Reading Cross-Gender.

I think I’ve been pretty clear about my tendency to read adventure stories. I read a lot, and I read a lot things which focus on adventure. However, the vast majority of books which will be marketed as “adventure tales” have another word in the genre description. They’re “Boys’ Adventure Tales.” There are exceptions, of course, but at least in most of the books I read, the main character in a perilous drama of strength and wit would be a guy.

And at first I didn’t even notice. There were adventures, I was reading them, I was seven, and so I just read myself into them. I was constantly the main character, daring and smart and able to escape and virtuous and awesome. I was AWESOME.

And then, somewhere in there, I started to notice gender. I started to notice that I couldn’t be the main character in the books I was reading. There was this divide, and I was on the wrong side of it.

I can’t trace it back to any one book, I think it was just a combination of figuring out who I was (and wasn’t), and the sheer amount of adventures, historical fiction, and books written a century ago that I was cramming into my head. Sometimes the characters said explicitly that girls couldn’t participate in the expedition, and sometimes it was the more insidious assumption that girls would never want to come along. And again, the selection of books that I was reading comes down to a lot of factors, (what was available in the local library being a big one), but I took to heart the universal message that guys had adventures and girls were the impetuous for adventures; they were either in need of rescue or there to be impressed by the exploits of the male sex.

And oh, I took that to heart hard. At first I tried to deal with it by fully taking on the virtues of a frontier woman. They were super competent and vital people, and sometimes had adventures of their own. Frontier women were the most badass of the role models available, in fact, because I wasn’t rich enough to be a Nancy Drew and I couldn’t quite wish myself into being a princess. There still exists a terrible picture I have not managed to destroy which shows that my dedication to a frontier aesthetic also extended to fashion. It’s really terrible. Anyways, that attempt worked just about until my temper came in.

Don’t worry, this is not another history of my reading habits. (We’ve had enough of that lately.) My point is that I was still looking into books for characters who were like me, and I kept slamming up against the gender barrier. So, did the writers intend that? In the case of books written 50 or more years ago, I think it’s quite possible. This is, after all, the era of Children’s Literature With Morals, and strict gender roles were certainly a moral good. In books written more recently, I think I fell more afoul of the assumption that “adventure novel” means “novel meant for boys”.

Eowyn is just here to be rescued...

And when I first started thinking about this I spent a great deal of time being righteously indignant that I couldn’t find myself in these books, just because of my sex. How ridiculous!

Er, yes. How ridiculous, self. You should look to that. Because the brainwave that hit today is a two-parter.

The first deals with the older stuff, where gender divides were specifically put in. The authors have expressed their view, do I agree with it? A swift look at reality proves that having your reproductive organs on the inside does not guarantee you a rescuer in all situations, so unless you want to be a tragic casualty, it’s a good idea to be prepared to rescue yourself. Damsel in distress– not a viable lifestyle. Consulting reality also shows that my lack of eye-hand coordination and cardiovascular capacity makes me a poor choice to bring on an adventure, at least as the muscle. Does that have anything to do with my chromosomes? Well, as far as my chromosomes indicate I have weak eyes and like reading, yes, but that’s about it. On the other hand, if an adventure needs a storehouse of trivia and bizarre information I am so there. I think the author and I can agree to disagree on the subject of their quaint gender views, and I can enjoy the adventure for its merits or lack thereof. GENDER ISSUE SORT’D.

And the second part of the brainwave comes regarding books written more recently. They tend to be free of side characters pointedly staying home to cook, so why would I have issues with them? Because I know I cannot be the main character? Yes, and that matters why, exactly?

I think I’ve been reading at a basically basic level. I’ve been looking for myself in stories and rolling around in the awesomeness of me for a while. Which is useful– after all it’s nice to know that you’re not alone in the world, there are people like you– but it’s hardly the only way to read. Only reading in this manner is like only eating chocolate. You’re missing a lot of the essential nutrients needed for living. In this case, empathy.

Because really, gender is only the most obvious and silly place to draw a line. If I say I can’t enjoy books with Male MCs, can I also not enjoy books with Female MCs who are sporty, or social, or interested in romance, or who live in different worlds, or who follow a different faith, or who have a different skin colour, or hair colour, or who don’t have to worry about being blind without their classes, or who aren’t interested in history, or who don’t like tea? I mean, it would be hard to get over the tea barrier, but if I can empathize past that I should be able to empathize past anything.

So delicious...

Ahem. What I mean to say is that I would be severely restricting myself, to solely allow myself to enjoy books “about me.” The reading of the books which aren’t about me is the joy of it! I can see someone else’s experience, and what it’s like to be human in another life. Unless I get new eyes I am never going to be able to play sports: I have neither the depth perception, the eye-hand-co-ordination or the interest in that activity. But I can read about someone who loves sports, and as a bonus I don’t have to experience the pain.

I mean, this realization opens up SCADS of new horizons. And for goodness sake, self, I read science fiction and fantasy like they are the chief balm for my soul. Imagining the reality of another type of life should not present a huge problem for me.

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8 thoughts on “Reading Cross-Gender.

  1. The tea barrier is a tough one to overcome, it is true! 😉

    I pretty much never want to be a main character in a novel. o.O Considering what so many fictional protagonists go through? Yeah. No.

    (I suppose I’ve never had a problem empathizing with the characters I like, regardless of their chromosomal preference, molecular structure, or any other defining characteristic. Because growing up, the notion that I had to identify with or like only certain types ‘like me’ (no one was really like me, but I was maybe a little like them, in certain way, or I could imagine being like them) was never firmly implanted. It just never clicked.)

    I had a further point, but I forgot it for being distracted by tea…

  2. This is a good thing to realize. I’m not sure it was ever really an issue for me, but it sorta ties into a vague thought I’ve been incubating for a while now, which is that empathizing with fictional characters is a valuable exercise for empathizing with real-life people. And if these fictional characters happen to be very different from you, well hey, that gives you the opportunity to develop a penchant for empathizing with real people who are very different from you. Which is both a hard and good thing for everyone to do.

    YAAAAAY LEARNING WE LIKE TO LEARN ALL THET TIMES

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