One Weird Old Trick to Undermine the Patriarchy

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tumblr_mkni969ehZ1qkb7dio1_500My five-year-old insists that Bilbo Baggins is a girl.

The first time she made this claim, I protested. Part of the fun of reading to your kids, after all, is in sharing the stories you loved as a child. And in the story I knew, Bilbo was a boy. A boy hobbit. (Whatever that entails.)

But my daughter was determined. She liked the story pretty well so far, but Bilbo was definitely a girl. So would I please start reading the book the right way?

I hesitated. I imagined Tolkien spinning in his grave. I imagined mean letters from his testy estate. I imagined the story getting as lost in gender distinctions as dwarves in the Mirkwood.

Then I thought: What the hell, it’s just a pronoun. My daughter wants Bilbo to be a girl, so a girl she will be.

And you know what? The switch was easy. Bilbo, it turns out, makes a terrific heroine. She’s tough, resourceful, humble, funny, and uses her wits to make off with a spectacular piece of jewelry. Perhaps most importantly, she never makes an issue of her gender—and neither does anyone else.

Despite what can seem like a profusion of heroines in kids’ books, girls are still underrepresented in children’s literature. A 2011 study of 6,000 children’s books published between 1900 and 2000 showed that only 31 percent had female central characters. While the disparity has declined in recent years, it persists—particularly, and interestingly, among animal characters. And many books with girl protagonists take place in male-dominated worlds, peopled with male doctors and male farmers and mothers who have to ask fathers for grocery money (Richard Scarry, I’m looking at you). The imbalance is even worse in kids’ movies: Geena Davis’ Institute on Gender and Media found that for every female character in recent family films, there are three male characters. Crowd scenes, on average, are only 17 percent female.

More insidiously, children’s books with girl protagonists sometimes celebrate their heroines to a fault. Isn’t it amazing that a girl did these things, they seem to say—implying that these heroines are a freakish exception to their gender, not an inspiration for readers to follow. Children’s lit could benefit from a Finkbeiner Test. (Well-intentioned kids’ media can, ironically, introduce their youngest listeners and viewers to gender barriers: The first time my daughter heard the fabulous album Free to Be … You and Me, she asked “Why isn’t it all right for boys to cry?”)

So Bilbo, with her matter-of-fact derring-do, was refreshing. With a wave of my staff I turned Gandalf into a girl, too, with similarly happy results. I started to fool around with other books and their major and minor characters, sometimes by request and sometimes not. In The Secret Garden, Dickon, the animal-loving adventurer who rescues Mistress Mary, became Mary’s best friend Diana. In the Finn Family Moomintroll books, the Snork Maiden and her brother the Snork traded genders. In the Narnia series, Peter Pevensie and his sister Susan made the pronoun switch. (That was a nice fix for the infamous line about Susan’s abandoning Narnia for “nylons and lipstick and invitations.”)

Friends tell me they pull similar tricks while reading to their sons and daughters: Women who farm become not “farmer’s wives” but “farmers.” Boy animal characters become girls, and vice versa. Sleeping Beauty goes to MIT. Their kids, boys and girls alike, get to hear about a world as full of women as the real one—and as free of stereotypes as we’d like ours to be. Kidlit may be catching up to our kids, but we don’t have to wait for it.

My daughter might forget all about the heroines and heroes she helped create. But she might not. I hope that years from now, when she has a chance to take her own unexpected journey, she’ll remember the story of Bilbo—and be a little more inclined to say yes.

Girl Bilbo art by the excellent Lanimalu, who takes commissions. Used with permission.

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139 thoughts on “One Weird Old Trick to Undermine the Patriarchy

  1. I would kindly suggest that the men here complaining that people reading stories with the characters’ genders swapped to their children somehow robs them of their experience, and that we should just “leave the past to the past” take a minute and think about this. If we “leave the past to the past,” boys and men can still read about their experiences, themselves as the human default– and girls are still left out in the cold. You’re the dominant sex, still, and men’s narratives still dominate the world. A little girl imagining Bilbo Baggins as a woman doesn’t take anything away from you. I’m asking you to think about why it is so important to you to take that away from her?

  2. We have done this same thing when reading to our daughter since she was born. We also use she as the default pronoun when referring to animals or people of unknown gender.
    It’s nice to see that other people do it as well.

  3. After reading some comments and after some thought…

    I agree with many of the replies and the premise, that there needs to be more female characters represented, and that swapping the pronoun does work! I adore this! if i ever have hypothetical children in the future I’d love to use this on a frequent basis.

    However, I also agree with some other comments that it shouldn’t matter whether its male of female. Girls do great things. Boys do great things. People do great things. And while i value this deeply personally, i STILL would have to say its important to use the female pronouns and mix things up! Because although it would be ideal if we didn’t need to use ANY pronouns and people were just people! And gender had nothing to do with anything, because the only differences between sexes are subtle and are SEX differences. Gender is a societal creation. But all that aside, even though we would want that to be so. It isn’t. We live in a male dominated society. We have pronouns that connotate gender, and even if we try to use androgynous terms it is impossible to escape encountering ‘he, she, her, him, etc!” Especially in HIGHLY gendered languages like French where words are masculinized or feminized for everything!

    So I think the solution is to mix it up. To have many females and many males acting and behaving strongly in stories. And vice versa, many females and males acting with thought and gently in some manner or other. I definitely think this whole premise to alter the pronoun is beautiful! hop to it!
    And as a parents, when telling these stories we can also discuss these concepts with children and let them know that it really doesn’t or rather SHOULDN’T matter if you are male or female, but females can be just as strong and heroic as men! this is important!!! Children will always have questions and parents should always interact with them truthfully and openly.

    If we tell children stories and talk about the themes and ideas in them, including the ‘gender roles’ we can definitely shape them to not feel confined by their sex or even ‘gender’ and to not confine their ideas of gender and sex of others into specific molds!

    ^_^

    And on a side note. I just wanted to say! I do not think it really matters if the female character is seen as suddenly being different from other females in a story. As an exception. I’ve read many a story and many a manga where the female protagonist was a cross-dresser and revealed to be a female (while kicking ass the whole while) and/or did things that were different brave and courageous that shocked the characters expectations of what girls should be or should do. While one may interpret this as implying this type of female an anomaly, I view it more as a possible role model or an aspiration for the readers to connect with.

    When we read a story where there is a male super hero, for example, who out of no where has powers and can do great things. He is not your typical male anymore! he is stronger than that (perhaps yes it still maintains the ideal of what a man is and how powerful he is, but i digress).
    And similarly, I view these females characters in this way! They triumph and are strong, and are different. To show that females can be this way, that we can be as tough and as cool as any other. That different is good!
    These characters were amazing because they were different! So i don’t think this type of archetype is entirely bad to the core. And in many of these stories, specifically the ‘genderbending’ ones, the protagonists were revealed to be female and confronted for their actions (which is a big comment socially on women being able to do things only ‘men’ can do), and the story always ended in some way where the moment declared thats how she attempted to gain respect, and in turn she stops her crossdressing (not just in garb but as having percieve her as male), and makes a statement of being able to do all that a male can anyways. That she was so good at being herself and ‘male like’ that she was easily believed as male! As breaking the boundary between expectation and reality!

    But all of this is about perspectives and interpretations. It might just be my mind set, and how i think allowed me to interpret these characters this way and maybe those themes being something I value shone through. <– Thus this may not be as explicit to others.
    ~~~
    HOWEVER, I also agree that this should not be the main representation! And that too much of this can be bad! Because it assumes women cannot just be awesome as a whole, and have to be 'special women' to do so. I think perhaps if there IS a character who is deemed special or 'other' initially, there should be some sort of progression of the plot or dialogue where it is expressed that the character does as she does, and it is not about her being an anomaly. She is just a person. <– and this is my point over all.
    That within our stories there needs to be THEMES that are EXPRESS that it doesn't matter what gender the character is (or likewise that females can be on equal terms as males and vice versa)! That makes it seem beautiful and magical whatever gender they are! And that people are powerful and magical all on their own! That we should aspire to be great. <– although i also think in many instances this can be accomplished without stating it! In many stories where they simply leave out gender roles, stereotypes and close minded perceptions and instead allow all that happens to be excepted, accepted and be grand just as things occur. That the actions of the characters regardless of gender are normal and completely possibly! This kind of story is then amazing and inspiring all on its own!
    ~~~

    And at the end of the day,I think it is all about gauging what needs to be included and what doesn't (as a writer) and as parents/guardians/friends of children: what we want to say about the content and what needs not be said.

    All in all its marvelous stuff! And the start to magical and more powerful female characters is ultimately discussion and awareness! <3

  4. Honestly..I think this is a bit silly, and in 2013 unnecessary. I was a young child in ye olde 70’s (when I was still at read-me-a-story-age; this trick obviously won’t work once kids start looking over mom’s arms and reading along) and while it was a bit of work for my mother to find books (and dolls) that had black characters and positive images, she found enough. This didn’t change my enjoyment of Heidi or Pippi Longstocking or the Little House Books or Narnia one bit, or make me feel any less-it just made discovering “Zeely” and “Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry” a little later more profound. There certainly are classic books that aren’t culturally inclusive, but that does’t mean they have to be edited to make them more palatable for the parent or child. Don’t read those. Dig deeper. Once you’ve infected your child with the love of reading they’ll find the books and heroes that validate them without your help [edited for civility].

  5. I recall reading – but unfortunately can’t recall where – that, globally, something like 70 per cent of farmers are women … so men on the land should arguably be called farmers’ husbands …

  6. Children’s books have always been sexist and researchers have been trying to create awareness but to no avail.
    The 2011 study cited is nothing new. A very similar study was done more than 40 years ago and published in the 1972 book “Dick and Jane as Victims”.
    Apparently, it all begins in the classroom, with even female teachers helping to perpetuate gendered practices and gender stereotypes. “Failing At Fairness: How Our Schools Cheat Girls” (Sadker & Sadker, 1995) makes a compelling case but not many people know about much about it.
    It truly is unfortunate because of the consequences that gendered practices have on children (Lise Elliot’s “Pink Brain, Blue Brain”, 2009).
    This is an excellent endeavor and most people should try to put it to practice.

  7. Your kid is cooler than you. Not that you aren’t cool–you’re awesome! Your kid is cooler than me. What I mean to say is that you’ve done well raising that one. Well done!

    Your kid is everything I hope the future will be.

  8. “I hope that years from now, when she has a chance to take her own unexpected journey, she’ll remember the story of Bilbo—and be a little more inclined to say yes.”

    It is a telling sign of our society that five-year-old kids are being expected to take an unexpected journey some day. Praytell, what will be “unexpected” in 20 or 30 years?

  9. Pingback: Bilbo is a girl!
  10. Interesting post, but what you’ve missed, and as all missed, but some touched over is one simple truth when it comes to character building:

    A good, well fleshed out and complete character, is in it’s very essence, gender neutral.

    It’s actually a base pillar of good character creation, that the character should be able to be either male, female or other. Without any change necessary to it.

    And Bilbo is such a character.

    In my mind, Bilbo is a male, same as Meriadoc and Peregrin.
    But as others have pointed out, either or both of Meriadoc and Peregrin have been female.
    And that’s because they are, truly good characters.

    Gender is a trait that the reader should be able to assign from his/her(hes? hir? hrs?) own perspective.

    Want more examples of good characters?

    Han Solo.

    Think about it for a moment, I’ll wait.
    (Just kidding, I won’t)

    Luke Skywalker.

    Leia Skywalker.

    Darth Vader.

    4 from Star Wars, that hadn’t we had them ingrained in our minds from seeing them on screen as a certain gender, but been in book form, could just as easily had worked as any.

    TL;DR
    Good character == Gender Neutral

  11. A delightful text. It has been discussed quite a bit by Swedish Tolkien fans and RPG gamers during the last two days, almost all reviewing it in positive terms.

    I did the same pronoun-switch for my kids when reading other books many years ago, because I wanted the daughters to feel more included.

  12. “…Cinderella’s stepsisters were so boring because all they wanted to do was talk about their clothes, and who they liked and who they didn’t like. They never read a book or went outside or did anything interesting…. The prince fell in love with Cinderella because she was beautiful AND smart AND funny AND nice, and he was all those things too, so they would make a good match…… And they lived happily ever after, and the next story I’ll tell you is about their kids and what they did.”

  13. Well i always wanted Susan B. Anthony and Sojourner Truth to be white mails. Kinda works, don’t it?

  14. Some of these books were written at times when we only had Farmers and their wives. I think its ok to change that and switch some characters.

    I just have one question: Do you still leave a few male characters heroes in the story to serve as a role model and balance everything out or not?

  15. I liked the idea as a thing to do for a child. Switch the gender to that of the kid. Not into it as a way to fix the world. Sorry

  16. This is genius!
    You know, I’ve been looking so hard for books with strong female lead characters to read to my son and daughter and there they’ve been all along – by the swap of a gender.
    Superb!

  17. Tim Bayly (#70): “Tolkien was a Catholic” is a fact. “God named our race “adam”” is a belief. Believe what you wish, but don’t try to inject your μύθος into this discussion as if we all accepted it. Or in hopes that we will: this is not a street corner for evangelizing.

    Julie Sinclair (#47): I’ve always seen Bilbo as self-sufficient, not old-womanish. He could easily afford to hire a whole staff for his household and personal needs and wants, but he does his own cleaning and cooking (bakes his own seed-cakes!).

  18. Tim Bayley: “Adam” means “red dirt.” “Chava” (Anglicized to Eve) means “life”. In the 1st origin story of the Bible, male and female they were made, and called red dirt (because that’s what they were made of). In the 2nd origin story a few paragraphs later, a woman was made out if a lone man’s rib and called life. There is no attempt to make the two stories flow as one story. Whether you choose to believe the Bible as literal or read it as interesting/nurturing myth, at least you could actually read it and learn what the words mean.

  19. I am almost embarrassed to admit that after so many years of enthusiastic reading with my own kids, grand kids and multiple generations of Head Start kids and their families, I have never utilized such an easy and effective technique for offsetting the gender equality found in traditional children’s literature. I can’t wait to start switching genders as I read to kids and look forward to lively discussions at future parent and teacher trainings at work. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  20. A friend sent me this link after I was complaining about male characters in board books-my daughter loved Cowboys and trains-not many of those with positive female role models. This friend also expressed her uncertainty about changing genders in books-I responded with cheer and told her I had been reading “Little Girl Blue”,etc. and changing genders for sometime-it felt like a natural thing for me and glad there are others doing it too!

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