A few months ago, I read a fascinating article on the Stuff You Missed in History Class blog. After receiving innumerable complaints about their podcast which boiled down to either “you talk about women too much” or “you only talk about women”, Tracy Wilson went back over the episodes they’d produced and put together graphs showing the breakdown between episodes focused on men, women, and ungendered events. You can see the results here. But, unsurprisingly, (spoiler alert!) they showed that stories about women made up roughly 30% of their content.
Those results tie directly into the recent research that shows that men talk significantly more than women in a mixed group, but women are perceived as being more talkative and taking up more time. There are various explanations for this disparity between objective reality and perception, from old-fashioned sexism to differences in male and female speaking styles. Whatever the reason, however, it’s safe to say that the old “truism” about women talking three times as much as men is exactly the opposite of truth.
I was reminded of both these things a few days ago when my nine-year-old son asked, “Why do we only ever read books with girl main characters?”
Now, as a mother of two boys, I take particular care to make sure that the books I read to them feature a mix of male and female protagonists. For every Charlie and the Chocolate Factory there’s a Matilda. For every Harry Potter there’s a Wrinkle in Time. So my first reaction was to feel pleased that my attempt to provide gender-equality in our shared stories was working.
We’ve just finished reading Catherynne M. Valente’s glorious novel The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her own Making, starring September — a twelve-year-old girl from Omaha who travels to Fairyland– and have moved directly on to Barbara O’Connor’s How to Steal a Dog, starring Georgina — a young girl living in a car with her mother and little brother when they suddenly find themselves homeless. I don’t remember what we read before that, but after my moment of pride, I fell into doubt. Have I pushed the pendulum too far and deprived my son of his heroic male role-models.
So I took my son by the hand and went to find out whether his assertion that we mostly (because “always” was clearly an exaggeration) read about female protagonists was true.