I’m just a girl? Gender issues in ya lit
I watch the Walking Dead. I have seen every episode. Afterwards, I hop online and go to the forums at TWOP (Television Without Pity) to discuss the show. One very troubling aspect of this show is that in this zombie apocalyptic future, the women do the laundry while the men get the guns and protect the women. TWD has been widely criticized for its retrograde view of gender roles in a post apocalyptic world. It’s like Leave it to Beaver, but with zombies.
Recently, Crunching and Munchings brought up the same conversation regarding gender roles in ya dystopian, using Crewel by Gennifer Albin as an example. You can read their discussion here. This is such a natural extension of our discussion of ya lit and body image, I thought I would share my two cents.
As a woman, I do have a problem with gender roles in ya literature – all ya literature. And yet, I do see this return to more “traditional” (though in my view vile) gender roles as being a realistic trait in dystopian literature – especially when you view it in terms of today’s political climate. In fact, as I mentioned above, it is not just in lit but in all types of post apocalyptic worlds that we see a return to sterotyped gender roles.
So tet’s examine a few ya lit titles, shall we?
In Crewel by Gennifer Albin, the world is run by a group of men called the Guild, despite the fact that some women have the literal power to weave the world. Here, women are culturalized to value beauty and spend a great amount of time and effort trying to attain this beauty. Basically, the men are distracting the women. It’s easier to control distracted people. I view this as being very culturally accurate actually; the cosmetics industry spends billions of dollars advertising getting us to spend thousands of dollars a year on cosmetics. And then there is clothing, diet fads, etc. It’s easy to get so caught up in how we look in this world that we lose focus on what’s really important. And trust me, the culture has a lot of (negative) things to say about how we should look if we want to be “pretty”, aka accepted and valued. If I was going to take over the world, I would definitely use this tactic – it is much less violent; just tap into people’s greatest insecurities and get them to focus on that while you sneak in off the sidelines and slowly chip away at their rights. (Previous discussion: It’s a Crewel World; Gennifer Albin talks Crewel)
Gennifer Albin on Adelice and Beauty: “Adelice’s background growing up with parents who did not wish her to become a powerful Spinster, a mother who disliked the obvious chauvinism in her workplace, and a father who clearly loved and respected his wife, allow her to have a more balanced approach to her own life. She is not dissuaded by cosmetics, clothing, and parties, because she has more self-respect than most girls her age. Her parents showing that they valued each other as well as her and her sister, helped to create this anomalous attitude, which filters into her personality. Whereas someone like Pryana has been groomed to be an ideal Eligible to the point of fostering ruthless ambition in her, Adelice sees herself as an equal to those around her. This causes her problems in interactions with people like Maela and Cormac, who don’t share this belief, but it also enables her easy interactions with boys, whom she doesn’t fear or idolize.”
In Shadow and Bone, there is again an emphasis on beauty that, quite frankly, troubled me and distracted me from the other lush parts of this world created. Here, the privileged class, who also happens to be magical, uses their magical abilities to help each other attain almost perfect beauty standards. It’s a perfectly good waste of magical abilities if you ask me. But although I hated this aspect of the book, there is a lot of great stuff here.
In pretty much every paranormal out there the lead female is overly sexualized, so there’s that. Also, she is always falling in insta-love, usually with a guy you wouldn’t want your best friend dating in real life – because we must have a man to be complete. I could give you specific examples but just go browse the shelves and you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.
Then you have books like The Forsaken where the main character initially seems maybe strong and fierce, but when she is sent to a feared place called The Wheel, when she is rejected from her very world and is sent to what is essentially a life or death situation – she falls in love with that dreamy guy over there on like the second day. Here, she has no idea if she will survive and what the rules could possibly even be – and yet on day two she is swooning over a fellow outcast. I found this storyline to be so incredibly unbelievable because, let’s face it, in this instance survival and figuring out where you are and how to survive would be your sole concern. In fact, I view the issue of insta-love as being a side shoot of the gender issues: it sends the message that girls need someone, often even an unhealthy someone – again, I’m looking at your paranormal – in order to be “complete”.
So let’s return back to Crewel, shall we? I read Crewel as a more feminist piece of literature where our main character, Adelice, eventually grows wise and begins to reject the constructs of her world. She sees the men in power around her, and the evil that they do in its name, and plots to if not overthrow it, at least find a way to personally escape it (which she does do with the help of two male allies, but they have become friends to some extent and they have inside information that she needs). To me, there was a turning away from this notion that men are the leaders that has the tremendous potential to be followed through with the next book. In fact, this was definitely a more promising storyline in Crewel than in some of the other dystopians that I have recently read. It is hard for me to judge the gender issues of this book alone because it is clearly a central issue of the trilogy and it is just being set up in book 1. (You can read my full review of Crewel, which I loved, here.)
But why this return to gender stereotypes? My primary guess would be because they accurately represent the world we are currently living in. Today we have presidential candidates talking about binders full of women and how he lets his female staff go home early so they can cook dinner for their families (he has obviously never tasted my cooking). Our elected representatives are vetoing legislation asking that women receive the same amount of pay for doing the same job because, well, it apparently would be too hard on businesses to treat women the same as men. And there is a vast war going on regarding a woman’s right to make reproductive health decisions for herself. In short, we still very much live in a man’s world. And make no mistake about it, if a huge apocalypse happens, there are a lot of people out there who would love to take advantage of the situation to seize power and put women in “their place.”
So when I see this type of world building in ya dystopians, I see it as being an accurate reflection of what is the most probable scenario. That doesn’t mean I like it. But it does make for some great discussion in book clubs.
Let’s take for a moment and evaluate the very realistic post-apocalyptic world of Mike Mullin’s Ashfall to get a better look at what would probably happen. (Insert obligatory spoiler warning here) In this disturbingly realistic account, all rules of law have broken down and it is quite literally a matter of self-survival. The strongest and best armed survive and take control. Men rape women. I don’t like it, but history seems to suggest that this is indeed what would happen. The world becomes a dangerous place in the absence of rule of law. That is part of what makes Ashfall such a disturbing (although good) read, you can imagine this happening; it often seems like we are one super volcano away from this reality. Also, the girl in this book, Darla, is pretty badass and essential to her and Alex’s survival. (Want another example of a nuanced look at the roles of women in a zombie apocalypse? Check out the Ashes trilogy by Ilsa J. Bick. Alex is tempted but makes awesome choices.)
Which is why I want to see more feminist tendencies in my ya lit. I want there to be a strong message to our developing teens: you are more than your body, you control your destiny, you are an important part of the whole. You do not need a man. This is not always the case unfortunately. We do over-emphasize looking certain ways (both in our stories and on our covers), our girls fall in love with the first cute guy they see (even when they have controlling or sadistic tendencies), and far too many of them still have to be saved instead of being the ones saving themselves.
At the end of the day, we are still sending very strong cultural messages of what girls are supposed to be in the books we read, the tv we watch, and even in our classroom assignments. We even use the idea of being a girl as an insult: “you throw like a girl”, “don’t cry like a girl”. These insults suggest that there is something wrong, something less than, with being a girl. At the end of the day, I want teen girls to know that they and they lone get to define who they are – and they have value.
I am the mom of a tween. She spends time doing her hair and wears foofoo dresses every Sunday to church. She also goes to Karate three nights a week and asked for a Science set for Christmas. She plays with Barbies, but she also plays with Legos (the real ones, not those new pink ones that emphasize shopping and once again tried and uncultured girls to a certain dictated standard of femininity). She reads Origami Joda and Wimpy Kid with her Judy Moody and Ivy and Bean. Nobody puts baby in a corner, and nobody should be putting her in a box either. Think of how much potential our girls have and let them explode outside the box – you never know what kind of things they can accomplish.
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
SLJ Blog Network