Living in a Box: gender and genre

A lot of people are angry about the gendering of children’s books. Well, just look.
activity books
Boys are brilliant, girls are beautiful. Boys have adventures, girls are surrounded with pretty ornaments. Check out @lettoysbetoys if you want to go into the whole sordid mass of pink and blue that is gendered children’s publishing.

Just to head off two things at the pass:

1) It is perfectly possibly to publish for kids who like pretty frilly things (or things that go, or dinosaurs, or adventure) without slapping a gender exclusion on it. Usborne and Parragon have both stopped publishing specifically ‘Girls Activity/Sticker/Doodle’ books without noticeably reducing their output. @LetToysBeToys tweeted this interesting image just today from one of the most obnoxious purveyors of gendering. See? Not that hard, is it?


2) Girls’ and boys’ brains are not ‘hard wired’ to like particular colours. Any preference is entirely cultural. A Ladies’ Home Journal article from June 1918 decrees, “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.” Meanwhile pink in Japan isn’t historically associated with femininity, but with sex. A ‘pink salon’ is a brothel that specialises in oral. Just saying.

Back to the point. I have two kids, a boy and a girl. My son is a scabby-kneed thug with a head full of football who draws dinosaurs and spaceships. He also draws flowers. Aged 3 he had a pair of trousers with big yellow sunflowers on that he wore till they fell apart. He used to wear his big sister’s dresses all the time to nursery, and when I painted her toenails, I painted his too.

Here are some things that adults have said. Adults dropping off their own kids at nursery; adults at family barbecues with kids and grandkids running around.

  • Why are you wearing a dress? You look like a girl.
  • Aren’t those girls’ trousers?
  • You don’t want to let him wear make up… [with knowing look, like he’s about to catch The Gay from exposure to nail polish]

They don’t say these things so much any more, of course, because he doesn’t do it any more. He’s five now and he’s learning. They taught him. They taught him when he was three years old, crying on my lap because his three-year-old friends had mocked him for wearing a dress. (Hmm, I wonder where they learned to do that.) They taught him that the doodle book he’s been happily using for the last 12 months must be rejected because now he can read ‘For Girls’ on the front.

Don’t start me on what they are teaching my daughter. Don’t even start.

‘Bastards,’ you cry. ‘Who are the jerks pushing this crap on our kids? Who are they?’

Well, they are us. They are children’s publishers, an industry dominated by intelligent, thoughtful, politically aware, socially liberal women, who publish ‘Brilliant Pirate Book for Boys’ and ‘Pretty Princess Book for Girls’ because it sells, and because if Usborne and Parragon aren’t doing it, then the other players can swoop in and clean up on their market share. And they are the people who make up that market share, because that’s what ‘it sells’ means: people buy it. You buy it. I buy it. Because it’s easy to snatch a colour-coded sticker book off a crowded shelf. Because it takes work to know a child. Because one book can’t hurt. Because girls like pink and boys like blue.

So we tell kids what the norms are, what shape box they should fit in, and because kids are the most conformist creatures outside ants, they do their obedient best to fit. But kids grow. And if your box doesn’t fit when you’re three, it sure as hell won’t fit at twenty-three.

I’ve been privileged to be part of Queer Romance Month, running through October, several posts a day, with authors and allies talking about all aspects of queer romance. The theme we set for the event is, ‘Love is Love’. But alongside that, a second theme that’s coming out incredibly strongly from writers and readers is, ‘I need to see myself in books. I need to know that I’m not alone.’

I would have given my right arm for some believable, realistic queer characters when I was a teenager. Maybe then I would have seen myself and learned that there’s nothing wrong with me. (LA Witt)

For the first time, I’d read a story with two main protagonists with whom I could relate. I desperately wanted them to be happy. I recognised their fears, hopes, and dreams, because they weren’t dissimilar to my own. I felt represented in the pages. It finally all made sense. (Amy Dunne)

When I look at gendered kids books, I see part of a machine that tells children what they ought to be and want, churning out the boxes for kids to go in. When I look at QRM, I see adults crying out because their boxes didn’t fit them, and they hurt.

As a man with a degree in youth ministry, when I finally came out between the ages of 24-26, I was pretty much a junior high school girl in the body of an adult male, and I behaved as such. I think many of us who were closeted for so long faced this challenge. I’d never been kissed, never been on a real date (not with guy or girl). I ended up, for the next several years, on a relationship crash course of growing up. Those people who never lived in the closet don’t understand why a 25 year old gay guy might makes stupid choices that the rest of world figured out when they were fourteen.

Because we were never fourteen, not like everyone else. (Brandon Witt)

Let every child be a pirate or a fairy. Let boys have pretty prince books if they want them, and girls have adventures if they like. Let princess sticker books have stickers of dragons and swords as well as bangles and cupcakes. Let boys wear dresses and girls wear shoes that are designed to be hard-wearing instead of sparkly. Let kids grow into adults who can accept their own feelings, the way they look, the way they are, without measuring them against the social norm and finding themselves wanting. Stop telling people to be pink or blue, when we all know there’s a rainbow.

‘But the market wants gendered books,’ producers cry. ‘There’s a demand. People want boys’ shoes to be tough and girls’ shoes to be pretty.’ Yes, they do, and they tell three-year-old boys off for having painted toenails, and all the rest, because adults live in boxes too, hemmed in and misshapen by habit and unexamined assumption and laziness.

Change is rarely painless. I know it’s very difficult to be the publisher who says, ‘Let’s not gender books’ when Sales are showing you that they outsell the rest, or who says ‘Let’s publish queer romance alongside het’ when you’ve never touched that market before.

But it’s a lot more difficult to be the little boy who just wanted to wear a dress to nursery.


Support Let Toys Be Toys and the associated Let Books Be Books campaign here and sign the petition against gendered books.

The #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign supports wide representation of race, gender, LGBT people, people of color, people with disabilities and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities in children’s/YA literature. Find out more here or via the hashtag on Twitter.

And don’t miss the moving and thought-provoking posts coming every day in October from Queer Romance Month.

15 replies
  1. Allison
    Allison says:

    I love this. I don’t have kids but I am surrounded by friends and family that do have them and I find this, “…because adults live in boxes too, hemmed in and misshapen by habit and unexamined assumption and laziness.” to be my experience exactly.
    I have nephews who, from birth were given “boys” toys and then watched everyone express /shock/ that they liked trucks, cars, and other “boy” toys. I have friends with girls who were always given dolls and cooking things (which yes, don’t get me started) and then when I say something about it the response is always, “She has always liked those things, she’s such a ‘girl’.” Of course they like those items; you’ve never given them the choice or opportunity to like anything else. All of these people are good parents, they are raising amazing children. But they don’t see that they are doing this and any suggestion that they might want to take a step back and think about it is met with resistance and often anger.
    Gender is a complicated issue and it’s so much easier to just stick people in pink or blue boxes because then we don’t have to examine ourselves let alone the assumptions that have been so completely assimilated into daily life. Gender has become a sound bite, something that we can digest easily and move on from. I do this; we all do it because when you’re surrounded by something it’s difficult to see through it. Even though I’ve never fit neatly into either box (which I suspect is true for most) I’ve not spent as much time thinking about this as I should have done. However it is something I’m making every effort to question all the time now. I hope I can drag some of the people who aren’t thinking about it along with me.

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      It is so hard with the parenting thing. Apart from anything else, what’s actually available in the shops is so horrifically gendered it’s hard to avoid. We tried to be gender aware but in the end…people kept buying us pink/blue clothes, we had a million pink handmedowns from my brother’s daughters, baby clothes are expensive. There was so much pink and blue in our house. Then the social conditioning kicks in… Argh.

      Just give people space to be themselves, you know? My son always loved the toy cooker, and has his own mini cookie-making set; he is also a football fanatic. My daughter loves nothing more than setting up Barbie fashion parades and tea parties, and her preferred reading is the most kickass possible adventure stories. We let them get on with it. And we talk about gendering a lot, in the hope they’ll at least be aware when someone tries to box them up.

      • Allison
        Allison says:

        I do understand, trying to buy gifts for all the kids over the years has taught me how difficult it is to avoid the blue/pink issue. It’s the subtle stiffening and unconsciously negative comments that do so much of the damage because we absorb them without realizing it. Being aware and discussing it is so important, I wish more people were willing to do so.

  2. waclements
    waclements says:

    Reblogged this on Living in Beautiful Worlds and commented:
    KJ is an intelligent, thoughtful woman whose words often make me think and return to them long after I’ve read them. She’s also a great writer of m/m fiction, one of my favorites–it’s so easy to fall into one of her books because the characters are brilliant, as is the dialogue, the world so real, the stories so captivating, they’re just hard to leave.

  3. Marianne McA
    Marianne McA says:

    Makes me remember when my youngest took against pink (she was 8 or 9) , and we tried to buy a pair of school shoes with no pink on them at all.
    The assistant was lovely and went through all the stock they had, but it was an undoable quest – you think they’re plain black patent, but they’ll have pink butterflies in the soles. (We compromised on the lining, in the end.)

    My least favourite thing when they were small was when they were playing with a boy, and some kindly adult would ask “Is this your boyfriend?”. 50 shades of wrong.

    I admire your parenting.

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      God, yes. The endless sneaking in of pink, or ‘detailing’ that makes the shoe unwearable. Pretty furry trim or lovely flower shaped cut-out or paper thin ballet type soles? What I see is a shoe that cannot get wet or muddy. A shoe to keep a child from running around till she’s old enough for high heels to do the same job.

      And the boyfriend thing. Yes. *Eurgh*.

  4. jenf27
    jenf27 says:

    Thanks for the fantastic post! It’s like you read my mind, but articulated it much better than I could. 🙂

    My kids are 7 and 10. When they were just at home (before starting school), they crossed all the artificial gender lines as they liked. Now that they are older, I can see other people’s judgements taking effect. 🙁 But, my daughter does still hate pink and loves adventure stories and Legos (the ones aimed at boys and girls both). And my son still loves stuffed animals, bright colors and books that are marketed for girls (and also for boys). So, I guess there is hope they will retain their individualism. I really try to play down the gender labels, but it is tough. Like Marianne, I really hate it when people ask them about boyfriends/girlfriends…so far they do, too.

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      Thank you! I do hope that a bit of indoctrination at home can inoculate them at least a little. So far, the fact of sitting together while I read them a book is outweighing other considerations, and we have lots of conversations about what’s Not OK in ‘olden days’ books (depressingly, this apparently means anything published before 1970).

  5. Sandra Lindsey
    Sandra Lindsey says:

    I remember asking my sister about the pink thing when her daughter was young. Turns out that you could only really buy baby clothes & accoutrements in pink, blue or white… So gendering is being pushed at parents before the child is even born! Just wrong 🙁


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] Living in a Box—Gender and Genre K J Charles on gendered children’s books, and how that influences and boxes us in. Lots of gender stuff this week. […]

  2. […] Living in a Box—Gender and Genre K J Charles on gendered children’s books, and how that influences and boxes us in. Lots of gender stuff this week. […]

  3. […] loved this post on Gender and Genre by KJ Charles. It was both insightful and moving and I couldn’t stop thinking about […]

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