Our sex is the first marker of identity we acquire, right after we are born, which immediately slots us into a specific gender. And, for most of us, this has a significant bearing on how our lives turn out. As social norms and popular culture keep reminding boys and girls, men and women the right way to be, what clothes to wear, how to sit, what to like and what to do, it’s ridiculously easy to lose sight of what we truly want to be. None of this is helped by the fact that there is very little engagement with gender issues in our society, mostly because we don’t encourage rocking the boat.
Thus, given the highly codified and strictly binary notions – predicated by the demands of patriarchy – of what it means to be female or male, it is no wonder that we grow up in a “smog of stereotype and convention”. This makes sifting between fact and social conditioning a frustrating exercise. Gender Talk: Big Hero, Size Zero is an attempt to provide young readers a lens to understand this difference. Some of the themes tackled by this volume are complex, but the authors do a sterling job of keeping the tone light without talking down.
The first two chapters set the stage by talking about adolescence and identity, and how the two are interlinked. Why are teenagers said to be ‘difficult’? Why does no one understand me? Why do I feel frustrated? Why is it important to be a certain way? And, of course, what the heck is happening to my body?! The focus then moves on to the complex question of identity. Religion, sex, gender, caste, nationality, state, language – which of these is our primary identity? Is one more important than the others? Who decides? How? Why?
On the subject of identity, being biologically male or female (sex) usually means different things socially and culturally (gender). “Now imagine you’re on another planet where no one even knows what a boy or girl is,” say the authors. “Are there things you would love to do or stop doing because out here nobody cares and there’s no pressure?” (Page 21). This simple question lays out the difference between sex and gender beautifully, and the chapter goes on to explore some myths and realities that are fed to us as gender gospel (like, girls should shave their legs, or boys should be tough). This creates the perfect launchpad to talk of gender roles and expectations, in our heads as well as in families and society. How does our gender relate to appearance, morality, stereotypes, expectations, attraction, violence and so on? Who decides these ‘rules’ of gender? Do they change or stay the same with time? Are they the same around the world?
What could have been a horrific mishmash of information has been adroitly broken down into digestible chunks by the authors Anusha Hariharan and Sowmya Rajendran. The everyday examples and references to popular culture and news makes it a book that youngsters ought to be able to relate to easily. However, there were places where the text felt a little hurried and a little more explanation or a few more examples would have been helpful. The chapter ‘Gender and Violence’ especially felt underdone, as did the subsection on consent, and since in the current milieu these are such important subjects, one wishes the authors had delved deeper. One also wishes there was some more focus on fluid identities and being transgender or a-gender, as well as about gender being a spectrum rather than a male-female binary. Finally, an index would have been incredibly helpful.
Overall, this fantastic book is somewhat done in by a terrible cover. A catchier title would have been great as well. It’s a bit of a shame that the illustrator’s name is not mentioned on the cover because Niveditha Subramaniam’s cartoon-style illustrations provide some much-needed comic relief to a heavy topic.
Needless to say, Gender Talk: Big Hero Size Zero is a very important book. It should be made compulsory reading for all teenagers – and some clueless adults too.
By Payal Dhar
Author: Anusha Hariharan and Sowmya Rajendran
Illustrator: Niveditha Subramaniam
Subject Category: Contemporary/Non-Fiction/Young Adult