I don’t clearly remember how it started. It could have been because I was bored and wanted to add a bit of extra mental challenge to reading the same book to Bayboh for the 100th time. It could have been because I suddenly noticed, reading to Shmoogie, that we didn’t have many books with girls as the main character and I felt bad about it but didn't have the time to go hunting a whole new library.
It could have been because I was reading The Borrowers to the older kids, a series which I remembered as utterly enchanting and full of female characters (it was written by a woman, after all, Mary Norton). Reading it aloud, though, I experienced the slowly dawning horror that has become sadly familiar when I share beloved books with the kids without having cracked their covers since my own childhood. There were female characters, sure, and the protagonist is an independent-minded, interesting girl. But the rest of them were grownups (mostly mothers) molded (with some sympathy, to be fair, but there’s only so much you can do with such raw material) from demeaning stereotypes of the era (the first book was published in 1952, although the time period described is a generation previous).
At any rate, I don’t clearly remember which of these situations gave me the idea, but I started flipping the gender of every character as I read bedtime stories. It takes more mental attention than you might think, so I don’t do it absolutely all of the time. (It also sometimes irritates the children, Shmoogie in particular.) And the truth is that while I did it pretty consistently at first, I’ve fallen into habits now and have books that I do it for all the time (becaue I might throw them out otherwise) and books that I never do (because it's too hard or they aren't that bad —some are even great — or I know them too well and it's too jarring). So nothing I’ve gleaned from this is statistically sound or anything like that (but I’m sure other people have done more rigorous analysis). I’ve also done it almost exclusively with picture books, although it’s also become the trusty hammer that I’ll hit a scene in a longer book with if the gender roles are driving me really nuts and I can figure out how to keep some semblance of the story intact.
All that said, it’s been extremely interesting in several ways. One thing is, that it is so difficult to do, like patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time. I slip up frequently, although it’s getting much easier with books I’ve read this way quite a few times.
Another thing is, that it is notably uncomfortable. Like I said, it bothers Shmoogie the most (Bayboh doesn’t seem to notice and Mr. P isn’t reading with us so often anymore, but when he does, he’s at that point where he enjoys being unconventional and fighting arbitrary social boundaries). I do wonder, for Shmoogie, is it her age? Her personality? Or her own already-developed investment in socially acceptable gender roles?
But it also makes *me* uncomfortable often enough, which I find fascinating. I encourage you to give it a go and try to reserve some brain power to pay attention to how it makes you feel. If you’re uncomfortable, what seems to trigger that? Is it all the women and girls suddenly having ideas, speaking authoritatively and being listened to and admired by remarkably passive boys? Or the number of boys who seem to enjoy hanging out all on their own with a bunch of girls? Is it the shear number of books that suddenly have no men or boys in them at all, excepting a kind, loving, selfless (and quite possibly mute) father? Is it the grouchy, scary, ugly woman, utterly villainous yet inexplicably treated with deference and sympathy by a man or boy who calmly puts up with any amount of crap until his sympathy and goodness finally cause a change of heart (though probably not an actual apology)? Is it the flipped roles themselves that bother you (and does that surprise or disappoint you)? Or is it what they reveal about the air we’ve all breathed from birth, the water we’ve given our children to swim in (knowingly or not… it's hard for a parent to change the composition of the ocean)?
It’s all those things, and probably more, for me (shocking, I know, since I wrote that list!), but the one that really gets me is how many books we own that, as written, have only “he”s in them (I feel like talking animal books are the worst offenders). Or only “he”s and one inhumanly kind, loving, and unindividuated mother.
Oh, look at that! I was right about the blasted talking animals. (I wish that article had been more critical at the end; I love Harry Potter immensely, but just because it’s written by a woman and I love Hermione’s character and several others doesn’t mean it smashes gender roles (look at The Borrowers!). It’s actually chock full of gender stereotypes. In fact, I can’t think of a character in that sprawling universe that significantly pushes the bounds of a familiar gendered archetype (except possibly Harry himself, with his empathy and grief, which we pretty much only have access to because he is the protagonist). The new play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, was so awful in that regard that I had a hard time enjoying it.)