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Breaking the Gender Molds, a guest post and giveaway by author Eric Devine

I’m a 36-year-old, cisgendered, heterosexual, white male, who writes Young Adult novels that are boy-centric, and I’m bothered by the slim definition of what it means to be a man.

I was raised under very stereotypical precepts about manhood, and I was always bothered by them. Instead of watching sports, I read. Shyness overtook bravery. I did not demand, I accepted, and it was problematic.

Until I flipped the switch during middle school and played the part. It was instantly apparent how much easier it was to be a loud-mouthed punk than it was to be me. But in spite of the ease, I was unsettled, because I knew who I had abandoned.

Painful, yes, but excellent training for the work I do today. Because those expectations, those norms of masculinity, still exist, are extremely pervasive, and put boys and teens into extremely uncomfortable situations where they either have to behave the part or suffer the consequences. The pressure is real and terrifying, and something I try to address in my work.

In summary: Tap Out is about what one does as a very stereotypical “tough” male in a hostile and violent environment that has only one use for him. One he doesn’t want, but is hamstrung to escape.

Dare Me explores what it’s like to want to break the profile of “nothingman” and win acclaim, earn money, and come out on top by succeeding at feats of valor––or more commonly known today as YouTube stunts.

Press Play is about pushing back against the dominant, violent culture, by fighting with technology and intelligence, instead of fists. It’s about choosing not to hide, in spite of the enormous danger of exposure.

Much of my decisions regarding what I write and how I address issues of gender, in particular masculinity, are informed by my own experience, but equally by my students. We talk. A lot. And I tell stories of my youth because they want to understand how I’ve arrived at my perspectives. I’ve addressed aspects of drug use, sexuality, violence, suicide, rape, privilege, and any number of humorous/disgusting combinations about life you can think of. Often we talk about expectations placed on girls and boys, even if my students don’t realize that’s what they’re talking about.

One day we discussed fighting. There had recently been one, and based on the details, I innocently asked about a broken nose. The class sensed I knew more about this topic than I was letting on and asked me to tell a story of what I knew of breaking someone’s nose.

I did, briefly, but more importantly, then asked, “What are the expectations for males in our society, especially contact sport athletes, when it comes to fighting?”

This led to an engaging conversation that quickly turned from only males in sports to males and females broadly. And it was an interesting experience for many of the girls to hear the boys talk about the pressure of fitting in. They deftly detailed that on some level the dirty jokes and swearing and fighting are part of the roles in which they are asked to play (Yes, they struggled to word it this way––they’re teens––but the message was clear: forced stereotypes are universal).

I was so proud of our conversation because it was obvious that I had provided a space for my students to think about concepts they’d never fully entertained, which is exactly what I try to do in my stories. Yet, the issue stuck with me. Because what didn’t emerge in that conversation was that those pressures don’t go away. They morph and become stronger. And in light of very recent events of parties and rape and fight clubs, I felt a bit hopeless. How is a male, today, supposed to successfully navigate the pressures of being “a man” and evolve into someone who is unafraid to embrace a balance of masculine and feminine traits? In essence, how are they to succeed where I failed?

I won’t say books are the answer, because that’s naive. Parents, adult figures, older brothers and sisters, and by very large measure peers and pop culture all have a hand in shaping boys and girls. Books are a part of that, and a significant one if they flip preconceived notions on their heads. If they challenge the stereotypes. If they offer alternatives to the norm of cisgendered, heterosexual, white protagonist. Or if they expose and explore the trappings of how and why the stereotypes abound.

And they already exist. But the audience needs to be wider. I know men and women who haven’t read a book since high school, and so for all the good that I can do by writing novels that challenge societal assumptions, how are my stories ever going to find a way into the hands of the sons and daughters of these adults, who do not value reading, who may be completely comfortable with the expectations of the standard male and female models because they were never challenged to think otherwise, and who have not had conversations with their children about the fact that “being a man”  or “being a woman” is an ever-evolving process that is a paramount pursuit in order to have a fulfilling life?

But there are others. Like me, and not at all like me, who are having these conversations, who are reading and helping teens navigate. There are teachers and librarians and adult figures in various capacities who are open and willing and helpful. There are allies in every struggle. And I feel that the issue of redefining both masculinity and femininity is a pressing and important concern. Not so that we can foist new roles on boys and girls, but so that we can accept the traits of masculinity and femininity, the fact that they are a part of us all, regardless of gender or sexuality. If only so that the “boys will be boys” mentality, that is one of the most ignorant concepts in our culture, can die.

And so with it, some of that pressure. I say “some” because there will always be pressure. But it is up to us to decide how it is applied, and to what end. Do we want to continue the binary opposition of male versus female in our culture, or do we want to move forward with a better understanding of humanity and of ourselves?

Because in the end, even my freshman understand the pressures are they same, they just manifest differently. Therefore, we should be seeking virtues of behavior and not categories. Because breaking the mold is beautiful, but never again having to fill one is stunning.

Eric Devine is a high school teacher and the author of Tap Out, Dare Me and the upcoming Press Play, all from Running Press Kids. He blogs here at Teen Librarian Occasionally and wrote a chapter in The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services, edited by myself and Heather Booth and published in July from ALA Editions. 

You can follow Eric online: 

Win Eric Devine’s Books!

Eric and Running Press Kids have generously donated a copy of Tap Out which I am putting together with my arc copies of Dare Me and Press Play picked up at various library conferences to give to you as a prize. You can win a complete set of Eric Devine books! If you live in the U. S. you can do the Rafflecopter thingy below until Saturday the 23rd, The Tween’s birthday and the debut of the new Doctor, to enter.

Let’s Talk Gender Diversity, Shall We

When The Tween was born, 12 years ago this month *sniff sniff*, The Mr. and I went out of our way to try and find non-pink baby things. We bought a very cool green blanket with giraffes and the lyrics to Yesterday, because we are that cool. But the truth is, she had a lot of pink. And I do mean a lot of it.

Around the time she turned 7, someone bought her a Bratz doll.  This doll wore the world’s most barely there outfit, tons of make-up, and the back of the package said, “It doesn’t matter if you win or lose, it’s how good you look doing it.” I’m not going to lie, the doll went right into the trash and I took her to the store to let her pick another toy out. 

But even then, I was still not totally gender stereotype conscious. It has been a growing awareness. When I hear teens tell their male friend to “man up” or “grow a pair”, I cringe. The truth is, being sensitive and showing that sensitivity is not only okay, but it’s healthy. And when I hear mother’s telling their daughters to stop running around and “act like a lady”, I cringe as well. Why don’t we instead tell our kids to “be brave” or “be respectful” or “be quiet” or “be still”? We don’t have to use gender stereotyped expressions to remind our children of good behavior, we can just remind them of the proper behavior for the situation and ask them to do it.

And Thing 2, she blows all the gender stereotypes out of the water. Where The Tween chose to wear nothing but dresses, Thing 2 will only wear shorts and a tank top. She sometimes asks me to buy her a dress, but I now basically say no because even if I buy them, she won’t wear them, which is perfectly fine with me but I don’t want to keep wasting my money on things she won’t wear. Her best friend is a boy and they play together non-stop. Sometimes while playing, one of the boys will do something and their mom will say, “Stop screaming like a girl”, or “Stop running away like a girl”. When this happens, I use gentle reminders to this mom, my friend, that when she does that she is in fact insulting my daughter, whom I know she loves, and suggesting that there is something wrong, something less than in being a girl. We’ve also talked about how gender stereotypes hurt her sons, because they do.

The Tween is very aware of my campaign against gender stereotypes. She found out, and I suppose I fully embraced it, when she came home in the 4th grade with an assignment on pink paper that asked the girls to pick a famous Texan to do a report on. The boys came home with a blue paper asking them to choose a famous male Texan. The lists were markedly different, and troubling. So my research began in earnest.

The truth is, there is nothing wrong with girly girls. And there is nothing wrong with athletic men. There is also nothing wrong with so called tomboys or artistic, sensitive men. In fact, whoever a person chooses to be, that is good as long as they are comfortable with it and they aren’t hurting another person. Diversity in the world is good.

And when we think about gender and gender stereotypes, we have to go beyond traditional genders for other reasons as well. According to the June 2014 issue of VOYA, some of the many ways that a person may identify themselves include transgender, transexual, non-comforming, genderqueer, cisgender, intersex, pansexual, adrogynous and more. In the year 2014, we’ve gone beyond the simple classification of boy and girl. We are coming to understand the complexity of individuals. There is also a resource list provided (page 9) which is really extensive and I suggest you check it out.

When we were planning this year’s SRC with a variety of new staff members, we began discussing what type of demographic data we wanted to collect. When someone suggested we should have a male/female box, Christie and I protested. The questions we asked were simple:

1. What would we do with this information?
2. Does it accurately reflect our audience?
3. In a world where even Facebook recognized the gender diversity by providing over 50 options, was this the best route possible? Were we being inclusive or exclusive?

In the end, the main argument for collecting this information was that it would help us know which gender groups we had reached and were participating and which were not. And my argument for this was that the way we would probably respond to this information would be to try and market to said group in stereotypical ways. My concern, for example, was that if we found that we had few males participating, that we would marketing to this target audience in gender stereotyped ways such as creating an athletic themed campaign, or cars, or such. In the end, Christie and I argued, this wasn’t really relevant data. We needed to market the SRC comprehensively to the entire community and let the campaign speak on its own. We also argued that we would, in fact, be alienating portions of our target audience by asking them to put themselves into boxes that they didn’t really identify with. That if we tried to have them force themselves into our little male/female boxes, that they would interpret that as meaning that the SRC wasn’t for them.

In the end, we all agreed not to collect this demographic information because it is based on a view of the world that sees people as either this one thing or another. And the truth is, many people in our world don’t see themselves that way. It’s a hard change to make for many, recognizing people’s rights to define themselves outside of what is considered the norm for many. But the truth is the world is always changing and as we change, we learn more and more about what it means to be human and part of that which elevates us above the rest of our brethren in the animal kindgom is our ability to think, to grow, and to have compassion. Well, that an opposable thumbs. As we grow in this knowledge, we recognize the right of other people to choose who they want to be in this world, to choose how they want to identify themselves. There is no one right way to be a girl. There is no one right way to be a boy. And in the year 2014, there are many who identify themselves as neither girl nor boy. Allowing people to authentically be themselves, to be comfortable in their own skin, and creating a world where that can happen, decreases incidences of bullying, decreases mental health issues, and increases feelings of security, safety and well being. Those are all good goals. I encourage you to read and read a lot about this topic because it can impact the health and well being of the tweens and teens we serve and parent. It’s something I am trying to learn more about so let’s go on this learning adventure together, shall we? If we truly care about people, we will.

For additional resources:

I’m currently reading Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue: How to Raise Your Kids Free of Gender Stereotypes by Chritia Spears Brown, PHD

Check out your June 2014 edition of VOYA Magazine, pages 8-17. It includes an interview with author Alex London, who wrote the Proxy series and a great resource list of titles

Also, check out The Good Men Project which is working to breakdown our current culture of dangerous gender stereotypes and asking us to think differently about what we tell our boys it means to be a man.

A Mighty Girl is a site that encourages us all to go beyond our current female gender stereotypes and empower our girls to be confident, bold and strong.

The #WeNeedDiverseBooks Tumblr is the official home of the We Need Diverse Books campaign.

More on Gender Issues at TLT:
I’m Just a Girl? Gender issues in YA Lit
Girls Against Girls
Teach Me How to Live: talking with guys about ya lit with Eric Devine
Let’s Hear It for the Boys: Boys and body image
Who Will Save You? Boundaries, Rescue and the Role of Adults in the Lives of Teens 
The Curious Case of the Gender Based Assignment 
Let Children Be Who They Are