Leo Jay Shire
If Young Adult readers feel that there aren’t enough feminist books, is it about time they gave the publishing industry a nudge?
…books are seriously lacking when it comes to making feminist statements…
Let’s have a conversation about teen books and feminism, two of my favourite things. Last week on Twitter, #ukyachat turned their attention to feminism and gender equality in Young Adult fiction and the outcome was definitely negative. When it comes to YA fiction, the main consensus seems to be that books are seriously lacking when it comes to making feminist statements.
If, like me, you are both a Twitter user and a reader of Young Adult fiction, you’ve probably browsed through #ukyachat hashtag at some point. If not, let me give you a quick explanation. Young Adult, or YA, fiction is targeted towards young adult readers. It’s an umbrella term used to market books written for teenagers (or young adults) about teenagers. Reader and blogger Lucy Powrie created the hashtag #ukyachat on Twitter for YA fiction fans in the UK to chat about it.
Young Adult, or YA, fiction is targeted towards young adult readers
Some of the issues raised in last week’s Twitter chat were the lack of periods, characters being prettied up and the problem with the notion of a Strong Female Character:
MORE PERIODS IN BOOKS, PLEASE. #ukyachat
— Lucy Powrie (@LucyTheReader) June 19, 2015
I want to see less beautiful people in general. Characters don’t have to be beautiful to be likeable #ukyachat
— Maia Moore (@maiamoorereads) June 19, 2015
Q2 I’m tired of seeing strong only applied to characters with masculine qualities. Strong can be being who you are #UKYAchat
— Jess Hearts Books (@JessHeartsBooks) June 19, 2015
These are just a small number of issues I found in the top tweets. Check out the hashtag yourself and you’ll see exactly how excellent and varied the discussion was.
Abusive relationships have become something of a trope.
My main gripe with YA is that abusive relationships have become something of a trope. I’m not talking about books such as Laurie Halse Anderson’s ‘Speak’, where themes of sexual assault and abusive relationships are treated as what they are: abusive, damaging and wrong. The problem lies with books where the interactions between characters are negative, manipulative, emotionally and even sometimes physically abusive, yet they’re painted as the height of romance. I won’t personally delve into examples, but there have been plenty of blogs, vlogs and articles on the subject. The discussion has been going on for years.
But these responses are seemingly one-sided, coming mainly from readers. In comparison, the lack of diversity in children’s fiction has been acknowledged and rallied against by high profile authors, with others contributing to and working behind the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, which has also been a successful hashtag on Twitter. Should there be a similar campaign that highlights the prevalence of sexist character arcs and champions for more feminist books in YA?
Periods happen to a massive chunk of the population every four freaking weeks. Let’s NORMALISE them. #ukyachat
— Tex. (@remylebeautiful) June 19, 2015
Although readers are pointing out that they want more acknowledgment of periods in books, or that the abusive relationships are an awful trend, I’m sceptical that anything will change. I had previously hoped that the trend of bad relationships played as love stories had just about finished after the movie adaptation of the ‘toxic’ novel; ‘Hush, Hush’ was halted in its tracks by author Becca Fitzpatrick, and the ‘Mortal Instruments: City of Bones’ movie adaptation (spoiler: complete with its literally incestuous relationship) was a cinema flop. With the influx in popularity of the emotional-porn contemporary novels like ‘The Fault In Our Stars’ and ‘Me, Earl and The Dying Girl’ being made into movie adaptations I thought YA might have moved on, but I was pre-emptive in this assumption. Later this fall the film adaptation of Lauren Kate’s ‘Fallen’ is coming out and, without being too spoilery, the book is a paranormal romance revolving around a girl who falls hopelessly for a guy who expresses little but utter contempt for her. The trend is bafflingly still alive.
it’s pretty disappointing if readers also have to write the books they want to read
Author Patrick Ness’ response to the #ukyachat on feminism was this, ‘Lots of people saying awesome things they’d like to see in YA on #ukyachat. Ever thought about writing that book yourself? #bringtheawesome’ Although I agree with the sentiment that writers should write the books they want to read, it’s pretty disappointing if readers also have to write the books they want to read. It’s an almost maddening response to the number of thoughts and ideas that readers contributed to #ukyachat about what would improve YA fiction for such a successful YA author to respond with effectively ‘write it yourself’. At what point must YA author’s take responsibility for what it is the readers want? Is it even their responsibility at all?
Like sponges, we soak up societies rules through the world around us…
Unfortunately, books with bad relationships have had a habit of selling. ‘Twilight’, in which Edward ‘swoon’ Cullen is to many readers an abusive boyfriend. To others, he is the ideal man. At 13, when I first read Twilight, I was as in love with Edward as any other 13-year-old who had just read ‘Twilight’. I took his watching over Bella while she slept as fierce protection, not aggressive boundary-breaking. It was only with age, experience and explanation that I saw his behaviour as emotionally manipulative and unacceptable. The readers that YA fiction is aimed at are just that: young adults. They are teenagers, often younger, learning about what adulthood means. Like sponges, we soak up societies rules through the world around us, through television shows and books. So when young people are consuming books that portray abusive relationships in a loving way, and these books are teaching them about relationships, then this warps the idea of what it should mean to be in love. They are buying into the love story before learning that the love story is abusive.
What needs to be challenged is the publishing industry…
On the other hand, readers can only express their dislike of a book after they’ve already purchased and read it and the sales speak for themselves. I fundamentally believe that authors don’t owe their readers a story nor an apology if their disliked book does well. What needs to be challenged is the publishing industry and their duty to publish books for young adults, particularly young women, that accurately reflect what they want in their novels.
“Strong” is easily misconstrued as “good at fighting, unemotional” when really it should just mean 3-dimensional & realistic. #ukyachat
— Lauren James (@Lauren_E_James) June 19, 2015
And this is where I believe the author’s responsibility comes in. When it comes to the YA community, authors have the loudest voices. Look at John Green, for example, who has an online popularity that I can’t foresee any reader reviewer surpassing. Author’s careers rest on their readership and they could support that readership by amplifying their voices.
The current slow-to-change climate of YA fiction has made it clear that a #WeNeedFeministYA campaign is more than necessary…
So, I’m calling it. The current slow-to-change climate of YA fiction has made it clear that a #WeNeedFeministYA campaign is more than necessary, for readers and authors to join in with. Considering more teenaged girls at GCSE age are reading for fun than boys I don’t think it’s too much to ask that they’re presented with accurate, adequate and unoffensive portrayals of the lives of young teenaged girls in their reading.
‘I don’t think feminism should be an ingredient in a book to make people happy, more like something that comes naturally’.
At an age where young girls, black girls, insecure girls, disabled girls, fat girls, transgender girls, mentally ill girls, all girls are learning what it means to be a woman, it’s so important that the books they seek to find themselves in display positive representations of young women and their relationships, or at least be transparent when those representations are negative. As Twitter user @b_tubebutterfly summed up nicely, ‘I don’t think feminism should be an ingredient in a book to make people happy, more like something that comes naturally’. Yet until the YA books where feminism is just a natural part of the story are the books that publishers are seeking to publish, I think they could do with a little push.
Is a #WeNeedFeministYA campaign needed or do you think it’s unnecessary? Tweet us at @rifemag
‘A Review Of Book Reviewspeak‘ by Lulu Smyth
‘Book Review: ‘Bad Feminist’ By Roxane Gay‘ by Kristen Pye
‘Lena Dunham, ‘Voice Of A Generation’: But It’s Definitely Not Mine‘ by Sammy Jones