In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The default "he"

Dear Annie,

You may already know this story:  A father and son are in a car accident.  The father is killed and the son is badly injured and taken to the hospital.  The surgeon coming into the operating room looks at him and says, "I can't operate on this patient: he's my son."

If you are perplexed by how this could be, go to the asterisk* at the bottom of the page.  If you know it instantly so much the better.

I want to go back to assumptions of maleness, the default "he."  I bounced around the store today saying to my co-workers, "Did you know Piggie is a girl?"  About a third of them knew; two people said they just assumed a male/female friendship.  The rest of us all assumed the buddy relationship that you write about.

"What does it take," you ask, "for an animal to read as female?"  There are the visual cues -- you point out the eyelashes.  Or the pink bows or something equally girly.  Why aren't 50% of those ambiguous animals female?  Do we need an author's assertion of femaleness to read a she?

I think the answer to your question is a reader who is conscious of resisting the default.  I've written about my daughters' insistence that the William Steig character Gorky was female, despite the pronouns on every page.  And we got an interesting comment from Erica yesterday:
When I was a child, I always assumed that Piglet from Winnie the Pooh was a girl. Even when I was told otherwise, I refused to accept it. As far as I was concerned, it didn't matter what Piglet's actual gender is. I read her as female, and I still do, even though I know that she was meant to be male. Because she's a fictional character, I felt that no one (not even the author) could tell me that I was wrong in thinking of Piglet as a girl. Most likely, my feelings came from the lack of female characters in Winnie the Pooh and the fact that Piglet is pink.
 So should we the readers (both grown-ups and kids) mess around with gender whenever we feel like it, as with Gorky or Piglet?  Or should we stay true to the intention of the author?  And if the author doesn't reveal intent -- why is that?  I could say that they're encouraging us to become aware of the default and choose for ourselves.  Or I could be  cynical and say that someone -- author or publisher -- believes that a female character might discourage sales to boys or the adults who buy for them.  But that's a post for another day.



* The doctor is his mother.

No comments:

Post a Comment