Why the Way We Write About Gender In YA Lit Matters. A Lot.
by REBECCA, January 23, 2013
This is not a post about sexism and misogyny. This is a post about sexist and misogynistic language. Why? Because I, along with many other awesome YA reviewers and authors, write about sexism and misogyny when we review books that demonstrate them. But sexist and misogynistic language often go undiscussed even though they can have, I would argue, even more impact on a reader’s sense of how gender functions in the world of the book. The other day, I reviewed the first book in Megan McCafferty’s Jessica Darling series, Sloppy Firsts, and was pretty grossed out at the (seemingly out of character) sexist and misogynist words that McCafferty puts in Jessica’s mouth. It’s bad enough if authors write sexist books, I commented, but it’s worse, in my opinion, when authors sneak misogyny into characters who are otherwise pretty righteous. By having Jessica, a smart, strong character, denigrate being “a girl” McCafferty teaches a whole new generation to equate “girl” with “over-sensitive,” “hyper-reactive,” “obsessive,” and “irrational.” Great. Thanks.
And, so, this is a post about how and why words matter a whole heck of a lot, especially in YA lit, when we know that they are being consumed by readers whose identities and views about the world are in the process of forming. I don’t say this in an attempt to leverage any kind of hand-wringing save-the-children defense! Rather, I say it because YA lit is essentially about identity-formation and, therefore, any of us who read it go through similar identity-formations. I think that many of us (who aren’t young adults ourselves) who love YA lit so much love it in part because it gives us the opportunity to explore our own identities in what are, perhaps, more fluid ways than are possible in books about forty-somethings stuck in unhappy marriages and working monotonous jobs to pay off their mortgages. That is, YA lit is often about all the different ways there are to be ourselves. YA lit features characters who (due to their age and their situation) have options, who have the potential to do or be almost anything, and, as such, the villain of any YA story is always someone or something that stands in the way of those options. It might be a strict parent who won’t let the protag be who she truly is; it might be a bully who makes the protag feel that he can’t express himself without being punished for it; it might be a lack of resources due to class or region, or a lack of options due to race; it might be a monster who wants to bring about the apocalypse, that essential potential-killer. Or, it might be sexism, misogyny, and gender policing that stand in the way of our protag’s options.
Why, you may ask, are sexist and misogynistic language just as much of a problem as outright sexism and misogyny? Because sexist and misogynistic language are comparatively invisible and, therefore, rarely talked about. Sexist and misogynistic language are so commonplace that we can sometimes soak it up like we would song lyrics on the radio—that is, without any critical interrogation of it. Phrases like “man up,” “she’s such a girl,” “you throw like a girl,” “pretty strong for a girl,” “crying like a little girl,” etc. are so common that I read them all the time . . . even in books that are not otherwise sexist or misogynistic. And that’s when I feel particularly nervous. Because it suggests that even those who would likely fight against gender inequality have internalized certain gender essentialisms to such a degree that phrases like “she’s such a girl” actually communicate something specific for them, as opposed to describing 51% of the youth population.
It is easy (and tempting) to vilify authors who use sexist and misogynistic language; easy to say, “oh, well, she’s sexist” or “he just doesn’t care about women.” To the contrary, however, there are a lot of amazing, smart, and talented people who believe that equality is important but seem not to consider language as the important political tool of equality that it is. And, oh, it is!
To clarify the difference between sexism and misogyny, sexism refers to “behavior, conditions, or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex,” and misogyny describes “hatred, dislike, or mistrust of women.” Sexism, that is, is about perceived differences based on whether you were born with male or female sex organs, whereas misogyny is about the denigration of women. I clarify because most language that is sexist is also misogynistic. When I say that someone “throws like a girl” we all know that I mean they throw badly or weakly. When I say that a female friend of mine was being “such a girl” we all know that I mean to emphasize negative stereotypes of femininity, such as weakness, melodrama, or oversensitivity. When a man describes his daughter with pride, saying, “she really manned up this weekend,” we all know that he is trying to pay her the ultimate compliment: imbuing her with masculinity. These comments are all sexist, sure, because they ascribe certain traits to males and others to females. But, more importantly, they are all also misogynistic because they imply that everyone agrees that being described in feminine terms, even if you are female, is negative.
In a post I wrote for Banned Books Week, “On the Pleasures and Necessities of Conversations About Difficult Books,” I discussed how troubling I find it when strong female characters that I like and admire describe their strength as being masculine and their weakness as being feminine. I cited, as an example of this, the wonderful Perry Palomino, protagonist of Karina Halle‘s totally awesome Experiment in Terror books. Perry 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 craptastic or sexist 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.
The thing is, I understand this impulse. I feel like there was absolutely a moment in my life (early high school) 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.
In addition to YA lit being the wonderful purveyor of the many different ways to live, it also models many possible ways of talking, thinking, and problem-solving. That means that YA authors are in the incredible position of having the potential to present readers with ways to think and talk about strength that aren’t simply masculine, or about sensitivity that aren’t simply feminine. The more times we read a YA novel where a smart, seemingly savvy character thinks in terms of gender essentialism or makes misogynistic comments, the more likely it is that we are going to internalize those ways of thinking. Whereas, the more books we read that provide more complicated (and, frankly, thus more interesting) ways to think about ourselves, the more potential we have to find identities that suit us as opposed to trying to force ourselves into ill-fitting ones (and police others into them as well). Gender essentialism is harmful because it limits the possibilities that we think we have—and that makes it the enemy in YA lit (as in life)!
so . . .
Do I want to police the way people write? Of course not. Do I believe that art and entertainment should be expected to serve purely didactic purposes? Absolutely not. Indeed, if authors want to choose to use sexist and misogynistic language, I would never question their right to do so. Maybe I don’t want to read those books, but I would defend the authors’ rights to write them. But my suspicion is that these words often make their way onto the page as knee-jerk shorthands rather than intentional declarations of sexism or misogyny.
And, so, my hope is that we can challenge ourselves to be on the side of expansion and possibility rather than simplification and limitation. Let’s not assume that we can generalize about huge groups of people. Let’s not make it harder for people to see all the ways to imagine of themselves. And let’s talk to each other if we find ourselves defaulting to harmful and limiting language because we aren’t sure what the other options might be. Let’s keep talking about all the wonderful, interesting, and creative ways to write about identity, because maybe if we can then others will too.