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One highly opinionated feminist YA nerd's twisted, snarky and informative journey through the genre's perils, pitfalls and sparkles.

What makes it feminist?

So after the... interesting developments of yesterday's events, in which shit went down, accusations were made and the entire thing got blown so far out of proportion not many people came out of it looking good (I did end up talking to Jackson Pearce on twitter over this. We disagreed, as you can guess, but it went a whole lot better than my last YA author interaction), I think it's time for us to actually debate this issue properly, without cries of censorship (holy false equivalency Batman!), shoddy journalism and just general cliquey behaviour.

Bitch's list was interesting for a number of reasons but ultimately it was a subjective one because the definition of feminist YA has never really been explained at length. One person's Buffy Summers is another's Bella Swan, and as time passes, we bring more issues to the table and everything becomes that much murkier to decipher. So what makes a YA book feminist? To widen the issue, what makes any part of our media feminist?

I went to see two films yesterday - Tangled and Black Swan, both of which I loved (although the latter is going to haunt me for quite sometime. It's much more of a David Cronenberg style body horror movie than I thought it would be.) and both of which had some very interesting female characters. I'm going to discuss feminism in Disney movies at length in another post but I'll quickly note that I loved Rapunzel, thought she was funny, smart and strong and really grew over the course of the film. She's a decidedly more complex Disney princess than what we're used to. With Black Swan, the lead character Nina is, to put it bluntly, incredibly messed up. She's emotionally distant, lonely, suffers from several mental and medical disorders and she's striving so hard for a level of perfection that just doesn't exist that it drives her to the edge. It's a disgusting movie in places and it's often very hard to watch but it's fascinating to see this woman go through hell, since you sort of go through hell with her. Would I define any of these movies and their characters as feminist? It's a tough one to discuss; Black Swan isn't supposed to be a positive movie and I shudder to think that anyone would want to relate to Nina so it's hard to judge it by the standards I judge, say, a YA book to be feminist. For Tangled, I lean towards saying yes. It follows way too many of the typical Disney tropes and ends exactly how you'd imagine it but it's about a young woman striving to be her best who kicks butt and really grows as a character, which isn't really something we associate with Disney princesses.

Back to the topic I'm supposed to be discussing, defining something in YA as feminist sometimes requires a lot of thought. Even the best books can have problematic areas that one person may react more strongly to than another (Sisters Red is actually a pretty good example of this). The one defining trait that I myself require for a feminist YA novel is that the heroine not be completely obsessed with her boyfriend and be stuck in an all consuming love rut. It's dull to read, it's incredibly derivative and frankly it can get a bit cringey. Romance and feminist lit are not mutually exclusive, there are some fab romances out there in YA, I just require that the two romantic leads be equal on every level. No archaic gender stereotypes, no dragging a girl around or making threats and no holding her down against a bed while you tell her how you want to kill her. Pretty simple, right?

What else do I look for? There are a few things: not calling other girls sluts or slut shaming other characters is a bit one. It's got to stop and not just in YA *coughTaylorSwiftcough* With that, a healthy attitude towards sex is also ideal. She doesn't have to be handing out copies of The Purity Myth in the hallways at school but having a smart attitude towards it is pretty crucial for me. Of course, it would be good if she didn't constantly rely on others, mainly men, to save her from tough situations, but it depends on the situation of the character, the story, location, etc.

The example I usually use for a feminist YA is The Ruby In The Smoke by Philip Pullman. Sally Lockhart is smart, uses her initiative, stands up for herself in a predominantly male society, works so hard to not have to rely on others and strives for equality in all areas of life. Even in later books where her situation changes drastically (won't spoil it for you), she still holds her own and refuses to become passive.

Maybe we should make our own feminist YA list, or at least get together some recommendations so we can properly discuss their merits and issues. First, we need a proper definition of feminist YA. An all encompassing one would be impossible and simply not fair but some basic guidelines would be a good starting point. I eagerly await your comments.

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Feliza said...

Hmm... This is a tough one. When I think "feminist YA" I automatically think about books with smart, savvy, multi-facetted heroines. Characters who do something other than obsess about their boyfriends or slut-shame other girls or obsess about physical appearances.

But then, would something like THE BLACK SWAN pass that test? Not exactly, but I still think it's a story that has a lot of elements that would be of interest to feminists. Sex, bodies, the brutal things we do to ourselves in pursuit of some arbitrary "perfection"--all very important stuff to me, as a feminist.

I guess I'm having trouble coming up with a definition for "feminist YA" because I'm confused about whether we want to make a list that's mostly about showcasing empowering feminist themes, or a list of titles that would be of interest from a feminist perspective, even the characters themselves aren't so empowering (eg, THE BLACK SWAN).

Anonymous said...

This is definitely a topic worth talking about - I think the difficulty with lists comes because there can be conflict between listing books which are (be it overtly or covertly) feminist, and then books which may have value in being discussed/critiqued from a feminist perspective without actually being feminist in/of itself. Perhaps it would be worth making two lists - one which the books are broadly agreed to be feminist, and another where the books are worthy of feminist analysis, but don't strictly embrace/discuss feminism and feminist themes/issues?

Personally, here are my thoughts:

The heroine/protagonist has to be capable and have (at least some) agency. By the former I mean she has some combination of logic, intelligence, skill, strength (can but doesn't have to be physical), ambition, feeling/emotion - though not necessarily adept in all these areas; by the latter, opportunity to demonstrate, use, and/or capitalise on her talents/abilities/qualities (on more than one occasion). That's not to say she must be perfect - just that other characters are not propping her character up.

No slut shaming or victim blaming. The former is aggravating enough, but the latter is one of the fastest ways to turn me off a book (or any media), and I will not accept something which blames the victim as feminist. Also, those are both ways an author/character will tear down (all) other female characters in the book, which also generally disqualifies it from being feminist for me.

No rape-as-titilation or rape used as a device by the author to say 'omg look this character is so ~troubled~' or 'rape made her ~fiery~ and ~combative~', and no perpetuation of the "he hits/hurts you because he loves you!" nonsense. Again, any of this showing up is one of the fastest ways to turn me off a book.

Passing the book version/equivalent of the Bechdel test is something I definitely look for in a book, but if it's a well-crafted story, it *might* be able to qualify as feminist without doing this.

Likewise diversity of cast is something that I find important when choosing a book but not 100% imperative to qualify the book as feminist. Obviously, I want diversity and representation without resorting to lazy stereotypes, but the diversity could be PoC/people of other ethnicity(/ies) to the protagonist, people of differing sexual orientation and/or gender identity, combinations of these, and so on.

It doesn't have to be a life-changing book for the reader, but hopefully provokes discussion about social justice issues.

Essentially, I think it boils down to having at least one female character who can stand on her own (irrespective of whether her decisions are good or bad - the point is she is able and free to make them herself) in a story which does not promote patriarchy/kyriarchy as the ideal/a good thing.

Anonymous said...

Same anon again, just to clarify that that's what I think about for a good feminist book - obviously I can enjoy a book in some aspects but still find it problematic in others, but those books (enjoyable/average but problematic) I wouldn't be looking to include on a list of "good feminist literature" so I didn't address/discuss that in my previous comment.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to quote an article that I personally love:

"I think the major problem here is that women were clamoring for 'strong female characters,' and male writers misunderstood. They thought the feminists meant [Strong Female] Characters. The feminists meant [Strong Characters], Female."

I don't remember where I found this article, and it's possible that it was The Sparkle Project itself that led me there, but here it is again so that we don't forget about it:

Basically, I don't want "kicking butt" to be a criteria for a feminist character, but it can be a bonus. Strength comes in more than one form. It does not have to be physical.

Ashleigh said...

My definition of a feminist YA book (or better yet, any feminist book) is a little more complicated than I think I can explain, but it goes down to two base elements: 1) The equality of both men and women and of one woman to another; and 2) a capable heroine.

From there, there are small bylaws that are difficult to explain. For instance, one of my big things is also one of yours: no slut shaming. One series I read, the Ruby Oliver quartet by E. Lockhart, had slut shaming in it towards the main character and her friend. In the end, the message was made loud and clear that slut shaming was wrong. It did not jsutify it and that is how it should be. That series and author are among my favorites.

I guess the thing for me is that if a novel is going to include something anti-feminist in it like slut shaming or victim blaming, then the novel should make it clear that such practices are wrong instead of making them seem justified or normal. Feminism in my YA novels is about equality or taking inequality and proving that it is wrong and outdated.

Anonymous said...

I always thought the best feminist stories, across all mediums, are simply those that don't treat female characters as being any different to their male counterparts. To take a visual example that often crops up in video games, if women are portrayed fighting along-side men in combat, I don't want to see them inexplicably wearing different armour, whether that means portraying them without sleeves for no obvious reason (you'd be amazed how often this occurs) or giving them high heels and boob-exposing breastplates (which is unfortunately even more common).

Likewise, if someone decides to have a woman play a role in a story that's always been the reserve of men, the author should simple write that story the same way he or she would if a man was the hero. Don't saddle her with a load of beefy male protectors, don't tone down the violence or the hardship she faces, don't stick in a romantic subplot where none is needed. Just write the story.

Speaking of specific examples of feminist YA and Phillip Pullman, the first book in the His Dark Materials trilogy would definitely count for me, although the next two sort of ruin it when the male co-protagonist comes along. In that first book Lyra kicks ass though. (Interestingly she is herself quite sexist at the start as a result of growing up in a male-dominated college).

Anonymous said...

I don't know if I could clearly define a "feminist" protagonist . . . obviously "heroines" like Bella, Nora and Luce are out, since they're just spineless props in regard to their creepy love interests.

A novel that people talk about as being feminist is Graceling; however, I had my own issues with that one. No one can deny that Katsa is a "strong" female physically, and she has a backbone and such, but her strength to me is more of a masculine strength, and she overcomes challenges through her fighting skills, which she was born with instead of having to train for. I don't dislike the book, I just thought it was interesting that it was so lauded for its portrayal of Katsa when she didn't really mesh with me. Cashore's other book, Fire, resonated more with me but not so much as others, so I guess it comes down to personal taste.

I mostly enjoy female characters who are strong in some way without pulling the reader's attention to the fact for validation. If a heroine is awesome we can see that through her words and actions. The books I enjoy most have heroines I can admire or relate to. However, I think that darker books that deal with feminist issues are relevant, they're just not my personal preferance. I read Shabanu and Haveli (about a Pakistani girl) as a child and haven't wanted to be that depressed after a book since, heh.

Anonymous said...

My only criteria? Is the author aware of their messages, or is the story a vehicle for a lot of internalized harmful attitudes and unexamined thoughts about how the world works?

Someone mentioned Black Swan. Black Swan is intended as a dark, body horror film--or so I gather--and therefore for me it could pass at least the relevant to women's issues test. If Nina were held up as some sort of figure women and girls ought to emulate, however, if the attitude about being willing to mutilate one's self for an unattainable ideal were presented as worthy notions, then it would no longer count.

In my opinion, nothing is sacred. A writer can write about anything. No taboo or attitude should be taken for granted. But you have to know what you're doing.

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