Posts Tagged ‘Stories’

Back in 2010, my publisher organised a multiple author event at an all-boys primary school. The oldest students were twelve or so,  and though children from other, co-ed schools were brought in for the day, the audience was still primarily male. Most of the other authors present wrote middle-grade or children’s books, making me just about the only one there whose books were aimed at older teens. This being my first school event, I was nervous and feeling rather glum. On the long walk from the train station to the school, I privately resigned myself to making the best of an awkward situation: no one there would have heard of me, my books were for the wrong age-group, and in any case, my protagonist was a girl – surely the worst possible combination for the situation at hand.

Being one of the first to arrive, I helped the publisher set up, which involved lots of back-and-forth trips between two different buildings on opposite sides of the main quad. While we were ferrying chairs and goody-bags across this route, students began to appear: some in teacher-supervised groups, others alone, but all of them clearly destined for participation in the event. And then a strange thing happened: I heard one of them whisper my name. At first, I thought it must have been a mistake, but then I heard another boy say, louder, ‘That’s Foz Meadows.’  Then I remembered the programmes, which contained our names and author photos, and which several of the students were holding. That must be it, I thought, and carried on moving chairs.

Only, no, that wasn’t it. The school library carried Solace & Grief, their wonderful and dedicated librarian had promoted it to her students, and I had fans. A number of them, as it turned out. They’d known who I was before the event, and had recognised me, not from the photo in the programme, but because they’d looked me up on the internet. (The librarian told me that they’d known I was young “Because she has a blog and a Twitter and stuff”.) Throughout the day, one group of boys in particular kept me company. They waved to me during the event, talked about how much they loved to read, and told me what they wanted to be when they grew up. One boy was particularly specific about his ambitions: he wanted to be a army sniper, so he could learn how to do all the maths about cross-winds and distance and line of sight necessary to calculate and execute a shot. It was a brilliant day: every copy of my book was sold, I spoke to some awesome students – and I was presented with definitive proof that boys can and will read books with female protagonists written by female authors.

I didn’t write Solace & Grief for teenage girls. I wrote it for the sort of person who likes that sort of story, regardless of how old they are or what gender they happen to have. And yet part of me was still startled to find that I had young, male fans – not because I hadn’t meant for such people to read it, but because our culture so rigidly enforces the idea that anything dubbed Female isn’t for men. And the thing is, even though all the boys I met were bright and engaged and interested, their exposure to and enjoyment of the book didn’t happen in a vacuum: it happened because they had an awesome librarian who, above and beyond caring about her students, understood that stories are genderless, and that there was no good reason why curating the library for an all boys’ school meant she shouldn’t stock and promote a YA vampire novel with a female protagonist.

As has been pointed out by Saundra Mitchell, Seanan McGuire and Maureen Johnson, the current panic about the so-called dearth of books for boys is both hypocritical and deeply problematic: hypocritical, in that it ignores the fact that up until quite recently, the vast majority of all literature was written by and for men, with women just being expected to cope with it; and deeply problematic, in that it hinges on the idea that it’s both impossible and unreasonable to expect boys to read books that are aimed at girls (which, see above, re: hypocrisy). Let me just say it flat out: if you think there’s something inherently wrong with boys reading about romance, empathising with female characters or enjoying books aimed primarily at girls, your outlook on gender is skewed beyond the ability of a single blog to correct it. If you think there’s nothing inherently wrong with it, but that we still need more boy-friendly books: no. For centuries, no one was concerned that books weren’t girl-friendly, because no one really cared if girls read; but even so, we persisted for long enough that literature has slowly come to accommodate us. Modern boys, by contrast, are not trying to read in a culture of opposition. Nobody is telling them reading doesn’t matter, that boys don’t need to read and that actually, no prospective wife looks for literacy in a husband. Quite the opposite! Male literary culture thrives, both teachers and parents are throwing books at their sons, and the fact that the books aren’t sticking isn’t, as the nature of the complaint makes clear, because boys don’t like reading – no. The accusation is that boys don’t like reading about girls, which is a totally different matter.

Because constantly, consistently, our supposedly equal society penalises boys who express an interest in anything feminine. The only time boys are discouraged from books all together is in contexts where, for whatever reason, they’ve been given the message that reading itself is girly – which is a wider extrapolation of the same problem. Thanks to the advent of feminism, certain previously male-dominated activities have become gender neutral; but offhand, I cannot think of a single traditionally female pastime to have achieved the same status (except, possibly, for cooking, and even then only on the domestic scale, male chefs and waiters having a longstanding and frequently sexist tradition of their own). And as women have integrated themselves into literature and education, we’ve seen a subtle shift in perspective happen. The majority of primary school teachers are now women, and have been for some time; at high school, the stereotypical English/humanities teacher has become female; and then, of course, there’s the recent explosion of YA novels written by and for women to consider.

The fact that these changes have paralleled the decline of teenage males’ interest in reading isn’t a coincidence. However, this is not, as certain people would have it, because women have feminised literature with our magical vaginabooks and therefore made reading inherently unpalatable to the masculine half of the population. No: it’s because everything in our culture tells men and boys to avoid any interest, activity or community dominated by women – and when article after article insists that boys are reading less than girls; when the pop cultural discourse shies away from portraying boys as readers, or closely associates male reading with male unpopularity and outcastness; when the humanities is widely touted as being the feminine alternative to the masculine sciences; when finally, after centuries of exclusion, girls are actually getting a break at something, the consequence is that boys are keeping away in droves.

Let me tell you a story. On annual camp in primary school, I became amazingly good at a game called box hockey, an activity I’ve never encountered before or since, which none of us kids at the time had otherwise experienced, and which we therefore came to completely free of gender expectations. All of us tried it out at first, but as the boys soon proved their dominion, the majority of girls drifted away to do other things. I, however, loved it, and played at every opportunity – and I got good. So good, in fact, that soon I was the best player at camp. And do you know, internets, what happened when this became known?

The boys stopped playing. Because my repeated victories had demonstrated, not that I was a skilled player, but that box hockey itself was so easy that even a girl could win at it, and was therefore unworthy of further effort. I was, quite literally, left with no one to play with. Feeling this to be rather unfair but still wanting to play sport during the lunch break, I decided to join in at cricket instead. Unlike box hockey, cricket was well-established as a masculine domain. None of the boys wanted me to play, because I was a girl and would therefore clearly be terrible, a hindrance to whichever team was lumped with me. But even though they came from a different school to me, the boys finally, grudgingly and after great conference agreed to give me a go. They sent me to the farthest reaches of the outfield, where I could do as little damage as possible. But luck was with me. One of the batsmen made a fantastic shot to where I was – and I caught it, because I was good at fielding. The nature of the catch was such that they had to recognise my skills. I was allowed to bowl, and to bat, and by the end of the day, having proved that I was just as good at anyone at all those activities, I was declared one of the boys. Unlike box hockey, cricket was too noble a game to be sullied by female success: my prowess here made me exceptional rather than ruining the sport, and so while no other girls were allowed to play, whenever some new boy questioned my right to be there, every boy who’d seen me make that first catch vigorously defended me. I was OK, they said. I was one of the boys.

I learned two things from this experience: that if a girl was good at something boys had no history with, they would promptly declare it uninteresting and force me to quit from lack of acknowledgement; but succeeding at something they loved meant I could transcend being called a girl, which was clearly a sort of insult, and therefore reap benefits denied to other females. At the age of ten, I had been successfully indoctrinated in the fallacy of Equality Means Acting Like A Man by a group of children who’d never heard of sexism, feminism or gender politics, but whose use of the former and rejection of the latter had nonetheless been encouraged their entire lives by a culture that said Girl Things Are Bad And Girls Are Bad Too, Unless They’re Willing To Act Like Boys.

And, as we’re now seeing when it comes to books, this bias is a sword that cuts both ways. Having been raised to exclude girls from manly pursuits, boys are also reluctant to pursue female ones. If that means reading – and in some cases, sadly, it does, reading and other sedentary or indoor hobbies being viewed as the antithesis of sports, and therefore by extension the enemy of all things masculine – then writing more boy-centric books won’t help. (Unless, of course, your ultimate long-term plan is to take reading away from girls and return it to boys, in which case, you fail everything.) If, on the other hand, you want boys and girls to be reading with equal passion and in equal numbers, then a very clear alternative presents itself: teach your boys that there’s nothing wrong with girls, or girl things, period. Take away the stigma, and let everyone read without judgement. Stories are genderless, no matter who writes or stars in them. And if we can’t bear to teach our teenagers that, then we need to seriously rethink our sstatus as an equal and fair society.

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(Side point, while we’re on the topic: I’m so sick of hearing about how it’s unfair to expect boys to read Austen or Bronte because of how ladybooks don’t appeal to teenage boys, and really it’s better to set them Golding or Fitzgerald. Here’s a thought: how about finding some literature written during their lifetimes? I’m sorry to have to point this out, but regardless of gender, the vast majority of teenagers aren’t yet interested in the classics, not because they’re all badly written or unworthy or irrelevant (although some of them probably are), but because they’re almost always an acquired taste, and school is quite possibly the single worst environment in which to try and convey their worth. OK? I know that school is meant to teach teenagers about things they might not otherwise encounter, but if you’re presented with a choice between instilling in students a lifelong love of reading or making sure they’ve read Hemmingway, I’m going to vote the former every time. Almost universally, I hated every single book I was forced to read for school, because their content represented the exact opposite of what I found interesting, and in the rare instances when that wasn’t the case, being forced to analyze them in class made me want to put out my eyes with a fork. Thanks to high school, I cannot so much as contemplate David Mamet, P. D. James, Tim Winton, Tim Flannery, Peter Goldsworthy, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tom Stoppard or Ruth Park without experiencing a strong desire to set fire to something. Which isn’t to say I’ve never revisited anything I read in school – it’s just that, even with the few books I actually liked, it still manages to feel like a form of literary Stockholm syndrome.)

OK SO.

I’m writing right now, it’s late, I don’t have time for a full post explaining why Avatar: Legend of Korra is balls-out awesome, plus and also we’re only two episodes in, and I’d love to have a bit more plot-arc under my belt before I attempt such blogging.

BUT.

The second Katara came on screen in episode one? I started crying – a pattern which repeated itself through each of her appearances. And it’s not like I’m someone who never cries at stories or shows or movies, because IMAGINARY CHARACTERS GET ALL MY FEELS, but there was a weight, an enormous sense of complexity to the feelings just a glimpse of Katara provoked in me – a reaction I hadn’t expected, and which, if I had, I would have assumed could be brought on just as handily by all the gifs and screenshots I’ve been seeing since the first ep leaked (which it wasn’t).

And the difference wasn’t in hearing her talk (though that was part of it) or watching her interact with Korra and Tenzin and her grandchildren (though that was part of it, too) or even seeing her crop up in narrative context rather than abstractly on tumblr (though that strikes nearer the mark).

It was being hit – viscerally, powerfully – by the sense of her as a person, as someone whose youth and formative years I knew by heart, who had lived through the long, rich narrative of her own adventures and survived to become a woman, a waterbending master, a mentor, a mother, a grandmother and a widow, and yet who was giving way gracefully to the new generation: a human grace note in someone else’s story. And even though Korra knew who Katara was and understood the significance of the role she’d played in shaping her world, it was somehow me, the invisible viewer, who had the greater claim on her kinship; because for me – for us – the years of her life had passed in a blink, and in her smile and humour we saw the echoes and strength of a girl that Korra could never know.

And it brought me to tears, because this is the thing that stories do that the real world never can: they show us first-hand the passage of generations, how young men and women grow old and change, and in so doing remind us of all the things in history we can never truly see. Because even though I know my grandmother is an extraordinary woman – that she defied her Irish Catholic family to marry my English Protestant grandfather; that when her husband turned anti-Japanese after the deaths of his friends in WWII, she defied his hurt and taught English to Japanese refugees; that she worked as a gemologist, cutting and polishing precious stones, and learned to paint, and raised two children, and wept when her daughter was able to attain the university education she could never have, and who just before my wedding became a widow – I cannot, not matter how great my empathy, reach into the past and watch the days of her youth unfold. I can glimpse it in photographs; I can search for it in her stories; I can imagine it through her actions.

But I cannot live it the way I can live the fictional growth of a fictional girl who is reaching the end of her beautiful, fictional life. And so I cry, because just for a moment – when I look at age and remember youth – I can almost touch the wealth and the depth of my grandmother’s hidden life.

She turns ninety this month; she was born in 1922. Not long ago, I called and spoke to her on the phone, and when the question of her age came up, she laughed – baffled, wistful, wry – and said, ‘It sounds so old! But I don’t feel any different.’

Ninety years old. And inside her, a girl of five, a girl of fifteen – an endless parade of every girl and every woman she’s ever been. I love my grandmother dearly, and yet I will never know her youth as fully as I know Katara’s, because that’s what stories do: they make magic and turn our hearts inside out, so that just for an instant, reality bends and lets us glimpse what would otherwise vanish forever.

Following on from my recent thoughts on female characters in YA dystopias and the Broken Bird trope, something else about the treatment of women in stories has been niggling at me. Writing those both posts, my emotional reaction was consistently stronger and more negative than seemed explicable by their topics alone – as though there was something else under it, some deeper irk I couldn’t consciously describe, but which was nonetheless feeding into my reaction. Ever since then, I’ve been trying to figure out what it was; and now, finally, I think I’ve drawn a bead on it. So!

Regardless of their political orientation, most people can admit that:

a) sexism exists as a part of human culture; and

b) has done so for thousands of years.

Even people who insist that our current, enlightened society is sexism-free can usually admit that, once upon a time, things were otherwise, and that this has been true for the vast majority – if not all of – human history. So, following on from this logic, any SFF novel set in either:

a) a fictional society whose culture is modeled on that of a historical civilisation; or

b) a future society whose culture is modeled on that of either a present or historical civilisation

will, unless the author actively chooses otherwise, incorporate certain aspects of real-world culture into the narrative by default. These defaults are many and varied, but the one I want to talk about is sexism. Thus: because most readers, either consciously or unconsciously, expect a certain level of sexism to exist in every society – even fictional ones – authors can infer sexism as a cultural default without ever needing to explain or address it. This leads to the formation and propagation of certain tropes, stereotypes and archetypes whose existence and validity are fundamentally dependent on the narrative presence of sexism generally; and more specifically, given the overwhelming number of fantasy novels set in a sort of idealised, white, medieval Europe, on a grossly oversimplified and homogenized concept of medieval gender roles. Some examples of this are:

  • The Spirited Woman Married Off Against Her Will To An Ugly Man She Doesn’t Love;
  • The Lone And Therefore Exceptional Woman Warrior In A Culture Of Male Warriors;
  • The Widowed Queen Fighting To Keep Her Throne Against An All-Male Cast Of Contenders;
  • The Woman Who Runs Away Rather Than Be Married Off Against Her Will But Who Then Needs Rescuing From Worldly Perils;
  • The Woman Whose Love Of Books And Scholarship Is Exceptional And Odd And Therefore Deemed Socially Awkward;
  • The Unmarried Woman Who Is Happy Being Unmarried And Therefore Considered An Oddity;
  • The Unmarried Woman Who Was Forbidden To Marry The Man She Loved And Is Therefore Sad And Unfulfilled;
  • The Woman Who Ran Away To Marry The Man Forbidden To Her And Who Is Now A Social Pariah;
  • The Penniless Woman Who Needs To Be Rescued From Penury As Her Gender Prevents Her From Working;
  • The Girl Forced To Dress As A Boy In Order To Live Out Her Socially Unacceptable Dreams;
  • The Adventurous Daughter Whose Parents Let Her Run Free But Threaten Her With Marriage Should She Fail;
  • The Female Scholar/Magician Trying To Make It In A Largely Male World; and
  • The Lone Female Soldier/Technician/Magician/Scholar Whose Male Colleagues Don’t Take Her Seriously.

And so on.

Now: as per the existence of sexism in the real world both historically and currently, I’m not trying to suggest that any of the above tropes are unrealistic; nor am I suggesting they should be avoided at all costs, or that they’re inherently bad, or anything like that. What I am saying, though, is that these are all comparatively common tropes, and that, even lacking specific details of the stories in which they appear, it’s still obvious that, of necessity, they all must involve societies in which sexism plays a part. What’s more, because these examples all corroborate easily with a familiar sexist framework – that is, sexism against women in a Western/European setting – they don’t require much explanation. In fact, unless the story is actively trying to write an original culture or to tweak an existing one in ways that are plot-relevant, most readers are likely to consider any actual declaration of women are oppressed for these reasons to be not only redundant, but insulting – because obviously, we already know how it works! So if I pick up a novel and learn in the first chapter that the heroine is being pressured into marriage by her father, I don’t need to ask why, and chances are the author won’t bother to tell me. Certainly, the chances of the actual plot involving a push for social justice – a sort of SFF suffragettism, if you will – are slim to none. All I’m meant to infer that sexism exists, that the female characters will be hindered accordingly, and that otherwise I should just get on with the story.

And most of the time, the author takes it no further. We are left with sexism as a background detail: one which is used to justify the plight or origins of particular female characters and the total absence of others, but which is never actually addressed. Which, in instances where the protagonist is male, or where the majority of the cast is male, leaves us instantly with a screaming, red-faced anachronism: where are the actual sexists? Why, if sexism in this society is so deep-seated, are the heroes so unusually enlightened? Here is why; I will tell you the secret. Because we are meant to like them. Funnily enough, most authors have cottoned on to the fact that writing openly sexist heroes is less heroic than it is disgusting; that it’s sort of difficult to hail Weapons McFighty, Trueking Noob and Roamer Nomadson as the exalted Lords of Awesome when they’ve spent the majority of the book acting like entitled jerks.

Except, here’s the other secret: this is completely untrue.  Offhand, I could name you half a dozen fantasy novels where open, narratively-acknowledged sexism on behalf of the characters has neither prevented the book from being excellent nor the hero from being heroic. True, it’s made them more complex (gasp!) and probably less likable, but it’s also made them more human, forced the reader to actually think about sexism, and tied the characterisation to the worldbuilding in a realistic and consistent way.

This is not the only way to address the presence of default sexism. You can, for instance, construct interesting and believable histories for your male characters which explain their unusual sense of equality – provided that you also allow the women to find it unusual, rather than just taking it for granted. You can follow sexism to some of its natural conclusions rather than focusing exclusively on those few exceptional women who’ve avoided it, such that your characters – and, by extension, the audience – are forced to view it as more than just an inevitable background detail. Then again, you could avoid writing default sexism in the first place by actually considering how gender roles work in your story, building a cultural, social and historical setting that usurps the expectations of the reader. You could write an equal society, or one whose inequalities are unusual; you could write a typically sexist society, but make sexism a major narrative focus. Lots of different ways to explore the topic!

But just using sexism as a default while simultaneously including characters whose ambivalence to, distance from or disconnect with the problem only serves to diminish its impact and make it a background issue? That makes you not only a lazy, unoriginal writer, but one who actually perpetuates sexism by training the reader to take its presence for granted: to refrain from so much as questioning or calling it out, let alone showing its worst consequences, because that’s just how things work, and anyway women’s issues are boring.

And this is my problem, the thing that underlies all the beefs I have right now with UF and YA and dystopias in particular, but also with a bunch of other things in general: the simple fact that too many authors shrink away from acknowledging the default sexism of their settings when everything in their stories suggests its relevance. I am not asking you to use your writing as a vehicle for feminist discourse – actually, no, wait, I sort of am, if by feminist discourse you mean not letting sexism pass without comment, which is also weirdly synonymous with being a decent human. I just want you to admit that this is a problem, and that perhaps making it a background detail without any sort of commentary beyond ‘Oh my female character was being oppressed but now she’s escaped or been rescued, so that’s cool,’ is, you know, unhelpful.

For instance! Are you:

  • Writing a story where your heroine is either the lone woman in her field or one of an elite few ladies? Then tell me why! If she’s battling uphill against an entrenched culture of sexism, show it to us – don’t just rely on inference. Fighting sexism in the workplace is hard enough when you’re an office temp, let alone fighting manticores or saving the world! And if there’s no culture of sexism, then why are there so few ladies? Were lots of them killed off in a major battle? Is the job itself actually considered low-status in a context where women tend to hold higher-status positions? Or did you just default to a male majority because that’s how the world often looks and you didn’t actually think about it, even though you’re trying to write about an institution that prizes equality?
  • Writing a story where, due to some stupid quirk of magical biology, the female of the species is much rarer than the male, so that all the guys fight over her and go swoony for her lady-originating specialness?  Here’s an idea: don’t. I am truly, thoroughly sick of this trope. If I happen across one more story where there’s a bajillion boy-werewolves, boy-vampires, boy-magicians or whatever and then lo and behold, a lady werewolf-vampire-magician shows up and OMG SHE’S THE ONLY GIRL BECAUSE REASONS, LET’S FIGHT!, I will SET THE BOOK ON FIRE. To me, this is the most toxic, awful form of default sexism because it builds into biology the idea that girls must either be unspecial and irrelevant or special and put on a pedestal while simultaneously providing an excuse to perpetuate all the very worst gender stereotypes (New Special Girl Resented By Special And Unspecial Girls Alike,  Boys Fighting Over Potential Mates Ladies In A Way That’s Meant To Be Hot, Hierarchy And Sexism Are How Our Society Work So Deal With It) as a species-based culture. Plus and also, this is doubly ridiculous because healthy animal populations produce an equal number of males and females; when human populations end up with more men that women, it’s invariably because sexist cultures encourage sex-selective abortions and female infanticide. So not only does it make no biological sense, it also ends up taking some of the very worst aspects of real-world sexism and using it to justify sexy romance plots. Which, I’m sorry, no.
  • Writing a story where women’s bodies and sexuality are policed, reproduction is exalted and all the hallmarks of deeply coercive sexism apply? Then actually call it sexism! Show the consequences! Or at least, show the indoctrination! Explain how the system is maintained, how it came into being, and why people believe it! Show what happens to LBGTQ people! Don’t be afraid to write radical characters! These last two are particularly important: I am getting massively tired of sexually coercive dystopias whose protagonists are always straight people in love, and whose rebellion therefore stems wholly from not being free to choose each other, rather than from the fact that, you know, they’re living in a dystopia based around eugenics, enforced heterosexuality and state-sanctioned rape. Romance is great and all, but if you’ve built a setting founded on sexual atrocities, then glossing over them because it detracts from the romance is sort of… atrocious.

And so on.

Sexism is not the only social default thus applied – racism and homophobia continue to crop up in SFF for much the same reasons. Default sexism might well be more common, but only because the exclusion of POC/LGBTQ characters from so many SFF works means that problems of race and homophobia are even more deep-seated in the real world than problems of sexism, making it harder for those conversations to be had in reference to fictional works from which they’re too often erased. Women are everywhere – it’s hard to ignore us completely – but thoughtless authors can and do whitewash and straightwash their stories without any conscious thought, simply because it never occurs to them to do otherwise. Which is, I think, somehow more terrible than if they’d made an active decision. The freedom to  ignore the relevance of intersectionality is just another form of privilege, and arguably one more vicious than benign. Remember: if your equality looks homogeneous, then it’s probably not equality.

In a nutshell, then:  I am sick of stories that pay lip-service to equality (sexism exists, and is bad) while actively working against its principles (but it’s boring, so let’s get over it). More importantly, I am sick of this process being so much in the way of a default setting that we’ve stopped even questioning it – making it a hidden process rather than something overt. In the immortal words of Caitlin Moran:

These days, a plethora of shitty attitudes to women have become diffuse, indistinct or almost entirely concealed. Fighting them feels like trying to combat a mouldy, mildew smell in the hallway, using only a breadknife. Because – like racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia – modern sexism has become cunning. Sly. Codified. In the same way a closet racist would never dream of openly saying ‘nigger’ but might make a pointed reference to someone black having a natural rhythm, or liking fried chicken, so a closet misogynist has a vast array of words, comments, phrases and attitudes that they can employ to subtly put a woman down, or disconcert her, but without it being immediately apparent that that is what they are actually doing….

It’s difficult to see the glass ceiling because it’s made of glass. What we need is for more birds to fly above it and shit all over it, so we can see it properly.

Nothing is perfect. We all loved flawed things, and sometimes we love the flaws themselves as well as the things despite them. This does not stop us from taking personal offence when people not-us find flaws in our things, particularly when these aren’t flaws we’ve ever noticed ourselves, and especially when the flaws are so offensive to our morals and aesthetics that, if we acknowledged their existence, we’d feel obligated to stop liking the thing all together.

Which is, basically, why most people don’t like to be told that a thing they love is sexist or racist or homophobic in a particular way: because it creates an instantaneous and enormous sense of fury and guilt and betrayal. Sometimes, these emotions are rightly directed towards the people who made the things that way, but more often than not, we shoot the messenger. Dammit, I washappy liking my thing, and now you’ve ruined it for me! Or, worst of all, they deny the flaw and attack the flaw-finder, following a rage-logic that works roughly like this:

– I do not like racist/sexist/homophobic things; therefore

– nothing I like is racist/sexist/homophobic; because

– if it was, I’d be forced to stop liking it; but

– I can’t just tell myself to stop loving a thing that I love; which means

– that if someone does tell me a thing I love is racist/sexist/homophobic, I must close my ears and ignore them; because

– if they’re right, I’ll be stuck forever loving a terrible thing, and if that has to happen; then

– I’d rather pretend I never knew it was terrible in the first place; because

– ignorance is bliss.

Which, yeah, no.

Look.

You remember that part where everything is flawed? Everything? Even the things we love most? Does this not suggest to you that we ought to critique those things more than others, even – or perhaps especially – because of how we love them, why we love them, the better to know them better? To see if they deserve our love? To see if we’ve chosen wisely?

Because the fact is that sometimes we won’t choose wisely. And that can hurt to admit. The first time someone makes you realise a thing you love is sexist/racist/homophobic, it’s easy to feel like a terrible person. It’s also good that you do, too. Just for a little. Just a bit. Because sexism, racism and homophobia are far more terrible things than anything a flaw-finder ever did to hurt your aesthetic pride; and that feeling of guilt you have when someone points out what you’ve missed? That feeling is how you acknowledge that up until now, you haven’t been paying attention.

The worst thing you can do after this point is avoid all critical discussion of the things you love for fear that other, unnoticed flaws might be pointed out, and your cosy sense of unflawedness further eroded. That it’s too hard to ask questions of the things you love. That you’d rather just take everything at face value, and assume it’s all meant for the best.

Don’t be that person.

Please. Just, don’t.

Instead, accept that the things you love are flawed. That you can revile one aspect of a thing while praising another. That sometimes broken things are broken in interesting ways. That some broken things can be mended, while others were never truly broken in the first place.

And that sometimes, it’s the things we love that break our hearts, and that when that happens, we have to let them go.

This post also appeared here.

A couple of years ago, I went with a friend to see a children’s show as part of the Melbourne Comedy Festival. It was based around the conceit of a magic pencil: there was an interactive screen where a digital cartoon character interacted with images the (male) comedian drew in real-time, with a pre-recorded voice providing one half of their conversation. At four different points, the comedian asked for child volunteers to come up onto the stage and have themselves drawn, with the subsequent caricatures becoming part of the show. It was a small audience mostly comprised of young children and their parents – my friend and I were almost the only exceptions to this – and whenever the call came for volunteers, a sea of eager little hands would stretch into the air.

Sitting directly in front of us was a pigtailed girl, aged about seven, who desperately wanted to participate. Each time she wasn’t chosen, she slumped down dejectedly in her seat, only to spring straight back up again at the next opportunity. There were easily as many girls as boys in the audience, with an equal parity in the number of hands raised; and yet the comedian never picked a girl. The fourth and final time her hand went ignored, the girl in front of us let out a frustrated sigh and exclaimed, ‘He’s only choosing boys!’ Both her outrage at this situation and her powerlessness to correct it were fully evident in her voice, and I felt myself getting angry. I’d noticed the same problem, and hearing it summed up by a child in tones that suggested she’d witnessed the problem before made me utterly disconnect from the show. I tried to think of reasons why the comedian had chosen only boys. Maybe he thought their facial features would make for better caricatures; or perhaps he was worried that the good-natured teasing with which he accompanied his drawings might be more likely to upset a little girl. Maybe he was simply picking the first hand he saw, regardless of who it belonged to. Most likely, though, he didn’t even realise he’d done it: whatever other planning he’d put into his act, the idea of trying to choose two boys and two girls for the sake of equality seemed never to have occurred to him.

When the show was over, I caught sight of the little girl on the way out. She looked forlorn and sad, which is hardly the reaction that a children’s comedy show is meant to provoke, and I left feeling dejected and furious that a seven-year-old girl had already learned that sometimes, it doesn’t matter how badly you want something or how high you raise your hand: just being female is enough to make you invisible. For whatever reason, the comedian hadn’t seen her or any of the other girls in the audience, and no matter how benign the reasons for that blindness might have been, it had unquestionably had consequences.

Earlier in the year, an eagle-eyed blogger used word clouds to illustrate the boy/girl gendered language of toy advertisements. A recent article discussing gender reveal parties hosted by expectant parents shows a sample invitation which reads, “Boy or girl? Astronaut or ballerina? Come spend the afternoon with us when we find out!” Then there are images of congratulatory cards for new parents, where baby boys are praised as brilliant, while baby girls are called beautiful. Children’s books are rife with male characters, but women? Not so much. No sooner is their gender known than children are defined by it: pink for girls, blue for boys, baby dolls for girls, action heroes for boys, kitchens for girls, tools for boys, ponies for girls, cars for boys, and God help any child who wants to play with both.

All this gendering, and then we have the temerity to act surprised and shocked when a seven-year-old girl can clearly and comprehensively identify when she is being discriminated against on the basis of being female.

Early in primary school, I had a friend called Ben. We’d hang out together at lunch and recess and sit together in class, which felt like a fairly normal thing to do. This was not, however, a universally held sentiment: one of the boys in the year above, called Tim, thought there was something deeply wrong with a boy and girl being friends – or, more specifically, he thought that we couldn’t possibly be just friends, and so took to seeking us out on the playground for the sole purpose of first declaring us to be a couple and then taunting us for it. Neither of us liked this, but it was harder on Ben than me. I have a very clear memory of us sitting down together one lunch, only to find that Tim was, as usual, heading straight for us. Ben looked at me and said, ‘I think we’d better split’ – both serious and sad. I nodded, and up he got, walking away to find someone else to talk to. Tim saw this and grinned in triumph, having  accomplished what had evidently been his mission all along: to split us up.

Tim was six when this happened; Ben and I were five. I very much doubt that Tim’s parents ever sat him down and explain that boys and girls being friends was wrong – it would be as ludicrous as suggesting that adults invented the idea of girl germs and boy germs (or, for the Americans, cooties). Nor do children instinctively police each other along gender lines; certainly, Ben and I never did. But we are not raised in a vacuum, and if, from minute one of their lives, you call half the children Blue and the other half Pink; if you dress them differently, give them different toys, tell them different stories, praise them for different qualities, rebuke them for different transgressions, encourage them at different activities and actively enforce all these differences on the basis of gender (‘No, sweetie, that one’s for boys!’), then the inevitable consequence of sending them off to interact in an environment where, true to form, all the Pinks are wearing dresses and all the Blues are wearing shorts, is that even a fucking five-year-old will start to think that boys and girls talking is wrong.

Nobody has told them this explicitly.

Nobody has had to.

Writing about this week’s controversy over gay characters being removed from YA novels (excellent summations of which can be found here and here), author N. K. Jemisin says, “As many have pointed out, we live in a world full of bigotry but no bigots. No one wants to claim their own little slice of the Contributing to the Problem pie, even though everyone should get a little.” Giving her keynote address at the recent Tights and Tiaras conference on female superheroes and media cultures, author Karen Healey talked about the cultural reasons why women who otherwise love SF, fantasy, comics, fanfiction and superheroes end up steering clear of mainstream superhero comics and comic stores – specifically, about the idea that the prevalence of sexism and objectification of women at the level of both the narratives of said comics and the creative processes which create them are, not surprisingly, offputting to female readers.  And at the end of last year, an American mother blogged about what happened when her five-year-old son dressed up as Daphne from Scooby Doo for Halloween; how other mothers attacked her for it, saying that I should never have ‘allowed’ this and thank God it wasn’t next year when he was in Kindergarten since I would have had to put my foot down and ‘forbidden’ it.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – and will keep saying it forever, because it will never cease to be true: we are all a product of culture. Five-year-old children experience discrimination from parents, from their peers and from society –  because they’re boys who dress like girls, because they’re girls who want to be friends with boys, because they have the temerity to be different – but when the question of why comes up, we never consider that all those seemingly innocuous things like toy choice and clothing colours and storybooks might have something to do with it; that when you pile up all the individual molehills of culture, the end result really is a mountain. Most of us were raised this way, and we continue to raise more children along the same lines – because what’s wrong with girls being girls and boys being boys? Children are just like that. Well, of course they are, if that’s how you insist on raising them. And then those children grow up into teenagers, the primary demographic for so much of our culture, and while many of them are increasingly savvy about the subtleties of the gender biases that govern their existence, many more aren’t; and that means that they don’t question cultural output whose tropes are reflective of those biases. And after all, why would they be? Isn’t the world just like that? Well, of course it is, if nobody tries to make it otherwise.

And then publishing companies and advertising agencies and Hollywood and every other organisation who sells things for a living looks at the buying habits of the general, youthful populace says, It’s not that we’re bigoted, but books about gay teenagers don’t sell and neither do comic books where the women aren’t sexualised or films where the leads aren’t white. And I’m sick of it, because if all the excuse-mongering about demographics and target audiences by people who should know better is to be believed, then the whole of Western creative industry is made up exclusively of lovely, unbigoted people who are the friends of other lovely, unbigoted people forced by circumstances beyond their control to make books and films and comics and toys along bigoted lines, because apparently the entire creative monopoly of unbigoted editors, writers, agents, artists, filmmakers and producers constitutes such a powerless minority voice that they couldn’t possibly hope to change the standards they purport to hate, and anyway, it’s not like they’re in charge of our culture – oh, wait, it is.

The moral of this story is: don’t take culture for granted, because if there’s one thing it exists to do, it’s change. Our whole society is Theseus’ Ship, and the sooner we realise our collective power to tear down broken parts and replace them with things that work, the better. Especially those of us who tell stories; and doubly for those of us who tell stories to children and teenagers. To quote the Witch from Into the Woods:

Careful the things you say; children will listen. 

 

 

As keen readers of this blog will have had occasion to notice, the most recent season of Doctor Who has not exactly met with my approval. That being so, and with the marvelous advent of A Doctor World to inspire me, I decided to rewatch the whole new series – Eccleston, Tennant and Smith – with an eye to understanding the show’s development. Right now, I’m midway through Season 3, and in keeping with the seriousness of my self-appointed task, I’ve been taking handwritten notes on the structure, themes and byplay of every episode. Specifically, I’m interested in the depictions of female characters. How much agency do they have? Are their odds of survival comparable to that of their male counterparts? How do they die, and under what circumstances? Are they villains or allies? Do they rescue other characters as often as being rescued? How many episodes pass the Bechdel test?

It’s this latter question which has occupied most of my thoughts. How heavily should I rely on it? Though undeniably useful, the Bechdel is far from being the ultimate arbiter of narrative – or even feminist – success. Passing it does not, for instance, guarantee that the female characters in question are three-dimensional, believable human beings, nor does it protect against thematic sexism. Pass or fail, however, the results are always interesting – not just because of what they say about particular stories, but because of how the test itself reflects our culture of storytelling. At first glance, it’s utterly trite and obvious to point out that every day, everywhere in the world, human beings pass the Bechdel: after all, half the human population is female, and in accordance with the fact that we are all (as it were) named characters, the overwhelming majority of our conversations, if transposed to a narrative context, would pass. And yet, despite the obviousness of this fact, a disgusting number of movies, TV shows, books and plays all fail. Looked at as a purely narrative problem, it’s a disconcerting dissonance with reality. Looked at as a human problem, however, it’s a travesty.

As per Gail Simone’s observations on women in refrigerators, there are any number of reasons why individual writers might choose to structure a story such that there are no female characters, or only one female character; or why, given the presence of two or more such women, they don’t have occasion to speak to one another; or why, if they do, it’s only about a man. The limit of the Bechdel is the ease with which its detractors can argue – correctly – that the inclusion of women characters who talk about things will not automatically improve a story: not on a thematic level, if the point is to allay concerns about sexism, and not on a narrative level, if the point is to fix a plot. The failure of this objection, however, is that it willfully misconstrues the inclusion of women to be meant as a panacea. It’s not about instituting what amounts to a storywide affirmative action policy, because the suggestion has never been that women, by themselves, make stories better, or fairer, or anything other than stories with women in them, just as stories which lack women, or contain few of them, aren’t innately inferior. Rather, the point has been to ask why, if we believe our society, culture and ethics to be egalitarian – and, more, if we personally support these ideals – our stories say something else.

Consider the following hypothetical instance of a film centered on the adventures of a male lead, Guy, and his female love interest, Gal. Already, Gal is defined by her relationship to Guy: because the narrative fulcrum rests on Guy specifically, Gal’s presence is justified by her participation in his story. (There’s no reason why this scenario can’t work in the reverse without changing the genre – and yet, how much more common is it for stories with female love interests to be action-oriented adventures, while stories with male love interests are billed as romantic comedies?) Thus, Gal’s only investment in the plot comes through her association with Guy, making it much more likely that he, and not she, will take the lead in future plot-oriented conversations – after all, it’s Guy who needs answers, while Gal is just there for the ride. Obviously, that’s a simplification of matters: in save-the-world plots, for instance, the ultimate stakes affect everyone, while personal survival is a pretty strong incentive for even the most reluctant, dragged-along love interest to sit up and take an interest. Assuming Guy and Gal encounter other women in their travels, either as villains or comrades, there’s every reason why Gal might talk to them, and they to her.

Except, more often than not, they won’t – which is where we hit the gender snag. Because in instances where Guy is the protagonist, Gal’s character development matters less than his: not because she’s a girl (or at least, we hope not) but because it’s his story, and any conversations which don’t include or mention him are going to be viewed as extraneous to the plot. Ignoring the false economy of a storytelling style which jettisons secondary character development in the name of streamlining – and ignoring, too, the fact that female love interests are so deeply ingrained as an action movie archetyps that their very presence can feel like last-minute shoehorning – this puts considerable pressure on any fem/fem conversation to be relevant to the action; and if the writer wants to really showcase Guy’s intelligence, strength and resourcefulness, then having two other characters think up a plan, chart a course of action or otherwise save the day will only serve to undermine his specialness. Throw in the necessity of keeping Guy and Gal together for most of the plot – you can’t kindle sparks if the flints don’t touch – and just like that, you’ve practically eliminated any opportunity for Gal and Gal2 to have a conversation. Trying to force them together would just be another sort of shoehorning; and anyway, what does it matter? It’s just a story.

All of which is, frankly, bullshit. Characterisation shouldn’t be the sole privilege of protagonists. Male heroes don’t require a monopoly on good ideas and snappy dialogue to be viewed as heroic – and if you think they do, you’re probably part of the problem. Women shouldn’t be token characters: I love a good, sassy romance as much as the next person, but there’s a profound difference between a love interest whose only investment in the plot is their attachment to the hero, and a fully functioning character who develops into a love interest. As for the age-old argument about some eras, professions and settings being necessarily male dominated, I put it to you that if Deadwood, a well-researched, historically anchored show about life in a lawless town on the American frontier can pass the Bechdel test with ease, then any film the sole premise of which is Shit Gets Blown Up should be able to do it backwards and upside down, particularly if the setting constitutes a departure from everyday reality in any way, shape or form. Which is another way of saying that if you’re willing to break the established laws of physics and human endurance such that the male hero can get blown up, tortured and beaten shortly before running approximately ten miles at top-speed during a thrilling laser gun battle, you can probably stretch to having a female character whose capabilities extend beyond the rigours of looking decorative.

Unless you think women shouldn’t really have key roles in action movies, in which case, see above, re: being part of the problem.

All of which brings me to my sudden inability to think of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth as a realistic fantasy world (which sounds like a non sequitur, but bear with me). I’ll be brutally honest: watching the How It Should Have Ended clip for The Lord of the Rings has not done wonders for my perception of its plot, such that when I sat down this evening to watch the extended version of The Fellowship of the Ring, I found myself wanting to yell at Gandalf to just GO GET THE FUCKING EAGLES. But as I tried to settle into the narrative, I kept asking myself: where are the women? I don’t mean Arwen, Eowyn and Galadriel, who are all wonderful characters despite their lack of screen time: I mean, where are the wives and sisters and mothers? Why, when the succession is so important, is neither Faramir nor Boromir married? Where are the wives of Denethor and Theoden, the mothers of Arwen, Eowyn and Frodo? Why are so many races – the Ents, the Orcs, the Uruk-Hai, the Goblins, the Dwarves – drawn as if they were all male? For a setting which is otherwise so rich in cultural and historical detail, this reads as a serious problem. It’s not just that the trilogy fails the Bechdel test; it’s that the lack of women means we have very little idea of how that society treats them, beyond the basic, obvious knowledge that there must be wives and sisters and mothers of some sort, even though almost every woman in a position to occupy such a niche is either conveniently dead or mysteriously absent. And when, in The Silmarillion, Tolkien does venture to write female characters, it’s almost always in a romantic, devotional context: women who died to support their brothers or husbands, or who were pursued against their will, or who tragically fell in love with someone they shouldn’t (or couldn’t) have.

Which is where I start to wonder if the absence of female characters in Middle Earth is less a species of exclusionary sexism than it is a tacit acknowledgement on Tolkien’s part that, for all he was trying to write a magical, romanticised version of the medieval period, he didn’t know how to do so in a way that would benefit his women the same way it did his men. The happy resolutions to the lives of Luthien, Arwen and Eowyn all hinge on partnerships with men of their own choosing, men with whom they are genuinely in love; and yet a scholar of Tokien’s standing can’t have been unaware of how rare an occurrence that would have been, historically speaking. Perhaps, then, the wives and mothers of so many characters are absent as a preventative against the acknowledgement of exactly that problem; of the fact that one can believe in the restorative magic of feudalism and the aesthetic stylings of chivalry for only so long as one either postpones the question of women’s happiness or takes its existence for granted. As compassionately as Tolkien paints Eowyn’s desire for glory, and as determinedly as he makes Luthien the saviour and rescuer of Beren, the latter stance seems less likely than the former. But in dodging the issue, he undermines the story – because while his male characters are allowed to ask questions about their purpose in life, expressing bitterness at their circumstances and feeling haunted by unwanted duty, he cannot dare let the women do likewise, or else the whole myth of Middle Earth’s glory would come crashing down around him. The elves, conveniently enough, are exempt from this dilemma, presumably on the basis that if everyone in a given society is granted magical supremacy, immortality and eternal beauty as a matter of course, then unhappiness as a result of imposed gender profiling probably won’t be an issue. But humankind are not, which is why, despite how well-drawn she is, Eowyn’s fears are masculinised: her biggest concern is being denied a chance at battle, and not that Theoden or Eomer will see her married off, even though the structure of Tolkien’s society dictates that one must be at least as distinct a possibility as the other.

And that’s why I’ve lost my faith in Middle Earth: because I cannot reconcile Tolkien’s aesthetic mood of beauty, nobility and contemplation with the necessary ugliness and bias of male-dominated feudalism. Which explains why I’m such a fan of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, adapted recently to the HBO series A Game of Thrones: all the history and pageantry is still there, all the chivalrous words and noble aspirations, but we still get to see the women – their desires, struggles, success and persecution – without recourse to either convenient absenteeism or rosy-lensed love. Call it gritty fantasy or nihilism if you must, but no matter how pure and glorious your ambitions, it’ll take a lot to convince me that a standard medieval setting will lack the problems of forced marriage, rape and battery – or worse, that these things don’t matter – just because you choose to emphasise chivalrous conduct.

So, to recap: if you find yourself steering clear of female/female dialogue because:

a) women have no place in your story;

b) it doesn’t feel plot-relevant;

c) you don’t want to develop your female characters; or

d) the women might question the logic of a world you want your male characters to enjoy,

then I would humbly suggest that you are, in fact, part of the problem. Which is why the Bechdel test matters: not because all stories need women, but because the manner of their absence shouldn’t contribute to a culture of inequality.

Not so long ago, there was something of a furor concerning World Book Night’s shabby treatment of genre novels, when SFF author Stephen Hunt reacted passionately to their absence from the event. Naturally, this is an issue near and dear to my heart, so when my Twitter feed presented me with an opportunity to nominate my own top ten books for the next WBN, I decided to take it. After all, what better way to correct the previous year’s imbalance than by throwing some SFF titles into the mix? After several minutes of faffing about, registering with the site and setting up a profile, I finally found myself in a position to suggest some books – or at least, I would have done, if not for the fact that clicking through to the requisite page produced the following unhelpful screen:

Though able to add favourite books to my personal profile, I’m apparently unable to suggest them to the site. Which is annoying, because so far, the genre representation is pretty slim. But that’s not the reason why I sat down to blog this post; or at least, it’s not the full reason. Because when I went to add a couple of titles to my profile list (an irritating process in its own right), I found myself automatically selecting, not my favourite books, but standalone favourites. Katharine Kerr’s excellent Deverry cycle, for instance, is fifteen books long: trying to add her to my list in any coherent fashion would have meant scrolling through more than thirty titles – each book having been printed in multiple additions – that weren’t presented in chronological order. Even assuming the site’s compliance, trying to suggest them as part of my personal top ten would have been numerically impossible without an option to nominate the whole series in one go, the way one might suggest The Lord of the Rings singly rather than as three separate works.

Which made me wonder: how many times have I structured a list of favourite books to fit this principle, rather than in accordance with my actual preferences – and more, how many other readers must find themselves doing the exact same thing? Given its weighty history, most people, regardless of their tastes and preferences, are entirely capable of acknowledging Tolkien’s seminal trilogy to be a single, coherent story; so why, when it comes to every subsequent series, are we still thinking in terms of individual volumes? Even five years ago, there might have been something to the argument that the The Lord of the Rings counts as a single book only because it’s physically been printed as a single book edition, but in this day and age of ebooks, where I could potentially fit my entirely library of fantasy series onto a Kindle or iPad, why should such distinctions matter? Obviously, the breakdown of a series into its constituent editions is still significant: particular volumes might be preferred to others, for instance, or later works castigated where the earlier were praised, to say nothing of the fact that, in many instances, there are solid reasons why we might want to nominate or discuss a particular book in isolation from its siblings. But when it comes to lists that are meant to describe the tastes of the general public – when we’re talking about our favourite stories and authors – surely being able to discuss  a particular series as a whole, discreet narrative rather than as a string of individual works has merit as an approach?

And then consider the obvious: that genre stories are far more likely than mainstream literary fiction to be constructed across multiple novels. From crime and mystery serials to multi-volume fantasy epics, it only takes a glance at the shelves of a library, bookshop or geekish living room to gauge the scope of things. It’s like the problem I have whenever I try to recommend that someone read the works of Terry Pratchett, whose Discworld series is now 38 books long. The conversation usually goes like this:

Me: You should read the Discworld books – they’re amazing, particularly the most recent ones!

Person: Great! Which one’s your favourite?

Me: Night Watch, definitely.

Person: OK, I’ll read that one.

Me: But you can’t start with Night Watch; all the best jokes are about characters from other books. It wouldn’t make any sense. You have to start with an earlier one.

Person: But I thought you said they weren’t as good?

Me: They’re still great books; it’s just that the later ones are even better.

Person: Where should I start, then?

Me: Well, if you just want to try the Vimes books – he’s the protagonist of Night Watch – then start with Guards! Guards! and work your way forwards through Men at Arms, Feet of Clay, Jingo and The Fifth Elephant. He has cameos in other books, but those are the most important ones.

Person: All right, but what if I want to read the whole series, right from the start? How many books are there?

Me: About forty.

Person: *faints*

In fairness, Discworld – much like Pratchett himself – is something of a special case. Many of the books work as standalone volumes, or as discreet series-within-a-series, so that one need only read four or five novels to get the full adventures of a particular character (cameos notwithstanding). But in the case of something like Kerr’s Deverry cycle, or  George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire – which, despite being incomplete, has recently been adapted by HBO as the TV series A Game of Thrones – there would be little point in listing just one book of either series, even the first or best, as a favourite novel. And so I wonder: when people contribute to lists of their favourite stories, lists which are publicised, discussed and dissected in their role as seemingly reasonable cross-sections of the reading public’s tastes, how often are SFF and genre works omitted, not because they aren’t loved, but because of the inherent extra difficulty in nominating series? And how many journalists, librarians, booksellers and other interested parties have, when setting out the structure and parameters of such lists, have instinctively done so with a mind only to individual books, rather than whole series?

To be clear, I’m not trying to suggest that the only reason genre books are absent from places like the World Books Night list is because we’re more hesitant to nominate serial titles: personal taste, social bias and the perceived preferences of others are all significant factors. But I do think it must make some difference – not just to the titles we nominate, but to the books we actively consider nominating –  if our automatic assumption is that series somehow don’t fit with the mood of such lists; if we’re wary of cluttering them up with multiple titles written by the same author, or if we’d rather represent a broader spectrum of our tastes by listing the single works of many authors instead of the complete works of one. Either way, if we’re going to continue talking about the tastes of the reading public, then considering whether a primary means of assessing those tastes might be subconsciously biased towards standalone novels – and, by inference, to non-genre novels – seems like an important step to take.

ETA: I just checked the WBN page again, and the earlier problem has vanished: my personal favourites and the site favourites have now linked up. The search function is still glitchy as hell, though, and half the time, typing in a valid name or title produces no results. Sigh.

Reading through the second book of Ally Carter’s excellent Gallagher Girls series, Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy, on the bus home yesterday afternoon, I was suddenly struck by how the representation of schools in YA writing is, in many ways, reflective of the wider problems of modern education. Now, when it comes to the subject of education generally and high school in particular, I am not what you would call an objective commentator: I have passionate opinions, and I like to share them. I mention this by way of establishing from the outset that my perception of modern education and its problems are not necessarily universal. (I like to think it should be, but that’s another story.)

The point being, high school is problematic, and regardless of differing opinions on why that is or how it might be fixed, the simple assertion that  problems do exist is not a controversial statement. And so, while reading a book about a spy academy for teenage girls, it occurred to me to wonder why some types of school are held up as interesting, awesome and excellent in YA novels, while others either blend into the background or, at worst, are depicted as hateful, prisonesque institutions. At first glance, this is something of a ridiculous question: YA is about teenagers, teenagers go to school – is it any wonder, therefore, that depictions of education in YA should vary, too? Well, no: but probing a little deeper, it’s possible to discern an interesting pattern about the types of school on offer.

To start with, let’s consider the cool schools. These are places where the actual content of various classes is depicted as positive and interesting, not only to the characters, but to the readership – and more, where the skills they teach are of demonstrable use to the protagonists. These are the schools that cause real-world teenagers to read about them and think, man, I wish I went there, and what should be instantly significant about this is not that such schools exist, even hypothetically, but that their status as such is contingent on the combination of three factors in varying ratios: glamour, agency and relevance. Dealing with the foremost of these, it’s undeniable that cool schools train their students to be, well, cool. Carter’s Gallagher Academy is a school for spies; J. K. Rowling’s Hogwarts trains witches and wizards; and, though they don’t attend schools in the modern sense, Tamora Pierce’s heroines nonetheless learn to be knights and police officers in institutional settings.

Undeniably, then, glamour is a factor: to borrow Monty Python’s favourite example, who wants to read a book about a school for chartered accountancy? But even so, there’s something significant in the narrative success of schools whose aim is to churn out graduates with qualifications for a particular career: the idea of educational relevance. Beyond the novelty of reading about single-focus schools, all these stories show students being trained for an identifiable purpose, taking on difficult assignments not just through their own adventuring (though this also happens), but because the structure of the institution demands that they do so. Regular homework, genuine danger, obedience to teachers and repetitious training are never omitted or skimmed for the sake of making school look like a cakewalk: instead, they are emphasised, because in a setting where teenage protagonists are allowed to have personal ambitions – and more, where these can be actively pursued through school – then all those educational necessities which in the real world are seen as tedious, pointless and intrusive suddenly become interesting, worthwhile and relevant. Put bluntly, it’s one thing to sit resentfully through hours of geography class without the slightest idea of when it might ever be useful, and quite another to read about a scenario where, in order to prepare for their future career as a globe-trotting spy, a teenage protagonist sits down to memorise all the world’s countries and capital cities. Sure, actually doing the memory work would be difficult, time-consuming and perhaps even dull, but the end reward – being a spy – would more than compensate for it.

And then there’s the question of agency: the fact that teenage attendees of cool schools are not only expected to know what they want from life, but are frequently allowed leeway in their efforts at pursuing it. By and large, cool school teachers don’t care about standardised testing: they care about the material, about preparing you for the real world; they stand up for their students, support independence, encourage critical inquiry and – most importantly – treat teenagers as though they’re intelligent enough to have real opinions. As a result, the students of cool schools get to have genuine adventures without being constantly told that doing so is impossible, illegal or irresponsible. Which isn’t to say that their actions never have consequences, or that no one ever gets punished for breaking the rules, or even that adults never call them idiots. What it does mean, however, is that there’s a general acknowledgement that the most important, powerful and significant moments of one’s secondary education do not necessarily take place in class or as a result of school-sanctioned activities, and that a certain amount of disobedience is to be, if not actively encouraged, then certainly expected as part and parcel of growing into an independent adult. Thus, while Professor McGonagall has no compunction about taking house points or assigning detention (for instance), we never see any evidence that particular crimes at Hogwarts have lasting consequences beyond the (drastic, rarely issued) threat of expulsion. At cool schools, there is no such thing as a permanent record, and if you can’t see the link between the freedom to make mistakes without endangering your whole future and an assertion of teenage agency, then I’d be so bold as to suggest that you’ve forgotten what high school is like.

So, to recap: cool schools have glamour. They make the students work hard, but towards well-defined goals that are actually relevant, both to the real world and to their personal ambitions. They are understanding of error: punishments are personal and immediate, rather than long-term and general. They have good teachers and interesting subjects, with an emphasis on curiosity and independent research. Students at cool schools have agency, and are treated like adults-in-training rather than merely teenagers. This, to my way of thinking, distinguishes cool schools in YA fiction from most actual schools, but you’re allowed to disagree. (Note: real world schools can still have awesome teachers. If I’m asserting any dissonance in that regard, it’s that awesome teachers in cool schools never have to answer to an underfunded, over-nannied bureaucracy and are actually well-paid for their services. Which, you know. Matters.) Hopefully, though, you’ll agree that the characteristics listed above, with the exception of glamour, are all good things.

It doesn’t strike me as a coincidence that writers – that is to say, intelligent, creative people working in a profession that cares absolutely nothing for their school marks or qualifications  – have a tendency to question the current educational system. Without wanting to assume my own experiences to be even vaguely universal, I can’t have been the only teenager who knew that they wanted to write stories for a living (or play sport, or be a musician or an artist or a dancer), and who therefore dedicated thousands of hours throughout high school to personal projects utterly unconnected with anything on the curriculum. Quite arguably, the fantasy of cool schools is as much for the authors as it is the readers: what would our teenage years have been like if, instead of being forced to learn things we’ve never found a use for and have subsequently forgotten, we went to schools specifically structured around our interests? What if our passions hadn’t had to compete with our coursework – if every school was like the one in Fame, only geared to our personal interests? What if we’d been taken seriously as teenagers?

It’s a rosy-lensed hypothetical, to be sure. Back here in reality, even radical educational reform would never allow for the kind of schools we all secretly yearned to attend. But even so, our desires come through in our writing: testing the waters, trying to see what school could be like if people like us were in charge. Both Liar and How to Ditch Your Fairy by Justine Larbalestier play with the idea of different secondary systems: in Liar, the protagonist attends a class called Dangerous Words, where censorship and media dishonesty are discussed, while in Fairy, subject-centric schools are run on lines designed to foster traits valued in their particular professions, so that the rules of a sports high emphasise teamwork, discipline, obedience, punctuality and coordination over everything else. It goes without saying that YA novels feature a certain amount of escapism, but while the base assumption about teenagers is that they all want to escape from school all the time, the idea that they might be taking refuge in stories about better schools is not nearly so normative.

And when, in such novels, the teenage protagonists do rebel against school, it’s usually for very good reasons: either the school itself is terrible, or it has become terrorised. In Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, for instance, Marcus sets himself up in opposition to authority because his rights are being violated: government politics are interfering with freedom of speech, his best teacher is being muzzled, and the principal has started using particular students as informants. In Libba Bray’s trilogy about Victorian schoolgirls, Gemma Doyle and her friends use magic, courage and cleverness to make lives for themselves beyond what society expects of them as women, escaping the confines of a college that, for all its sorority, only wants to turn them into wives. To quote the final book, The Sweet Far Thing:

“They’ve planned our entire lives, from what we shall wear to whom we shall marry and where we shall live. It’s one lump of sugar in your tea whether you like it or not and you’d best smile even if you’re dying deep inside. We’re like pretty horses, and just as on horses, they mean to put blinders on us so we can’t look left or right but only straight ahead where they would lead.” 

Which brings us, finally, to the traits of mediocre schools in fiction: how are they characterised? Usually, it’s enough that the characters have more important things in their lives than what goes on at school: that they’re learning elsewhere, and – more particularly – that such external subjects are of greater interest and relevance than the content of their classes. The characters in Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City by Kirsten Miller, for instance, are both exceptional individuals and largely self-taught: Betty is a master of disguise, Luz is an inventor, DeeDee a chemist, Oona a hacker, and Ananka an observant intellectual. While it would be foolish to ignore the glamour factor of these interests, what’s important is that the girls are independent, resourceful and clever, pursuing their passions in their own time precisely because a traditional school environment would only limit them.

As I’ve previously had cause to mention, science tells us that the human brain continues to develop throughout our teenage years and doesn’t actually settle until sometime in our twenties. The upshot of this information – or at least, one of the social upshots – is that many adults consider their suspicions about teenage childishness to be correct. This is why schools and universities are compared to daycare centers: because students cannot be trusted to act like adults, must be coddled and protected and talked down to, protected from agency and relevancy and all the danger that comes from actually acting like an independent person held to be responsible for your own actions. Never mind that the same research about brain development talks about the power of teenagers to sculpt their own identities by exercising their intellect – by thinking, by acting, by engaging with the world – and the far from radical notion that a good way to encourage this behaviour might be to, you know, treat teenagers like adults. Oh, no: their brains are not ready! No one should do anything that matters until they’re twenty-five!

But how can the brain develop if the person attached to it is only ever treated like a child?

And this is why, to come to the long-awaited point, the depiction of schools in YA is so reflective of the current problems with Western education: both narratively and in terms of the real world, writers and readers understand the disconnect between what school is meant to achieve, and how it actually works. Passionate students must follow their interests outside the classroom. Adventurous, inquisitive, questioning students are disproportionately punished in the long term for misdemeanours that are, at base, attempts at critical thinking and independence – skills that schools are theoretically supposed to foster, but which in practice they actively suppress . Average students drift through classes without a sense of either purpose or agency, unable to find meaning in lessons that most of us forget by the time we’re twenty, and which have no bearing on anything they might care about otherwise or be interested in doing.

And so they turn to fiction: stories where the schools are genuinely good; or where, outside of school, there’s a means of learning relevant, interesting things with friends; or where, if the school is terrible, there’s a way of fighting back. Over and over, we tell ourselves stories of how things could and should be different, to the point where novels – and through them, authors – are in a sense picking up the shortfall left by school itself: suggesting interests, provoking passions, encouraging dreams and critical thinking and courage and independence, proving that there are at least some adults who understand that the way things are is not necessarily the way they ought to be.

So governments: if you’re out there, and you want to really improve your education systems? You could do a lot worse than asking some YA authors (and – gasp! – teenagers) what they think. Because in the end, we never resented  school for being school. Instead, we resented it for all the things it should have been, and could have been – but wasn’t.

Apparently, I just can’t shut up this week. Which is odd. Because usually when I write long, link-strewn blogs about Important Politicky Stuff, it acts like a mental catharsis, allowing my opinions to recede to the hindbrain, there to simmer quietly. This week, however, everything has snowballed forwards, forcing me to keep blogging. I understand completely if you’re sick of this, in which case, I apologise. Possibly this whole outpouring is nothing more than the fevered byproduct of being stuck at home with a cold. But before my inevitable return to sloth, I have (at least) one more thing I want to discuss on the topic of feminism, criticism and YA reviews: the question of intentionality vs interpretation.

It’s long been an acknowledged that no story has only one correct interpretation. True, statements made by the author might be viewed as slightly more canonical – for lack of a better word – than those of other commenters, particularly when it comes to the semantics of worldbuilding, but by and large, we understand that it is entirely possibly for readers to come up with interpretations of the books they read that had never occurred to the authors, and which they certainly didn’t include on purpose. Where such discoveries are positive and/or thought-provoking, the vast majority of authors will accept them with gracious glee, happy to have a critical readership who approves of their storytelling. But when it comes to negative interpretations – no matter how thought-provoking – we authors have a tendency to play the intentionality card. We try to explain what we really meant, to insinuate either openly or subtly that the reviewer has simply missed something crucial in the narrative or brought their own, biased assumptions with them, and the thing is, we won’t always be wrong. There is, after all, a world of difference between critiquing a book on the basis that you found problems with it, and critiquing a book on the basis that you wish the author had written a different book entirely, or that you just don’t like the genre. But even allowing for such problems of mismatched readership, we are left with considerable room for readers to legitimately identify negative themes in the stories they read, even where those themes directly contradict the intentions of the author.

Recently, I had something of an epiphany with regard to racism, viz: declaring myself to be anti-racist, no matter how deeply I adhere to the sentiment, does not magically prevent me from subconscious racism. I am not a perfect being. I make mistakes, and more importantly, I am a product of the culture in which I live – a culture which, sadly, is less than perfect when it comes to embracing  diversity. Knowing this, I try to identify my mistakes and then learn from them: I want to be a better person, and that takes constant work. I am acutely aware, for instance, of the fact that there is only one non-white member of the cast of Solace & Grief, and while I didn’t consciously set out to engage in tokenism, any criticism of the novel along those lines would be entirely justified. I cannot unwrite what I’ve already written; I cannot unpublish what I’ve already published; and even if I could, I’m not sure I’d want to. What I can do, however, is acknowledge the problem and try to do better next time. The fact that I made a mistake doesn’t make me a racist – but declaring myself not to be racist doesn’t prevent me from making mistakes, either.

Which brings me back to the question of feminism in YA novels, and the debate surrounding negative reviews. YA paranormal literature is currently dominated by female authors, a vast majority of whom would – I suspect – be offended by the suggestion that their novels could be seen as perpetuating anti-feminist sentiments. Certainly, some have taken public affront at criticism of their books for exactly that reason, as was the case when Jackson Pearce reacted to the assertion that Sisters Red encouraged a victim-blaming mentality by publicly explaining her own intentions on the blog in question.

A brief aside, before we go any further: my husband and I, like any normal couple, argue. Because he is a philosophical logician and I am a slightly crazy author, however, these everyday arguments frequently overlap with multiple pedantic meta-arguments about the differences between what was actually said and what we meant to say. And there is a difference, sometimes a very crucial one: it might not matter most of the time, but as soon as one of us phrases something such that the other person is offended, we both have to stop and separate out the intention from the effect. It’s no good just dismissing the other person’s outrage on the grounds that we meant something entirely different – the fact is that we’ve caused distress, and the most dickish thing you can do at that point is refuse to apologise or even discuss it simply because that wasn’t what you meant.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

Despite the fact that I love YA, there’s still a large number of popular novels I haven’t yet read – or which, if I’m honest, I don’t intend to read, unless it’s to justify my engagement in conversations where they continue to crop up. I believe in making up your own mind about something firsthand, rather than just taking the popular word for it, but if twenty different reviews by intelligent, adult women all complain about the same problems of anti-feminist sentiment in the same subset of YA novels, then I’m not about to dismiss them out of hand. And if, as an author, you take offense at the idea that something uglier than what you intended is being talked about in connection with your novel: well, offense is your prerogative, but the fact that you wrote something doesn’t mean you get to play intentionality as a trump card in every subsequent debate. You can intend all you want, but when it comes to debates about sexism, racism, homophobia and eurocentrism in the wider SFF community – or when it comes to discussions of rape culture and alphaholes in the wider romance community, for that matter – the record is pretty clear on the fact that these negatives cultures do exist; that they are perpetuated subconsciously more than actively; and that we need to discuss them if they’re ever going to be fixed.

You, personally, are not being called an anti-feminist: certain aspects of your work are. And if you can’t appreciate that distinction – if you continue to try and prejudice intentionality over interpretation every time someone takes offence – then perhaps you shouldn’t be in the debate to begin with. But regardless of your participation, that debate will continue to be held. Because it matters. Because we care. And because perpetuating a culture of YA novels whose heroines are being sold short is not something we want to do.

Ever since Worldcon, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to questions of race, not just in general terms, but with regard to the SF/F community and my place within it, as both a fan and a writer. I am white: depending on how expansive a mood I’m in and the context of the conversation, I have also been known to describe myself, cheerfully and with humorous intent, as a mongrel, being as how my immediate ancestry (parents, grandparents and great-grandparents) contains a mix of British, Scottish, Irish, German, Nordic and Mediterranean heritage. By birth, I am Australian, but I’d never consider that to be a race, because – well, it’s not, and I detest those movements which seek to define Australian nationalism and identity on the basis of a “shared” anglocentric background.

I grew up reading tales of history, myths and magic from around the world, which in turn fuelled my passion for fantasy – but though the mythology I read came from Asia, the Pacific, the Middle East, South America and Africa as frequently as from Europe, the Mediterranean, Britain or the Nordic countries, that difference in culture never quite translated to a difference in the range of fantasy on offer. Or at least, in nowhere near the same quantities. For every epic fantasy featuring POC characters and a non-medieval setting, there were twenty that didn’t. But because I was white; because we are all, more or less, egocentric creatures, and especially so when we’re young; because it never occurred to me that this was, in fact, a problem, I didn’t notice. I had blonde hair, pale skin and green eyes – why was it weird that the main characters in the books I read all shared a similar colouring? I won’t try and plead ignorance on the grounds that I lived in an entirely white neighbourhood or went to an entirely white school, because neither of those things are even remotely true. That’s not to say that I lived in a vibrant cacophony of cultural diversity, either. It just means that most of the people I knew were white, my family and their extended circle of friends were white, and I didn’t make any attempt to view these facts in the context of a wider culture, or literature, or anything.

I still had thoughts about race, of course. I was – am – opposed to racism, and whenever any sort of racial/cultural argument broke out among my friends, family or classmates, I was firmly situated on the side of diversity. But that’s as far as it went. Beyond asserting that racism was bad, acknowledging that a terrible history of white domination had caused this to be so and arguing that further instances of same should not be allowed to happen, I did nothing, because nothing in my daily life suggested it was necessary. I had never personally seen anyone being discriminated against on the basis of race or ethnicity, and unless you count the offhand tactlessness of teenagers mimicking the views of talkback radio or apeing Family Guy jokes for comic effect, I had never been exposed to actual racist views in my social circle. What was there left for me to do? Everyone knew racism was a Bad Thing; the idea that it might still be going on was therefore incompatible with reality.  Sexism, though – that, I could get really mad about, because despite the advent of feminism, I still knew what it felt like to be picked on by boys who didn’t like that I could beat them at cricket. Comparing these two views and noting the discrepancies therein didn’t even register as a concept.

Here is a truth of human existence: we do not see the bias in our favour unless we look for it, and we certainly don’t question our own privilege unless told to do so, because most of the time, we don’t even notice it’s there. The danger of being white and brought up to disdain racism is that you start to believe that not being a racist is simply achieved by asserting your lack of racism. You do not inquire further into the matter: why would you, when the bulk of that narrative makes you the historical villain simply by virtue of your skin colour? Isn’t that what racism is meant to avoid? Shouldn’t racial equality apply equally to you, too? Isn’t it enough that you can walk down the street, being white and not feeling superior about it?

No.

No.

No.

I am not a perfect human being. I can acknowledge now – as I used not to be able to – that I sometimes have racist thoughts. They are lightning flashes, there and gone: the fear-whispers of the radio man, stored in memory like song lyrics and brought forth by triggers in the surrounding world. They are subconscious assumptions that I have to force myself to notice. They are subtle, and varied, and every time I catch myself in the act, I wince and think, Where did that come from? Why is it there, and how can I stamp it out? It makes me feel like a terrible person, but by acknowledging them, I force myself to realise that not being racist is more than just thinking, I am not racist, therefore I cannot possibly have racist thoughts, which is the most dangerous default of all.

A personal tipping point was  M. Night Shyamalan’s Avatar: The Last Airbender, and the racefail controversy which surrounded it. Not having seen the animated series, and being one of the minority who tends to like Shyamalan’s work, I reviewed the film in a fashion which was, overall, positive. But in doing so, I had to think about race more closely than I ever had before. What it boiled down to was this: I enjoyed watching the film, and did not like the idea that the reason I’d done so was an innate lack of racial sensitivity. Undeniably, the racefail issue was there, and a fascinating one to discuss – I’d known about it long before heading into the cinema. So what did it say about me, that I could still like something I knew was an act of whitewashing? I wrestled with that question for months after I wrote my review. I tried to find a way to reconcile my enjoyment with the film’s failings in a way that didn’t make me feel like a despicable person, and couldn’t. At the same time, I started watching the animated series, which – apart from being a million times better – showed me how the characters were meant to look. And that’s when it hit me: the real reason I hadn’t been outraged by the film was the expectation – the assumption – that characters in stories would look like me. Without having seen the series, I had no expectations for the actors, and was therefore content to fall back on a default social setting. But ever since I finished watching the series, I look at stills from the film and think, wrong.

Since then, I’ve come to realise – or to remember, rather – that it’s perfectly possible to like some aspects of a story, but not all, and to argue vehemently against what distresses us for the sake of making the good things even better by the future absence of suck. Just yesterday, I finished reading The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle, and though I love his easy writing style and the imaginative storytelling, every piece of era-centric sexist, racist commentary made me want to hurl the book at the wall. Tonight, by contrast, I’ve been reading the blog of the wonderful N. K. Jemisin, whose brilliant novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, I devoured late last week. Specifically, I’ve been reading this post on racism, and this post on comforting dystopias, and they are, in tandem, the reason I sat down to blog my own piece tonight. Because what I’m coming to realise is that being white and well-off  is like living in a bubble, and that racism – and sexism, and homophobia, and all those other terrible creeds and isms – are like a raging river on which you float, unaffected. And if none of the river’s attendant perils threaten you personally – if you are not really interested in what goes on beneath your feet – then you will never notice the un-bubbled masses dashed against the rocks; or see the snares which threaten so many others; or worry about a shifting sandbank changing the course of the river; or spare a thought for those who drown, unable to fight the current. And even if you inflate your bubble with a spirit of kinship, love and charity, without that further awareness, you will be a lesser person than might otherwise be the case.

I had so much more I wanted to say, but it’s late now, and doing all those extra thoughts justice would take more energy than I currently possess. Instead, I’ll say this: think about the stories you encounter. Think about the things you don’t question. Ask if believing a thing is the same as embracing it actively. It’s hard to change yourself, true – but less difficult than admitting that you need to change at all.