It’s Banned Books Week, friends. Banned Books Week began in 1982 in response to an increase in challenges to books across the U.S.—11,300 since 1982, according to bannedbooksweek.org, where you can find more information.
The approach of Banned Books Week has found me trying to figure out what are things in books that trigger my BAN IT instinct. Now, as you know, I fundamentally, 100% DO NOT believe that books should be banned, but of course that doesn’t mean that there aren’t books that make me uncomfortable or things in books that I think model ways of thinking about the world that I believe are gross.
And there is one good thing that is sometimes a byproduct of the process of challenging books: discussion about the issues that make us uncomfortable. Too often, I think, those of us who argue that book banning should not occur are pushed into a false position of simply saying NO: no banning, never, not for any reason. But this does not mean that many of us don’t think these issues should be discussed. The standard answer to people who ask how parents should deal with their kids when they read these difficult books has long been that they should, of course, discuss these issues with their kids. And I totally agree with this. Still, I’m not totally satisfied that such isolated discussions are the only ones that those of us on the DON’T BAN side of things should be having. I would be so excited to get to talk about the difficulties of books that make us uncomfortable in public (that is, on blogs, at book readings, in book groups, etc.) while still insisting that these books remain accessible.
I don’t mean to suggest that no one discusses these issues, but so often the parts of books that are difficult or make us uncomfortable are treated as obstacles that we are able to overcome in succeeding at enjoying a book. For example, I’ve read many reviews and talked to many people who have said things like, “the way x was treated in book y made me uncomfortable, but I liked the book despite it.” Certainly, I’ve said similar things myself. What I would be interested in instead, though, is an approach to books in which we are excited about things that make us uncomfortable or anxious, because they provide an opportunity for books to do one of the things books do best: spark conversations about things that are important to us, sometimes with people we would never speak to about them otherwise. And, indeed, some of the best blog posts, reviews, and discussions I’ve read do this very thing—in fact, it’s one of the things I like so much about our joint reviews!
Many of the things that make me most uncomfortable in books are views of the world (either the author’s or the characters’) that are subtle or implicit in books and are, therefore, not really discussed. It is this taking-for-granted, this indoctrination into sexism, racism, classism, homophobia, consumerism, nationalism, and stereotype that concern me the most. But, in listing for myself all the things that make me most uncomfortable in books, it is clear that issues related to GENDER underlie the majority of my discomfort, so I’ve condensed them into two main complaints that, in myriad ways, make me extremely uncomfortable:
1. The idea that a (straight) boy and a girl can’t be friends. I first read Hunger Games when I was out of town and didn’t discuss it with anyone until I got home and my friend S— had read it, too. Her first question was, “what did you think of the love triangle?” and my response was, “huh? what love triangle?” I don’t mean to sound naïve—of course I understand that, in that book, the seeds were being sown for what would later be some kind of romantic strife. But, in that book, this is what I saw: a boy and a girl who were best friends—almost as close as siblings—who took care of each others’ families and helped each other survive; who had no romantic exchanges whatsoever on the pages of the book.
And, second, a boy who claimed that he was “in love” with a girl whom he didn’t know at all (that is not love in my book) as a survival strategy in a game where his survival depended upon selling the drama. This tactic created confusing, perhaps partly romantic feelings in a girl who was also just trying to survive and who had never thought about anyone romantically before. Now, I’m not saying that anyone else needs to share this reading of that particular book. What I’m saying is that I think lately there have been so many books that do suggest that a boy and a girl can never be friends without it being just a prelude to romance that whole swathes of the reading public are being trained to believe it’s true.
2. When female characters that I really like describe their strength as being masculine and their weakness as being feminine. As anyone who reads Crunchings & Munchings knows, I am a huge fan of Karina Halle’s Experiment In Terror series, but one thing keeps happening and I flinch every time it does: Perry Palomino is our awesome protagonist who hunts ghosts like a total badass, deals with the threat of mental illness, unfulfilled love, and did I mention GHOSTS that try to kill her. Yet, time and time again, Perry describes her crying or being scared or desiring intimacy as being “girly” or “acting like a girl.” Now, it’s troubling enough when sexist douchebag characters imply and reinforce sexist notions about emotion or fear being feminine. It sucks, but it’s expected. But it’s far more troubling to me when female characters do this—and especially awesome female characters who are brave and strong in addition to being, well, let’s call it human.
This is a really personal issue to me because I feel like there was absolutely a moment in my life when I wanted to be strong and self-sufficient and was encouraged (by my boyfriend at the time; by well-meaning guy friends) to think of my strength (and tastes—in music, movies, humor) as being in spite of being female rather than a natural part of it. It is such an insidious form of sexism because, of course, it’s praising women who are strong and brave, right? But, to the contrary, every time we reinforce the notion that bravery, strength, etc. are masculine characteristics that some women sometimes have, we imply that the standard for all those other women all the rest of the time is weakness or neediness; that embracing characteristics associated with femininity might mitigate that strength, that bravery, that self-sufficiency. And we imply that the only way to be strong or brave is in the way we typically associate with masculine behavior.
So, there you have it, Tessa—some of the things that make me most uncomfortable when I read. What about you? Do you think books should ever be banned? What makes you uncomfortable in books? Tell me on Wednesday!