It is vitally important to help girls to see that they can become whatever they want to be and to provide them with role models to support this; to encourage them to throw off the shackles of restrictive gender stereotypes and the pernicious influence of those who perpetuate them. On this site, I have been delighted to be able recommend a range books with strong girl protagonists, of which there are now many excellent examples. Similarly, I have warmly welcomed the Bedtime Stories for Rebel Girls books, together with the flood of similar titles that has followed in the wake of their enormous and deserved popularity. In fact I chose the original as one of the books I wanted my young granddaughter to grow up with, and through. (See my post from December '17.)
But what about the boys?
However, it can sometimes be easy to overlook that the growth and development of boys too can be seriously, sometimes disastrously, harmed by the perpetuation of gender stereotypes. The issue with boys is often not so much what sort of opportunities they can or can't have, as what sort of person they can or can't be.
Perhaps the most insidious stereotype here is that of the 'proper lad', the boy who likes football and things mechanical (especially cars), who behaves confidently and boisterously and generally expects to get what he wants. If he acts aggressively, well, it is only to be expected really, he is just 'being a boy'. If he is tempted to go off script and show weakness or emotion, then he will remember (or be reminded) that he needs to 'man up'. This may be an oversimplification- but it is not all that much of one.
Of course there is nothing wrong in itself with liking football or cars, although the aggression is a different matter. The problem is the pressure put on many more sensitive boys who are just not like this, the humiliations they have to endure and the resulting negative impact on self-image and self-worth. Those who do not fit neatly into this mould are often made to feel that they are in some way freakish, 'gay' in the nastily pejorative playground use of the word. Many more are cowed into unwilling attempts to conform with which they never feel truly comfortable.
The right to weep too
This is not exclusively, or even principally, about boys who may be showing gay or transgender inclinations (although they are an important part of it). It effects boys who are sensitive in many different ways and can include: those who like to act, dance, sing or play a musical instrument (especially if they play classical music); those who show emotion, appear caring and empathise readily with others; those who want to do well at school, are academically bright and flourish in tests and exams; those who daydream and imagine; and, very pertinently, those who like to write and to read. Denying any of these the right to be consider himself a 'real boy' is one of the most heinous cruelties of our society.
The right to read too
Further, the disastrous attitude that reading is 'not really a boy thing' not only unnecessarily handicaps many educationally, but deprives them of tremendous opportunity to grow and develop as human beings. Associated with this too is a prevalent attitude that books about girls are only for girls. Almost all fiction is fundamentally about human beings, about who we are, about what we have been and what we could become. And we are all human beings. Through books we learn more about ourselves and about others too. To draw arbitrary lines around their 'appropriateness' on the sole basis of a protagonist's gender is both ludicrous and depriving.
Of course there are many aware, enlightened individuals, families and, indeed whole groups, who would never countenance this negativity. There are many boys too who do dare to throw off the shackles. However we do not need to look far to see how deeply entrenched gender stereotypes and their associated attitudes still are in our society overall. Very recently we bought a pair of cloth dolls, one girl and one boy, as a present for our young grandchild. They are very attractive toys and actually came from what I would call a very trendy, modern baby product retailer. Yet we had to remove the labels before gifting them; the parents would have been as annoyed by them as we, the grandparents, were. The boy doll, named Tommy, was introduced on the label in this way (verbatim): 'Tommy loves playing football and climbing trees. His favourite toy is a bow and arrow and he is always ready for an adventure,' as if a boy doll would only be acceptable if he were made out to be a 'proper lad'!
If you need further proof go into any high street greeting card shop and look at what are provided as (separately) suitable for girls and boys. Of course this is a looping phenomenon, in which the card manufacturers produce this stuff because it is what people buy. And people buy it because the fact that it is all that is there reinforces their idea of what is appropriate. The self-perpetuating nature of social attitudes more generally is very similar. It is a vicious circle that desperately needs to be broken.
For these reasons Stories for Boys who Dare to be Different is most warmly welcome as a companion and complement to Bedtime Stories for Rebel Girls*. Even more so in that it fills this spot very admirably. The book itself breaks a mould, as did its earlier counterpart. It is also enormously encouraging to see it already on bestseller lists. Ben Brooks writes his diverse biographies in easy, accessible style and they are each short enough to pique interest and make their point without being overloaded with detail. Many readers will, I am sure, be prompted to find out more about those individuals who catch their imagination. As with the rebel girl books, not everyone will agree with every inclusion or omission, but that is not the point. There are more than enough different personalities, interests and talents represented here for many boys to find role models with whom they can identify, or to whose achievements they can aspire. It is a book whose purpose is to say that there is a huge range of possibilities out there, that it is good to be different, and that 'normal' includes far more than the stereotypes imply. The rebel girl books do, of course, benefit considerably, in quality and diversity from the large number of contemporary female artists who have contributed. Nevertheless here Quinton Winter does an excellent job by himself; his illustrations are clear, strong and attractive, covering an interesting and varied range of perspectives and formats, even within a core homogeneity of comic-book style.
The real must haves
Both remarkable books, 'Rebel Girls'* and 'Boys who Dare', should be prominently displayed in classrooms and school libraries and welcomed by parents into homes. Both girls and boys should be encouraged to explore both of them; to read them, talk about them and learn to value them. The addition of 'Boys who Dare', and the aspirations it embodies, does nothing to distract or detract from the cause of empowerment for girls; rather, the complementary nature of the two books only reinforces the vital importance of each. It is the constriction of both gender stereotypes that still threatens many of our children. Absolutely, we need to encourage and support 'rebel girls', but we also need to do the same for boys who 'dare to be different'.
One day, I hope, there will need to be nothing rebellious or daring about them at all. Not for these reasons, anyway.
*And now, of course, Book 2 as well.