Friday, April 22, 2011

What YA Lit Taught Me About Feminism and Femininity: A Guest Post by Stephanie Su

I've been a fan of Stephanie Su's blog and book reviews for a long time now. Her reviews are always written honestly and intelligently. And the girl is my age! So when I asked her to guest post, I was thrilled with the post she came up with. Check it out!

What YA Lit Taught Me About Feminism and Femininity

By Stephanie Su

A few weeks ago, I started reading Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture by Peggy Orenstein. This is a hilarious, yet biting and troubling, nonfiction account of our society’s consumerist (re)obsession with all things pink, frilly, and girly for females. In the book, the author wonders how this phenomenon will impact the current generation of little girls. Is this female penchant for feminine things such as princesses, playing House, and the color pink biological, or is it the result of the conditioning females have received at the hands of an unwitting (or perhaps very intentional) society?

Related to that, I’m curious as to what effect recent trends and tropes in YA literature have on our notions of feminism and femininity. Below, then, are some things I learned from reading YA*:

Girls can do anything just as well as boys.

YA lit is the land of strong, proud, capable, and brilliant female protagonists. So many YA books are about strong females who prove that they can do anything that boys can: Alanna becomes a knight in Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet; the gifted Menolly dares to become the first female musician in Anne McCaffrey’s Pern: Harper Hall series; and these are just the first two I can think of. Reading YA, readers can get ideas of what females can do in the face of traditional opposition.

Be thyself, and thou shall attract sexy, sexy boys.

One of the greatest things that YA promises heterosexual female readers is that if they stay true to themselves, boys will flock to them, sure as the sun will rise. This is a double-edged message. On the one hand, it’s great that YA lit encourages its female readers to not change for love. On the other hand, this message is problematic when the female protagonist is a personality-less dullard who is incapable of standing up for herself and yet inadvertently attracts the devotion of incomprehensibly perfect guys. The message of “be yourself” has, in some cases, become conflated with “don’t be inclined to develop emotionally or mentally” or “boys like personality-less dullards who can’t stand up for themselves”—neither of which, I think I can say fairly certainly, are good things to teach people of any age.

Furthermore, very few YA books feature girls who know what they want in love, and take it upon themselves to get their happily ever after. YA lit sends the subconscious message that love will find you without you having to do anything to encourage it along. This is an unrealistic notion. How wonderful is the idea of being loved without even having to try to encourage it! The truth of the matter is that, whether you’re interested in males or females, we are all still vulnerable human beings who rarely wish to be emotionally hurt, who will rarely make our affections for someone known without some concrete evidence (confirmation from a mutual friend, perhaps) that that person just might feel the same way for you too. Think about whether or not you would declare your love for someone whose regard for you you are unsure of. How likely are you to do it? I thought not.

If you have a boyish (nick)name or figure, you will have more fun.

Sometime in the past decade, names like Charlie, Joey, Billie, etc. began to appear more as girls’ names than boys’ names in YA lit. At first glance, there is nothing wrong with this—until we look closer and examine what drives this female appropriation of masculine names: the subconscious devaluation of feminine traits. This literary choice, seemingly harmless on the surface, implies that we females cannot have fun or succeed unless we reject traditional feminine characteristics. Instead of empowering females, this trope perpetuates the old patriarchal ways, that masculine characteristics are superior to female ones.

It’s okay to have unrealistically high expectations for romance.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think anyone should settle in love. I think it’s okay to have high standards for the one you want to end up with. But there are high standards, and then there are standards that are impossible for anyone to reach. Breaking up with your BF because he doesn’t sparkle in the sun? Honestly, girl: he can’t help the fact that he’s human! Couples therapists always advise people not to expect their partners to read their minds: if you want something, you have to let them know! You can’t expect your partner to act like your perfect fictional boyfriend/girlfriend. Fiction is fiction, and reality is reality, and when readers start mixing the two up from reading so many YA romances, I think they could use a little slap upside the head.

You are not complete until you find love.

What I am going to suggest is not something I have an answer to, and it’s not something that I think many will find problematic or wish to change, either. It’s the subconscious danger of implying that love is essential for young adults, or young adult literature. There is nothing at all wrong with a good romance in literature. Many of us LOVE when there’s a romance in fiction. But when agents and editors suggest to authors that they add a more concrete romance to their novels so that it will sell better—when YA books’ more salient themes get pushed to the wayside in favor of Team Boy A vs. Team Boy B debates—when I start a YA book and can immediate predict who the main character will end up with romantically by the end of the story, as if the fact that the MC will end up with someone is required of the story and the author… well, yes, I’m a little worried about the message that is sending to readers.


I suspect that the points I make here will garner their fair share of criticism, criticism along the lines of what feminists argue when they say that their choice to flaunt their femininity is a sign of their success in overthrowing patriarchal attitudes. But does it really? Or does that chain of thought reinforce for men that it’s okay to objectify women? Similarly, when such archaic notions of love and femininity are visible in YA lit, is that really a success on our society’s part? I have no answers, merely lots of questions and room for discourse.

*This list should be taken with a grain of facetiousness. I am not outright criticizing YA and suggesting that people should stop reading and writing it. That would be very, uh, counterproductive to my blog and my writing aspirations. I just want to move people to consider some issues latent in things they might have taken for granted.


Kody Keplinger said...

Thanks for the guest post, Steph! This is really thought provoking and so many of your points are just so true. I'm eager to hear what others think!

Kristin Jr. said...

These are some awesome points, and things that definitely worry me not only in YA lit but in life... I think it's something that we're starting to tell girls in general: you are not complete until you've had a boyfriend, had someone love you, etc. Why are you not dating? Why are you alone? Because of course, if you're alone, you must be lonely...and sometimes this isn't the case. I'm not even sure if it's feminist to want to reclaim the idea of solitude as a good thing, but I think it's something America has forgotten. :/

April (BooksandWine) said...

I pretty much am in love with this post!

Steph makes excellent points, although I am totally the choir here, since I believe all of these things.

And the thing about Boy A vs Boy B, I feel like with most of those triangle novels, you'd have to be an idiot not to be able to predict who the girl ends up with. Like with Twilight, was there ever really any question? Even the Hunger Games -- which I love, was there honestly any question?

Again, fabulous guest post!

Daisy Whitney said...

I love romance and I love androgynous names for girls! I also love kick-ass female protags who are strong and who stand up for themselves! Girl Power! I also love pink, and I love girls who fight injustice!

Kaitlin Ward said...

Some interesting thoughts!
I definitely think it's very important for authors to consider the messages they're sending. And I love seeing characters who are strong--internally, even if they aren't physically the butt-kicking type.

I will say, I disagree with the idea that embracing femininity shows men that they can objectify us. I think you can absolutely be empowered and be feminine.

AudryT said...

Non & anti-feminist things I see pop up quite a bit in YA:

-It's OK for a girl to be "plain-looking," ordinary, awkward, shy, incompetent, dumb, or unpopular, but it's not OK for the boy to be those things. It's also not OK for a boy to be a boy; instead, but he should behave like a girl with boy parts.

-A boy's sexuality is threatening, so it should be negated, softened, shackled, or used to tease the reader for half the book, and then surgically removed in the climax so that he's pretty but no longer scary.

-A girl is not capable of flirting with, interacting with, or having a relationship with someone who is more than 2 years older than her, unless they are an immature immortal who acts like a 17 year old. Girls are simply incapable of handling a person who is even slightly more mature than an average teenager, and if they try to date someone outside their age range, they should learn a Terrible Lesson(TM) about the consequences.

-A girl cannot possibly cope with a complex, messy relationship with a complex, messy human being, male or female, and should avoid such individuals in favor of cardboard cutouts who do the right thing -- the right thing being whatever makes parents feel safe.

-A girl must be narrowly defined and fit in the normal girl box, with all female parts in tact and functionally "normally"; a girl must NOT be missing key female parts, want a gender operation, really be an intersexed individual in disguise or someone who identifies with the other gender or doesn't have (or want) a clear gender identity. "Girl" must mean "cr--ch with t-ts waiting to be ---ed." Said girl must always fall in love with and be with one of two acceptable candidates: another narrowly defined girl who also fits in the girl box, or a narrowly defined boy who also doesn't have any missing or unusual body parts.

-A book must be about either a boy or a girl. It cannot be about someone intersexed, someone who identifies with a different gender, someone who has no gender, someone who is not sexual, or anything that is "outside the norm." If a book dares to have such a character, the entire plot of the book must revolve around how not normal they are and how they must struggle with not being normal in society. It cannot possibly be about all the things books for normal boys and girls are about.

-No girl is capable of self-defense or quick thinking in a rape scene. The whole point of many rape scenes is to establish that girls are always weak, helpless sex objects. Have her be saved by the boy, who without any self-defense training will still be able to save her.

-At the other extreme, a boy's desire to protect and rescue a girl from difficult circumstances is never acceptable and always insulting and a girl should treat a guy like he's being sexist if he does try to protect her.

-A girl should sacrifice herself for the approval of the one she loves. Sometimes this literally means jumping off a cliff or allowing evil people to rape/kill her because somehow that will win her true love's undying devotion.

-A girl's identity should be tied into her appearance. If she is overweight, she should be treated as either ashamed of her body or as working hard to become "healthy" & improve her self-esteem. Heaven forfend a girl not care about her weight or be proud of her body or -- worst of all -- be told her body is hawt just the way it is. However, it is slightly more acceptable for someone to tell her that she's attractive if that person is skinny and attractive in a more conventionally "acceptable" way. The worst crime of all would be to have two plump girls or a plump boy and girl or a pair of plump non-gender-specific teens falling in lust with each other's bodies just the way they are.

AudryT said...

Sorry that comment turned into just a list with no additional commentary. The commenting tool kept telling me I had passed the character limit even though MS Word's character count told me I was under it, so I just kept chopping until it fit. Ah, well.

I think there's lot of counter-feminist writing in YA and likely always will be. I don't think there's such a thing as a culture that doesn't have sexism in it and suspect that such a culture is pretty close to impossible. It's part of the fabric of human nature to be biased against those who are not like you and as a result, it pays to be vigilant and engage in an ongoing conversation about feminism, just as you are doing on your blog right now -- which I commend you for doing! :-)

Rachel Stark said...

Thanks for the great post, Steph! I like that you point out some of the good things YA fiction is doing for female characters, as well as some of its pitfalls. Two thoughts:

It's interesting to me that so many of the characters we consider feminist in YA lit or in storytelling in general earn their feminist cards by embracing traits and behaviors society considers masculine. In the same vein as those Girls Using Boys' Names, there's a trend of girls surprising us by shedding their most feminine traits and taking on power in a traditionally masculine way. Much as I love and adore Alanna, Katniss, and more, I think there's a bit of an inherent problem in the fact that they are the first characters who come to mind when we think of a strong female character. After all, I know many incredibly strong women in my real life who don't shoot a bow and arrow or try to become knights. A lot of them don't even play football or start fights or embrace contemporary society's idea of a strong male. And that image of strong females is as worthy of recognition and applause as any other, and is sadly underrepresented in all media.

On another note, I completely agree with you about romance being too much of an emphasis in YA lit. I'm a fan of a good love story (for instance, I adore the innocent and beautifully written affection that grows between Pullman's characters in The Golden Compass), but I'm often frustrated at the number of books for teenage girls which feature Getting the Guy as their climaxes and resolutions. After all, YA lit is at its heart a genre focused around telling the stories of how people grew up, or became who they are. And repeating over and over again the idea that a girl becomes who she is by getting with the right guy is a big problem to me.

Thanks for the great food for thought!

S.J.Kincaid said...

"One of the greatest things that YA promises heterosexual female readers is that if they stay true to themselves, boys will flock to them, sure as the sun will rise."

This also raises another point: there is a message sent in YA (by the near obligatory romance plotline)that you -have- to have a boyfriend, or boys flocking to you, to have a happy ending. Teenagers are at the beginning of their adult lives. IMO a much more encouraging message is not to tie yourself down so early so you can sail off wherever the wind takes you-- and take full advantage of all the opportunities out there in life.

One point of contention: I disagree that guy's names for girls are a sign of devaluation of femininity. We arbitrarily call some names 'boy names' and 'girl names' because we're culturally primed to do so. Sasha is a girl name in America, a boy name in Russia. Sometimes, girls get boy names just because they're awesome names.

Then again, I'm biased, since I do have a girl character named 'Wyatt'. Why? I just like the name, and it suits her, even if it is a traditional male name. Male names are male names until enough girls get named that to change the associations people have with them. I know I've met more girls named 'Sam' than guys.

Donna said...

What teenager actually knows what they want in love? What teenager experiences a "realistic" love while in high school? I'm all for tamping down on the insane romance tropes that are rearing up in YA and taking a more realistic approach to YA romance but a lot of teenagers are extreme. Raging hormones and a not-fully-developed frontal lobe magnify their experiences. Love isn't just love. It's LOVE. Hate isn't just hate. It's HATE. Irrationality is IRRATIONALITY and it's biological. That's not to say all teens are like that but the reality is a lot are.

I think what needs to be done is teenagers need to be given more credit. Instead of stuffing reality down their throats because anything else is a bas influence, they should be given the chance to determine whether they want to actually read that kind of reality, or escape into a Cinderella-like romance fantasy. Most of them know the difference. They should be afford the respect to see that for themselves instead of being advised that what they're reading isn't good for their impressionable minds.

As for feminism, judging by the reaction to the boy with the pink nails in the clothing add recently, gender roles are still seriously ingrained in society. I find nothing wrong with wearing pink. I don't wear it because I'm a girl but because certain shades of it are complimenting to my skin tone. Should I know wear it in order to break the chains of societal roles? No. Personally, I think that's silly and a slightly extreme form of feminism. More power to you if you want to shave your head to break the form of women having long hair. Personally, I like having ponytails. It's why I'm growing my hair out again. Still, I've had some super awesome, super short haircuts (short to the point of the back of my head being buzzed).

The way I see it, fighting femininity is counterproductive to feminism. Why should I have to act mannish in order to show my womanly wiles? That doesn't make me equal. That makes me bow down to the notion that you have to be mannish to get ahead. I have tits and a snatch, my ass looks hot in a wiggle skirt and I'll stomp the fuck out of you in my five inch stilettos. Why am I an object if I wear those clothes? Why should I have to hide myself in order to buck the trend? I would be denying myself to myself if I dressed any other way.

I've read articles where it says women with straight hair get taken more seriously in the workplace than women with curly hair. Bite my ass. You ever try to straighten curly hair in 98% humidity? Or women will look more professional in high heels. Really? I'm not about to toss all my flats because, as much as I love my heels, Barbie foot hurts. I think we just need to be ourselves. Why should we have to forfeit pink and skirts? We can be equal without ditching who we are, whether that's the tomboy, the girly girl or somewhere in between. Adversely, if a guy wants to start wearing skirts and pink nail polish to work, more power to him. I'm just going to be me and buck society's trends on my own terms.

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