A few days ago I grabbed a book for my daughter at the library. Usually I read through books before giving them to her, but this book is part of a very popular silly series, and I didn't. I gave her the book when she got home. I could hear her laughing over it, and then she brought me the book and said she wished the book wasn't all about a boy. She asked me to read a particular passage. The main character is a little boy and he's the narrator. In the passage my daughter showed me, he makes fun of a girl until she cries and then declares her a crybaby when she runs away. So we talked about that. Is it ok to be mean to people? Should he have apologized? I hoped it was a one-off incident in the book and gave it back to her.
Both of my girls wanted to read the book as a read-aloud before bed last night. The main character and the other kids are in a Halloween parade. The boy accidentally steps on the costume of the girl in front of her, ripping the costume off. He laughs, along with everyone else, and when she runs off crying, he says that it was her own fault for wearing that costume anyway. I was very upset, and we talked about what the little boy should have done. He should have helped her. He should have apologized. My girls resisted the apology at first. "It was an accident," they told me. I said I know that he didn't mean to do it, but he did and so he should have apologized. At that point, it was time to be done reading and we set the book aside.
It wasn't until a little later that I realized why I had reacted so strongly to that incident. "It's part of our rape culture problem," I told my husband. A girl's clothing is ripped off. She's embarassed and hurt. Yet somehow it is HER fault, because of her choice in clothing.
There is a strong double standard in children's books. In many books aimed at girls, when girls misbehave they feel bad, relationships with friends and caring adults are damaged, and apologies and ammends are made. In many books aimed at boys, when boys misbehave, it is funny and there are no regrets and no consequences. I see how my children are absorbing these messages. They laugh when it is a boy book and the boy misbehaves. They are uncomfortable when it is a girl book and the girl misbehaves. This double standard is incredibly dangerous for both boys and girls. It lets boys off the hook ("boys will be boys"), and puts a heavy burden on girls both to always be perfect and to take the blame when someone misbehaves toward them.
So this afternoon, I will be talking with my 5- and 6-year-old girls about victim blaming. Then we will get out one of our favorite girl power books.