How Kids’ Books Can Change Toxic Masculinity

To use the expression “toxic masculinity” unironically is to open yourself up to criticism at the hands of people that don’t seem to think it actually exists. Brown University this year actually developed a course for their students focused on unlearning toxic masculinity, and the way the television news and social media treated that nugget of typical leftist propaganda, you’d think the Ivy League was slowly transforming into a literal circus. A clown college.

But there’s so much more to this conversation than what’s offered in some novelty course in Rhode Island. We’ve seen news stories about colleges teaching classes based on Harry Potter and Game of Thrones, too, but those cycled in and out of the national consciousness as quickly as criticism about this class likely will.

The difference is that I never thought about bringing Dumbledore or Jon Snow into my curriculum as a high school English teacher. The unlearning of toxic masculinity, on the other hand, does deserve a place in the classroom.

It doesn’t have to be worded that way—“toxic” has such negative connotations—but after a great panel led by some truly remarkable authors and educators at the 2018 National Conference for Teachers of English (NCTE), I learned that one way to change perspectives in students is more subtle than telling males they’ve been awful people for the entirety of human existence. The answer really could be as simple as introducing students to different types of books that treat female characters differently than how we’ve been accustomed to seeing them in books, television, and movies over the course of the last several decades.

Take, for example, American Literature, which I have taught for 15 years. Consider how many of “The Greats” are white males: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Edgar Allen Poe. Without minimizing what these guys accomplished in their writing careers, too much of this curriculum is focused on the thoughts and worldviews of men.

In “Of Mice and Men,” for example, there is exactly one female character—Curley’s Wife—who exists solely as a symbol of temptation in the book. She doesn’t even get her own first name! John Steinbeck’s book has obviously literary value, but is there a way to use those three weeks of instructional time to teach similar concepts with a text that doesn’t marginalize the female perspective?

How many books did any of us read in school where women are the heroes of the story? And when they are the heroes of the story, how often are the male characters willing to accept her as the leader? How often do male characters listen to female characters in these books? How often do the females speak about things that aren’t in the arena of love and relationships? Try to come up with something. Very likely, you can’t. And that’s a problem.

Literature offers young people the opportunity to see themselves in characters, to live vicariously through imaginary people who show them versions of themselves they think they can be. Except so many students are marginalized by the literature we teach. If it really is as simple as choosing texts where girls can be heroes, where they can have conflicts that aren’t about getting the guy (or, even worse, getting saved by the guy), why aren’t we doing it?

Not everybody is hip to what’s going on in Young Adult literature, but we’re in the middle of a renaissance there, with more and more texts defying these norms. Where girl protagonists have expanded way the hell beyond “Curley’s Wife” and into every social class, ethnicity, and sexual orientation possible. Every kid has the opportunity the see themselves in a character now, which is why books like “The Hate U Give” and “Children of Blood and Bone” remain atop the New York Times bestsellers list, and why movies like “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Black Panther” made a bajillion dollars at the box office. Everybody needs an escape into fiction. Not just white dudes.

Samria Ahmed, author of “Love, Hate and Other Filters” and the forthcoming, “Internment,” laid out three challenges to attendees of the breakout I attended at NCTE on Friday, and they’re too awesome not to share, whether you’re a teacher or just a parent considering what books to buy your children for Christmas this year:

  1. Challenge the “default.” It is fair to wonder whether the world is most amenable to white males. Being aware of that fact is a cultural shift that requires a willingness to see the truth of that fact.
  2. Disrupt the status quo. Every child deserves to see themselves on the page. Change the types of texts you’ve been teaching in class or encourage your children to read.
  3. Don’t be part of the silently complicit majority. You really can do some things to change the way our daughters exist in America moving forward. Why would you want to sit on the sidelines and allow nothing to change?

I’m a white man, so I understand how not fun it is to be lumped into that whole “toxic masculinity” thing. It sucks to think that you’re part of the problem. It also is easy for some people to joke about Brown University starting a class to unteach something they maybe don’t think is as big a deal as people make it out to be.

But if you want the best for your daughters and sisters and mothers and friends, you owe it to them to at least present the possibility that women are more than men have ever given them credit for. There are books available right now that prove this, and the little girls in your life absolutely should be reading them. The little boys in your life should be, too.

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