"Boy Books" and "Girl Books"—what about "Book Books"?

Posted January 19, 2013 by Renae // 7 Comments

“Boy Books” and “Girl Books”—what about “Book Books”?
Ponderings on the nature of gender-divided fiction, by Renae

A few days ago I was stalking my Goodreads feed, as I do sometimes (or all the time, you know). Anyway, I came across a status update from someone who was reading a book generally considered to be one of the best in the genre, if not of all books ever. This is a book beloved by millions of readers worldwide, and has been for several decades now. I was struck by her comment, though, and it got me thinking.

Paraphrasing her update: “This is totally a boy book, but I love it anyway, even though I’m a girl.” ***

Cue me scratching my head and the subsequent posting of this tweet. I’ve never walked into a library or bookstore and seen gender-related shelving, and I don’t feel like I’ve ever been judged for picking up a supposed “boy book”, and after asking my dad (who, with a wife and three daughters, has frequently been caught reading Meg Cabot and Gail Carson Levine in public), neither has he. I’ve always thought one of the nice things about fiction was that it was genderless.

I mean, yes: many books are marketed toward a specific gender. Lots of heavy-duty science fiction is “for guys” and books with naked men on the cover are “for girls.” And that’s completely fine; I’m not saying that all guys should run around reading books about shirtless rogues, rakes, and scoundrels, etc., nor should women feel obligated to read about guns and zombies and whatever if those things don’t interest them (they interest me, though, which goes to prove my point about genderless reading).

So while I certainly agree that certain titles have larger or smaller appeal to men/women, I don’t think we should feel ashamed of liking a “boy book” if we’re female or vice versa. True story: I spent most of my elementary and middle school years loaning out my “girl books” to boys in my class, who liked them A LOT and would thereafter seek me out for recommendations. I also read a fair bit of “guy” science fiction/fantasy with my dad when I was a kid, whose favorite book, incidentally, is Pride & Prejudice.

Another true story: I have a friend who’s about as “manly” as you can get. He told me that I read too many “girl books” and for a long time refused my attempts to get him, but then read and loved The Hunger Games series at my suggestion (see! I do rec books I don’t personally enjoy.), and now he’s been reading YA dystopians—many of which are definitely geared toward a female audience—like there’s no tomorrow.

Anyway, I think I’m slightly off topic here, so let’s pull it all back. My point here is this: as a reader, separating all books into gender appropriate labels is silly. A publisher may push publicity for a new release toward one gender, but that doesn’t mean it won’t have appeal for the opposite sex either. In my opinion, segregating books into “boy books” and “girl books” is almost as ridiculous as saying that being female is a “trope.” (Yes, this actually happened, and no, I have no idea what that author was thinking—but that’s another kettle of fish altogether.)

As readers—and especially as book bloggers, we like to label our books. Put them in genres and subgenres. Shelves them according to publisher and imprint, themes, location, time period. I love labeling things! But labeling “boy books” and “girl books” is potentially problematic, potentially sexist, and overall just a silly display of promoting potential close-mindedness.

All in my opinion, of course.

*** I’m not condemning this person on GR for saying what she said, nor do I under any circumstances believe that she really was in any way wrong for saying what she did.  I was merely sharing where all of this started, as a kind of jumping off point. I myself am certainly guilty of thinking, “even though this book is for boys, I love it anyways, muahahaha!” So I’m not judging this person at all.

Renae has written book reviews and other miscellany for Respiring Thoughts since 2012. She loves dogs, Mexican food, mountains, Shakespeare, and procrastinating. She's currently working on an undergrad degree in English/Spanish lit in the Midwest. Connect with Renae on Twitter, Goodreads, and Tumblr.

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7 responses to “"Boy Books" and "Girl Books"—what about "Book Books"?

  1. I feel like gender-specific marketing in the past few months has really increased, and I don’t mean just with books either, though of course it would spill over there. There’s things like the BIC “for her” pink and purple pens(which still has me shaking my head), and the last time I was in Wal-mart, I walked by the sporting section and they had Pink “For girls!” toy rifles. I have nothing against pink toy rifles or purple pens, but it’s when they’re marketed specifically towards women *only* that it bugs me. I almost feel like there’s this trend in marketing that says making things equal for women means creating products like those listed above specifically for them when it really ends up subverting that idea and putting gender stereotypes in to boxes. I mean, my dad is one of the most traditional masculine male type I know and he watches more chick-flicks than I do.

    That was a long paragraph, but all that to say I feel like that idea has spilled over into books too. It definitely spills into the writing itself sometimes, which is why the Hunger Games will always have a bit of my heart for reversing gender roles so thoroughly without making a huge point about it, but it seems lately that even the way we talk about books has become gendered, and I echo your sentiments. I don’t need “boy books” or “girl books”, I just want well-written, entertaining books. I don’t care if they have a male protagonist or a female one, if they’re slow paced or action-packed. I just want the books without unnecessary gender baggage.

    Oh, and I read the article you linked, and I am just amazed at the idea that a female main character is a trope. I could go on a whole rant about that alone, but I’ll refrain.

    This is a really great discussion post, though–thanks for writing.

  2. juliababyjen

    This was really interesting point. I do agree myself, although I always think in the back of my head, male protagonists or female protagonist when I start reading. After a few chapters though, I don’t even think of it anymore. Unless the book isn’t any good!

    I hate the marketing toward girls campaign that’s been going on. I don’t want things only in pink and purple! I understand it for little girls, but for teens and adults? Come on!

  3. I consider myself to be a Geek and i am proud of that..i see books as adventures and have never even stopped to consider what gender its geared too. Awesome post and you make some great points. Why in the world would I limit myself by classifying books his and hers..eek gads!

  4. Bekka @ Pretty Deadly Reviews

    THANK YOU. I totally 100% agree with everything you just said.

    HOWEVER. One of the reasons why books are divided like that (I would say especially in YA) is for those young reluctant readers. If you find a (stereotypical run-of-the-mill boy) who isn’t a huge reader, getting him to read things like Meg Cabot, Stephanie Meyer, or Sarah Dessen isn’t going to be easy. So from a librarian’s standpoint (no, I’m not a librarian, I’m just guessing) it would be easier to get kids reading that way with the gender divides.

    As we get older, though, those lines fade away. I don’t know how old your GR friend is but I’m guessing she is an adult, so I don’t really see how she can still hold onto that way of thinking.

    Also: what was the book!?

  5. Jasprit

    Oh this is a great discussion topic Renae, like you I don’t normally think of books as gender specific either, one of my closest friends is a guy too, and he’s always asking me for book recommendations to him!

  6. I’ve worked pretty hard to train myself out of saying girl book and boy book, etc because really it closes off a whole audience and just reinforces patriarchy and sexism, especially because typically the girl book is devalued. ANYWAYS.

    My boyfriend occasionally reads YA and sometimes I give him books with females on the cover and he’s cool with it as long as there are zombies.

    Also. Your dad is awesome.

    Also, like you I will read anything that appeals to me, regardless of who it is marketed toward.

  7. Ellis

    So last week I was walking around in my local bookstore. Turns out they do shelve according to gender in Belgium. Seriously, there was a “for women” stand next to the “serious”, highbrow literature. For a minute, I really didn’t know what to do, so I just bought Mistborn and got the hell out of there.