First published on 23rd March, 2014 in The Star
A COUPLE of weeks ago I wrote about girls liking princesses and princess books, and was accused by an acquaintance of pandering to gender stereotypes. In my defence, it’s nothing but the truth that many female children are drawn to tiaras and sparkly dresses. I really don’t agree with gender stereotyping, and certainly not when it comes to the books we buy our kids. That’s why I dislike the Peter and Jane books … because they seem to pigeonhole children according to gender: Jane plays with dolls and tea-sets, Peter with toy trucks and balls.I do think the reason why so many little girls like princesses is because that’s what they’ve been taught to like. First of all, most of them are raised on a steady diet of animated movies about princesses. They’re then given dolls dressed as princesses; bags and stationery sets, water tumblers and lunch boxes, clothes, shoes, you name it, stamped with princess pictures. Even the books they read are based on these princesses. I’m not sure when this craze started. I don’t remember it from my childhood, but I guess we didn’t even have a supermarket so maybe there was just nowhere for the merchandise to be displayed (was there merchandise even? Maybe not in sleepy Segamat).
Given a choice, I don’t think all little girls would automatically be as into princesses as they are assumed to be. Given a choice, some little boys might prefer tiaras and ball gowns to superheroes and robots. Or, perhaps both girls and boys would find everything interesting depending on their mood.
It’s impossible to say how things would be if children were raised in a world without gender stereotyping and specifications. They come up against the divisions sooner or later, often even before they become aware of them. For example, my daughter and I were at the corner store buying wet tissues and we were trying to figure out why there were two types of packaging: pink and blue. Strawberry- and blueberry-scented wipes? Hmm … and then it clicked! Pink for baby girls and blue for baby boys! Wow, even the stuff used to wipe babies’ bums is colour coded!
Anyway, if you pay attention to book news, you’d have heard of the British campaign to end gender-specific books. What a great idea! Bookseller Waterstones is in full support of the cause, as is the publisher Usborne, and writers Malorie Blackman (the current Children’s Laureate) and Philip Pullman.
I happen to think publishers who develop “girl” and “boy” ranges of books are just taking the easy route. Gender-targeted displays also speak of bookstores not prepared to try very hard to sell books. As for parents and other adults who zoom in on pink covers for girls, and action-oriented covers for boys, well, it’s also about shortcuts and not being willing to take the time to explore what’s available and what might be interesting to kids. When children are tiny and haven’t yet developed their own tastes, it’s this lazy gifting-style that contributes to the gender-based patterns shown in children’s reading preferences.
Most Malaysians aren’t particularly bothered by gender stereotypes and I know many who wouldn’t see the value in even considering the issue. Perfectly sensible people who are normally socially and politically aware have simply shrugged and said, “Well, it’s simpler that way” and “You can’t blame the bookstores and publishers for wanting to turn a profit”.
Several parents I’ve spoken to have also admitted to being guided by book covers when choosing reading material for their kids. “I have no idea what is suitable for girls or boys so thank goodness I can rely on the covers,” said one young mother who has two children: an eight-year-old girl, and a twelve-year-old boy. She says while her daughter is open to reading books about spies and monsters, her son wouldn’t be caught dead with his sister’s “girly” titles. “Girly,” she clarifies is anything in pastel colours, or even bright shades of pink and purple, or with pictures of flowers, fluffy animals or actual girls.
There are those who agree that there should be no attempt to categorise books according to the gender of the reader, but they seem few and far between.
I think in Malaysia, the general feeling is that so little reading is done in the first place, that the gender-specific packaging and marketing of books is the least of our concerns. What do you think? Answers on postcards. Of any colour.