“What gender is the Squirrel?” a student asked me as she typed her written response into her iPad.
“What pronoun was used in the story?” I hinted. This is a story about a squirrel who is too worried about collecting nuts to speak with a rabbit who just wants to help. Eventually, the squirrel allows the aid, and in time the two become unlikely friends. I wrote the simple story for my students several years ago. The animals don’t have names, however, I do use the personal pronoun, “her”. I just refer to them as Squirrel and Rabbit, which is common among characters in folktales.
My student located the female personal pronoun. I got the class’s attention and pointed out the student’s discovery. A mini lesson on pronouns ensued.
Even after all of that, this morning I ran across a written response that jarred me. I had the students write about how Squirrel changes throughout the story. They were to use sequence and display evidence to show comprehension of character development. One of the best responses was written by a boy. He did a great job writing an opening sentence, answering the prompt, providing evidence…
Only one thing…
The boy used “he” to refer to the Squirrel.
Now, this is not a big deal at all; I would not take any points off for that, but it caused me to pause and think. This was not a student who failed to pay attention during my lesson on pronouns. He is one of my better listeners.
You know what happened? This smart kid identified himself with the main character of the story; the one who changes from frantic to friendly. I don’t think that this is a case of gender reversal. It feels more like gender take over. The student is a great kid, and I don’t think there was one malicious moment in his reading or writing or learning. I blame this on my lack of clarity when developing the characters of the story. I afforded the student enough ambiguity that he was able to comfortably substitute the male pronoun for the female without even thinking about it.
This reminded me of a Twitter profile I recently ran across and look forward to following. “Write With Color” (https://writingwithcolor.tumblr.com/) is about purposefully including detail about race and/or ethnicity in character development when writing.
I used to think that it was a good thing to be vague when presenting a character, so that the reader can identify more freely. There is certainly a time and place for that. If your purpose for writing is to provide powerful female potential in the public mindset, though, it would be important to make sure that people are clear on who your character is.
My student assuming a male gender for the character from my story did not bother me, but it was a wakeup call. As I write, I plan to be more explicit in who the characters are. In this way a white kid may find out that he is no different than a kid of color. A boy will find out that a girl is just as strong, and maybe more, than he is. I want to provide opportunities for comparing and contrasting, rather than usurping my characters.