An experience that I had the other day got me to thinking about at least one way in which girls are luckier than boys in our society. They can choose "girl stuff" or "boy stuff", including books, with essentially no negative repercussions. Not so for the boy choosing "girl stuff", in most contexts.
What started me thinking about this was a bathrobe, of all things. My daughter had a terrycloth robe that she would wear after her bath. I had noticed recently that it was becoming too small. When I was at Costco this week I happened on a bin of kids' terrycloth bathrobes. I initially reached for one with a pink pattern on it. But then I noticed underneath a white robe with red, blue, and black drawings of pirates. Since my daughter adores pirates I scooped it up and brought it home. It was only when I was cutting off the tags to wash the robe that I noticed that the tag said that it was meant for boys. My response was to cut off the tag and throw it away, and tell my daughter that I found her a robe that I knew she would like.
But the labeling of the robe as being for boys niggled at me a bit, and I posted about my experience on Facebook. My friends celebrated my purchasing of a pirate robe for my daughter, even if it was allegedly meant for boys, and shared other, similar experiences. Because why shouldn't a six-year-old girl want a bathrobe with pirates on it? And indeed, the only complaint that my daughter had about the robe was that it was terrycloth rather than fleece, because fleece would be softer. She promptly put it on anyway, over her clothes, despite it being an unseasonably hot day.
And that's when I thought: she's lucky to be a girl. Because she can choose the pink bathrobe OR the pirate bathrobe. I can even shop at Princess Awesome, and buy her dresses with pink ninjas on them. She pretty much gets general approval either way. Yay for girls who like pirates. Yay for girls who like pink. It's all good.
But if one of her six-year-old male friends happened to want the pink robe, would his parents be comfortable purchasing it? And if they did, would they be wondering "Is my son gay?" "Is my son transgender?" "Will my son be picked on if his friends see him wearing this pink robe?" Regardless of your opinion on those questions, the point is that it's just more complex. For all practical purposes, that six-year-old boy, except in rare circumstances, finds himself with only half as many bathrobe choices as my daughter.
Of course a narrower range of bathrobe choices is not a serious hardship. But then my thoughts turned to books. And it's the same thing, isn't it? My daughter reads books about Fly Guy and Spiderman and Plants vs. Zombies as well as books about Fancy Nancy and Pinkalicious and princesses galore. A girl who wants to read about trucks or dinosaurs or trains is welcome and encouraged to do so. A boy who wants to read about princesses and tutus and fairies is, well, perhaps not so encouraged. The result is that the boy finds himself, effectively, with fewer book choices.
This is not a new insight, of course. Shannon Hale has been writing eloquently about this issue for years, and launched the #StoriesForAll campaign to fight against gender-restricted reading. Ms. Yingling has been encouraging middle school boys to "read pink" for several years, too. There are lots of people thinking about and working on this issue.
But as a person who passionately loves children's books, thinking about this made me conclude that my daughter is lucky to be a girl. And I, as a book-pushing mother, am lucky to have a girl. My daughter can read about ninjas and pirates and superheroes if she wants. She can read about Critter Clubs and Mouse Scouts if she prefers. She can read all of it, any book that catches her fancy.
For the record, I will happily defend any of her male friends who want to read about any of these topics, too. I will recommend books like the Princess in Black series and Babymouse and The Magical Animal Adoption Agency to any kid of the approximate right age who crosses my path. I believe (Jen Malone wrote recently on The Nerdy Book Club) that boys can benefit immensely from reading books that have girls as the central characters. If more boys read books about girls, they'll have more empathy for girls, perhaps even more respect for girls, and society overall will benefit.
It's not really necessary to market bathrobes differently to six-year-old boys or girls. [And for the record, Costco just tossed them all in the same bin anyway.] In a perfect world there wouldn't be "boy books", which boys and girls feel free to read and "girl books", which mainly girls feel free to read. There would just be books - stories about ghosts and goblins and friendship and treehouses and whatever else any particular kid might be interested in on any particular day. There would just be #StoriesForAll. I think that's something to work towards.