Before we started studying works of literature in school– not counting being read stories aloud– I was always drawn to strong-willed, intelligent and book-loving female characters who advocated for what they thought was right.
When I was 5 years old and in my Disney phase, Belle was the princess I most wanted to emulate. When I started devouring Roald Dahl books, “Matilda” became my favorite literary character. When I became a “Harry Potter” fan, Hermione became my heroine.
But, once we started to read for school in third grade, it all seemed to shift. Every once in a while, the books in elementary would give voice to a strong female protagonist. By the time we reached middle school, the literature read started to wash away the female perspectives we were exposed to in elementary school (only “To Kill a Mockingbird” was written by a woman and had a main character who was a girl). And, now, as a high school senior, I look back on the amazing English classes I’ve had and realize none of the books I studied in high school were by a female author. And “Romeo and Juliet,” a play written in the 16th century, is the only work I analyzed in class that has a strong-willed female protagonist, who is accompanied by a male love interest.
It seems like the further I delve into my education, the less diverse the main characters are and the more we are reading literature written by white men.
In my AP English Language and Composition class last year, we did a short but telling activity. It began by having each table group list the books read in English classes, from with elementary school to high school. The list generated was fairly long, until we were asked to denote the works we read that were not written by a white man. Unsurprisingly, the list shrank. By the end, I found that not only were the voices of girls and women marginalized in our required readings, but every single novel I have read in class, going back to elementary school, was written by a white author.
While the works of literature we have been exposed to in high school are phenomenal pieces and ignite eye-opening discussions about issues including racism and sexism, we are missing out on hearing the voices and perspectives of authors who are not white men. The levels of awareness brought by reading works by a diverse group of authors is critical in today’s political climate, where racial tension is escalating, understanding of other cultures is dissipating, and women are fearing losing their rights.
One could argue the white male perspectives highlighted in the literature we read at school does not prevent students from studying other works bringing forth more diverse views on their own time. But, at school, we are fortunate to have a forum for discussions in our English classes. All students should be able to take advantage of this and become understanding of different perspectives, especially since few would be inclined to pleasure read books that bring up these viewpoints.
Each year, more children’s books are published and more children’s films are made to depict strong-willed female characters, including ones who are not white. If relatively conservative corporations such as Disney can maintain a balance between their classic characters and new additions portraying different demographics, than our schools can too.
It’s time that our curriculum is diversified, so girls and students of different backgrounds can feel their perspectives are represented.