As one would expect from a woman with an English literature degree and a website dedicated to books, I like to read. A lot of people – I would hazard a guess that most people – like to read, with many us of considering it our favourite hobby, and why not? It opens up worlds, defines our own and can often change it. John Waters famously said “If you go home with somebody and they don’t have books, don’t fuck ‘em”, a quote that has become a favourite amongst readers and Tumblr users. However, as noted in Kaite Welsh’s striking essay, the very act of reading has become a reductive way to define people, especially women, in a manner that dilutes their essence to a solely sexualized one. “Reading is sexy”, they say, and as a result we have all become “manic pixie bookworms”. A terrifying prospect indeed.
(Side note but as helpful as the term ‘manic pixie dream girl’ is, and while it has been misused occasionally I do think its benefits outweigh the issues, can we please think of a new one that doesn’t use ableist language? The connotation of a mentally ill woman being the cure for a damaged man in a quirky manner is wrong on so many levels).
What Walsh’s essay reminded me of the most is the prevalent characterisation of young women as being ‘different’ or ‘special’ because they read books. Often it is the only definable character trait we are given of the heroine. The most famous example is, to bring it back to the topic we try to avoid, the Twilight series, where Bella’s only hobby outside of obsessive romance is reading. Even then, it’s only the class assigned classics. If she’d admitted to loving books about serial killers instead of Wuthering Heights, that would have been impressive. From Bella we inevitably move onto Anastasia Steele and her love of books and very little else. They’re in excellent company, of course: The women of Austen’s novels are famously studious and dedicated to their books, even when it causes their imaginations to run amok. Austen is a favourite amongst book loving protagonists.
Reading is a handy hobby to give a hero: It instantly makes them relatable on some level, and it’s a relatively unthreatening trait to have (mostly since many novels don’t specify the reading tastes of the character). It also implies intellect, because for some this basic act is inherently a smart people thing. Sadly, this assumption can also lead to some sloppy characterisation, particularly of the supporting ensemble and antagonists. How many times have you picked up a book and seen the heroine, who never wears make-up because she’s naturally gorgeous, with her nose in a book while the evil bitchy cheerleader is making out with boys, ruining other people’s lives for kicks and generally being everything the heroine isn’t?
The quirky book girl isn’t like those other girls because she’s smart and she has the battered copy of Pride and Prejudice to prove it. The virgin-whore complex rears its ugly head, yet again (this is also known as Taylor Swift-ing), this time with a dose of elitism. The assumption that the reader is more intelligent because of her books comes with the implication that those other non-readers just don’t match up in terms of brains.
As this trope becomes increasingly popular, it also becomes painfully dull. There’s only so many times you can see the quirky book girl before it’s no longer quirky. It’s often seen hand in hand with other traits used to separate the heroine from the other women in the story – she doesn’t wear make-up, she’s never had a sneaky taste of alcohol, she’s not popular, and so on. Similarly, as Ridley from Love In The Margins pointed out on Twitter, there’s a current epidemic of ‘edgy bad boys’ with lots of tattoos in romance to the point where it’s far from edgy. Tattoos are wildly common these days. My mum has so many of the things that I’ve lost count (I think it’s at 11).
We’re not about dictating to writers how they should define their characters, but it would be incredibly refreshing to see some heroes and heroines with unique hobbies. Not only would it make for a more interesting reading experience but it would help some stories stand out from the crowd. Have young women who get dirty on the football pitch or collect retro video games or have an encyclopaedic knowledge of constellations or get into fights over whether or not Scorsese is overrated, and have women who are secure enough in their love of their hobbies without having to judge other women for their own choices.