Okay, so I’ve been thinking, as you might have noticed from the title, which I realize is always dangerous for me to do (ba dum bum), but bear with me here. First, I should mention that last semester I took this English class that was like intermediate level and it was introducing all these different ways of analyzing a text, which of course introduced all these different ideas and ways of looking at the world, which is amazingly hard to turn off. I find myself looking at things and thinking “Well, there’s exchange of women”, which isn’t as dirty as it sounds, or “And there’s Orientalization of foreign cultures.” (For the record, exchange of women is the idea that most of the way that men interact and culture itself is based on how men use women. And I’m not just talking about in the olden days, when they would basically sell a woman to cement a treaty, but even nowadays, when guys bond by going out “picking up chicks. Yeah!” And Orientalization of a culture is basically when a country, in this case the U.S. looks at another country or region, like the Middle East, and sees in it all the things it fears about itself, or feminizes it in the worst, most masogynistic way possible. Like, we’re strong and stoic, hardworking and loyal, and they are mysterious, emotional, irrational and untrustworthy. Note that I am not saying that that is what I think, I’m merely explaining the concept, whose originator I cannot remember at the moment but I will likely google later, since I sold back the book. Anyway, there it is, in case anyone at all cared.)
Anyway, moving along. Now, you mix that influx of new ideas with this thing I read and all of a sudden, I’m thinking about something that honestly kind of disturbs me. First, so that you will know what I’m talking about, here is the post in question. It’s from the Ilona Andrew’s blog, whom, if you will remember, I adore.
Gender in YA Books
December 6, 2012 by Ilona ·
Brooke Lago @wonderland449
@ilona_andrews A friend shared this article & as authors w/ strong heroines, I wondered what you would think of it?
The article in question is The Legacy of Katniss, or, Why We Should Stop ‘Protecting’ Manhood and Teach Boys to Embrace the Heroine.
Brooke also tweeted:
@natasha_lh@justinemusk I shared the article w/ @LKHamilton and@ilona_andrews bc they are two of my fave authors who write strong heroines
I don’t appreciate being put on the spot, because if you ask me something like this, I will answer and that won’t earn me many friends.
This is a giant, giant can of multicolored worms, and I am on a deadline, so I will touch on it only briefly. First of all, saying “strong heroine” is like saying “a free gift.” It’s redundant. Being heroic, by definition, is possessing some strength, most of the time, strength of moral conviction that culminates in you placing yourself in a harm’s way to protect others. Firefighters are heroes. Soldiers are heroes. Heroes are people who have the moral strength to risk or sacrifice themselves for the good of others. It is a gender-neutral occupation.
Heroes can be weak in body, but never in spirit. Otherwise our story ends up being, “He was weak and selfish. The end.”
When we wrote Kate Daniels, I personally didn’t set out to write “a strong woman.” I set out to write a woman whose humanity endures despite her upbringing. With that in mind, let’s try to look at the different worms.
Men and Women Are Different. If a woman comes up to me and says, “I’m a feminist, and men and women are the same,” I will tune out whatever else she has to say, because she is the exact opposite of being a feminist. Being a feminist is understanding the differences between men and women and effectively demonstrating that while differences exist, they shouldn’t dictate unequal treatment.
Women, on average, are physically weaker. We have smaller size, lower bone mass, and less upper body strength. We can compensate for this by training, but we have to work harder than men at achieving the same level of strength. This is a fact.
Men, on average, have higher levels of testosterone. They have greater bone mass. They have greater muscle mass. Some people also attribute increased levels of aggression to testosterone, but I don’t believe a definitive link has been established. We do know that testosterone affects the risk taking level and women are generally more averse to risk. Actually, we didn’t need a study for this. We could just watch World’s Dumbest Daredevils or Most Shocking on TruTV. Ninety nine percent of these clips resulting in bodily harm feature men. Men do things like hit each other in the balls, because they think it’s funny. Can you picture a group of girls punching each other’s breasts and laughing? No, because it hurts.
“Hey, Jane, how about you take off your pants and we’ll stick this firecracker up your butt and light it on fire?”
“What are you, crazy?”
“Hey John, how about that firecracker?”
I think we can agree physical differences between men and women exist. Some people link it to evolutionary adaptations. An early male had to take a lot of risk. Here is a sharpened stick. Go poke that mammoth with it. That’s a hell of a risk right there, but somebody had to bring home the mammoth. I’m not super sold on it. The truth is, we don’t quite know why testosterone makes men more reckless.
Society views men and women as different based on their physical differences. When I was a child, I read a nursery rhyme in a Russian book. I was probably seven or so, but it’s stuck in my head because it defined the world. It had a picture of a family on the beach, with muscular dad, a mom in a bikini and two kids. The rhyme said:
The sky is blue
The sea is blue
Dad is strong
Mom is pretty.
That’s the social gender gap in a nutshell. Men are supposed to be strong, women are supposed to be beautiful. Look at the commercials. Men get a “Gain muscle, don’t be a weakling” while women get “Lose weight and paint yourself pretty.” God help you, if you are male and not athletic or female and not beautiful.
The reason why the article affected me so deeply was because even at that age I knew I wasn’t primarily strong or pretty. I was smart. Where the heck do I fit into this family? We’ll come back to this in a minute.
As a society, we extend the physical differences onto how we treat children. In Western society, men are historically the dominant gender. If one analyses this in terms of class-based society structure (USSR education paying off), you can clearly see the dividing lines. The classist theory says that while all class lines are defended, reaching from lower class to higher class is viewed as a lesser wrong. For example, if a girl dresses as a boy, she is imitating men, she’s a tomboy, and it’s cute. If a boy dresses as a girl, it is unacceptable, freaky, and weird. The girl takes a step up, while the boy takes a step down. The dominant societal class must maintain power at all costs. Any downward movement is the surrender of that power.
Women dressed in male clothes are sexy. Men dressed in women clothing are drag queens. A comic featuring scantily clad female superheroes is not lesbian, it appeals to men. A comic featuring scantily clad men is “subtly homoerotic,” because the assumption is only the male audience matters. Women couldn’t possibly be interested in seeing scantily clad men.
Men are the dominant class, so men are supposed to be providers. It’s a double-edged sword. We, as a society, place crushing burdens on our men and sometimes they fold under pressure and we end up with family annihilators.
Suppose you have a daughter, a sister, or a female friend and she brings her new boyfriend to meet you. You ask him what he plans to do for his living and he says, “I’m planning on finishing high school and then I really just want to be a father. I’d like to be a stay at home dad and putter around.”
OMG, he is some kind of deadbeat.
Suppose it’s a male friend and his girlfriend tells you she wants to be a mother and a homemaker. You may think it’s kind of lame, but most people will likely not think less of her for it. And if you attack her or criticize her on that choice, there will be people who will have a knee jerk reaction to defend her. ”Don’t you dare criticize her choice. Being stay-at-home mom is hard.” So is being a stay-at-home dad! If your daughter wants to be a stay-at-home mom and her boyfriend wants to be a stay-at-home dad, how are they going to feed themselves? Why is it the boy who automatically faces the burden of providing for the family? Is it because the girl is less capable? Is she weaker?
And this is the root of the problem. As long as we tell girls that low expectations are okay, there is no hope of a true equality. None. If my daughters ever date a girl, I expect her to tell me she wants to be a nurse, an astronaut, a teacher, something. I want her to be confident and to have aspirations. There will always be time to stay at home and be a mother, but I hope that at first she has dreams and ambitions. I want her to find something she loves to do and explore it. I want her to be a strong partner for my child.
Just to be clear, before I’m flooded with hate: staying with kids is a perfectly valid, viable choice. I’ve done it and I was a stay at home mom until the kids went to school full time. Our daycare would’ve cost more than what I would’ve earned. But it should be a choice each family makes for themselves and we, as a society, shouldn’t tell boys that they are less male because of it or make the girls feel guilty if they choose to have a career instead.
How does all this relate to YA books?
Remember how I said that smart didn’t fit into the nursery rhyme? It’s because smart is gender-neutral. Kind is also gender-neutral. Being a good friend. Being disciplined. Doing the right thing when it’s difficult, especially when it’s difficult. Having honor and integrity. Those are not the functions of our gender. Those are the functions of our humanity.
So if you want boys to read books with female YA protagonists, stop making getting the boy the point of the book.
But Hunger Games!
Yes. It was brilliant. My kids loved it. What else you’ve got?
By the way, look at the Hunger Games. Look at what happens in the Capital. Katniss is not presented as a warrior to the capital. They present her as a girl and they ask her if there is a special someone. To make her popular, they have to clean the viciousness off and make her more feminine. That’s when the crowd gets fired up – when they know there is a romance. Presence of a boy in her life gives Katniss value in their eyes. It is an exceptionally astute criticism of gender roles.
My girls read Lightning Thief and Harry Potter, not because the protagonists are men but because these books have adventure. They have danger, plot, turns and twists, they have conflict, and they deal with betrayal and love and coming into conflict with adult world.
But girls like to read about romance?
Great. And there are tons of YA books that are about romance and there should be. Some books are meant for a primarily female audience just as some books are aimed at a primarily male audience. But if you are trying to appeal to both, you must accept that women and men view romance from different angles. Boys and girls both fall in love and do desperate things. Romance is exciting and it should be in YA books, because first love is a part of adolescence. But if you want your YA books to have cross-gender appeal, make your books to be more than an exploration of being a girl in love. Make it an exploration of being a human being. You would get more girl readers that way anyway.
Okay, so we have that, which I’ve been meaning to repost anyway, as it’s brilliant, but it got me to thinking about something that I’ve noticed, which is that in tv or movies today, if there is a gay character, it’s always a man. Pretty much always. I mean, there are the exceptions like “The L Word” and whatnot, but those are on paid cable and seem to be kind of niche shows. But broad appeal shows, that are supposedly about the modern world, and embracing differences and whatnot? Always a gay guy. Modern Family, The New Normal, even ones that aren’t about embracing differences, just ridiculous people, like The B in Apartment 23? All gay guys. Not a lesbian among them. At first I wasn’t quite sure what to make of that, since I mean, what does that mean when you don’t have the vocabulary to even really think about it? But you add in what Ilona was saying there and all of a sudden it makes more sense. A male dominated society is trying to come to terms with gay men. It’s trying to assimilate the idea that it’s okay, which is fine. But someone is being left out, someone is being ignored and that is the lesbians. I’m worried that it’s because society, on some level, deems them useless. Because they are not men, and therefore inherently more useful, because of that class system Ilona was talking about, and they can’t be used to solidify male interactions, like in exchange of women, they are being ignored and perhaps shunted to the side. And that’s wrong. You can’t ignore an entire group of people just because they don’t want to have sex with you. I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong, but I honestly don’t see any big part that lesbians are playing in our culture or our cultural conversation about.. is gayness that right word? Queerness? Either one sounds bad. Well, you know what I mean. Because, I mean, that is what tv, books and movies are. They are a conversation we are having with ourselves about who we are, who we were and who we intend to be. It’s how we accept new ideas and let go of old ones. It’s how we come to terms with events, national tragedies and changing times, and lesbians are being left out of that. Drag queens get more air than they do, because, I can only assume, they are male. It’s disturbing, and if it’s for the reasons I’m coming to think, then it’s not right. I realize that this whole thing was kind of off topic for me, but, as I said, I’ve been thinking about this. Let me know if you think I’m wrong or not.