Poetry brothels, naked reading nights, "Reading is Sexy" t-shirts. Why is it that reading, once a tool for female empowerment, has become a tool of female exploitation? John Waters' call to literary arms -- "If you go home with somebody and they don't have books, don't fuck them" -- has become another yardstick for women to be measured by, just another way of proving our desirability. Reading is sexy, say the bumper stickers and t-shirts and mugs. Notice how they're never accompanied by a picture of scantily-clad dudes reading Moby Dick?
It's the act of reading that gets fetishized, not the reading material itself. It's enough to date A Girl Who Reads without engaging in exactly what she's reading. It turns reading into a passive pose -- we sit there and look pretty with a book in our hands rather discussing it. Women buy and write more books than men, but the number of female reviewers in publications like the London Review of Books is still shamefully low. Not for nothing does the Manic Pixie Dream Girl normally wear outsized glasses -- they don't fit because these signifiers of intellectualism aren't really made for her.
Mark Grist's poem Girls Who Read sums it up perfectly, if unintentionally. Reading turns him on -- where his friends prefer boobs and bums, he wants someone who'll read the back of the cereal box over breakfast, presumably to avoid making conversation with this weird manchild who treats her favorite hobby as masturbation material. Even worse is Charles Warnke's patronizing vomitfest 'You Should Date an Illiterate Girl', that says women who won't read are worthless and that women who do are terrifying because men can never meet their expectations.
Men aren't the target of this misplaced, cross-brand advertising campaign because it's assumed that they read, they don't need to wear it on their sleeve or across their tits. For every Scrabble tile cufflink, there are hundreds of bracelets quoting Jane Eyre and earrings with quotes from Pride and Prejudice and the real kicker -- the A Room of Her Own tea-towel. Somehow, I don't think the kitchen was the room Virginia was talking about. Sure, there are Tumblrs dedicated to the delights of attractive men holding books as well as a calendar devoted to "The Reading Woman" (like the Highlander and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there can only be one), but I know which one the British Library stocks and it isn't a picture of Ryan Gosling reading Camus. I'm a 31 year old woman with an English Lit degree, of course I read. I don't need a prize to congratulate me for doing something I learned when I was four.
We've had to fight to educate ourselves. A hundred years ago, some universities wouldn't award women degrees. Hell, it took Cambridge until 1948. We're still fighting for parity in the reviews section, both as authors and critics, and chick lit is a derided genre while Tony Parsons gets interviewed by The Guardian. But it's OK, because girls who read -- and it's always girls, never women -- are totally hot. So long as women's intellectualism gets objectified and men are encouraged to view their bookshelves as the mental equivalent of a short skirt, the only ones who will emerge the winner are the people who make plastic book jackets and Kleenex.
I am not your Manic Pixie Bookworm. My pastime is not your sexual preference. If I'm sexy when I read, it's no more sexy than when I eat or breathe or fart or do any of those other things that mark me out as human. Now can we please shut up about how hot it is for a girl to like books, because I'm trying to finish this chapter.
This post first appeared on Medium.