NORTH ADAMS -- This weekend, the British newspaper The Independent made a gutsy move in its book review section, announcing that the paper would no longer review children's books with gender-specific marketing.
That doesn't mean it won't review books with definitive boy or girl characters, it means it won't review books that section out certain interests -- ballet and cooking or sports and construction -- as appropriate for either boys or girls, but not both.
Or, more to the point, it won't review books that are marketed to the exclusion of the other. One example it cites is that Roald Dahl's classic book "Matilda" is now being published with lots of pink on the cover and aimed directly at the girl market. This has never before been the case with the book, and prior to this current age, it was generally enjoyed by boys and girls, with both genders finding something about the main character to identify with.
But make no mistake, the newspaper is looking at things like the princess phenomenon square in the eye, and it's acknowledging anything accentuating pink that is being pushed at girls as well within its scope.
I applaud this move for a couple reasons.
One is that separate but equal is a horrible way to tell stories and to run an arts-related business. If you want to optimize your sales, you won't work to limit your audience, even by gender. We've come to an era with the prevailing belief that there are "guy movies" and "chick movies," and I can't help but think that this stupid attitude has been retrofitted into the literature of our youngest citizens to make it a lifelong practice rather than a limiting aberration of adulthood.
Men can't like movies about romance? Women can't like espionage films? Nonsense.
The other reason is that I always enjoy seeing critics exercise the power of their influence by omission. Over the many years I have written reviews for film, television, music, books, art, I have realized the fruitless nature of so many bad reviews. They made me feel like I was taking a stand, but they seldom talked people out of liking something they already liked -- and by giving them even negative space, I was giving them free advertising. I prefer to offer positive alternatives, instead, and ignore the negative.
That's not quite what is happening at the Independent, but I do believe it is a step forward for a major newspaper to decide that some items are not worth the publicity of a bad review -- it is better to give exposure to titles that do not push what you believe to be a destructive agenda, whether its gender-exclusive art and literature, or maybe something far, far worse.
I also think that by choosing to not hammer a topic down, a critic is leaving consumers the space to decide on their own whether something is worth their dollar or not.
So, this is the way I look at it. You can decide for yourself if the Disney Princess thing is for you. It's your kid, it's your family. You don't need me or anyone else to spell out all the possible objections to it. If you're a parent of a daughter, you must've heard it all before anyhow.
However, I would ask that you consider buying your daughter some picture books that don't fall into that narrow sphere. And your son, too. It's a way of preventing them from imprisoning themselves through society's gender expectations. There's so much in the world to see and know, it's a shame to teach from birth that some of it is not appropriate for you because of what you have between your legs.