Queer YA 101: The Gender Binary and How We Talk About Books
Let's talk about books. And let's talk about how to talk about books without excluding certain groups of people! Inclusivity is an important topic in YA (and in general). It's important for everyone to be able to see themselves in the books they read. I've put together a quick primer on the gender binary: what it is and how to avoid excluding people when talking about books.
What is the gender binary?
Requisite disclaimers: The gender binary is a huge topic with a ton of complexity. Here, I’m aiming to offer a few resources and hint at a framework for thinking about gender and the gender binary. But I’m not pretending that this is comprehensive in any way.
Why is this important?
When we assume there are only two genders, we exclude anyone who doesn't fit neatly into the gender binary, plus it reinforces traditional gender roles. Don't think this matters for you? It does...kids learn "gender roles" at a very young age. They are learning what they can or cannot do, and what they can and cannot like. This is a huge problem, and often resurfaces later in life as individuals struggle with their identity.
Don't believe me?
- Watch these kids draw their role models.
- And check out this great article by writer and editor Sam Escobar about what it’s like to be non-binary in feminist spaces.
- Think of the children: Check out this Feminist Frequency video talking about how gendering toys hurts all children.
Are you caught up? Here are some tips on how to not reinforce the gender binary when you describe books and media.
Let’s see what problems you can spot in the sentences below. I’m talking about books in this series, so I’m using the language of pitching books in these examples. But you could easily sub out “toy,” “movie,” “show,” “song,” “clothes,” etc., for “books”/”novel.”
This book will appeal to boy and girl readers.
This novel is perfect for girls.
This book is great for boys.
Actual footage of me when I read gender-binary-reinforcing sentences like the ones above:
It’s really, really easy to rewrite those sentences in a way that 1) doesn’t reinforce the gender binary by saying something is for one gender only (or two genders only) and 2) actually conveys the message in a better way.
This book will appeal to readers of all genders.
This book will appeal to boys, girls, and readers of all genders.
This novel is perfect for readers who like stories about _________, __________, and ________. [insert subject matter, plot elements, themes, etc.]
This book is great for fans of ________, _____________, and ___________. [insert subject matter, comparable titles, plot elements, themes, etc.]
I think it’s often much more valuable to talk about the themes that a book has, and similar titles, rather than the gender of the person who you think will pick it up.
Because guess what? There will always be people of all genders who will be interested in the book you’re talking about. Rather than limit the audience of the book and exclude all but one gender, it makes sense to include everyone who may be interested in the book.
Sure, it takes some thought to start talking in a way that includes people of all genders, especially when most (all?) of us have been raised in a world defined by a strict gender binary. But it’s important. And it becomes pretty easy to do once you’re mindful of it.
Want to know more about the gender binary, the gender spectrum, and what it means to be non-binary (or another gender identity that is erased or excluded by the idea of the gender binary)? Here are some more resources to check out:
Youtuber Ash Hardell has a fabulous video called Everything Gender, which is a great primer on these topics.
Here’s an article about common ways that nonbinary people are erased, and how to not erase non-binary people.
Here’s a video about LEGO and how gendering toys can have really insidious effects.
I’d love to hear more thoughts and questions about talking about books in an inclusive way, and it’d be great to see what resources are helpful to everyone—let us know in the comments!
Check out my previous posts about things to keep in mind when talking about books with queer characters and why you shouldn’t describe characters as homosexual.