If you search “top books read in high school” on Google and peruse through the results, there is one common theme: almost every single one of them features a male protagonist. Try to name all of the books you read in school growing up—I guarantee that the books on this list with a female protagonist are few and far between.
I am not about to go on a rant about how we should stop teaching “The Grapes of Wrath” or “Huckleberry Finn.” I realize that these books are among a number of classic male-focused novels that are true works of art, and I believe that they should continue to be read and taught nationwide. I also believe, however, that there is a problem with the way these books are discussed in schools.
As I grew older and made my way from elementary to high school, I began to notice something that rubbed me the wrong way. On the rare occasion that we would read a book featuring a female protagonist, the teacher would automatically apologize to all of the men in the class for having to read a book from the point of view of a female, going on a spiel about how they should “push through” and try to keep with it anyway. The teacher would sympathize with the men for not being able to “identify” with the character and give a full argument about why it is still a great book and worthy of their time. It is not just male teachers who do this, but female teachers as well. I have never heard a teacher apologize to the class for having to read a book about a male protagonist. The thought does not even cross their minds, and the students rarely bat an eye either.
Just the other day in one of my classes, my professor used a female makeup brand as an example in her lecture. She immediately apologized to the men in the room for having to sit through this example. How terrifying it must have been for them to see a picture of a makeup brand displayed so largely on the projector. I know my professor did not mean any harm by this or know what she was saying. I also know that nobody in my class—both men and women—were offended by what she said. But I do believe that comments like these creep into our unconscious and affect our view on men and women in ways that we do not realize.
These apologies just further perpetuate the notion that men are of more value than women. Women don't even think twice when tasked to read a book with a male protagonist or shown an example traditionally geared towards men. When you dig deeper into why this is, it becomes evident that we as females feel this way because we have been taught all throughout our lives through subtle remarks that we are simply of less value than men, and that we need to apologize for our womanhood.
Why is it that women who like stereotypical male interests like football are respected and seen as “cool”, but men who like stereotypical female hobbies like fashion are often made fun of? We have been taught that as women our stereotypical interests and hobbies make us weak, and that our stories told through the written word not only need an apology and disclaimer before being read, but are of lesser value.
We need to stop apologizing for simply being women. This is just one of the subtle acts of sexism that further instills in us that we are not as important, intelligent, or respected as men. I am a feminist with strong beliefs in the importance of female empowerment, yet it still took me a while to see this debilitating trend in education. It is sad and frightening to think of the other oh-so-subtle comments and images we hear and see every day that creep into our minds and tear down our self-image as women. It is these every day, inconspicuous, subtle acts of sexism that continue to perpetuate the cycle, and we need to begin identifying them and calling them out when we see them. I do not want my daughter, or son, to grow up hearing a fifteen-minute remorseful apology on why the boys in their class should suck it up and read “Jane Eyre.”