Sunday, February 28, 2010

Girls' Books vs Boys' Books

The child_lit listserv is a place of conflicting responses: awe (when Philip Pullman casually posts), appreciation (when erudite and passionate discussions transpire), and frustration (when a well-meaning member repeatedly posts topics that no one else seems to share the same enthusiasm for ad infinitum). Many times it prompts me to think about children's reading today, in ways that I don't ordinarily do as a scholar who is more up-to-date with reading habits in the 19th century than the 21st.

A recent discussion on the list concerned the segregation of books into gender-exclusive categories. As a Victorianist, I'm familiar with the idea that girls looked for adventure in the pages of boys' magazines and novels. When there was no swashbuckling or discovery of the wilds of Africa in girls' books, girl readers were able to turn to their brothers' books to experience excitement not only vicariously, but at a remove from their intended audience. There are documented boy readers of girls magazines, such as the Girl's Own Paper, but they appear to be in the minority as compared with the reverse situation of girls escaping moralistic tales.

I'm not sure today whether you'd find more girls playing football than boys being chaffeured to ballet lessons by their parents, and similarly much about children's reading seems to be directed on gendered lines that put girls' books in no-go zone for boys. One list member discussed removing a dust jacket from a book to make it appear less "girly". The boy to who read the books enjoyed it but the marketing of the book as overtly girly was seen as putting off boys who may have enjoyed a story about a girl protagonist.

While there are reasons to be sick about the "pinkifying" of girls' culture, which are well covered by the Pink Stinks campaign, it also plays a part in situating girls' books as irrelevant to boys. As list members pointed out, to suggest that white child readers could not enjoy a book about a person of colour would be largely unthinkable (even though publishers do their best to outwardly whitewash their titles), but the perception that books about girls are unappealing to boys while the reverse is not a problem continues to undermine girls' interests, strengths and abilities as inferior to typically masculine traits. Do educators have to hide the outward signs of masculinity on books in order for girls to read them?

There is a lot more thinking I need to do about the gendering of contemporary books, but as I first see it, this continued status difference begins to instill a hierarchy of feminine and masculine culture from childhood. Women's interests are frivolous. Men's important. Football and fishing shows should occupy television schedules on Saturday, a day of rest from work, but never those about typically feminine interests (apart from cooking, which nearly always involves a man showing us how it's done, unless she's scopophilic fodder like Nigella Lawson). I'd be interested to read more about the gendering of children's books over time, particularly series fiction. While it seems there is far more literature out there that does not perpetuate some kind of artificial gendered reading distinction, it still amazes me that the gendered divide is still so prominent.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Collector's Impulse

I've got two Girl Guide projects on the boil at the moment. And for this reason I've become a somewhat compulsive eBayer, trawling for interesting ephemera that might make for good illustrations. I've now got a giant box of Guide books, photo albums, camp diaries, badges, certificates, letters, application forms, even an original belt. Here's hoping a book results or I'm going to have a busy time relisting a hundred back issues of the Waratah (New South Wales Girl Guide magazine) from the 1950s.
I've also nabbed a few fairly scare weekly issues of the Girl's Own Paper with their advertisements still intact. Anyone working in this area knows that advertisements were usually removed for libraries and binding into annuals. I've only ever seen advertisements from this magazines contained in a Library of Congress microfilm, which include issues from the early twentieth century. The copies I found are from the 1880s, the earliest years of the paper.
Some contained additional fold-out ad booklets, usually for soap, including the pictured advertisement for Brooke's Soap, which I think became well-known as Monkey Brand soap. I've been reading Anne McClintock's article on the history of soap, and she mentions mirrors, soap, light and white clothing as the four domestic fetishes of the period. In this image, we've got a kind of mirror in the form of the artist's canvas, but it's depicting a humanised monkey that the girl has proudly painted. As I'm intending to write a paper on Tarzan in light of Victorian popular understandings of social Darwinism, I'm not sure what to make of the monkey in the suit. Can he be humanised and civilised like native peoples with the influence of femininity and whiteness? But what on earth is that giant furry thing on the girls' chair? An animal skin? If so, is there a reversal of the monkey in the tuxedo with the idea of the girl in the monkey's fur? A strange one, that's for sure!