When I was still in the young adult reading demographic, I read a small smattering of books about girls. I read A Little Princess, The Secret Garden, and a few others that have slipped through the cracks of my memory. I don’t consider this especially progressive. I didn’t mind reading stories about girls and girly things, but I did my best to hide or excuse the fact that I read them. I didn’t do this because I felt personally ashamed, but because I knew that I would be made to feel ashamed if people knew that I enjoyed them. Despite what some people may believe, there are boys willing to read about girls and girlish things. They are few and far between, I believe, because society in general devalues things it deems to be feminine. Characters with feminine traits are judged more harshly than those who act in a way we consider masculine.
Take the case of Katniss Everdeen, the protagonist of the Hunger Games series. She may be a female character who’s found her way into the accepting hearts of millions, but she’s also an honorary boy. She doesn’t understand (and even fears) your paltry hyoo-man emotions, she would rather kill something than love it, and violence is her go-to solution for everything. This may not be how all men act, but it is an exaggeration of the most widespread stereotypes of male behavior. Men are emotionally oblivious, men are logical as opposed to emotional, men are virile killing machines.
I don’t think that a male character would be so appealing to publishers if he were written this way. A YA novel with a hero who acknowledges his feelings, appreciates beautiful things, and doesn’t immediately resort to decapitating people would be considered an insult to characterization, and abomination, unrealistic and unlikable. Even if he were secretive about his interests and perhaps even prone to violent outbursts, I don’t think publishers would jump to support a book headed by a ‘girly boy.’
A girl who acts like a boy is considered an upgrade, an improvement. For a boy or a girl to act especially girlish is considered a failing of character, a fundamental weakness. In this respect, I don’t see characters like Katniss as especially affirmative.
I want to see more characters, male and female, who are more comfortably blended between gender stereotypes. I want to see more tomboys who aren’t ashamed to wear skirts, and more emotional boys who aren’t treated as comic relief. I want characters who can be strong as well as emotionally vulnerable. I want more people.
I don’t want any children I may raise, teach, or know in the future to be ashamed of reading about girls, or about emotions or beautiful things. It’s a crappy feeling.