books for girlsThe ongoing fight for gender equality seems to have gathered significant pace in the last couple of years. This is, in part, thanks to high-profile names, such as Emma Watson, de-stigmatising what it means to be a feminist, something which, for bizarre reasons, had become rather taboo. It is a shame that in 2014 there is still much to do to level the playing field for women, but the mounting public support and increased awareness of the gender inequality present in our everyday lives is nevertheless refreshing. An example of recent progress is the news that major children’s publisher, Ladybird, is to scrap all of its books aimed specifically at one gender. No more will we have titles such as ‘Favourite Stories for Boys’ or ‘Favourite Fairytales for Girls’, encouraging children (who have no idea what gender norms are until they are forced upon them) to read whatever they like.

This is a huge step forward for children’s literature. Telling children which books to read based on their biology is as ridiculous and limiting as it is harmful. Indoctrinating little girls with the idea that their purpose is to look pretty, do the housework and wait patiently for a man to save them is, in my view, a contributing factor to the rampant gender inequality that still exists today. Yet while this children’s publisher has decided to abolish gendered titles, the adult market has yet to follow suit.

All sorts of products are designed to appeal to a specific gender, and books are no exception. Walk into any book shop and this will become apparent. Thrillers and mysteries are patterned with bold, block lettering against dark backgrounds, occasionally featuring a representation of the almost always male protagonist. Romance novels, on the other hand, compete to feature the brightest shade of pink, the title often written in a slender, curvy font, accompanied by an illustrated image of a stick-thin heroine sitting meekly on a park bench. There is no ambiguity about which gender these books are seeking to attract.

One could argue that romance novels naturally appeal more to women as the protagonists are nearly always female. Women can therefore relate to these characters more, just as men can relate to the male heroes of their sci-fi novels. However this is not the cause of the problem, but merely a symptom of a process of indoctrination that begins as soon as one is born. If young girls are brought up to read books aimed specifically at their gender, is it any surprise that some will grow up to read books aimed solely at women? Equally, if boys are told that adventure stories are appropriate reading whereas fairy tales are not, it follows that as grown men, many will continue to read within the genres deemed acceptable for their gender. Who knows how many people out there have never discovered their favourite genre or book because they didn’t dare to transgress these societal mores?

Just as there is a huge shortage of female politicians, CEOs and technicians, there is a shortage of women who write within specific genres. The majority of the bestselling thriller and sci-fi authors are male, whereas nearly all of the most successful romance writers (with the notable exception of the abhorrent Nicholas Sparks) are women. Take a quick glance on Amazon if you don’t believe me. Does anyone really believe that women have some sort of biological inclination towards writing about romance whereas men are naturally more likely to be interested in thrillers? It doesn’t take a genius to see that this is the result of an ingrained awareness of gender conventions rather than any innate predisposition.

Ladybird should be commended on their commitment to abolishing the man-made barriers that separate boys and girls, however they must also recognise that they are partly to blame for establishing these barriers in the first place. Generations have grown up with Ladybird books that have sent out a clear message that some stories are appropriate for boys, and some for girls, thus enforcing the idea that gender should dictate one’s preferences. It would be a vast overstatement to claim that today’s gender equality is solely the result of gendered children’s books, but it would be equally erroneous to dismiss the idea that they have played a significant role. As tomorrow’s generation of Ladybird readers grows up, we can only hope that they will be free of the restraints that blighted previous bookworms, and finally bring some equality to the world of adult fiction, too.

In a thousand year’s time when archaeologists are sorting through the relics of our generation’s culture, the same names are destined to crop up again and again. Pop music of the last few decades has been dominated by a handful of iconic artists whose names will go down in history. But for every immaculate album that will be immortalised in pop’s history books, there are those that will be forgotten, buried beneath a ton of dust and unsold copies of Britney Jean. But some of these albums, though outshone by their multi-platinum siblings, deserve to be remembered. Here are four underrated gems from our time’s biggest pop stars that never quite got the acclaim they deserved.

Madonna – American Life (2003)

American_Life_(single)I’ve written before about the merits of American Life, a commercial failure by Madonna’s standards that also failed to garner the critical acclaim of her previous efforts. Having reinvented herself as an Earth mother for the hugely successful Ray Of Light (1997) and then as a modern-day cowgirl for 2000’s Music, American Life saw Madge go political. Several songs on the album, including the title track, are a damning critique of modern consumerist attitudes. Though some critics saw Madonna’s take on the situation rather glib, especially on that rap, the album was nevertheless a courageous move for a musician who had originally established herself with lighter pop hits. But isn’t that bravery exactly what makes Madonna so special? In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, expressing sentiments that could be described as anti-American was a risky decision, and some have cited this as the reason for the album’s relatively poor performance on the charts. Political statements aside, however, the album also shows Madonna at her rawest. Mother and Father sees her referencing the death of her mother when Madonna was just a child, while Nothing Fails is one of several stripped-back, acoustic love songs for her then husband Guy Ritchie. American Life is Madonna at her most confrontational but also at her most vulnerable. A beautiful album full of sincerity, disillusionment and love.

Kylie – X (2007)

220px-KylieXCoverwas Kylie’s first studio album in four years and marked her return to music after battling breast cancer. With so much hype surrounding the return of pop’s princess, some critics felt fell a little flat. Writers from the likes of The Guardian and The Observer criticised the album for its inconsistent style and for containing too much filler. While the albums does feature an eclectic clash of genres from dance to R’n’B, any claims that the album is packed with filler are entirely unfounded. From the addictive techno beat of The One to the seductive, Janet Jackson-esque All I See, X is packed with excellent pop tracks that showcase Kylie’s ability to shine in a range of pop subgenres. The album’s lead single, 2 Hearts, sees Kylie play the part of a sultry lounge singer, draped over a piano, while Speakerphone is a slice of cosmic dance-pop that would come to be frequent radio-fodder peddled by the likes of Lady Gaga in the following years. Though even Kylie herself has expressed some disappointment with the album (“In retrospect we could definitely have bettered it, I’ll say that straight up” she told The Sun), is a quirky, fun, and at times experimental album, packed with shimmering pop tunes that have lit up dance floors all over the world. Though it may not be Fever, X is by no means a failure, and still sounds as fresh today as it did seven years ago.

Britney Spears – Circus (2009)

circus britney…Baby One More Time is the début album that spring-boarded a Mississippi teen to worldwide fame, Oops…I Did It Again is the album that broke records and cemented her reputation as a global icon and Blackout is the edgy fan favourite, packed full of racy anthems lacquered with an electro-pop sheen. Standing alongside such iconic pop records, Circus feels like an album just waiting to be forgotten. Though it was well-received by critics and spawned the US chart-topper Womanizer, by 2009, the world was no longer revolving around Britney Spears. Having gone through, and seemingly recovered from, a slew of personal struggles that overshadowed the release of 2007’s Blackout, Britney found herself in the undesirable position of having to convince the world that she was sane, healthy and happy. Circus largely shies away from mentioning any of Britney’s well documented personal problems however, instead serving up an album packed full of catchy, upbeat tracks, designed to be performed as part of a spectacular live show. Shattered Glass, Kill The Lights and If You Seek Amy hark back to the slick production of Blackout, maintaining Britney’s signature style while losing some of the darker themes to produce a less intense listen. Out From Under is surely Britney’s second-best ballad of all time (second only to 2004’s Everytime) while the album’s other slow track, My Baby, despite its clichéd, saccharine lyrics, is one of only two tracks that credit Britney as a writer. Though a little too sickly-sweet for some tastes, Spears’ obvious heavy inclusion in the writing of the track (written about her son), shows an emotionally naked side to the star that had previously been absent in much of her previous output, and proved that she was more than a clueless puppet of a highly-skilled marketing team.

Lady Gaga – ARTPOP (2013)

artpopIn 2009, after the release of The Fame Monster, Lady Gaga was the biggest pop star on the planet. Her unique brand of innovative, creative pop tracks combined with a compelling personality propelled her to worldwide fame. The release of much-anticipated second album Born This Way in 2011 gave Gaga a couple more hits, but failed to live up to the hype of its predecessor. ARTPOP, Gaga’s third album proper, was considered by some critics as a make-or-break moment in Gaga’s career. Though the album did feature two chart hits, Applause and Do What U Want, the album sold significantly less than Gaga’s previous albums and was met with mixed reviews. While ARTPOP does feature one or two exceptionally ill-advised tracks (Jewels n’ Drugs and Fashion! to name just two), this is more than made up for by the remaining songs which are just as good as much of Gaga’s previous work. Manicure features one of Gaga’s catchiest choruses to date, while Swine packs all the pain of an abusive relationship into an unsettling blast of electro-pop. Like so many albums before it, ARTPOP suffered the fatal flaw of choosing some of its weakest tracks as singles. G.U.Y. is an unremarkable pop-by-numbers whereas the likes of Aura, Venus and Sexxx Dreams are for more original, interesting tracks. If only Gaga had made wiser choices when picking her singles, ARTPOP could have been every bit the behemoth of The Fame Monster.