Potential trigger warning for discussions regarding sexual assault/rape culture. Though I think it might be mostly in the links.
A week or so ago, kaigou wrote an incredibly powerful post in reaction to discourse occuring within the rape culture/YA debate. The post is currently frozen, but I still recommend reading it.
"What's the message in there? That to write a story where a girl stands up against the rape culture is only possible and believable if it's not in our world, and not in our present day? That we need to wait twenty years -- or be on another planet altogether -- before it'd be okay for a young girl to tell a guy where to get off and have her demands be respected?
"[...] Yes, science fiction and fantasy have their place. I'd be one of the last to argue otherwise. But in this context, in this genre, the contemporary has a power that cannot be defeated by "what it'd be like in thirty years" or "what it'd be like if we were all blue and living on Pluto" -- it can only be defeated, I've come to believe, by showing our next generation of women that the things they deal with, here and now, can be changed, should be changed, and that we -- the generation who went before, who now produces the works that these younger women read -- are aware of what they face, and we are using our own experiences to give them paths to follow, to lead them out of that goddamn cage of the rape culture, and that yes, as a matter of fact, that we do not believe that the only path to true love is to accept the stalker-rapist, that we call that as bullshit and are here to help them see there is a better life -- a better world! -- possible."
In the post kaigou
temporarily sets aside scifi-fantasy in favor of exploring the power of the contemporary (possibly also paranormal) YA (i.e. "this
context") and demands why women and girls are only allowed to set boundaries and experience agency within scifi/fi but not contemporary YA. I think this raises some interesting questions, and I'd like to expand on it a little further. Note that I'm not setting contemporary YA and scifi/fantasy in opposition with one another, painting one as bad and the other as free of problematic portrayals of women; rather, I'm following the basic premise that women in scifi/fantasy are able to experience more agency (however layered or illusory) than their counterparts in contemporary YA due to fundamental beliefs about women's lives in contemporary society that don't seem to apply to AUs.
I think it's a given to say that the contemporary holds a certain power of immediacy
that scifi/fantasy doesn't, and I think this is significant in understanding why issues such as the perpetuation of rape culture become so prevalent across a single contemporary genre. I've said before that books often reflect the underlying beliefs of society, and while this holds true for scifi/fantasy as much as it does contemporary YA, by introducing the element of the fantastic we also introduce the possibility that not everything is the same as in the real world. Part of the reason scifi/fantasy, urban fantasy, and paranormal romance hold my attention from a meta-analytical perspective is precisely because of this possibility; it is also why I think they are incredibly powerful tools, particularly given their popularity and success, that could potentially shed light on systemic beliefs and counter them in an unrealistic context with realistic results.
That said, I think this exposes the inherent cognitive error that does
set contemporary YA and scifi/fantasy in opposition: that scifi/fantasy should or does completely fill in the gaps left in between the reality of oppression and the fantasy of freedom. By this I mean the idea that if scifi/fantasy's role is to explore alternate possibilities, then contemporary YA's job is to reflect current realities. An alternate approach to the latter, and one I'm loosely basing on kaigou
's above statement, is that contemporary YA's job is not only to reflect current realities but to also create a model for improvement
This isn't to say that contemporary YA shouldn't tackle issues such as rape as a reality of many women's lives. But it is to say that the repetitive
tropes that place girls and women in positions of vulnerability and their boyfriends in positions of power, without raising any questions about this arrangement in the text
and thus subliminally advocating its acceptance
.* The defense that women are dealing with these issues in real life is not a reason to portray unhealthy relationships as healthy nor the women themselves as helpless victims too oblivious to recognize the violence in their own relationships.
From Bitch Magazine, in an article on why contemporary intersectional feminism isn't necessarily anti-racist
,** which may seem off-topic, but I do believe the basic idea applies here, too:
"I mostly think this because my method of measuring where feminism is at isn't coming from the "oh, well it's better than it was before" place or the "oh, we need to understand that the second-wavers were women of their time" starting point. My measurement says that things have been really fucked up, are still really fucked up, but most importantly that I don't have to keep swallowing the pill of "understanding" why they remain that way in many instances."
Bold emphasis mine.
Part of the reason that many YA books are currently a vehicle for the perpetuation of rape culture is not just because the portrayal of relationships are riddled with socially accepted violence but also because we as a society have swallowed the defense of "this is the way things are." It is certainly pertinent to reflect "the way things are," but it is equally important to do so with an awareness
toward the people being impacted and to take a stance, implicitly or explicitly through the text, that does not in any way condone
*In accordance with my idea that genre books are the "dark mirror" to our reality--reflecting negative yet prevalent societal norms in a subtle manner--it follows that if stereotypical or negative portrayls of people, particularly marginalized groups, in scifi/fantasy books can have a dentrimental psychological impact on readers, then so, too, can contemporary YA. However I would suggest that the lag time between the absorption of the messages we receive and their solidification in our unconscious is greatly reduced (i.e. the amount of consistent messages need not be so high) due to the inherent relateability of contemporary/YA books. The messages are more powerful because they are all that more obvious. (And by obvious I refer to the connection between the realistic setting and the negative portrayal, not their subtlety as a function of privilege.)
**See how I slipped that in there? Read it. It's important, too.Reposted because the original timestamp backdated it. Sorry if you're seeing this twice on your reading pages.