At some point in our journey of knowledge, I have all of my students, boys and girls alike, read Of Mice and Men and Lord of the Flies. These books are brilliant and I love them unreservedly, but there is only one female character between the two of them, and she winds up dead.
I make everyone read The Perks of Being a Wallflower, because they are teenagers and need to read about what it feels like to be a loser in high school in order to either identify or empathize. (Also, there are some pretty great songs for us to look up together on youtube.)
We always do Shakespeare because they study his plays in school, and, while he does have some sharp female characters, Will was writing in the Elizabethan era, so the ladies eventually succumb to the wishes and desires of the men. (Sure, girls could be queen, but they couldn't vote.)
In the dystopian fiction department, lately I've made a bunch of them read Oryx and Crake, and 1984 and Brave New World are always solid options if they need to write an Independent Study Project. The female characters in these novels are, respectively, a child sold into prostitution, a hypersexed rebel, and a vapid Barbie doll.
When the boys need something to read, I suggest The Wars by Timothy Findley, or Cormac McCarthy's The Road or maybe The Mosquito Coast, highly male-centric all. When the girls need something to read, I suggest The Handmaid's Tale or The Joy Luck Club or Lives of Girls and Women or A Complicated Kindness, and I make all my female students read The House on Mango Street, a gorgeous bildungsroman about a Latin-American girl who dreams of having her own house someday.
So this is the shitty thing that I have only just realized: I make the girls read books from the male perspective, but I rarely make the boys read books from the female perspective. Why do I do that? I think it's because I don't want the boys to be bored (it's tough enough getting half of them to sit still and read for half an hour already); the terrifying assumption beneath that decision is that reading about life from a girl's point of view is dull and uninteresting to boys. This obviously makes no sense, as I personally find reading about life from the male perspective just as valuable as reading novels about women.
Ingrained in me still, despite my feminist ideals, is the idea that what boys have to say is universal, while what girls have to say is gendered and specific. I want my girls to read about characters like them, strong and ambitious, and maybe struggling. I want them to read about female sexuality and abuse so they are educated and armed. I want to give them female authors as role models and female characters they can identify with, because sometimes, still, it is hard being a girl.
But what if I started exposing the boys to these female stories, too? Would that help create a generation of men who understand the terror of rape, or the horror and shame of getting your first period and thinking you might be dying, or the feeling of inferiority? I think it might.
I am going to post this on facebook, so I want to ask any male friends out there if, as children, they ever read and loved Anne of Green Gables, Pippi Longstocking, Little Women, Heidi, The Secret Garden, or Nancy Drew as I read and loved Treasure Island, The Hardy Boys, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Tom Sawyer, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. If you have children, do you give the boys "boy" books and the girls "girl" books? (Books with animals as main characters don't count.)
Will books make the difference? Will children even bother reading anymore? I know that, starting Monday, I'm going to make a concerted effort to find out.
As an aside, thanks for reading this, as it was really just a way for me to work out my thoughts and confess my sins. But also thanks for reading in general, because books can change your ideas, and ideas can change the world.