It’s a boy thing…

Lucienne DiverLucienne Diver
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There was a minor kerfluffle on Twitter, blogs (like here on The Mary Sue), and elsewhere yesterday because a children’s shirt of The Guardians of the Galaxy included every major character but the female, Gamora. The explanation given by the company, “It’s a boy’s shirt.” As usual when something gets me all worked up, I have so many initial responses that they sort of bottle-neck up and I have trouble getting the words out.

But let me try.

No, no, no, no, no, no, no! (*sung operatically as Queen might do*)

It’s a boy’s shirt. Really?

Now, I know that I’m here to talk about writing. Or maybe my new release—actually two of them in a series featuring a kick-ass female who can, literally, stop men in their tracks. Or stop women. Her power isn’t particular. AND HERE’S MY THING—there are people who will never pick up these books because it’s got a female protagonist. I’ve had a friend of mine ask when I’ll write something other than a first person female POV so that he can relate. There are legions of boys (who grow into men) who won’t read anything written by a woman or in which there’s female protagonist. I know of people who wouldn’t read Kim Stanley Robinson for ages because the “Kim” threw them off, only finding it acceptable once they realized he was a man. The reasoning I heard: women can’t write hard science fiction. (I kid you not.)

I think of all the people who would have missed out on great novels like THE HUNGER GAMES for these “reasons”…until they’d heard it was violent and cool and peer pressure forced them to give it a try. And while I’m on this, there are people who will rant that adults shouldn’t read young adult fiction, but something more erudite and, presumably, more impressing to your friends.

To all of those people, I say GET OVER IT.

I have a problem with all kinds of cultural snobbery…and that’s what it is. Why do we have to have “women’s fiction”? Why are thrillers considered “men’s books,” especially when so many women read them. True story: when I started in the business, I had male editors reluctantly do lunch with me, only to tell me that they were sure our tastes didn’t align because they acquired men’s fiction. When I reeled off names of people I read: Eric Van Lustbader, Ken Follett, John le Carré, John Sandford, Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler, etc., they were surprised. I’d like to say that it was a hop, skip and a jump from there to being taken seriously, but I’d be lying.

It’s a boy’s shirt? Have we come no further than the Little Rascals’ He-Man,Woman Haters club, no girls allowed? Are girls uncool? Not allowed to be superheroes? Urban fantasy would suggest otherwise, and you know what, urban fantasy hasn’t gotten the respect that it should in many of the trade journals (you know who you are), which feature reviews like, “Good, if you like that sort of thing.” They write off the genre even as it’s grudgingly acknowledged.

I’m tired of it. Here’s what I think: there should be no “women’s fiction” or “men’s fiction”. Things shouldn’t be divided into LBGT fiction or multicultural fiction. There should just be fiction. We shouldn’t segregate our fiction like in the past we segregated schools and buses. There is no such thing as separate but equal. There never was.

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Lucienne Diver is a literary agent with The Knight Agency with over twenty-one years experience, as well as the author of the Vamped young adult series and the Latter-Day Olympians series of urban fantasies, which includes BAD BLOOD, CRAZY IN THE BLOOD, RISE OF THE BLOOD (now in digital, coming in print Sept. 2) and BATTLE FOR THE BLOOD (digital September 16, print in 2015).

In addition, she’s written short stories and essays that have appeared in the Strip-Mauled and Fangs for the Mammaries anthologies edited by Esther Friesner (Baen Books), in Dear Bully: 70 Authors Tell Their Stories (HarperTeen) and in Kicking It edited by Faith Hunter and Kalayna Price (Roc Books).

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23 comments to It’s a boy thing…

  • The follow up to all this, of course, is that I also know many wonderfully enlightened men who write fantastic female characters. D.D. Barant, David B. Coe/D.B. Jackson, Ramez Naam, David Mack, R.S. Belcher and others spring immediately to mind.

  • sagablessed

    Hammer. Nail. SMACKDOWN!
    You brought it, Lucienne. And it was a good thing as well.

  • The key thing is that as women, I think we grew up *having* to read central male characters if we wanted to read about tough, strong, smart, self-sufficient people … because we grew up in an era where female characters were all too often sidelined, victimized or nonexistent. I know that I read “The Boy’s Book of Sherlock Holmes” and “The Boy’s Book of Science Fiction” and all that, because there was NO equivalent book for girls–and more significantly, I was told there SHOULDN’T be one, and I was “weird” for wanting that.

    So cross-gender identification is something women readers have learned to do effortlessly, which I don’t think is a bad thing at all … but it shouldn’t be limited to women. Men should have the same thirst to seek out exciting stories regardless of the viewpoint character. Somehow, they’ve been culturally conditioned to think that those aren’t written by, or don’t feature, women, and that women’s stories are, by definition, *less important and exciting.*

    I got mad at a convention recently and called it out when someone bagged on the romance genre. Fact is, the romance genre was a reaction to the fact that there WERE very few stories about women in which women had agency and a real role to play in the outcome of the story … and romance is the genre that was a reaction to that. So dismissing it as “dumb” is at least half the problem.

    I just want to tell good stories, personally. And read them. Regardless.

  • RachelCaine, I’ve never thought of it this way before, but you’re right. Women did have to identify with central male characters when I was young too. There weren’t many other options outside of romance. Even there at the start women were not allowed to be as strong as they are today.

    And you know, the first thing I did before I wrote this post was to see if there was a “girls” Guardians of the Galaxy shirt at Children’s Place and what figures that might include. There was none. Probably because “girls don’t like superheroes” – HA!

  • Great post–I think I’ve said this before on here, but it drives me absolutely batcrap crazy that we’re still having this discussion! For a long time, when I was in college and grad school as an English major, I refused to read anything by a male author unless it was required reading–because ALL of the required reading was by male authors. )That rebellion ended once I got out of school and didn’t want to deprive myself of reading some great books.) But that was decades ago, and it’s so frustrating to see how little change there’s been.

  • What Rachel said. I find the segmentation and segregation frustrating. I always have, but now that I have a boy and a girl, it’s more aggravating than ever. Reading is about exploring other lives, other perspectives, and being other people in the comfort of your armchair. Male experience is normalized, and female experience is abnormal (by definition if male experience is what’s normal) and therefore reading it is deviant on some level. Or makes a guy a girl in some fashion, and culturally, we know how awful that is (pardon me while I throw up).

    Great post.

  • Di, absolutely! What is art for (and writing is art) if not to expose us to other perspectives, broaden our horizons, help us see things from another angle and in another light? I know I grow and learn through fiction. It helps me empathize and understand. If we stay within our narrow boundaries, they only get reinforced until those walls are impermeable. That’s sad. Stagnation is death.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Well. I still can’t figure out how to respond to this post in any sort of succinct and constructive manner. I am a female with a Ph.D. in Astrophysics, and a job as a scientific programmer, so if I chose to write hard science fiction, I’d consider myself pretty well qualified. I also like action movies, and my parents started out my serious reading habits with Stephen King and Dean Koontz. (I also have two little girls who *love* anything Tinker Bell or princesses…)

    The part that I find most frustrating is that I and most of my peers really were raised to *believe* in equality and equal opportunity, and representation, etc, but we keep running into all this *not* equal weirdness. My in-laws harbor a long-lasting pain that my husband *considered* taking my name when we got married (because he’d been raised to believe in equality, ergo, it ought to be considered).

    …and, now I’m running out of coherency again, but yes! You are right. Women can be heroes just as well as men can, in as many venues as men can, and all real heroes are for *everybody*.

    And yeah, the lack of respect for YA and Urban Fantasy stuff is kind of baffling. On a recentish Best-Fantasy-and-Science-fiction poll, there weren’t any UF titles to even *vote* on, except Robin McKinley’s ‘Sunshine’, which is an awesome book, but *still*. And they had declared they were putting YA stuff (all YA?) into a separate poll…

  • Yes to all of this!

  • Janet Walden-West

    “So cross-gender identification is something women readers have learned to do effortlessly, which I don’t think is a bad thing at all … but it shouldn’t be limited to women.”

    God, yes and it is still alive and well. When we went to the meet and greet for my son’s elementary school last month, the tiny library was open to tour-complete with a Boy’s Corner of Suggested reads and A Girl’s Corner. The boy’s was made up exclusively of male authors/gender neutral initials and male protagonists.

  • Well said, Lucienne! When I was in high school I read Anne Rice and fell in love with female fantasy/fiction writers. Think of all the YA readers you will empower in the next generation.

    P.S. My little brother had a Thundercats T-shirt — Cheetara was his favorite. Kids should decide what they like, not gender marketing.

  • Andrea

    You are so right! But try telling this to a 14-year old boy who doesn’t like reading (or thinks he doesn’t). Only last week at the library, a mother of such a boy asked me for advice on what he could read. She insisted he’d take a book on holiday. It was obvious he was a very reluctant reader. Unfortunately, it’s a small library and the Gone books were lent out. He appreciated my joke that he would probably like the story (about all the adults disappearing in a flash ;-) )
    I thought of recommending The Hunger Games (but that one wasn’t in either.). It is hard enough to convince a reluctant reader, but it is even harder to convince a teenage boy to read a book in which the protagonist is a girl :-( So I am open to suggestions, if you have any.

    PS While writing this, I think that “Don’t Turn Around” by Michelle Gagnon might have worked (despite the female protagonist), but it didn’t cross my mind at the time.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    @Andrea – the book that jumps to my mind in Sabriel, by Garth Nix. However, I know next to nothing about teenaged boys. It’s got a female protagonist, but she’s a necromancer! (Haven’t had a chance to read Mister Monday and those yet.) Next thought would be The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud, though, admittedly, that one basically doesn’t have any female characters…

  • Andrea

    @Hepseba: Thanks for your suggestions and for the taking the time to think about it.
    “The Amulet of Samarkand” is a good one, I think. Justified or not, this makes me think of Artemis Fowl. Although, I’d have to check the intended age group for that one.
    As to Sabriel, I’m not necessarily looking for books with female protagonists. Actually, I’m looking for books (and/or arguments!) to get those boys reading. Once, they’ve started, (I hope) they will give the great ‘books about girls’ a try as well. But a book with a boy as the protagonist might be the thing needed to ‘draw’ them in.

  • My son is 14 now and a pretty advanced reader, but I know he’s loved: Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance books, ARTICLE 5 by Kristin Simmons, ORIGIN by Jessica Khoury, the Hunger Games series, the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan, THE MAZE RUNNER by James Dashner, the ARTEMIS FOWL books by Eion Colfer…I know I’ll think of more in just a second. Also, if he’s a gamer, I know my son has really enjoyed the Halo books.

  • Razziecat

    Lucienne, I want this post to be broadcast world-wide!! YES YES YES to everything you’ve said, as well as to the awesome comments under it. Even superheroes – hell, when I was a kid, I made up some of my own because it seemed that the boys had all the fun, and the only female superheroes I knew of were Wonder Woman and Supergirl (this was in the early 60′s).

    There’s another reason boys and men should read fiction with female protags. Because we have to keep saying, over and over and over, that WOMEN ARE PEOPLE, TOO. It’s not just the idea of experiencing a different viewpoint – it’s about learning how much we all have in common. This extends, of course, to other ethnicities, LGBT, etc., and all the many ways there are of being human. Why do they assume that a woman ought to be able to identify just fine with a male protag, but for a man to relate to a female protag is somehow wrong, too difficult, too alien? Too alien – now there’s a concept for readers of SF! Aliens are okay, as long as they’re male?

    Fiction is a reflection of society. Telling and retelling stories is an integral, I would even say necessary, part of human life. Separating stories into “for girls, or for boys, but not for both,” is a recent and crippling affectation. Proof? Look at myths and fairy tales – they tell of ancient heroes and heroines, goddesses and gods; there are creation myths that tell of a goddess creating the world. Stories are a rich and endlessly varied part of every human culture. Why would anyone settle for less than the whole spectrum of human experience?

  • quillet

    Yes and amen to all of this!

  • The idea that having a single female character on a shirt depicting a team of superheroes of which the rest of are would deter young boys from buying the shirt is ridiculous. Little kids will see a shirt with the Guardians on it, and the only thing in their heads is likely to be “Cool, the Guardians!”.

  • Andrea, when he was in his early teens, my son adored the Drizzt Do’Urden books by RA Salvatore. And when I was a middle school librarian, all my boys went nuts for the Ranger’s Apprentice series by John Flanagan. Their protagonists are male, yes, but they both have strong female characters too. So it’s a start. :)

  • Andrea

    Thanks a lot, Lucienne and Misty! I’ll have a look at those titles. I don’t know them all (yet). Although, I have recommended The Ranger’s Apprentice and Percy Jackson a few times :-)
    Readers who are a bit younger, seem to like the Warrior Cats series by Erin Hunter, too.

    Returning to the topic: I also wish the situation was different, but alas.
    But we (as authors, librarians, mothers, and other people – yes, men too) have to start somewhere to raise the awareness in boys and men. If this means I have to recommend a book with a male protagonist (first ;-) ), then so be it.
    What you said about strong female characters, Misty, is in the back of my mind all the time, as well.

  • I wish there were like buttons for each of these comments! I love that the discussion continues, though I agree about how frustrating it is that we have to keep having it.

  • Was recovering from Con Crud and so didn’t see this until today. Great, great post. As the father of daughters, and as a male writer who busts his butt trying to write realistic, relatable characters of both genders (thanks for the shout-out, Lucienne) I can only second Misty’s “Amen.”