, that only books by and about boys are worth reading? It is really quite stupid, since, as you said, it HAS now been proven to be a false assumption by authors such as Rowling.

      Regarding your idea (whether proven or invented by baby-brain) that the gender of characters is less relevant to a story’s appeal than the story itself, I think you must be right. This is why girls can enjoy books by and about boys, but it doesn’t mean that they are not affected by the absence of their sex within these texts.

      I have been doing quite a bit of further research about this, and have, so far, been rather demoralised by what I have found. In particular, I am concerned that despite the coming implimentation of a new national curriculum, little will change as issues of sex and gender do not appear to have been sufficiently considered.

      As for the media’s preference for male authors over female, you might be interested to read two other blog posts on that matter, which also reference this post:
      The second of these also references a fascinating page:
      VERY interesting…

      That said, I am fairly confident that in the case of text choice in schools, the imbalance is, in fact, deliberate. As I mentioned in my post, schools are attempting to do the best by their male students, however unwisely, while leaving the female students behind.

      At the end of the day, and this will continue to be the case, schools set the texts for years 7-10 and it is our responsibility, whether as students, teachers, parents or concerned citizens, to address this issue with individual schools. If this problem has taught me anything, it is that the concern and actions of one teacher can make a difference in the lives and education of many young people. I’m so pleased that even just one school is looking to amend this imbalance.

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  9. I love this article, Stuffie! This is also one of the dangers of collectively resting our concept of the “canon” on work that was written decades/centuries ago, rather than looking to more contemporary – and local – literature. Is this how boys learn to read books written only by other males?

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  10. This is one of the guiding lights behind my work – giving girls and women places to view themselves. My particular area of interest is in portrayal of sexuality, and how it’s so hard for girls to find books/television/movies/websites/magazines that allow them to even see themselves as sexual beings, let alone explore the various sexualities that are available to them. Of course, when they’re barely allowed to see themselves as a valuable human being, how can they be allowed to see themselves as sexual? 🙂

    The thing about JK Rowling being told to go with initials isn’t just for publishing for children. There’s a LOT of female authors writing for adults who use initials, or purposely change their names to more gender neutral ones because even some men won’t read a book if it’s written by a woman. Sad but true. Rowena Cory Daniells initially published her books as Cory Daniells for just that reason. And Jennifer Fallon has a story of HEARING two men in a bookstore dismiss a book by an author with a female name cause they don’t read women, only to pick up a book by Sonny Whitelaw who is, you guessed it, a woman.

    The devaluation of women that exists in many facets of our society is something that really needs to be looked at.

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