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Some Thoughts on Sexism in the Publishing Industry

I’ve been working in a library for around two years now and have gotten a chance to see how books are categorized and what kinds of books different people read and take home. And I’ve come to the unsettling conclusion that the publishing industry still remains largely sexist. I’m definitely not going to be the first person to comment on any of these issues, but I’d like to share my thoughts on a few things that have bothered me.

As a small library, we don’t generate our own subject areas for books, and instead, use those listed in a digital catalog. And while at first glance, these terms may appear neutral, they are actually surprisingly sexist. Whereas novels with male characters come with topic-related subjects such as ‘new york police department’ and ‘medical doctor’; books with female leads are listed differently, making readers aware of the fact that the lead is a woman with key terms such as ‘policewoman’ and ‘female doctor’. Conversely, books that feature males in stereotypically female roles are also gendered. If the book is about a female ballet dancer it will be labeled ‘ballet’ or ‘dance’; however, if the book is about a male dancer, it will be classified ‘male ballet dancer’.  Even more disturbing is when marital status is brought up, which rarely happens with books with male leads, but is always specified when the lead is a female. Female characters are always defined as a ‘married women’, or a ‘single mother’, or a ‘contemporary woman’. 

Titles are another area that is riddled with problems. Men are never called boys, but why do women continue to be called girls in book titles? Think even of popular titles like The Girl on the Train, Gone Girl and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Plots also remain sexist in not-so-subtle ways. While I don’t personally read romance, we do get in a fair amount of romance titles at the library. The vast majority of these still rely on sexist tropes. They feature a female lead who is lost or confused either due to a midlife crisis or because she is unable to survive without a man after divorcing her husband. The male lead is a mix of muscular, secretive, tall, damaged, dangerous, dark, handsome and protective who is most often a stranger to the female. This isn’t limited to the romance genre either, just the most obvious there.

Another thing that continues to bother me is the fact that books are still marketed to male or female or boy or girl audiences. Boys read about trucks, sports and superheroes, while girls read about fairies, ballet dancers and pink cupcakes. Men read about action, war and espionage, while women read about romance, chick lit, and family life. Do we really have to market book to specific gender audiences, especially books for kids?

Certainly, this post is not exhaustive, its just some of the things I needed to get off my chest. Please feel free to share any thoughts you have below!

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