Go. Go read it. Make sure you have some clean rags on hand, because your head will a-splode. Go on. I’ll wait a few minutes.
To be frank, my brain is going through a Three Stooges moment, wherein all the thoughts are trying to rush out at the same time, only to get hopelessly stuck in the doorway while making ridiculous whooping sounds. Please forgive me if this is even less polished than my normal ramblings on this site.
First of all, this part of the article in particular made me laugh:
I was stunned the other day to discover that Flashman is just as popular with women as with men. Yes, Flashman, the outrageous Victorian bounder who kicks off the first novel in the series by raping his father’s girlfriend.
If he finds THIS stunning, one hates to imagine what would happen to his brain should somebody try to explain something TRULY weird about the world, like, say, quantum entanglement, or Tubgirl. But then, small minds are easily astonished, because they’re usually surprised at anything that can violate their dearly-held foundational beliefs.
And really, Johnson has approached this conundrum from entirely the wrong angle. He’s astonished that women would read action books, but doesn’t really ponder why men don’t like to read romances. I think the writer has missed out on a huge factor: the stigma of effeminacy.
Yes, women read more action books than men. You are more likely to see a woman reading a Tom Clancy than a man reading Maeve Binchy. I’ve covered this before in “You Read Like a Girl”. You can see this phenomenon extend beyond literature; once something is feminized, it’s seen as tainted, unworthy, less rigorous. Chick movies, chick cars, chick books: these are not compliments. These are terms of derision. Even the most reasonable men and many, many women are afraid of being tarred with the girly brush.
You see this happening in the working world and in academics as well. One of the first fields to attract large numbers of female students was literature and the arts, and nowadays, these fields are mostly written off as the territory of floppy-haired nancy-boys with even floppier wrists. The sciences, baby! That’s where it’s at. Only, once biology started attracting more and more women, the field started to be written off as less rigorous, too. Right now, the attitude seems to be that the REAL sciences are chemistry or physics—preferably the wackier theoretical branches of physics, where it’s still largely dominated by men.
And let’s talk about primary school teachers, something Johnson mentions in the article as having more males than females because of the “paedophile hysteria.” This flagrantly nonsensical explanation ignores the simple fact that more women than men get degrees in primary education, and more women apply for those jobs. Being a grade-school teacher is one of THE quintessential chick jobs of the modern world, with all the earmarks of a typical chick job: it has a large built-in nurturing component, it puts you in constant contact with people, it’s difficult to do yet rarely appreciated, and it pays shit.
There seems to be a rule regarding female critical mass in any area of life: if enough chicks are into it, it can’t be very good. It can’t be worthy. This goes for books, careers, movies, TV shows, cars, subjects of study, sports, clothing—hell, just about everything.
And reading seems to have been delegated as, well, a kind of girly thing to do. But it’s not just the stigma of effeminacy working against boys who read, I think. Kids who love to read and to learn for their own sake, especially the more quiet ones, have been picked on, bullied and called ugly names for a long, long time, and these sorts of things hit kids a lot harder than adults—as we grow older, we’re able to latch onto the anti-cool cool of being a nerd and say it out loud, I’m a geek and I’m proud. I imagine it’s even harder on boys than on girls, because boys are expected to act a certain way.
What way? I’ll allow Boris Johnson, gender relations analyzer extraordinaire, illuminate us as to the True Nature of Masculinity:
There is too much coursework, [Dr. Sewell] says, and not enough of the adrenaline-pumping terror of the exam. Boys need competition, he says, or they slump back into apathy and thuggishness.
They need facts and dates, not empathy. Dr Sewell is dead right. Here is the terrible truth about us boys. We may be devoted to our subjects. We may be interested in learning for its own sake. But what really actuates us, what makes us flog our way through the books on the syllabus, is the simultaneous hope of coming top and the fear of coming last.
Wait a second: England has gotten rid of exams and grades? I thought the only places that have done this were small liberal arts colleges with reputations for academic rigorousness that border on the fearsome, like Sarah Lawrence in NY and Reed College here in Portland. Huh. England’s education system is a lot more radical than I thought.
And honestly, is it the sissy-boy, wishy-washy, womanish lack of punishment that’s led to boys doing less well, or is it because the past century has been the first time that women have been allowed in the education system in the same numbers and on equal footing with men, and we’re finding out that females as a population seem to do better at certain skills required to be a good student, like sitting down and concentrating for long periods of time?
But that can’t be it, of course. Girls are doing better in school? IT MUST BE THE FEMINIZATION OF EDUCATION, OH NOES.
And if fear of coming last and hope of coming first is a motivator that’s more male than female, then I and many, many other women I know must be dudes.
But out of all the astonishing nuggets offered by Johnson, this one is perhaps the most astounding:
The reason women devour so much fiction is that it is the only place where they can find a certain idea of masculinity. It is a spirit that has been regulated out of the workplace and banished from the classroom.
Women turn to fiction, I would guess, because it is the last reservation for men who are neither violent thugs nor politically correct weeds, where a girl can still get her bodice ripped without the bodice ripper being locked up.
The urge for why I love reading so much, explicated at last! It has nothing to do with the joy of immersing myself in other points of view and other worlds, or vicariously experiencing adventures I will never be able to in real life, or the thrill of learning for the sake of learning, or the relief I get from having my over-active brain shut up and become occupied with something other than bugging me about endless reams of minutiae.
I read because I want a dick who can get away with acting like a dickhead.