Machine Man is out in Australia and New Zealand today, because of the time
difference. We’re eight days and fourteen hours ahead of the US. I don’t know
if you knew that. It’s because the Southern Hemisphere rotates slightly faster
than the Northern Hemisphere. That’s why the seasons are different, too.
Also, most of what you think is an accent is actually just the
Anyway, the point is that residents of Australia and New Zealand should now be
visiting bookstores and moving my book to more prominent positions.
Bookstore owners say they hate that, but they’re just crotchety because of the whole
collapsing industry thing. They’ll thank you when that eye-catching
cover brings in more foot traffic.
Northern Hemispherians have to wait until next week. You know my Australian
publisher did this specifically to annoy you. Not only that, but they’re running
a promotion whereby antipodes can get a free e-copy with every print edition. I’m not sure
how that helps anyone, come to think of it. I guess if you like the look and feel of print books but the convenience
of digital, it’s good. Or if you want to test which medium you prefer by
reading the exact same book once on each. If that describes you, details are craftily hidden
on this page.
This has been a great year for male writers, with women shunted
aside for major prizes and all-new hand-wringing about why it is so.
Because, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but male writers get taken
more seriously. Also, stories about men, even if written by women,
are considered mainstream, while stories about women are “women’s fiction.”
This despite the fact that women read more than men, and write
more, and are over-represented generally throughout publishing.
As the father of two girls, one aged five and one ten months,
I know why. It’s because of dogs and Smurfs.
I can’t understand why no-one else realizes this. I see
these knotted-brow articles and the writers seem truly perplexed.
Dogs and Smurfs: that’s the answer.
Let me walk you through it. We’ll start with dogs. I have
written about this before, but to save you the click: people assume dogs are male.
Listen out for it: you will find it’s true. To short-cut
the process, visit the zoo, because when I say “dogs,” I really mean,
“all animals except maybe cats.” The air of a zoo teems with “he.”
I have stood in front of baboons with teats like missile launchers
and heard adults exclaim to their children, “Look at him!” Once I saw
an unsuspecting monkey taken from behind and there was a surprised
silence from the crowd and then someone made a joke about sodomy.
People assume animals are male. If you haven’t already noticed this, it’s
only because it’s so pervasive. We also assume people are male,
unless they’re doing something particularly feminine; you’ll usually say “him”
about an unseen car driver, for example. But it’s ubiquitous in regard to
Now, kids like animals. Kids really fucking like animals. Kids are little animal
stalkers, fascinated by absolutely anything an animal does. They read books about
animals. I just went through my daughter’s bookshelves, and they all have
animals on the cover. Animals everywhere.
And because publishing is terribly progressive, and because Jen and I
look out for it, a lot of those animals are girls. But still: a
ton of boys. Because of the assumption.
Here’s an example: a truly great
kids’ book is Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers. I love
this story, but on page 22, after being called “it” three times, an
otherwise sexless penguin twice becomes “he.”
This would never, ever happen the other way around. The only reason
a penguin can abruptly become male in an acclaimed children’s book
without anybody noticing is because we had already assumed
Then you’ve got Smurf books. Not actual Smurfs. I mean stories
where there are five major characters, and one is brave and one is smart
and one is grumpy and one keeps rats for pets and one is a girl.
Smurfs, right? Because there was Handy Smurf and
Chef Smurf and Dopey Smurf and Painter Smurf and ninety-four other male
Smurfs and Smurfette. Smurfette’s unique
personality trait was femaleness. That was the thing she
did better than anyone else. Be a girl.
Smurf books are not as common as they used to be, but Smurf stories
are, oddly, everywhere on the screen. Pixar makes practically nothing else.
I am so disappointed by
this, because they make almost every kids’ film worth watching.
WALL-E is good. I will grant them WALL-E, because Eve is so awesome. But
otherwise: lots of Smurfs.
Male is default. That’s what you learn from a world of boy dogs
and Smurf stories. My daughter has no problem with this. She
reads these books the way they were intended: not about boys,
exactly, but about people who happen to be boys. After years
of such books, my daughter can happily identify with these characters.
And this is great. It’s the reason she will grow into a woman who
can happily read a novel about men, or watch a movie in which
men do all the most interesting things, without feeling like she
can’t relate. She will process these stories as being primarily
not about males but about human beings.
Except it’s not happening the other way. The five-year-old boy who lives up
the street from me does not have a shelf groaning with stories about
girl animals. Because you have to seek those books out,
and as the parent of a boy, why would you? There are so many great
books about boys to which he can relate directly.
Smurf stories must make perfect sense to him: all the characters
with this one weird personality trait to distinguish them, like
being super brave or smart or frightened or a girl.
I have been told that this is a good thing for girls. “That makes girls
more special,” said this person, who I wanted to punch in the face.
That’s the problem. Being female should not be special. It should
be normal. It is normal, in the real world. There are all kinds of girls. There are
all kinds of women. You just wouldn’t think so, if you only
paid attention to dogs and Smurfs.
Is it the positive role model thing? Because
I don’t want only positive female role models. I want
the spectrum. Angry girls, happy girls, mean girls. Lazy girls.
Girls who lie and girls who
hit people and do the wrong thing sometimes. I’m pretty sure my daughters
can figure out for themselves which personality aspects they
should emulate, if only they see the diversity.
It’s not like this is hard. Dogs and Smurfs: we’re not
talking about searing journeys to the depths of the soul. An elephant
whose primary story purpose is to steal some berries does not
have to be male. Not every time. Characters can be girls just because
they happen to be girls.
P.S. Don’t talk to me about Sassette. Sassette was like the three millionth
Smurf invented. You get no credit for that.