A Roundabout Discussion of, Among Other Things, Crewel by Gennifer Albin
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2012)
By REBECCA, October 24, 2012
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?
It 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.
Most 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.
Now, 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.