Category Archives: Gender Issues

The Problem with “Boy Books”

First, read this post by YA Author Justine Larbalestier: The Problem with Boy Books

I’ll wait.  It’s a very good post, and the parts I want to respond to are probably not the ones most would expect.

Unfortunately, comments on Justine’s post were closed, so I’m putting my response here on the Chimney.

I have a page here on the Chimney listing 200  YA/MG-ish books with male protagonists and/or authors.  For a variety of reasons, most of which aren’t made explicit on the page itself. For example, it makes the point that in fact there are many and even many good YA books with male protagonists and authors.

But to get to my thoughts on the whole “we need more YA books starring boys so boys will read” debate.  This argument, as Justine points out, makes several important assumptions, almost all of which are false.

  1. Boys don’t read.  Well, that’s obviously crap.  I read and I know many other folks of the male persuasion who do as well.   Not only now, but from back when many of us would have classified as YAs ourselves.
  2. Relatedly: we must solve this problem by getting boys to read YA.  Also crap.  Justine points  out that many boys do read, just not within the genre of YA.  The argument seems to be that YA books are for YAs, so if male YAs aren’t reading them, male YAs must not be reading.  Which is silly.  Although most YA lit focuses on YA (or lightly above) protagonists, sales data shows that the audience, whether intended target or not, is so much wider.  First, yes.  More female YAs read YA lit than male.  In fact, the readership appears to be drastically weighted towards females in all age categories.  So despite that settings and characters–and the blunt category label–I don’t think we can say that YA is lit for YAs, thus undermining the argument at issue here.
  3. A third assumption, which some might disagree about the truth of, is the assumption that we need boys to read more. Do we?  That depends on what value we believe/claim reading to have.  Is there some positive influence unavailable elsewhere that reading provides?  I certainly don’t claim to be able to prove either possible answer there.  But even without the full answer, the partial response we can rely on is that reading does have value and does provide some benefits, at least to some people.


I do have to disagree with Justine on one point: books do not have gender, sure.  But they have a target audience.  Just looking at the above-mentioned readership of YA, it’s clear that some books appeal more to certain people (and arguably groups) than others.  So in fact, there are “boy books” insomuch as marketing shows that  we can target our product and advertising towards specific groups we wish to cultivate as customers.  The underlying question is really whether there is cultural and individual to the reader value in such targeting. Most marketers and companies will naturally argue for the financial value to them.  Personally,as I suspect Justine does, I think there’s a great deal of value in having readers cross market category lines.  If we indirectly discourage boys from reading “girl books” by creating an opposing category of “boy books” and then hinting very strongly in our marketing that boys should read these in preference to girl books, we’re artificially preventing them from gaining the value of learning about different perspectives.


Now to address my points:

Boys do read.  They may not read YA, but as I say in point 2, that doesn’t mean they don’t read.  In fact, there’s a strong belief among the book-ish community that boys read a great number of Middle Grade books, and then generally mix in adult genre fiction over time as they age out of the middle grade category.  (It’s interesting to note that YA has a much wider practical audience compared to its supposed target audience than middle grade does, such that many readers never age out, or eve pick up the category later in life having not indulged when they were actually young adults.)  So there’s  no reason to artificially force some sort of supposed gender parity in YA publishing.  The fact that YA is less popular with boys does not as claimed equate to reading in general being less popular with boys.

That’s not to say I wouldn’t enjoy a broader array of male protagonists in YA, written by male authors or otherwise.  But keep in mind that I read over a hundred books a year, so it’s not that there’s necessarily a deficiency, but that I am an outlier, and further, no longer a young adult, thus somewhat disqualifying me from being a statistic at all.  (Though I read at the same pace when I was younger.)  Also, I had and have no trouble reading either female protagonists and authors or “girl” books, so again, still not an argument for forcing gender parity in main characters.

And speaking of consumption of alternate media, I don’t enjoy (fiction–or non-fiction, I suppose) books about sports.  But I love anime (and manga) that involves sports.  As Justine brings up early on, all boys are different.  Anecdotally, no amount of sports-themed boy-lead stories are going to automatically bring more males like me into reading YA.


I’m gonna now delve into the Go vs chess analogy in Justine’s post because as you probably know, I love both linguistics and AI.  It’s in some ways a brilliant analogy, since it captures the issue of ignorance on the part of the person criticizing YA as simplistic.  Although Go has far simpler tools and rules to play, it’s far more complex than chess in it’s play.  Words work similarly to games like Go and Chess in terms of the complexity of meaning that can be derived from very simple building blocks.  I took those stupid reading level tests in high school.  Scored too high to get any book recs.  As Justine points out, the complexity of stories come not from the quality of the words themselves, but  from how they are arranged.  Quality here being defined as conversational level words versus SAT words.  For example, I could have said  “verbiage” instead of words, but despite the fancy  vocab, the meaning is the same.  In fact, I could have given the same meaning with “Two-syllable words vs eight-syllable words.”  TL;DR: If your plot is simple, you can’t hide it beneath flowery prose.  So much more goes into a story than the grammar.



Finally, onto the third point.  Justine cites empathy as something that readers can gain from novels.  You’re more likely to get empathy from a competently written story about someone different from you than about someone much more similar to you. Similarity enforces rigidity in thinking, where as difference more often encourages flexibility.  So if we want boys to read more(they already read plenty accounting for non-gender-related factors!) because of what they gain from reading, then in fact forcing stereotypical gender parity is the opposite of the correct solution.  They might read more (they won’t!), but they’ll gain less.


*I’ve actually left out a few very interesting points Justine made in her own post, because I don’t currently have anything to add, and they are separate attacks on this myth from the ones I’ve chosen to address here.  But they are just as important!   Especially the point about general gender disparity in readership/charactergender/author gender  vs. YA specifically.


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Why Obsessing About Rape Only Muddies the Waters

That titles is absolutely intended to be click bait.  A completely honest description of the topic is going to sound very boring.  That I had to use the click-bait title only demonstrates my point, really.  So, what is this post really about?

I’m taking a quick break from my World-building seminars to address a topic that’s both in the news a lot lately, and is also a relevant example of how you can add depth to your world-building.  The issue is sexual consent, and the broader application is linguistics.  Using the word “rape” to talk about issues of sexual consent is a linguistic choice, a cultural choice, and a rhetorical choice.  But what a lot of people don’t understand is how those three types of choice interact, and it really makes it hard to have a useful discussion on the issue of sexual consent when we focus on rape and whether or not the definition of the word should be expanded.  I’m going to make a lingusitic, cultural, and rhetorical argument that it shouldn’t.  The interaction between those three frames of references is the world-building aspect of the post.

First, I’m going to give my short essay on why I am taking the position I am, and then I’m going to explore how the topic could be generalized to help with world-building.  Those of you who aren’t writers or don’t care about world-building can certainly skip the second part of this post.  I think you could benefit from it, but if the issue of rape and consent is why you came here, I’m not going to try to force you to look at the broader implications of my argument.  Here we go!

Rape is often defined as forcing sexual intercourse on a target.  From a linguistic standpoint, you could argue that rape is any form of sexual intercourse without consent.  That’s the linguistic frame of reference.  Now, consider the “prototype” of the word rape.  (I’ve talked about prototypes in linguistics before.  Essentially, it’s the first example you think of when you picture the word in your head.)  It’s a guy dragging someone kicking and screaming into an alley for a lot of pop culture.  So you’ve made a perfectly valid linguistic choice, especially if you explicitly state your definition of all forms of sexual intercourse without legal consent.  But you haven’t made a good rhetorical decision, because when you call someone a rapist, or say a crime is rape, your listeners/readers are going to compare it to their prototype, and it it doesn’t fall within that individuals personal tolerance zone for deviation from that prototype, you’ve put yourself at a disadvantage in convincing them of your argument,

There’s also a cultural choice involved.  Each culture has its own prototype for a word, and the concept the word describes has its own connotations.  Rape culture is a common buzzword these days.  It’s not a “culture”, it’s a set of attitudes, beliefs, and connotations within our larger common culture or popular culture that arguably encourage, allow for, or cover up rape and sexual misconduct/lack of consent.  By calling something “rape”, within a culture with a strong rape culture component, and knowing the prototype for rape is different, perhaps significantly so, from the crime in question, you make a poor rhetorical decision.  It might even be argued to be a poor linguistic decision, because to an extent words are variable, and a word in one culture might have such a strongly differentiated prototype that you can’t really say your definition is correct or reasonable.

However, there’s also the rhetorical decision that “rape” gets people’s notice.  You might write a linguistically, culturally, and even otherwise rhetorically sound decision to use a different term, and then you won’t reach your target audience because that term isn’t on their radar.

Now, my argument is that we should not be focusing so much on the word “rape” in these discussions.  Not only is it rhetorically risky, it doesn’t acknowledge that so-called “rape” is only the tip of a massive iceberg called “non-consensual sex”, the prototype of which is just the tip of another massive iceberg of incidents which are non-consensual sex but not considered so by popular culture, even if they may be considered “skeevy” or sleazy, or ethically grey/black.  But to call them rape gives your rhetorical opponent a lot of wiggle room.  Here’s a technically “true” statement reworded in several different ways to give you an idea of how strong an influence these cultural and rhetorical choices exert on discourse:

  1. “Barney Stinson raped a dozens of women within the fiction New York portrayed in “How I Met Your Mother.”.
  2. “Barney Stinson assaulted dozens of women within the fiction New York portrayed in “How I Met Your Mother.”.
  3. “Barney Stinson had unconsensual sex dozens of women within the fiction New York portrayed in “How I Met Your Mother.”.
  4. “Barney Stinson lied to dozens of women to get sex they would not otherwise have given within the fiction New York portrayed in “How I Met Your Mother.”.
  5. “Barney Stinson tricked dozens of women into having sex with him within the fiction New York portrayed in “How I Met Your Mother.”.

Now, given the popularity of the show, and the lack of outcry over Barney’s behavior, I’d argue that last version is the worst most people would say of the behavior of Neil Patrick Harris’s character in HIMYM.  Personally, I think #3 does the best job of balancing linguistic reality, rhetorical wisdom, and cultural perception.  The trick here is, I don’t think mainstream cultural perception would accept the label “unconsensual sex” for these incidents.  After all, the women said “yes”.  barney did not use force on any of them.  None of them were roofied, although depending on how you classify alcohol, you could argue many were drugged; but, most of them drugged themselves, so you probably won’t have an easy time making that argument, despite its truth or falsity.

Now we have to dig down a bit deeper.  Most people consider consent as a simple black and white “Did she say yes at some point?”  That certainly makes it easier for someone accused of misconduct to defend themselves.  Or to avoid a lot of thought on whether the person actually wanted to be part of an encounter with them.

A more sophisticated view is, “Did they say yes without external pressure such as alcohol, force, or threat of force?” Does a slightly better job of determining true consent by my definition, but still isn’t quite there.

Better yet, add “implied force, peer pressure, hierarchical pressure(boss, teacher, adult to kid), cultural pressure, or economic pressure”.

However, that can be very hard to test for, and our society’s focus on freedom and being able to go with the flow and not be too analytical can make it hard t determine consent to that level.  Explicitly asking those questions can get you a rejection you might not otherwise have gotten.  Again, this creates wiggle room for people who do know that they wouldn’t have gotten sex without external factors.  The vast majority of rape accusations are against people who knew they were applying outside pressure or that some other factor was.

However, the ethical standard I’m choosing to apply is, “Did the accused (or not, if you’re judging yourself) know that under normal circumstances, the other party would not have consented to sex with them?”  If so, and if they had sex with the person, they must have known that the person’s capacity to consent was compromised when they decided to pursue sex.  Legal issues aside, this is unethical.  It also often accounts for why people view some approaches to obtaining sex as sketchy or generally less than a stellar recommendation of someone’s character.

Now, is that rape?  No, I don’t believe so.  I would restrict rape to the person knowingly applying their own form of force through physical means: ie, physical force, threat of physical force, implied threat of force, them drugging the person, or them getting the person drunk.  However, I do think it should be considered immoral, unethical, and probably criminal.  The crime here is intentional denial or avoidance of consent for the purposes of obtaining intercourse with the person.  We don’t have a rape problem, we have a consent problem, and insisting on focusing on rape obscures that.  Certainly in our lifetime, it’s unlikely this sort of crime will ever be considered under the umbrella of rape from a legal or pop culture standpoint, and I think trying to shoehorn it into that category makes a difficult task even harder.

Now, onto the world-building section, it is a bit short, since this is an example-based article.  Using this as an example can you think of any other issues that suffer from similar complexity?  There are quite a few.  Drug crimes, religion, various areas of ethics.  The humanities, the sciences.  You can use the contrast between culture, rhetorical value, and linguistic meaning to add depth to any area of your world-building.  The spaces between these related meanings leave people room to rationalize, have different opinions or takes on a subject, and room for cultural change and/or growth.  This also applies to conflict between individual characters and groups of characters.

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Posted by on June 3, 2015 in Con-worlding, Gender Issues


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Boys Don’t Read: The Making of the Myth

Something I’ve always been interested in is what makes someone a reader.  In general.  But something much more personal to me is the issue of reading and boys and why boys don’t read.  That’s the conventional wisdom.  But I only started hearing it after I was already a rabid reader myself.

(A quick note: I’m a guy.)

And I found it incredibly frustrating, because it didn’t match up with my personal experience.  More than that, it didn’t match up with what I saw of my friends, either.  And I think that’s an issue that has to be addressed.

I’m writing this post after having stumbled across a book blog called Stacked.  Specifically, a series of posts they had about boys reading.  As I read this series of posts, written primarily by adult women, and often citing Michael Sullivan, I became increasingly frustrated.  The posts were full of claims that boys don’t read, boys do read, but they read thus, boys’ brains work like this which is why they read this.  Not a single one of these claims matched my experiences as a young reader.  And I admit, I may have been an outlier.  (It’s useful for understanding my comments here to actually spend the ten or twenty minutes to read those posts first.)

But I have no reason to believe it’s anymore likely that I was the outlier and Sullivan the average male reader than the other way around.  It’s a common problem in scientific research to take your personal opinions and experiences as the norm.  Anyone who’s taken a serious class on research or statistics will have heard about anecdotal evidence–essentially, here’s how it was for me, that must be representative of the wider reality.  I have been guilty of relying on anecdotal evidence myself many times.  But in this case, I don’t believe I am the only one.

One of the primary claims made in the posts is that boys have a “rules and tools” thought process.  The common cliche about asking for directions gets cited.  And much is made of this being an inherent cognitive attribute of men vs. women.  Personally, I think it’s more of a cultural imposition.  We tell boys what the proper male behavior is, and punish them for not modeling it, and then we claim it’s an inherent biological trait.  It’s not.  What really bothered me about these posts was that they spoke as if all boys ever followed these specific in-built patterns.  That’s a pile of crap.  I have no doubt that these are trends among large cross-sections of the men and boys in Western society–whatever their supposed basis.  But they are not the only trends, and I’m not even convinced they’re the most common trends.  But they offer a simple way to view the differences between girls and boys in terms of behavior and educational performance, and so people desperate for an explanation glom onto them.

And I want to suggest that for that reason, they may be doing more harm than good.  If you tell boys this is how they are, full stop, then anyone who hasn’t yet been inculcated with these patterns is forced t re-evaluate themselves.  Are they doing something wrong?  Are they weird?  Should they be acting differently?  And that more than anything, pushes more and more boys and men into these patterns of thinking.  It’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The short version here is that people need to learn to acknowledge that the world is complicated and cannot be reduced to simple binary patterns.  It sucks, and it’s frustrating, but it’s true.  And trying to force the world into those patterns, especially as concerns cultural, societal, or any human sphere can lead to exactly the harm you hope to counteract.



As a result of these issues, I don’t often share my reading with my friends and family offline, because I’ve been told that that’s not proper behavior.  And if boys tend to engage in reading in isolation, then it’s only these false dichotomies we have to blame, and nothing inherent in their make-up.

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Posted by on July 16, 2014 in atsiko, Gender Issues


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The Other Side of the Issue

All issues have at least two sides.  Now that people are reading, I think it is time to present the other side of the argument (found here) in a fair and un-biased light.

The article I linked to discusses the shift from TV sf several decades ago, and TV sf today.  One of its main points is that there is now a lot more focus on human relationships in tv sf–as opposed to action, adventure and fancy technobabble.  This is somewhat true.  However, there has never been a strong focus on hard sf in television.  Instead of good ol’ boy space westerns, we have now shifted to “gritty, realistic, human-centered” space opera.  It really puts the “opera” into “space opera” folks. 

BSG has often been criticized as beng just a soap opera in space.  But then, old guard TV sf was just westerns in space, so the idea that female influence on the genre has lead to the end of hard sf on television is a bit misguided.  There has been a decrease in the space western, but the hard sf was barely there in the first place.  And truthfully, BSG had a very large male audience, so one cannot argue that men (and boys) don’t watch tv sf anymore.

The other cotention was that young men will not have the inspiration to go into the scientific fields that they once got from TV sf.  I’d like to propose that sci-fi readers are in fact more likely to enter the hard sciences, and so this point doesn’t hold much water.  Following my proposition also invalidates the Minsky quote, which–to be fair–the author  of the article never claimed was in response to television sf.  But he very quickly went on to apply it thusly, and so he gets very few points for his “honesty”.

Overall, I agree there has been a shift in tv sf.  No denying that.  But I don’t agree that tv sf was ever really a quality influence on young men, as the Spearhead article claims.  Just read the angsty rant by Benedict that they endorsed so bluntly.  No offense to you Trekkies (or Trekkers, whatever) out there.  I loved Star Trek, and Star Wars, and the original Battlestar Galactica as much as anyone.  But I’m not going to stand here and claim it is in any way equivalent to high-brow literature–or television.

I am not interested in addressing the claims and/or evidence of sexism or differences between men and women.  It is an interesting subject, yes.  But I do not believe such a conversation will be productive right now, nor is it in line with the focus of my blog.  I picked up on this because it dealt with a shift in a genre I care very much about, and because it’s always good to have a reasoned discussion on themes in literature.  I am not interested in enabling the exchange of tirades and trolling between two sides I find unlikely to reach an agreement or compromise at the current time.


The earlier post may be found here.

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Posted by on October 14, 2009 in atsiko, Fantasy/Sci-fi, Gender Issues, Ideas, Themes


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Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus

Well, at least according to this article over at the Spearhead, some blog about guys and how society’s makin’ ’em all into gays.  I guess.

Now, this isn’t really news, as there have already been at least eight wonderful rebuttals across the blogosphere, and some good ole sarcasm.  And, normally, I don’t rant; and I don’t rave; and I don’t discuss sex, sexism, and the American Way.  But this article just ticked me off so much–as did another article it linked to on Big Hollywood.  So, I’m ignoring my usual policy of posting once every two or three days, so that I can indulge in my completely objective, righteous indignation.

Women are ruining science fiction?  Like that old  hag Ursula K. Leguin, right?  Right…  If you say so.

That’s the biggest load of bull I’ve ever heard.  As if men could only enjoy hard sf, and women are only interested in soap operas in space.  Because women have never contributed to science.  And real men don’t watch soap operas.  Or read paranormal romance… or fantasy…or write space opera.  Gotcha Mr. Pro-male/Anti-feminist Tech.  Maybe at least attempt to conceal your bias.  Well, I guess you get points for honesty.

Now, I’m not getting into the BSG debate.  I don’t need that.  I’ve watched both shows, and enjoyed both shows, though I like the new one a little better, or at least, I liked it better for the first few seasons.  I suppose this makes me a Fem-nazi from Venus.  Oh well.  Better than being a Misogynist from Mars.

ETA:  A response to this article has inadvertantly revealed the true feminist agenda.  Click here to find out!

Also, thanks to Whatever and Smart Bitches for pointing this article out to me. 

ETA:  More great responses:

Geek Feminism Blog

SF Signal

And here, we have how not to respond to an article that is half rant/half hate:

Note:  Please read this follow-up post where I attempt to see the other side of the issue… though I still do not entirely agree.


On that note, the next sub-genre of the week post will be up sometime this weekend.  I was going to do Cyberpunk, but I suppose now I should tackle another of my favorite genres:  Space Opera.


Posted by on October 13, 2009 in Fantasy/Sci-fi, Gender Issues


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