Some Thoughts About Gender in YA Dystopias

A Roundabout Discussion of, Among Other Things, Crewel by Gennifer Albin

Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2012)

By REBECCA, October 24, 2012

Crewel Gennifer Albin

If I had any doubts that the genre of Young Adult dystopian lit has become oversaturated to the point of soppiness, Crewel, a recent drop in the bucket, has erased them. But the fact that I found Crewel to be a thin and frustratingly ill-conceived book isn’t really the point. Every genre boom produces chaff and in fact Crewel is, at least, better-groomed than some. No, it isn’t Crewel‘s genre failings that trouble me. Or, it’s more accurate to say that Crewel‘s failings highlight a much more troubling concern with the genre.

In a recent post during Banned Books Week, “On the Pleasures and Necessities of Conversations About ‘Difficult’ Books,” I wrote that while I am 100% against banning books, one good thing sometimes comes from the process of challenging them: conversations about issues that make us uncomfortable. Further, I called for those of us who are anti-ban to take a page out of the banners’ book and discuss our own “difficult” reads. To that end, then: I am extremely uncomfortable with the trend of how gender is being portrayed in many recent YA dystopias. Specifically, I’m troubled by the way that in many recent YA dystopias, the oppression of women is made to seem normal through the use of retrograde gender stereotypes. In these novels, many of which are set in the future, women are treated as beautiful objects to be sold, controlled, shown off, or bred.

But (you may be thinking) we’re talking about dystopias—isn’t the whole point to magnify some current problem in our society and see what it would look like if it were all-controlling? Well, yes, that is the point. How (you might then ask) is a book like Crewel any different than a book like Nineteen Eighty-Four, which takes notions of surveillance and fear and builds a dystopia where those threats to privacy are pushed to an extreme in order to show their dangers?

We Yevgeny ZamyatinIt is different, and here’s why. Dystopian literature has, historically, been a progressive (if reactionary) genre that warns of the dangers of something or someone gaining too much power in society. At base, dystopias like We (1921), Brave New World (1931), and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948), show us how easily our individuality, autonomy, privacy, and free will can be taken from us if we fail to vigilantly protect them. They take currently nascent cultural trends and show how they could turn to full-scale threats if they became ascendant.

In contrast to this, the recent YA dystopias that I find so troubling have reached backward to thoroughly retrograde sexism and gender stereotypes and made them the natural state of things. Perhaps even more worrisome, this sexism is merely one element of society and, therefore, isn’t even the main point of the books. In Crewel, for example, the main point is that the entire citizenry is being controlled by a group of people in power. This places the book’s emphasis of what is wrong not on the oppression of women, but on the oppression of people, thereby making the sexism fade into the background.

Why do I find this so troubling, though? I mean, the oppression of women is a current political, social, and economic issue—it’s not like sexism is in the past alone and these books are trying to resurrect it to malicious ends. No, it troubles me because it naturalizes the oppression of women, making it seem like a state that societies automatically default to. When we publish (in 2012) scads of dystopian novels aimed at teens in which the oppression of women is the naturally occurring state of the future, and barely even worth mentioning in comparison with the real problems of the novels, what are we doing? We’re suggesting that it makes sense for us to read with that mindset; that it is logical for the oppression of women to be part of what we bring to each book we read. In other words, it asks us to import oppression into a genre that is historically a vehicle for progressive politics. And that makes me exceedingly uncomfortable.

There are several ways that Crewel’s shortcomings brought this into focus for me.

Brave New World Aldous HuxleyMost of the criticism that I’ve read about Crewel has highlighted the thinness of Gennifer Albin’s world-building. I agree that this made the book an unsatisfying read, but it was more pernicious than that. In Crewel, Adelice Lewys is discovered to be a Spinster, one of the women who have the talent to manipulate the fabric of the world (called Arras, cue rimshot). Controlling the threads of Arras ensures peace and prosperity for those who follow the rules and provides a chance to re-weave anything “deviant” or dangerous (homosexuality, resistance, etc.). But, unlike so many of the other girls who have the ability to spin and are thrilled at the chance to wear fancy clothes and have personal stylists who make them beautiful (you know, apparently the only things that females care about), Adelice’s parents have taught her to hide her talent because becoming a Spinster means that she’ll be taken away from them and become a tool of the Guild, the organization in power.

Things related to the oppression of women that are not addressed in the explanation of the world (that is, in the first 2/3 of the book): that only women have the talent to weave; the government-controlled standards of female beauty (Spinsters are highly sexualized, and often work as glorified escorts to powerful men, and non-Spinster women receive a cosmetics allowance from the government); the reason why everyone (except Spinsters, of course) must marry at 18; why women who can control the material of life and time itself would allow a Guild of men to control them (Albin recasting the powerful Fates as mere artisans). That this societal oppression of women isn’t the point of Crewel is made even clearer because the female characters that we meet (all Spinsters) absolutely don’t fit with it. Adelice, her friends Enora and Valery, and her peer Pryana, her nemesis Maela, and her mentor, Loricel, are all strong women.

Most importantly, what is never explained is how, in this future-ish world, we returned to gender dynamics that more closely resemble the 19th century than the present. Now, it’s easy to write this off as simply careless world-building (or holding back details for the rest of the series?), but what the lack of explanation for these elements of the world suggests is that the author assumes that her readers will have no problem accepting them as reasonable. My reaction to the world-building as a reader about 100 pages in was: “Um, so, basically this is a book where instead of the masculinized world of computer- or virtual-reality we’re in a feminized world of weaving, and so since weaving used to be done by women I’m supposed to just assume that all the rest of the sexism that went with that hundreds of years ago is present here? What the hell?” Providing no explanation for how a society backslid a hundred and fifty years in our treatment of women assumes that it’s something that doesn’t need to be explained because people will understand it implicitly. That is naturalization, and that is troubling.

1984 George OrwellNow, let me be clear: I don’t mean to suggest that Crewel is a horrible book that should be blamed for sexism. Rather, it is one example of a troubling genre trend. I don’t mean to suggest that Gennifer Albin believes we should oppress women. Rather, I imagine she likely intended to critique such oppression. I don’t mean to suggest that it is the responsibility of authors to produce books that promote equality for everyone. Rather, I think authors should create art and we should see it as multiple entries into a conversation. I don’t mean to suggest that there is some conspiracy in which authors are all trying to turn back the clock on the feminist movement. Rather, it seems most likely that the trend is publisher-driven based on what they think can sell. I don’t mean to suggest that we should blame people who want to read dystopian fiction for enjoying books that I find problematic. Rather, I want readers to discuss what they think about books on both the level of enjoyment and the level of critique.

My concern is that this trend of naturalizing the oppression of women until it is something of a dystopian knee-jerk will have wider-reaching results for young women than simple genre repetition. And that it means more than we might want to believe about what we are willing to accept along with our entertainment. To put it analogously: what if in 2013 major publishing companies publish 25 dystopian novels that all feature worlds where non-white characters are deemed lesser citizens and are segregated from white characters? And what if this bit of world-building is not the main issue of the books, but simply an incidental component of their dystopias?

Crewel aside, when we establish a trend in which oppression is able to be incidental and naturalized, we are doing much more than using a progressive genre to comment on contemporary social ills—we are, in some ways, creating reading mindsets that are in harmony with them. And we must certainly be willing to discuss the potential fallout.

What are your thoughts? Let’s discuss in the comments.

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45 Comments

  1. Super late to the party, but I just want to say that THIS IS AN AMAZING POST. Beautiful and wonderful and I hope many, many people read it and think about it.

    Reply
  2. I realize I’m late to the party (I saw this review be decided not to read because I hadn’t read Crewel yet) – now that I’ve read Crewel I completely agree. Wholeheartedly. There’s more than one way to destroy a world – let’s have dystopias go in a different direction.

    Reply
  3. Sarah

     /  November 13, 2012

    So if I’m understanding correctly (I don’t tend to read YA dystopia, prefer Adult Dystopia.) the big difference between 1984 and Crewel is in 1984, the woman was not necessarily depicted as weak as a natural thing.

    Of course I tend to prefer reading things like Forever War, and Starship Troopers that have less of a (melodramatic) romantic overtone anyway.

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  4. A great post – really though provoking. I’ve been looking at gender issues on demention.co.uk and had thought that the move towards female characters and a much more emotion driven plot was symptomatic of a drive towards appealing to female readers, but hadn’t considered the underlying sexism/victimisation as a device to heighten the struggle of the central character had such an insidious subtext and would start to be taken as the norm.

    Reply
  5. Thank you for this wonderful analysis. I haven’t read Crewel yet, but I have noticed this trend of late. I think you get right to the heart of the matter when you ask readers to evaluate the books critically as well as in terms of the enjoyment they provide. But the question is, how do authors of YA literature invest their books with themes that provoke critical inquiry from teen readers? Naturally, some people (those who are English majors at heart) are set to critical mode, but most people just want to absorb a good book without delving into the problematic elements at its core.

    Look at The Hunger Games, for example. Those books are fantastic, and they could really open up a thousand discussions about race, poverty, social oppression, the power of the media, etc… But most young adult readers seemed to want to focus on a relatively minor element: Katniss’s love triangle with Gale and Peeta. Such a small thing within the context of the world Collins built eclipsed everything that *should have* mattered.

    Does the problem lie with readers? With writers? With a culture that too-often privileges sexual desirability over…well, everything?

    Reply
    • I think this is such an important question, Cassie. Do I think that when young adult authors write their main intention should be to educate or seed discussion? Absolutely not—I would never want artists to become de facto teaching-machines. And I think that no one individual author should bear such a burden. That’s why it’s the *trend* that’s made such an impression on me, you know? When one book does something a little bit troubling, it invites critique but can perhaps be dismissed. When an industry supports a troubling trend, I think it invites us to ask questions of ourselves as readers, writers, and publishers.

      For me, then, it’s less a call for authors to “be responsible” since, of course, people’s politics and investments vary wildly. Rather it’s that I want those of us who see troubling trends to begin to discuss ways that we can still write, read, and produce books that we find enjoyable and exciting without accepting an industry-driven or money-driven imperative to *include* elements that we find troubling in our books.

      I agree with you that Hunger Games is a great example of a series with many intrinsic critiques—critiques that, in my opinion, make the books the success that they are. The Harry Potter series, similarly, has such critiques, although in a different vein. And I think it’s no coincidence that many of the books that transcend whatever trends they participate in or that are built around them are those that plumb the social, cultural, political, and economic problems we currently face. I mean, that substrate of engagement with hard problems (for both characters and readers) is what makes us want to re-read books, right? So, even if the Hunger Games series has sparked less national political organizing than romantic debate, I still believe that readers internalize the critiques along with the entertainment.

      I used to work at Borders (many moons ago) and I was working the week that the fourth Harry Potter book was released. All of the employees had to wear buttons with the characters on them to celebrate the book release, and I wore a Voldemort button. A kid came in with his dad and, when I went to go help them get the book, the kid asked why I was wearing a button for the “bad guy.” I asked him what he thought made Voldemort such a bad guy, and he said: “Voldemort’s the bad guy because he wants all the power and he wants to tell people what to do. But everyone should get a chance to be in charge.” And this kid was, like, 6! So, I think that even young kids can pick up on and respond to critiques of oppression that are included in the material of their entertainment.

      Reply
  6. I think this is a great discussion, and I’m glad to see people jumping in.

    I have read Crewel–you can see my review on my blog–and found that while it appeared to be a set up for feminist critique a la The Handmaid’s Tale, it didn’t deliver. Beyond the “if women have the true power, why do they listen to the guild?” musing, there wasn’t any direct challenge to the arrangement. I loved the concept of weaving, but the world-building was lacking. I hoped it would be set up for future trilogies.

    Since I work in the YA section of the library, I do talk with teens about books a lot, and I do see girls talking about what it means to be a strong woman and referencing heroines in their favorite books. While I definitely don’t think the marketing set up this book to be read as a feminist text, it doesn’t mean that these discussions can’t take place.

    Reply
    • Molly, I’m so glad to hear that these discussions are taking place among library-goers. And who knows: perhaps the sequels to Crewel will take up the thread of that nascent critique.

      Reply
  7. Whoops, I didn’t refresh the page since opening it this morning! Looks like someone else mentioned HANDMAID’S TALE.

    Reply
  8. Very interesting, thought-provoking article. You raise some excellent points. I wonder about your thoughts on Atwood’s A HANDMAID’S TALE, which is considered a classic dystopia on par with 1984 and BRAVE NEW WORLD, and a book that Albin (or Albin’s publisher) cites as inspiration for CREWEL? I’m actually really surprised it hasn’t been mentioned. Do you feel similarly, or is it different because it was written at a different point in our history (1985)?

    Personally, I feel torn on this issue. While you raised very good points about the normalization of sexism and how it seems an expected outcome of the future, which I’m totally with you on, I also feel like these sorts of novels are in reaction to the current political climate in which there’s a push to return to the “good old days” when women weren’t lesbians and sluts and never had abortions and were overjoyed to take care of their kids and husbands via the home. I feel, like in Atwood’s case, this might inspire female authors to want to explore a situation in which an extremest political movement achieved enough power in the government to be able to do exactly what many women fear — turn back to clock based on a misguided sense of “the past was better, we didn’t have all these problems of murder and rape and abortion and HORRORS back then.”

    I believe people can (and have) made a case for THE HUNGER GAMES being at least partially, if not fully, a metaphor for the oppression of the poor and people of color, primarily with District 11 being portrayed as a callback to the slavery of Black people working in the fields, and speculation that District 12 and Katniss herself were POC. So there does seem to be a theme of exploring past wrongs in a futuristic setting. IDK, thinking out loud at this point.

    Anyway, I’d love to hear the thoughts of others on this. Full disclosure: I have not read CREWEL yet.

    Reply
    • Yes, S.E., I absolutely consider The Handmaid’s Tale a classic dystopia in the vein of Brave New World, We, and 1984, in that it showed what the world would look like if the oppression of women were pushed to extreme. Unlike Crewel, The Handmaid’s Tale is explicit political commentary on gender oppression—every scene serves to highlight the horror of that oppression and inability for freedom to exist in a system bankrupt of equality. In the novel, Atwood fully explains the economic and socio-cultural events that led to this dystopian oppression of women and undergird it, making it in no way incidental or naturalized, but the focus of the reader’s (and the protagonist’s) political energy.

      Reply
  9. curlysueshi

     /  October 24, 2012

    While I have not read crewel, I agree with your assessment that naturalizing women’s non-equality is not the same as what Orwell and Huxley did. While they were commenting on trends in their current society as a warning of what could come to pass, it is tragic to think that many authors today could be- hopefully unintentionally- creating a worldview in which women’s subjugation is the semi-norm, and can be accepted so long as it doesn’t go “that” far. “That” being equivent to the scenarios Huxley and Orwell tried to warn against. Since our society in many ways does mirror what these authors warned about, I can only hope that we, and eapecially the younger generations, do not accept any aspects of this potential dystopian future. Hopefully, many readers will see enough of the negative in such books that they work hard to keep scenarios like this from ever becoming even a partial reality.

    Reply
  10. You raise some very interesting points in this article-some of which I agree with, others than I do not. On the one hand, I agree that there is a trend for passive, weak heroines in YA at the moment. I am getting quite sick of books where a woman’s only worth seems to be based on her beauty, and where the heroine is totally dependent upon the love interest. I also agree that certain books seem to unwillingly romanticize gender oppression-making women’s fragility/weakness appear desirable and highly attractive to men.

    On the other hand, having read Crewel, I didn’t find it to naturalize gender oppression. You say that it: “places the book’s emphasis of what is wrong not on the oppression of women, but on the oppression of people, thereby making the sexism fade into the background.” I agree that gender oppression was not the main aspect of Crewel, but what is wrong with focusing on the oppression of people as a whole? Why should a novelist only critique one area of oppression and not oppression in general? I don’t see why sexism should be focused on more than say, racism, homophobia, class discrimination, political corruption etc.-they are all equally important issues to be addressed.

    I can totally understand where you’re coming from about gender oppressive societies being the ‘default’ society that authors revert to, thereby making it seem normal. But if you’re going to write about a dystopia-a society that is far from ideal, then it would be strange for there to be problems in every area BUT sexism. If the author wrote about an imperfect society that had many problems, but in which men and women were equal, the author may be interpreted as criticizing this equality as one of the ‘problems’ of the dystopia. I think we can read sexism into almost anything if we want to, so in a way authors can’t win no matter how they present gender relationships.

    Also, I’d like to give the target audience of YA more credit for using their common sense to interpret books. I can’t imagine girls reading Crewel and thinking “ah, so gender oppression is normal then.” They know it’s fiction and a commentary on both past and contemporary attitudes towards women, so I don’t share your concern that this trend in YA could do any harm.

    Thank you for raising this issue though. Although I disagree with some of your points, it is always worth creating a dialogue and questioning how we can interpret trends in fiction. Maggie Steifvater commented: “part of my worry is that I don’t see critical discussion blooming up around these dystopians,”-yet isn’t that what we are doing right now?

    Reply
  11. Also, @Sarah L – I think the “girls aren’t supposed to like sex” attitude is perhaps outdated/inaccurate. Nearly all of the young, teen, and 20-something girls I know personally or have encountered incidentally are in fact more sexualized & sexually-aware than ever. What has not changed (or rather, has changed back) are the passive-object attitudes that they hold about a woman’s role in a sexual relationship/encounter.

    Again, haven’t read this series in particular, but going on the blog post, it sounds like the presentation is more about removing the burden of sexual responsibility from the female characters – their enjoyment or lack thereof is immaterial (as I read the post anyway).

    It’s hard to sift out differences in overall social/political nuance or intent from the differences in audience. Better comparisons for female-centric dystopias would probably be The Handmaid’s Tale, Octavia Butler’s Parables series, or for something more YA-specific, Esther Friesner’s Psalms of Herod series.

    Reply
  12. Hi, linked over from a FB-friend. I think you might’ve come to the right conclusions, but maybe for the wrong reasons.

    My take on most actual girls these days (younger than ~18-20) is that the tacit removal of shared-agency is their “normal”.

    The sense of “we’re all in the sh-t together” that characterized every (female) rights movement since forever is rather sorely lacking, as most girls (in the US, specifically) seem to have absorbed the prevailing notion of “get yours, and to hell with the rest”. A lot of these YA books are in fact speaking with and to that voice, which dovetails neatly (though perhaps troublingly) with the narcissism inherent to a first-person narrative.

    Earlier YA books for girls tended to (over?) emphasize the nurturing-protective familial/community spirit (or maybe I just read a lot of books from the 60s/70s). In reaction perhaps, these books are tossing some of that sense that the protagonists are responsible for the well-being of others over themselves, which leads to some unpleasant (unintended?) connotations.

    Haven’t read the specific series mentioned, but aside from the stated weaknesses of the narrative itself, most likely the “I have a cushy life, so (the world) can’t be all bad” attitude is meant to mirror the POV of the target audience.

    Reply
  13. Maura

     /  October 24, 2012

    Brilliant, completely spot-on, and beautifully argued.

    Reply
  14. I definitely agree, and I think that part of the reason for this trend is that, as mentioned above, it’s easy, but also, it is very titillating for young girls because of our society’s attitude toward female sexuality. Girls are not supposed to be interested in sex; only boys are. So if we read a book where girls and women are forced into sexual situations, it’s okay, because they are being forced into it. They didn’t choose to be sexual beings, it was chosen for them. It gives girls an “out” to enjoy reading about the situation because these aren’t “bad girls” or “sluts” who want to have sex; these are “good girls” who, due to circumstances beyond their control, are in a situation where they will have sex. I feel like these cultural expectations are the same attitudes that lead people to be so excited by stories like 50 Shades of Gray, as well as contributing to the the need for control in sexual situations.

    Reply
    • What an interesting (and horrifying) point about the literary reactions to real life sexism, Sarah.

      Reply
  15. I’m just going to silently cuddle this post and nod my approval.

    Reply
  16. Thank you for this post. For every Legend (by Marie Lu) where the female is empowered and kick-ass there are five more Crewels being published in the dystopian field. It’s really disheartening. I don’t mind soft girls but fantasy societies that revolve around disenfranchising and weakening women were something I had hoped we would move beyond.

    Reply
  17. Thanks for bringing this up. I think at least part of the reason for this trend of gender oppression in YA dystopia is because it’s easy – it’s short-hand for a bad system. Want a fast proof that your world is not a good place to live? Want dystopic street cred? Write in gender oppression.

    And the only way for something to be a cue like that is if it’s an obvious cultural marker, if it IS naturalized. Unfortunately, it’s that way in our real world. This trend mirrors the feelings of American politics in general: “oh yes, yes, women still only earn $.75 to the dollar, yes some politicians think women’s bodies prevent pregnancy if they really, REALLY didn’t want to be raped, but I’m ok, I don’t have to worry about it because I’m comfortable and privileged and strong.”

    Gender oppression IS still real, but it’s not a big deal in the hierarchy of political/cultural discourse. It’s naturalized in the real world, a system of quiet (and not-so-quiet) oppression. So of course it’s in books.

    This trend maintains the status quo instead of challenging it, which as you pointed out, is exactly the opposite of what dystopia should do.

    Reply
  18. I have to applaud you for putting into words something that has been nagging at the back of my head for months. I was bothered by how the trend of YAs featuring oppressed girls regaining power seemed COMPLIMENTARY to the success of a series like 50 Shades of Gray rather than like a RESPONSE to it.

    For me, I think part of my worry is that I don’t see critical discussion blooming up around these dystopians, which I think is what makes that genre great. HUNGER GAMES, for instance, spurred so many criticisms of our current cultural voyeurism, which I thought was amazing. When it appeared as a movie, however, a lot of that impetus to discussion vanished — the movie had become the voyeurism the books had attacked. I sort of feel as if the same phenomenon is happening around these gender-issue YAs. Something about the way they are framed or marketed or positioned in general is not making them conversation starters. I’ve read several this year and never did I come away musing over the immediate danger of failing girl power. Instead, the extreme, historical-feeling gender situations rendered that part of the dystopia . . . quaint. It didn’t feel like a condemnation of our current gender situation. It felt more like the Nazis being the bad guys in an Indiana Jones movie. It was easy shorthand for evil rather than a searing look at the shades of gray (oh that is nearly punny) facing women today.

    Reply
    • Thank you, Maggie! The Nazis in the Indiana Jones movie is *such* a good comparison. It seems as if the “oppressed girls regaining power” trope also works to disable critique further: a repressive regime provides something for a strong girl to fight against, making it in a way necessary to her individual heroism. This distracts from the systemic problem of normalizing that regime in the genre itself.

      Reply
  19. Margalit

     /  October 24, 2012

    This is an incredibly important commentary on a crucial topic. Thanks for starting the conversation with such clarity and insight.

    Reply
  20. Interesting thoughts. Gender oppression in dystopia comes off as a cliche at this point, but this is an interesting analysis — what is meant as a warning comes off as the natural order.

    Reply
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