February 4, 2011

Feminist-friendly YA fiction

Filed under: recommended reading — Tags: , — Rhiannon Lassiter @ 2:00 pm

The furore I posted about yesterday has inspired me to do a new recommendations list of feminist-friendly YA novels.

But, before I launch into it, what qualifies something in my mind to appear on this list. Here are the factors I am currently working on:

  1. Equal billing, equality of opportunity: women and girls should be presented as equal to men and boys. Ideally there should be as many female characters as male and in similarly ranked professions e.g. fiction with three male doctors and three female nurses would not count
  2. Passes Bechdel test: girls must talk together about something other than boys
  3. Avoids stereotyping: boys are allowed to like pink and dislike sport, girls are allowed to enjoy sport and aren’t inevitably interested in fashion.

Okay so those three are givens. I think there are probably lots of other potential criteria too though – elements that aren’t required but would increase the feminist-friendly nature of the work. For example:

  • Characters discover/learn/engage with feminist issues e.g. equal pay, reproductive freedom, harmfulness of the beauty industry etc
  • Matriarchal fantasy society or similar female empowerment, unless presented as vile dystopia

Does anyone have ideas to add to these?

An example recommendation, on these terms, with an explanation, might read:

Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
In the fairytale kingdom of Ingary, oldest sister Sophie expects to fail first and worst at everything she tries. But when a wicked witch’s curse turns her life upside down she sets off to seek her fortune. Strong and intelligent female characters strew the pages of this book from Sophie and her sisters to the Witch of the Waste herself. Some readers might cavil at the romance plot which suggests the love of a good woman redeems a shiftless man but this is expressed with emotional realism and doesn’t fall back on an easy ‘happy ever after’ ending.

February 3, 2011

Censorship or responsiveness?

Bitch magazine posted a list of “100 Young Adult Books for the Feminist Reader”. The original list included Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan, Sisters Red by Jackson Pearce and Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott. After receiving critique that Tender Morsels validates (by failing to critique or discuss) rape as an act of vengeance, Sister’s Red has a victim-blaming scene and Living Dead Girl is triggering, the editors decided to remove/replace the books commenting: “We still feel that these books have merit and would not hesitate to recommend them in certain instances, but we don’t feel comfortable keeping them on this particular list.”

John Scalzi posted about this on his blog and reported that:

a number of high profile, award-winning and/or bestselling YA authors, including Scott Westerfeld, Justine Larbalestier, Maureen Johnson and Ellen Kages hit the roof and show up in the comments to demand their own books be removed from the list as well.

But I’m not so sure that this deserves to be called censorship. I find myself feeling differently about this than I did about a teenage literary festival disinviting guest of honour Ellen Hopkins after one librarian challenged the suitability of her work. Is Bitch really wrong to ensure that their list of YA books is feminist-friendly? If a book had made it on to the list but had the conclusion that a feisty female character should stop being such a tomboy and wear high heels, they’d surely be right to remove it. Obviously in an ideal world they’d have researched, read and discussed all the titles before putting them on the list but even a book might be challenged by a reader who noticed something the editors didn’t.

I haven’t read any of the contentious titles so I don’t know if the criticism is validated. (I turn out to have read only 17/100 so I need to get to the local library and check out all the books I’ve missed.) I am a little uncomfortable with one person making a complaint and then the list being changed. Although, in the case of Sister’s Red the commenter did link to another blog post with 98 comments at the BookSmugglers blog on the potential problems with the book.

Part of being an active feminist or feminist ally means listening when someone tells you that text or imagery is problematic, that the message you are sending is not the one you intended to send, that you need to think harder, think deeper about certain ideas and concepts.

Does Scott Westerfield’s status as a published YA author of a book on the list or his opinion that Tender Morsels is a good book constitute more valid grounds for inclusion than the complainants’ grounds for exclusion?

What do you think, readers? Bitch made a mistake, I think we can all agree on that. But what was their mistake? Including the books in the first place? Taking them off the list again?

Is this censorship or response to criticism? (Interestingly one commenter liked the list but thought it was inappropriate to show to a teenage girl because it includes the word ‘bitch’, the name of the magazine. Now that *is* censorship and the magazine rightly refused to remove their own name from the list. I can usually tell what is and what isn’t censorship.)

Let me know your thoughts. And also how many of the books on the list you’ve read – or if you’ve read the three contentious titles.

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