Gender and Equality

This post is less tightly tied into my dissertation ideas, but is too big not to mention – the amazing news that the United States Supreme Court has finally legalised gay marriage at a national level! To me, this news goes to show even more that our gender should not and does not dictate our interests and our passions. And if the most powerful government in the world can make a change to bring about gender equality, I can’t help but feel that we all can make a difference to improve equality in our own ways. That includes publishers, booksellers, and indeed book buyers – is it really okay to tell a little boy that his interests should be blue, dinosaurs and spaceships rather than pink ballet dancers and pretty flowers? The Let Books be Books campaign has made fantastic headway in the last year, asking publishers to take of the ‘for girls’ and ‘for boys’ labels. But is this enough? The decision made by the US court this week was not a quick or simple process, yet perseverance and determination have paid off to result in joyful implications for many US citizens and inspire celebrations all over the world, regardless of gender or sexuality. A few years ago, this change would have seemed impossible. So this makes me think that change for children’s books, and the attitudes approaching gender, can be possible too.

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A Bookshop Visit

With around 10 000 children’s books published in the UK per year, booksellers understandably have a demanding task to choose those titles to stock, let alone which to place on prominent displays. Studies have shown that retail displays are major drivers of sales in bookshops. Bookshops approach the decision-making process in varying ways – some charge for premium positions, others are chosen at the booksellers’ discretion without financial incentive.

I recently visited the children’s department of a local bookshop. Here is the view that greeted me:

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Usbourne were one of the first publishers to sign up to ‘Let Books be Books’. These books do not explicitly state the gender of their intended audience. And yet. Take a look at the reverse of this display:

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It is not easy to ignore the not-so-subtle gender implications in these displays. By pointing this out, I am not trying to say that girls should not like pink and dresses and sparkles. Anyone who knows me will recognise this preference. But what does strike me harks back to Walter’s rallying cry of ‘choice’. What if these displays and publications suggest to any boy that he is not welcome to the world of ballerinas and dresses, or that his parents should discourage an interest in dolls or interior décor? And what if, flipping this around, a girl feels less inclined to build her own spaceship or her relatives feel uncomfortable buying her a book about sport? While there may not be a gender sticker over these titles, I can’t help but feel that there is a clear message of intent, and I wonder what the impossible-to-directly-measure repercussions of such divides could be.