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.
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.

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(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