By Casey Wilson
Yesterday morning, the YA segment of my Twitter feed started buzzing over a post by Ana over on Lady Business called “Gender Balance in YA Award Winners since 2000.” Responding to the so-called “crisis” in boys reading (or perhaps more accurately, the lack thereof), the piece looks at the gender breakdown of authors and protagonists of the winners of a number of YA book awards. The full methodology is explained on the site, which I encourage you to read because it’s quite fascinating — as are the charts showing the award-by-award breakdown of male vs. female authors and male vs. female protags.
What I found the most interesting about the analysis is the way that the writer chose to frame the question and the results. There is a belief currently that YA lit is “female-dominated”, she explains, and that it suffers from a shortage of male protagonists. Because of this perception, boys are discouraged from reading YA fiction. The author goes on to argue that the results prove quite the opposite, and that at least where award-winners are concerned, male characters remain highly visible. Ultimately she wonders if perhaps the problem is not that there are no boy characters in place, but that society has a tendency to panic when women gain even a slight statistical advantage in traditionally male-dominated fields. (Her argument is more complex than this, and I do apologize for condensing it. Again: read the whole piece! It’s great!)
The writer freely admits that award winners may not be entirely representative of the genre as a whole and that there are some potential gaps in the data and methodology. I think that’s true, to an extent, and I would like to see this kind of study be spread beyond just award winners. Bestsellers would make for an interesting test case, as would a broader swath of the market as a whole. But I do agree with the author that the argument that there aren’t enough male protagonists doesn’t hold water, especially given the data provided here, and that even if it did, it might not be time to panic. Here is, for me, the most important piece of her argument:
Occasionally people react to these discussions by pointing out that it’s hypocritical of feminist commentators to maintain that girls (and people of colour, and lgbtq teens, and disabled teens) need as many and as varied media role models as possible without accepting that the same is true of boys. My response to this is that yes, I accept that boys too have the right to want to see themselves represented in the literature they consume…Even if (award winners aside, as we have just seen) the world of YA were to prove an exception, we can’t pretend the impact this has on boys is the same the impact that lack of representation in every single sphere of our culture has on marginalised groups.
A lot of YA authors have been talking about this issue for a long time now, and the notion of an “empathy problem” rather than a “boys reading problem” often comes up. That is, that girls are often expected to engage with male protagonists, while boys are generally less likely to do so with female protagonists — and that by telling boys that they wouldn’t or shouldn’t be interested in a book about a girl, they are being actively encouraged to disengage with the interests and concerns of half the population. Whether or not that’s true (I personally tend to think it’s a fairly reasonable argument), it is fascinating that YA lit has become the testing ground for this battle over the role of gender in encouraging or discouraging reading, and I look forward to seeing more people tackle the subject, in all its complexity.
Casey is a PhD student.