Monday, 11 September 2017

Tales of a Feminist Aunt and Godmother...

A few months ago, you may remember I went on a mini-pilgrimage to Gay's the Word bookshop in London for the day, in search of the recently-erected Mark Ashton blue plaque. How's that for a long-winded opening sentence! You want to refresh your memory? Click here. Anyway, I spent a lovely half hour or so browsing away, feeling the urge to spend far more than I had planned.

It's weighty and stunning!
The first book that I picked up was a cracker. In the kids' section, Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls jumped out at me. It was a month or so before my niece's 4th birthday and it was the perfect gift. It was one of those gorgeous hard-backed story books - the kind that have the word 'compendium', 'treasury' or 'anthology' attached. It was solid and tactile, and filled to the brim with beautiful illustrations. It also had decent feminist chops. Every page contained a mini-biography of a remarkable woman from history. The stories outlined their triumph over adversity and beating the odds no matter what. It was a concerted effort to redress the gender bias that much formal history perpetuates but in a child-friendly and accessible way. Many of the featured women I'd never heard of, but some I had - Simone Biles, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Malala Yousafzai - from the present day to hundreds of years before. It felt the ideal present to give to my niece, who combines a deeply inquisitive, factual nature with worshiping at the altar of the Disney princess. I did my Feminist Aunt thing and bought it for her and according to later feedback from my sister, she loved it. All good so far.

But despite it's marvellousness, one thing bugged me. A tiny thing really, and not one that stopped me from purchasing it. I just wish they hadn't used the word 'girls' in the title. Even though it was qualified with 'rebel', implying it was reaching out to girls that didn't conform, it still niggled. Even though it was providing those same girls with top notch female role models, I wished it hadn't felt the need to be labelled so definitively. It hit a nerve.

I have a real issue with labelling things for 'girls' and 'boys'. Whether it's books, clothes, toys or anything. It's illogical. The time it gets logical is when, if we use clothes as an example, puberty strikes and trousers and tops need to be different shapes for female hips and male shoulders. That's when gendered clothing becomes a necessity. Until then, it's just what society has deemed is appropriate, regardless of how the individual child feels. It's stereotyping, it limits choice and it's encourages the harmful myth that boys behave one way and girls behave another. A myth that has been explored in Robert Webb's recent book, How Not To Be a Boy.

This gal would have
been unimpressed
with modern day
clothes labelling.
This is an issue that is close to my heart. I was a girl that liked and wore 'boyish' clothes pre-puberty. (And post too, as far as I could.) Except they weren't boyish, they were just clothes that I liked. The majority of my wardrobe was made up of hand-me-downs from the neighbours, so I don't know if I'd have been able to find 1980s shop-bought-clothes with ease. I suspect back then, I would. I think it was easier thirty years ago. These days, when I look around kids' clothes shops, I have no idea what the eight year old me would have chosen to wear. I suspect, it wouldn't have been from the 'girls' section. Last week John Lewis incurred the wrath of the Twitter trolls when they announced they would be ditching girls and boys labels on their clothes. It seemed a very sensible decision to me - a top becomes a 'girl's top' when a girl wears it, not when it has been displayed in the girl's section - but some people took great offence. Apparently it is MOST important that clothes are labelled correctly so boys and only boys wear tops with diggers, pirates and dinosaurs on them. Otherwise the worst might happen and a girl might accidentally wear one and then where would we be. Uh-oh. Cue the end of days. Yeah, Twitter got a bit silly last week. 

So back to books and that pesky 'girls' label. I am lucky enough to have been a reader of adult fiction before the invention of the phrase 'chick-lit'. (It's such a horribly dismissive term. Chick-lit - bleugh. I'm not fussed on the label 'women's fiction' either but at least it's vaguely respectful.) Before the late '90s it seemed it wasn't a thing and books were books. I spent my teenage years in the early '90s reading novels by Rosamunde Pilcher, Virginia Andrews, Sue Townsend and Mary Stewart. Not once did I choose them because we were all girls together. I chose them because they were on my parents' bookshelf and the blurb on the back looked good. (By the same criteria, I read the entire Dick Francis back catalogue, too.) But then in 1996 Bridget Jones' Diary came out and along with it, the marketing idea that there were now books just for women and that they were somehow less than. (The term 'chick' manages to convey that perfectly IMHO - excuse me while I vom.) I was doing an English Literature degree at the time so all this passed me by at first. I was full of the joys (and I'm loaded with sark here) of Webster, Marlowe and Milton and didn't pick up a book of my own choice for three years. When I finally read for pleasure again, the book shelves had changed. Suddenly there was a section for the laydeez. Women's Fiction was there in big letters. There was no Men's Fiction section, obviously. Men's books were all books. It was only the fluffy lady stories for us delicate creatures that had been segregated. It made me cross. It's not that I disliked every book that booksellers labelled for my sex or gender (some of them were cracking reads) but I did balk at the categorisation of them. It was unnecessary. 

The trend of categorising female authors' work as chick-lit has calmed down in recent years - by booksellers and publishers anyway. Not so much in real life though. Repeatedly, when someone asks me what Carry the Beautiful is about, I begin my spiel. 
'It's a woman looking back over her life and wondering why she isn't as happy as she thought she'd be, so we flash back to her University days and see how the past has impacted the future.' 
Most people (a mix of men and women) say 'Oh, it's a women's book then.' And I smile through gritted teeth and explain that books are for everybody and no, it's just a good story that both men and women would like if they happen to like novels like mine. I reference Nick Hornby, David Nicholls, Marian Keyes and Lisa Jewell as being vaguely similar to my style and inside I scream at them for being duped by a society that tells us we are supposed to like something based on the contents of our pants. That everyone with a vagina is instantly predisposed to like pink fluffy clothes and pretty things whilst everyone with a penis is supposed to automatically wear blue and take part in rough and tumble shenanigans with all the other penis owners. And then I fake-smile again and deep breathe for a bit until I'm less angry at the ridiculousness of it all and the damage that stereotyped ideas of gender can bring.

So, yeah. Where was I? Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls? Oh yeah, that. It really is the most beautiful book. Filled with positive role models and life-affirming stories. I've just bought a second copy - one for my football-loving, boundlessly energetic Goddaughter. I imagine it won't be the last. I just have to make sure I write 'Books Are For Everyone' on the inside cover each time I give it to someone and then I can sleep soundly.

Have a lovely week, folks.

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