Of all species, mankind is unique in our ability to tell stories. Whether they’re carvings on rock walls, scrolls of papyrus or paperback books, narratives have reflected the society that created them.
Today’s fiction is a mirror for our own society. Studying the reflection can reveal inequalities in society, and it’s up to us to change how we read.
Earlier this year, several young adult and children’s authors shared their experiences of sexism via social media. On her blog, author Shannon Hale recounted one of the school visits she made on tour for her book “Princess Academy: The Forgotten Sisters.” Though her presentation covered universally relevant issues such as the importance of reading and how to deal with rejection, the administration did not allow middle school boys to attend.
Other popular female writers, such as Libba Bray and Gayle Forman, stepped forward with tales of similar discrimination in schools. Some administrators and teachers believe male students will not listen to female authors, and so do not allow boys to attend, even though both boys and girls are invited to presentations by male authors. It’s the same idea that caused Joanne Rowling to attach initials, rather than her first name, to the Harry Potter series. Publishers were convinced that young boys would not want to read a book written by a woman.
Children aren’t born with prejudice. On Twitter, Hale pointed out that in the hundreds of school presentations she’s given, the boys have always listened to her. It’s only the adult administrators who assume boys will be disinterested, and these mistaken assumptions are teaching young boys to be prejudiced.
This prejudice endures, and is not limited to children’s books. For example, there is gender inequality in the books that are featured and reviewed by major literary journals, publications and press outlets, according to VIDA, a women’s literary arts organization. In 2014, the New York Times Book Review featured 146 more books by male authors, though this was certainly an improvement from 2010, when only 35 percent of the books reviewed were by women. This trend is true of most major book reviews. Some of the worst offenders, the New York Review of Books and the London Book Review, had 2014 percentages as low as 32 percent and 23 percent, respectively.
While publications don’t need to adhere to a strict 50/50 rule when it comes to the genders of the authors they review – just as children don’t need to read an exactly equal mix of books by each gender – the disparity is indicative of a larger societal problem. Books by and about women often are not taken as seriously as books by and about men. While little girls grow up reading “Little House on the Prairie” and “The Hobbit,” “Anne of Green Gables” and “Treasure Island,” boys are taught from an early age not to read “girly” books.
By doing this, boys learn not to value the ideas and experiences of women. As Hale writes in her blog post, it perpetuates “the myth that women only have things of interest to say to girls while men’s voices are universally important.” It leads to a society that devalues and disrespects women.
Some Baylor students already have children. Others may go on to become parents, teachers, librarians or school administrators in the coming years. It’s up to us to stop perpetuating the cycle of sexism in how we read, to teach future generations that there are no “boy” books and “girl” books. American novelist William Styron once said you live several lives by reading, but if you’re only reading books about people like yourself, you’re limiting your experience of the world. The world needs diverse books, in every meaning of the word “diverse.” To create a better society, we need a population that reads widely – no matter the gender, race, religion or sexuality of the book’s characters and author.
Kalli Damschen is a senior English and journalism major from Layton, Utah. She is a reporter for the Lariat.