DON'T ASSUME MY GENDER
My fourteen-year-old, green-haired, artist of a daughter is dressing as a gender-bending Spock for Halloween. There are no Spock dresses; she is sewing it herself. This is a surprise to no one. Sometimes my kid dresses like a “boy.” Sometimes she dresses at a “girl.” She sees gender as a spectrum and sexuality as fluid, and isn’t afraid to tell you either of those things.
These ideas did not come from me, though I embrace them. My daughter is part of what I think of as the Tumblr generation, a universe of middle schoolers who are growing up in constant communication with each other, and who define themselves in terms of specific fandoms and individual self-expressions, particular memes and re-imagined cosplay themes.
In my daughter’s world, gender rules are different. In one of her favorite popular fandoms, Steven Universe has three de-facto “moms,” and Gems like Steven can combine and re-combine into powerful partnerships regardless of their gender.
Even my daughter’s language is different. She wants to “marry” both Foggy and Matt Murdock from Daredevil, and isn’t afraid to tell you that, in the same way she isn’t afraid to try out “boy” eyebrows in brown eyeliner on her face. On the first day of school this year—at an admittedly arty, liberal private school in an urban environment—she wrote DON’T ASSUME MY GENDER on her arm in Sharpie. Nobody bullied her; in fact, one of the senior girls told her she thought she was cool.
She is cool, but so is the kid that could say that. Why can’t we all be that cool? Our world changes every day. Why can’t we let it? Why can’t we admit it? All we have left to do, as parents and teachers and educators and grown-ups, is to follow our children’s lead.
Why should a bookshelf be more rigid than reality?
Sometimes I want to borrow my daughter’s Sharpie and write DON’T ASSUME MY GENDER on every book in the Middle Grade or Young Adult shelves. Books shouldn’t be less gender-fluid than the kids who read them. Growing up, even I identified with Holden Caulfield, Ponyboy, and both Murray siblings, Charles Wallace and Meg. When Pam Ling and Tessa Roper and I held our Dark is Rising fan club under the steps of the classroom bungalow in third grade, we all wanted to be the Seventh Son of a Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, what Susan Cooper considered the most powerful of her magical race of ancient Old Ones. It never even occurred to me that there would be a gender issue there, because we were Will Stanton, all of us. We knew what it was like to be him, because we had been him, for as long as we’d read the books.
My latest book, BLACK WIDOW: FOREVER RED, out this week, has three main characters and three POV’s. Two are female and one is male. Is it 2/3 a girl book? Or 1/3 a boy book? How do we define either one of those labels? All three characters are equally heroic. All three kick major butt. All three write their own destiny, star in their own story arc, rescue themselves and each other on any given page.
At YALLFEST and YALLWEST, two book festivals I work with, Veronica Roth invented a panel called “STRONG FEMALE CHARACTERS UGH!” In other words, it’s the WHY DO WE STILL NEED TO HAVE THIS PANEL PANEL. In the same way, when Shannon asked me to contribute to this week of posting, I thought -- books are for everyone. Of course they are. Why do we still need to write a post about that?
DON’T ASSUME A BOOK’S GENDER.
Maybe I can’t write that on all the books, so I’ll try to write it into your brain. Because my kid may not be the norm but the truth she is trying to articulate is far bigger than just one Vulcan in a dress.
She’s a person.
People are people.
Books are books.
Readers are readers.
Stories are everyone.
Margaret Stohl is the #1 New York Times Bestselling co-author of the BEAUTIFUL CREATURES Novels and DANGEROUS CREATURES novels, as well as the author of BLACK WIDOW: FOREVER RED (Marvel YA), and the ICONS Novels. Prior to becoming an author, Margaret worked in the video game industry as a writer and lead designer for sixteen years. She is also the co-founder of YALLFEST (Charleston, SC) and YALLWEST (Santa Monica, CA), two of the biggest kid/teen book festivals in the country. An alumnus of Amherst College, Stanford University, and Yale University, Margaret lives in Santa Monica with her family, two rescue cats, and two bad beagles.