Archive for November, 2013

YA Article Bingo

The past few years have seen so many terrible articles in mainstream publications about the rise, worthiness and content of YA that it’s hard to keep them straight. Just last month, for instance, Joanna Trollope declared that the entirety of YA SFF “doesn’t really relate to the real world” because she dislikes The Hunger Games, which novels she admits to never having read. Before that, there was Megan Cox Gurdon up in arms at the idea that YA novels might tackle difficult topics like rape, abuse and self-harm, an alarmist piece which lead to the creation of the #YAsaves hashtag on Twitter.  We’ve had pundits suggesting boys won’t read YA titles unless they have gender-neutral covers, and others saying that YA has become so female-dominated that boys are being left behind anyway – which is ironic, given the regularity with which various YA heroines are criticised as being poor role models for girls. While some good commentary has occasionally emerged through the morass of moralising, misapprehension and general handwringing, more often than not, the dominant mood of such articles is censorious:  a condemnation of popular YA in particular that quickly turns to disparaging the genre in general, and doubly so where SFF is mentioned.

Which brings me to the latest such offering:  Laura C. Mallonee’s Time For Teen Fantasy Heroines To Grow Up, which is a perfect example of Mainstream YA Article Bingo and then some. After a few establishing remarks about the current glut of YA film adaptations, it’s not long before Mallonnee presents us with this gem of a paragraph:

“But it would be a mistake to assume that the same girl who sped through Twilight and Hunger Games will easily find her way to The Martian Chronicles or even contemporary fantasy’s immediate forbearers — works by authors like Tamora Pierce or Robin McKinley. Teens today aren’t genre nerds who only love fantasy. According to Ms. Sutherland, they read these books because it’s what their friends are reading. But how did they become so popular? And what do they have to say — specifically to their young, female readers — about the world?”

Obligatory pairing of Twilight and The Hunger Games? Check. The suggestion that modern YA fantasy is somehow fundamentally different to REAL fantasy, or even to the YA novels of yesteryear? Check. Assertion that popular kids read genre now, too? Check. Moral panic about female readers? Check. The cliche density is so high in just this one section alone, it’s hard to tease out all the problematic logic underpinning each and every statement. Take, for instance, the immensely judgemental suggestion that the “same girl” who reads popular YA fantasy novels is unlikely to also read real SFF, presumably on the basis that she’s a popular kid rather than one of the “genre nerds”. What this is, in essence, is yet another permutation of the Fake Geek Girl argument: a deeply sexist panic at the idea that, even when they’re reading dystopian novels, watching comic movies and learning archery for fun, ‘regular’ girls can’t really be true fans of real SFF, because their enjoyment of other, more mainstream activities – or, far more often, their possession of conventionally attractive looks – invariably marks them out as dilettantes only feigning nerdness in order to drive boys crazy. In making this distinction, all Mallonee has done is shift the accusation of dilettantism to the (again, female) creators of modern YA novels: they’re not writing real SFF, like Ray Bradbury did – just popular, pretendy SFF for cheerleaders and pretty girls to read.

We’re then treated to five paragraphs on the history of novels written for young women (comparing modern YA to books written over a century ago? Check!), which, while interesting, betrays a rather heavy-handed attempt to suggest that girl-oriented stories have always fallen into one of three categories: lurid, lower-class love triangles and romantic pulp, written for money; sweet domestic fantasies; and feminist novels where girls do sports and go to college and postpone marriage for the sake of their careers. Which isn’t to say that Mallonee’s analysis is wholly inaccurate, at least as far as the texts she’s chosen to reference are concerned. (Conspicuous omission of J. K. Rowling and the Harry Potter phenomenon while discussing the rise of YA? Check!). But in trying to draw comparisons between these categories and different types of modern YA – which is inarguably the intention – Mallonee is not only neglecting the idea that, this being 2013 rather than 1860, a heroine can quite plausibly experience a love triangle AND be domestic AND play sports at college without the readers’ heads exploding, but is effectively arguing that only one of these categories has any feminist value at all. And as much as I enjoy reading YA novels where the heroine avoids romantic complications (and despite my own strong feelings on the subject of love triangles) the idea that such romantic elements are inherently anti-feminist, regressive, cheap or otherwise unworthy simply doesn’t wash.

The next section – an analysis of Twilight and its reception – is quite breathtakingly hypocritical. Having rebuked the almost universal condemnation of Bella Swann with the assertion that “Branding youth culture as obscene or degrading is old hat — and teens don’t care,” Mallonee immediately jumps on the exact same bandwagon, comparing Bella with Elnora Comstock, heroine of Gene Stratton-Porter’s 1908 novel, A Girl of the Limberlost. “In a time when few women went to college,” she says, “Elnora’s ambition was a brave push into new territory, inspiring readers with aspirations for their own futures. What hope did Bella inspire?” The comparison with Elnora is then extended, only slightly more favourably, to Katniss Everdeen, who wins some praise for being a capable woodswoman – but not much. Once again, Mallonee’s hypocrisy comes to the fore:

“Though Katniss never had romantic feelings for him before the Games, she pretends to return Peeta’s affection in order to “give the audience something more to care about,” and it’s this complex brand of romance that becomes her main tool for survival. Critics have applauded Collins for subverting standard romantic hooks, but this faux love story actually draws many Hunger Games fans, who debate aggressively online over the respective hotness of Peeta and Gale, Katniss’s childhood friend. Though Katniss eventually becomes a hero, up until page 156 of the first book, her internal struggles revolve around her conflicted emotions toward Peeta and Gale, not on the ethical dilemma of having to kill people.” 

Take a moment to parse the above. In the first sentence, Mallonee asserts that Katniss has no feelings for Peeta prior to the start of the Games, pretending to love him as a survival technique only after he admits to loving her himself; she then complains that, up until page 156 of the first book, Katniss’s inner monologue is dominated by her struggle to choose between Peeta and Gale. Which is a rather astonishing claim to make, when you consider that Peeta doesn’t even admit his feelings for Katniss until page 158 – at which point, they haven’t even reached the arena. Even allowing for a slight slip in page numbers between various editions, it’s still clear that Mallonee has contradicted herself, first claiming that the romantic elements don’t exist at the outset, and then complaining that the outset consists of little else. And as for the idea that Katniss “eventually” becomes a hero – what of her selfless decision to save her sister by volunteering as tribute in the first place? Does that not count as heroic? Evidently not – but then, Mallonee is so keen to criticise both the series and its fans for their focus on romance that, rather ironically, she hasn’t focussed on any other elements herself. Except for death, of course – the dystopian setting is “grotesque”, and Mallonee takes a perverse delight in reciting just how many times the word ‘dead’ appears in the trilogy. (Dystopias are depressing and unsettling for teenage readers? Check!) Mallonee then expresses regret at the fact that, rather than emphasising a comforting moral or specific lesson, the ending of The Hunger Games is thematically open-ended. “Readers,” she laments, “are left to untangle the book’s intimations about the real world for themselves.” You’ll have to forgive me, but I fail to see how an invitation to further critical analysis counts as a negative.

And then, of course, there’s the obligatory comparison of these pulpy, trashy, regressive, female-authored SFFnal YA novels with a literary, contemporary, feminist, male-authored work which – funnily enough – is better than mere YA: Winter’s Bone, by Daniel Woodrell. (Male authors doing feminism better than women? Check!) Despite having a teenage, female heroine, Mallonee finds it ” almost — but not quite — surprising” that Winter’s Bone wasn’t marketed to teenage girls; but then, even if it had been, one suspects that her imaginary, popular strawgirls wouldn’t have had the wit or wisdom to appreciate it. Not like those nerdy, unpopular readers, the ones we’re not talking about; the kind of girls who like popular YA novels are, according to Mallonee, a different breed entirely. This sort of dislike of the readers of popular YA is evident in her conclusion:

“The problem with Twilight and Hunger Games is that while operating in a seemingly black-and-white world they actually infect their readers with chaos: Twilight by exploiting its audience’s desire to completely escape reality, and Hunger Games by cementing its readers’ fears that there is nothing beyond the darkness.

The value of books like Girl of the Limberlost and Winter’s Bone is that while acknowledging the world’s ugliness, they carve a path of resilience the reader can follow.”

Respectfully, I would submit that this is bullshit. Throughout her article, Mallonee has made clear her contempt, not only for popular modern narratives, but for stories which dare to include a romantic component for their heroines – an opinion she has tried to imbue with historical significance by first disparaging the “promiscuity” and “passivity” of early romance-oriented novels aimed at girls, and then contrasting these lesser works with their unromantic, college-and-sport themed heirs,  novels which “captured the spirit of the Suffragettes”. That being so, it hardly seems irrelevant that, in critiquing modern YA novels, Mallonee has described the romance in Twilight as “sinister” and disparaged its role in The Hunger Games, all while praising the lack of romance in both Girl of the Limberlost and Winter’s Bone. For Mallonee to conclude, then, that the value of the latter titles and the failure of the former is due to other factors entirely – thematic descriptors that, quite pointedly, have nothing to do with romance – is both insincere and deeply inaccurate. Instead, she tries to pin that sentiment on David Levithan, quoting him in such a way that her own, snide conclusions about the failings of SFFnal YA read as an interpretation of his remarks, rather than as a revelation of her own bias. To quote:

“I asked David Levithan, Scholastic’s vice president and editorial director, whether such books might be a way for girls to escape the real world. He explained that most successful fantasy literature is actually deeply relatable to the reader: “The themes (survival in Hunger Games, unrequited love in Twilight, etc.) are completely real even if the situations are not.” Within this milieu, authors as influential as Meyer and Collins have the opportunity to inspire their readers toward greatness, but they squander it miserably. Neither Bella nor Katniss have dreams that transcend their current situations.”

 In fact, it’s not even clear if the bracketed reference to Twilight and The Hunger Games is something Levithan actually said, or whether Mallonee inserted it herself to contextualise his comments and just so happened to forget the convention of using square brackets when commenting within a quote. In either case, though, it seems abundantly clear that Levithan’s actual statement – that the success of fantasy literature hinges on its use of real and relatable human elements – is the exact opposite of Mallonee’s conclusion, which is that Meyer and Collins both fail to do this, as neither of their heroines “have dreams that transcend their current situations.” Whether intentionally or not, Mallonee has ended her article by quoting a prominent YA editor in such a way as to make him look highly critical of Stephenie Meyer and Suzanne Collins – a ploy which is not only grossly misleading, but cheap. And that, I’m afraid, is the tone of her article all over. Rather than enter into an honest discussion of her issues with the portrayal of romance in YA novels and the genre’s newfound popularity – both meaty topics, and well worth discussing – Mallonee has instead decided to invoke the age-old spectre of SFF as meaningless pulp, less worthy of praise than real literature, and used it as a shoddy cover for different anxieties. As she herself says:

“Louisa May Alcott may have written sensational vampire stories, but she also wrote Little Women, a classic I first read in middle school that taught me I could do or be anything, and that my uneventful life was filled with meaning. I’m not betting on Meyer or Collins to create her, but I’d like to think another Jo March might still be out there.”

What a condescendingly sexist, genrephobic mess. While there’s nothing wrong with either critiquing the role of romance  in popular narratives or disliking popular works, the intimation that the presence of the former and success of the latter is somehow fundamentally unfeminist, unliterary and unworthy is deeply problematic –  as is criticising exclusively the tastes of female readers and the motives of female authors under the guise of impartial, literary concern. Thanks ever so for your patronising thoughts on YA SFF, Laura – but next time, save yourself the effort.

Advertisements

“But the word feminist, it doesn’t sit with me, it doesn’t add up. I want to talk about my problem that I have with it. First of all, on a very base level, just to listen to it. We start with fem. That’s good… Ist. I hate it. I hate it. Fail on ist. It’s just this little dark, black, it must be hissed. Ist! It’s Germanic but not in the romantic way. It’s just this terrible ending with this wonderful beginning… 

Let’s rise up a little bit from my obsession with sound to the meaning. Ist in it’s meaning is also a problem for me. Because you can’t be born an ist. It’s not natural… So feminist includes the idea that believing men and women to be equal, believing all people to be people, is not a natural state…

And so unless somebody comes up with a better one – and please do – my pitch is this word. Genderist. I would like this word to become the new racist. I would like a word that says there was a shameful past before we realized that all people were created equal.”

– Joss Whedon, during this hot mess of a speech

When you posit that two of the main problems with the word feminist are the offputting phonetics and unnatural implications of its final syllable, then promptly suggest a replacement word that uses the exact same fucking syllable in the exact same fucking placement while changing the part you claimed was great – which backflip you manage to perform in the space of a single, pre-prepared speech – it’s probably time to sit all the way down and shut the fuck up about feminism.

Listen, Joss Whedon: you’ve made some cool, transformative, feminist shit, plus a bunch of other stuff – or sometimes the same stuff! – which is awesome despite being problematic on multiple fronts, though as always, YMMV. That much is undeniable. But you’ve also done some truly fucked-up things, like firing Charisma Carpenter for being pregnant, planning to have Inara gang raped in order to make Mal Reynolds a hero, and repeatedly racefailing your representations of POC, especially the women; and now you’ve got the gall to stand there and proclaim the ineffectiveness of feminism at a conceptual level – to agree, in effect, with Elle UK’s recent attempt to rebrand the movement – because you don’t like the word?

Before we proceed any further, let’s get one thing straight: there are times and places for changing our language on the basis of what a particular term originally implied, or of what it continues to imply. Language is important and sneaky; it changes our thinking without our even realising it, and when we make a conscious effort to reclaim that process – to be clear and unambiguous, to avoid causing hurt, and to set aside long-standing biases better left as historical footnotes – that is an important, a powerful thing. But this is not the case with the many successive attempts to rebrand feminism; to replace it with words like equalist or genderist , which invariably involve the removal of that disquietingly feminine prefix. Rather than redressing a lexicographical wrong, it’s a way of downplaying the role and relevance of women within their own movement in order to make others feel more comfortable with the concept of equality, a form of taxological silencing derived from the same logic which recently saw a female speaker ejected from the Michigan House of Representatives for saying ‘vagina’ while talking about abortion. For as long as the word feminism is deemed both radical and confrontational for its use of the feminine prefix, it will remain a necessary word precisely because of how perfectly our cultural uneasiness with women’s rights is reflected in our uneasiness with a term that dares to make them its focus.

Because linguistically, feminism is a word rooted firmly in the female quest for equality, an origin story which speaks of combat against oppression, not its perpetuation. Which isn’t to say that the movement has never been oppressive, either then or now. Early white feminists routinely threw women of colour under the same bus Rosa Parks and Claudette Colvin before her were forced to the back of, openly spouting racist views and stealing the foundations of modern feminism from the women of Iroquois Confederacy, a practice all too often continued today by the erasure of the feminist contributions of WOC, the endorsement of men like Hugo Schwyzer, the aggressive Islamaphobia of Femen (an organisation, coincidentally, which is run by men), and Caitlin Moran’s assertion that she “literally couldn’t give a shit about” the representation of WOC in media, to say nothing of the repeated transphobic abuse and cissexist attitudes of radical feminists towards trans women and their inclusion in feminist spaces. Which is why womanism has arisen as a separate institution to feminism – as a way for black women especially, but WOC generally, to discuss their rights and needs without being spoken over, condescended to, misappropriated, elided or otherwise ignored by white feminists too oblivious to their own privilege to realise that, as per the words of Flavia Dzodan, feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.

All of which is a way of saying: there are many good reasons to discuss the future of feminism, its relationship with oppression and the way this intersects with our use of language. The failures of the movement – and there are many – are not derived from its nomenclature, but are rather a disappointment to all that it should encompass, but doesn’t. With so much toxic history bound up in exclusionary feminist thinking, it may well be that the best answer, long term, is to find ourselves a new title and start afresh. But when Joss Whedon comes out, completely ignores the existence of such conversations, suggests that race is a comparable side-issue to gender rather than a major intersection with it and says that, no, the way to move feminism forward is to rebrand it using a word  he invented all by himself, because apparently the true spirit of feminism is best encapsulated by our uncritical capitulation to a powerful white guy who cracks jokes about the Taliban and publicly shames Katy Perry while telling the rest of us what we’re doing wrong? FUCKING NO.

In Whedon’s recent adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing –  a film I otherwise loved – there’s a single ugly moment that perfectly encapsulates the nature of his fail. Brought to the altar to wed a woman he thinks is an unknown substitute for his beloved Hero, whom he presumes dead, the guilt-wracked Claudio declares his intent to marry her “even were she an Ethiope” – which is to say, even if she were ugly or otherwise socially unacceptable. Being as how this is 2013, rather than 1599, when the play was first written, Whedon could easily have changed this line, removing or altering it without any loss of drama. Instead, he chose to emphasise it, cutting quickly to the disapproving face of a nearby black woman – someone he might well have hired just for that single purpose, given the otherwise lilywhite casting – for a comic beat as Claudio speaks the line. It was jarring and awful and needless, and more than anything else of Whedon’s I’ve seen recently, it reminded me that here is someone who needs to have his shit called out, and loudly. Because if you can put that much conscious thought and planning into making a joke about the ugliness of black women and still get up and call yourself a feminist, then something in your view of the world is seriously wrong.