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.