manifesta: (Battle Eyeliner)
manifesta ([personal profile] manifesta) wrote2010-07-30 10:13 pm

backlash against feminism: the YA version (or, it's not just for stuffy politicians anymore!)

It seems the interwebs has suddenly decided to provide me with plenty of fodde-- I mean, food for thought.

Hannah Moskowitz discusses "the boy problem" in YA.

"The problem we're talking about is fairly simple: boys don't read YA. This isn't an issue of "boys don't read"--we're not talking about these boys. We're talking about avid readers, boys who ate up middle grade but go to adult fiction and non-fiction instead of passing through YA, and nobody really knows why."
I agree with some of her bullet points, but she loses me about halfway through with this:

"We've stripped boys of substance and we did it to empower girls. Somehow, the message "girls can do it too" became "only a girl can do it," and men became the weaker sex in YA.

Where are the epic fantasy trilogies with male main characters? Harry Potter isn't YA, people, stop pretending. When, since Eragon, have boys gotten to save the world? Where is the Melissa Marr for boys? Where is--yeah--Twilight for boys? Where is the science fiction that boys loved in YA, and we just assumed, for some reason, they were fine with losing when they turned 14?

Oh yeah--they're over there in adult fiction, and that's where the teenage boys are going to be, too.

Boys in YA are rubber walls for our 3D female characters to bounce off of. They're props for girls to throw around to show that they're the stronger sex.

And I get that we need to empower girls, people. I get it. But how many books about girls do we need before we can consider that a job well done?"
Tamora Pierce posted an eloquent reply on her own blog.

"These days, whether anyone believes it or not, 6-7 of the books published for kids through teens still have male heroes. Not much of a change, is it? A study done on picture books recently pointed out that the majority of human characters in those books were men, shown doing active work, while women were shown in domestic settings, doing nurturing tasks. Not operating steam shovels. Not jumping into skies full of clouds to find where they are made. Not trying to drive buses.

I'm glad someone gave Moskowitz a link to current SF, because otherwise I'd be inundating her with that information as well. But as to no boy authors on the teen shelves? Maybe she and I aren't looking in the same places, or in small stores, because I can think of: Gary Paulsen, Walter Dean Myers, Terry Trueman, Chris Crutcher, Robert Parker, Will Hobbs, Roland Smith, Dave Conifer, Brent Hartinger, David Levithan, Ned Vizzini, Dave Lubar, Gordon Korman, Paul Fleischman, Joseph Bruchac, David Klass, Gary Soto ... I'll stop now. There are more. There is also still the massive bulk of classics that remains on the shelves, books like WAR AND PEACE, CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN, HUCKLEBERRY FINN, SIDDHARTA, FIVE APRILS, MOBY-DICK, THE GREAT GATSBY, THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA, DAVID COPPERFIELD, THE SOUND AND THE FURY, 1984, ANIMAL FARM, BRAVE NEW WORLD, all written by and featuring men, most of them required reading in high schools."

With this, I think the "there is no YA for boys" myth has been adequately debunked. I also don't think I need to address the fact that why yes, Harry Potter is YA, or that pretending one of the best selling books in the world isn't YA is quite convenient when that series happens to be about a boy and the discussion is about boys in YA.  

Which allows me to move on to what the heart of the boys-in-YA debate is really about, and the underlining belief system of Moskowitz's post: That by writing about girls, by empowering girls, we have somehow managed to disempower boys through a lack of representation or quality of characterization. And in believing this, can we go back to the boys now, please? (Also known as Sarah Palin's so-called feminism.) 

There have been similar arguments recently made  in various arenas, including politics and academia. They say we achieved equality, we finally made it, but in doing so we also disempowered men.* The gender and women's studies programs are too exclusive, they say. We need to study men more! Men are four times more likely to commit suicide, they say, and more women than men are graduating college. Naturally, the people to blame are the women, what with all the time and money spent catching up from that problem with no name thing. Meanwhile the poor men have had their masculinity withered away.

This is called backlash. I tried to find a link that describes it in better detail than I can, but the posts I've read in the past have been lost in the nether. Backlash is when a movement toward equality for a marginalized group gains momentum and the privileged group(s) freak out. This usually takes the form of denying that there's a problem or firmly announcing that the problem has been taken care of, all while doing a little dance in the opposite corner of the room to refocus the attention on who's really suffering.

Yes, boys deserve to have books written about them as much as girls. But it seems to me that we aren't talking so much about whether there are books out there for boys as we are about whether we perceive there to be as many books for boys  in comparison to the surge of books for girls. It also reminds me of how minority groups are often perceived as the numeric majority in a room even when they only represent 30% of its composition. The current ratio of boy to girl books (if we must abide by gender roles here) is closer to being equal than that, but in comparison to all the books written for boys in the past? No. We've come a long way, but it's still an uphill battle. And if there are more girls than boys represented in YA right now, it's because they've never had this kind of significant representation before.

Moskowitz asked, "...how many books about girls do we need before we can consider that a job well done?"

Make no mistake: We're just getting started. Advocating for more books for boys is one thing, but shifting the blame onto girls and women undermines the tentative progress** we have made and neglects to take into account the intersection of social systems of power and the books that we read.



*Although I don't understand how we achieved equality AND disempowered men at the same time.

**And by tentative, I mean entirely relative. See my posts on YA and rape culture.

As an aside, I don't know if I agree 100% with the entirety of Tamora Pierce's post. I'm not up for trying to figure it out at the moment, however.
feuille: aeryn doing technical stuff holding a pen in her mouth (aeryn)

[personal profile] feuille 2010-07-31 08:43 am (UTC)(link)
Fascinating link; thank you. I freely admit that I could read a lot more YA, but I had never got the impression there weren't books about boys! What I did get the impression was there was a lack of:

YA books for boys that had emotional content/examination of how friendships, relationships change with growing feelings and maturity, and romance (Perhaps a classically :forgirls kind of thing?)

YA books for girls that had action, high stakes and high risk adventure and swashbuckling and even grit, without romance. (And perhaps a classically :forboys kind of thing?)

When I was that age I was turned off a lot of the YA around because so much of it was about relationships and romance, and I just wanted fantasy and sci-fi adventures, so I took the easy option and went for adult stuff (which ended up having no women in it). Seems to me that regardless of the inequality of writers and target audiences, there also needs to be more equality ofcontent: no-romance options for girls, and having-feelings options for boys.
feuille: "an interrobang says what", followed by an interrobang (Default)

[personal profile] feuille 2010-08-02 06:54 am (UTC)(link)
The "Really? Do we have to?" thing is exactly what ended putting me off a lot of books and media for a long, long time. (Now I am all for lots of romance!) -- only the better stories have that balance between the romance and adventure and often I just feel that the romance makes the girl feel like less of a person, and more of, like you say, a shell that's there to get together with the (almost definitely older, mysterious in some way, emotionally sensitive while being inaccessible in some way) boy.

(Anonymous) 2010-09-09 05:07 pm (UTC)(link)
YA books for girls that had action, high stakes and high risk adventure and swashbuckling and even grit, without romance.

Ah. For this you should have come to me. Though even the most kick-ass books will have some romance, because the audience likes romance and complains if you don't give it to them!

Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy, the most recent book of which is MOCKINGJAY

Kristin Cashore's GRACELING (a sequel is due soon; her second book, FIRE, is less combative, but Fire is still a very strong character)

Esther Friesner's NOBODY'S PRINCESS and NOBODY'S PRIZE, a unique, but logical, take on the teenage years of Helen of Troy

Garth Nix's SABRIEL, LIRAEL, and ABHORSEN

Scott Westerfeld's UGLIES, PRETTIES, and SPECIALS; LEVIATHAN

Cassandra Clare's CITY OF BONE, CITY OF ASH, CITY OF GLASS (more romantic than most of the others, but still adventurous)

Holly Black's VALIANT, TITHE

Sarah Beth Durst's INTO THE WILD, OUT OF THE WILD, and ICE

Alison Goodman's EON

Shannon Hale's GOOSE GIRL, ENNA BURNING

Joan Harris's RUNEMARKS

China Mieville UN LUN DUN

L. A. Meyer's BLOODY JACK & sequels (I feel I have to mention these because they are very rowdy and Jackie Faber--a girl disguised as a boy in the first book--has all manner of adventures in a world supposedly our own in the 1700s, but there are so many historical errors they drive me nuts, and she could never do what she does without disastrous consequences in that time as it really was. However, not everyone is as picky as I am.)

Kenneth Oppel's AIRBORN and sequels--the main character is male, but he has a female counterpart who is as strong and adventurous as he

Diana Peterfreund's RAMPANT

Michele Zink's THE PROPHECY OF THE SISTERS

Philip Pullman's THE GOLDEN COMPASS

David Randall's CLOVERMEAD and sequels

John Scalzi's ZOE'S TALE (sf)

Janni Lee Simner's BONES OF FAERIE, THIEF EYES

Marie Rutkoski's THE CABINET OF WONDERS and sequel

Stephanie Spinner's QUIVER

Patricia Wrede's THE 13TH CHILD

Robin Wasserman's SKINNED and CRASHED

John Marsden's TOMORROW, WHEN THE WAR BEGAN and sequels

And I guess I have to mention my own work, since I specialize in girl heroes and adventure at the YA level, and I have 25 books out, which will slow down my average reader for a week if they take to me. But you may have noticed that I keep track of and read adventure with female heroes because, as per my discussion with Ms. Moskowitz, I still don't believe there are enough, and I am still, at 55, hungry to find more.

Tamora Pierce
feuille: "an interrobang says what", followed by an interrobang (cesile)

[personal profile] feuille 2010-09-10 06:45 am (UTC)(link)
Aha, I've got work to do! Kristin Cashore's work is pretty much pride of place on my bookshelf but I only recognise another half of your list. Time to get cracking - thank you so much!
shanaqui: Kazuki from Getbackers, fighting. ((Kazuki) Threads)

[personal profile] shanaqui 2010-07-31 11:32 am (UTC)(link)
What got me was this line: "But how many books about girls do we need before we can consider that a job well done?"

So... at some point, we have to stop writing about girls? And start writing about boys again because, what...? We can only have books that empower one gender at a time?

I reached for the four nearest books I class as YA:

1) Sarah Rees Brennan, The Demon's Lexicon. Male protagonists, as far as I can gather? Not a book about girls.
2) Naomi Novik, Victory of Eagles. Male protagonists. Some strong female characters, granted, but as background. Not a book about girls.
3) Megan Whalen Turner, The Thief. Largely male cast, with a few female characters in background roles. Definitely not a book about girls.
4) Joanne Harris, Runemarks. Female protagonist, with male characters in the mentor roles. A book about girls, to some extent.

Mmm. I'm sure getting sick of all those books with girls in the central role...

(Granted, this is anecdata, and a very limited selection. Still.)
holyschist: Image of a medieval crocodile from Herodotus, eating a person, with the caption "om nom nom" (Default)

[personal profile] holyschist 2010-08-01 06:18 pm (UTC)(link)
Huh, you class Novik as YA? I wouldn't, and they're not marketed as such. Adult novels that teenagers can enjoy, absolutely: but all the protagonists are adults, the writing style, length, and way they approach subjects like war and sex is a better fit with the adult market. I have yet to see them put in the YA section of a library or bookstore.

Which I think supports my belief that it's normal and desirable for teenagers to read adult novels. The line between YA and A is pretty fuzzy.
shanaqui: A little pixel art icon of me: short red hair, green eyes, wearing a hoody. (Default)

[personal profile] shanaqui 2010-08-01 06:30 pm (UTC)(link)
I've definitely seen them marketed as YA in the UK; that's the section my copies came from. And they read like YA to me, or certainly not so markedly adult that they were out of place as YA.

I read adult novels from the age of eight, though, so my judgement of what YA "should" be is pretty fuzzily defined.
holyschist: Image of a medieval crocodile from Herodotus, eating a person, with the caption "om nom nom" (Default)

[personal profile] holyschist 2010-08-01 07:51 pm (UTC)(link)
Interesting! I definitely do not get the impression from the author or her website that they're intended as YA. Laurence as a protagonist in particular argues against it to me--he's not just an adult, he's firmly an adult--about 30 in the first book. If he had started out a lieutenant in his early twenties, I might be able to read the books as YA.

The lines between YA and A are awfully fuzzy, and a lot of A is perfectly reasonable for teenagers, so I'm not sure it really matters that much.

HTDcfUZdlKPDtUCjI

(Anonymous) 2011-04-15 03:34 am (UTC)(link)
That's the best aswner of all time! JMHO

[identity profile] theinkymuse.livejournal.com 2010-08-01 02:00 am (UTC)(link)
Coincidentally, I actually posted about this same topic and also *just* responded to Tamora’s post, too. :D

I think I’ve said about as much as I can say on the topic, but to reiterate my focal point: I don’t believe that when people argue for “more boy books” they mean books with more male protagonists; I tend to think they’re referring to the recent surge in Twilight-esque books being published, essentially detailing stories of “bland girl, stalker guy; true love; also, stuff happens.” I like to think the current movement is for books with actually interesting plots and relatable characters, whether they be male or female. Because *that* I can understand.

Here’s the link to my post if you’re interested (http://theinkymuse.livejournal.com/14489.html). Also, this is what I posted in response to Tamora’s LJ post:

“I was linked here, so I hope you don't mind me joining the discussion. :)

First and foremost, I want to point out that while Hannah Moskowitz seems to be speaking from the contemporary aspect of the industry, I speak from the fantasy front--and more importantly, concentrating solely on mid-to-upper YA.

I say this because when you speak of recommendations to parents for male readers, it seems to me that you're addressing a much younger audience. I myself, being eighteen, have no interest in magazines or comics or short, action-packed books with big explosions and many fights; and I happen to enjoy the coming-of-age story, wherein female characters find their strengths or come to terms with themselves; and I buy books by the bucket-load, which always hurts my already pathetically thin wallet. Of course, I may be the exception on that front, but I felt that that portion of your argument was a bit narrow and generalized in what males perceive as interesting (no offense, of course).

That aside, I honestly don’t believe that the claim of “not enough boy books” has anything to do (or at least very little to do) with the fact that so many protagonists on YA shelves happen to be girls; I think it stems more from the recent surge in Twilight-esque books, wherein the main plot and focal point of the story seems to be something like this: “helplessly normal and bland girl meets mysterious/powerful/dark/misunderstood/controlling/stalker-ish etc boy, they fall hopelessly in love within five pages, and many things coincidentally conspire to tear them apart.”

Because to be frank, who wouldn’t be sick of books of that nature?

What the industry needs are protagonists who have true stories and adventures, with actual troubles to sort out, whether those protagonists be male or female. I always refer to Lyra Belacqua of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Material series (I can’t help it, it’s a much enthused favorite :D) as a perfect example: she is female, yes; and there is a romance with the male protagonist, yes; but that doesn’t detract from the plot (or make it up as a whole), and it certainly hasn’t stopped her from becoming my favorite heroine of all time.

In the end, I think it comes down to having books with more story than a flimsy romance and an obscure, out-of-the-way town acting as a backdrop. We see more of these in print, and I think the complaints will simmer and die out.”
holyschist: Image of a medieval crocodile from Herodotus, eating a person, with the caption "om nom nom" (Default)

[personal profile] holyschist 2010-08-01 06:23 pm (UTC)(link)
I've been wondering about that, too--I didn't read YA much when I was a teenager (now it's most of what I read, at 25--go figure), and I find the Wall O' Twilight Knockoffs in Borders really offputting. I suspect that it's not just boys, but also a large number of girls who are turning to the adult section instead, because that's just not to their tastes. Not to mention that all the covers look the same, which makes it harder for any given book to stand out as potentially interesting.

I'm also not convinced that teenagers reading adult novels is a problem. The line between YA and A is really fuzzy, and often drawn solely by the age of the protagonist. There are many excellent adult SFF authors that I enjoyed as a teenager and/or would recommend to a teenager--Naomi Novik, Alaya Johnson, Terry Pratchett, Elizabeth Moon, etc. Some of those authors get assumed to be YA (especially the first two) despite never marketing as such, and others have also written YA (Pratchett).

[identity profile] theinkymuse.livejournal.com 2010-08-01 07:25 pm (UTC)(link)
Yes, exactly. I just feel the most recent outcry is largely contributable to these less-than-creative-or-interesting books.

And I completely agree with you regarding YA and Adult lit; it’s really only a marketing label. I read an “Adult” novel recently by N.K. Jemisin titled “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.” It’s one of the best epic fantasies I’ve read in years, heavy on world-building and mythology, revenge and politics and action, and even with a bit of romance (and also a sex scene, but I’ve read YA that’s been much more graphic). I know plenty of other teens who would’ve enjoyed it, but because its protagonist is nineteen it was put in the Adult section. *shrug* That’s the industry for you.
holyschist: Image of a medieval crocodile from Herodotus, eating a person, with the caption "om nom nom" (Default)

[personal profile] holyschist 2010-08-01 07:53 pm (UTC)(link)
I don't know that I'd dismiss all those books as not creative or interesting--I haven't read them, and it's entirely possible some are quite good--but they look very similar and tend to have similar premises (judging from back cover copy), so they're going to appeal to a particular audience.

Looking at your LJ, you might like Alaya Johnson's Spirit Binders trilogy. I don't think it's YA per se, although the protagonist starts out as a teenager (creating marketing confusion!), but they're very rich and fascinating books.

[identity profile] theinkymuse.livejournal.com 2010-08-04 07:45 pm (UTC)(link)
Hmm, sounds interesting. I think I'll check out RACING THE DARK. :D
holyschist: Image of a medieval crocodile from Herodotus, eating a person, with the caption "om nom nom" (Default)

[personal profile] holyschist 2010-08-05 10:55 pm (UTC)(link)
Hmm, sounds interesting. I think I'll check out RACING THE DARK. :D

Hope you like it! Racing the Dark is a little rough in places and perhaps tries to cram too many (wonderful, fascinating) things into one novel (it is a first novel), but The Burning City has none of those problems. I'm really looking forward to the third book.

(Anonymous) 2010-09-09 05:11 pm (UTC)(link)
when you speak of recommendations to parents for male readers, it seems to me that you're addressing a much younger audience.

I don't know if I answered this on my lj, but I wanted to do so here. The audience I mean isn't that much younger, and with reluctant readers of any sex, my experience is that parents are still trying to get them hooked even into their college years. Even sibs join in if the sibs are bookoholics. That's why I addressed parents--it's usually they who come up to me at public appearances and ask what I'd recommend.

(Anonymous) 2010-09-09 05:12 pm (UTC)(link)
Oops, sorry. This is Tammy Pierce. ::sheepish grin::
holyschist: Image of a medieval crocodile from Herodotus, eating a person, with the caption "om nom nom" (Default)

[personal profile] holyschist 2010-08-01 06:28 pm (UTC)(link)
I am so very, very frustrated by backlash.

The other thing for me here is that when I was a teenage girl, I did not read much YA. Not because of lack of representation, since it wasn't that long ago, but because I just preferred adult fiction (and, perhaps, there wasn't nearly as much YA fantasy as there is now--I'd argue that there still isn't much YA SF, much less decent YA SF). If it's generally assumed that kids like to read about and watch the adventures of kids a few years older than them, is it not logical that teenagers might want to read about adults?

So I'm not entirely convinced it's a problem that teenage boys are reading adult fiction. I suspect there are still a lot of teenage girls who are doing the same thing--I walk into Borders and their YA section is a WALL of black covers of books about vampires at private prep schools. One has to poke around to find anything else, and so I would not be surprised if there are teenage girls not in love with the vampire phenomenon who are left cold by the YA section as well.

It's normal for teens to read only YA, to read YA and A, and to read only A. It's normal for teens to read only graphic novels, too! I think the real problem is that the YA that makes it to the big chain bookstores is overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly straight, and these days, overwhelmingly focused on vampires and/or rich kids in prep schools--at least the books turned face-out. It shouldn't be hard work to find something that stands out.

By contrast, in the adult SFF section, the covers don't always look the same, and while it's still tough to find books about characters of color and/or queer characters, it's a lot more doable. And there's a lot more obvious diversity in setting and focus just based on covers.

AqnXePpuRRaSxnJJ

(Anonymous) 2011-04-15 03:00 am (UTC)(link)
Real brain power on display. Thanks for that ansewr!

(Anonymous) 2010-09-09 05:12 pm (UTC)(link)
I am so very, very frustrated by backlash.

You `n' me both.

Tamora Pierce

(Anonymous) 2010-08-02 12:55 am (UTC)(link)
I AM a feminist, and I feel you're completely undermining legitimate arguments in favor of gender equality by equating Hannah's post with sexism. You are crying wolf in this instance. She was not railing against strong female protags, as I see you and a few other authors posting, but rather in favor of well-developed male characters not reduced to mere 2-D love interests for fmeales. YA lit IS dominated by romances about teenaged girls and dreamy male love interest. Edward Cullen is as objectifying to men as Baywatch was ot women.

Hannah made a great point, but people with blinders on obviously don't want to hear it/want to skew it into an argument it is not.