Gather around, YA community. We need to have a talk.
Every few months in the YA world, someone pops up with a thread or thinkpiece about how girls in YA should be allowed to be girlie. Such as this. Or this. Or this. It’s difficult to meaningfully discuss articles like these because the slightest pushback invites the accusation that I don’t think girls should be allowed to be girlie. But this statement is not a simple affirmation of gender expression. It’s sitting on a whole pile of ugly baggage, and if it’s moving in permanently, we need to unpack it.
By way of a disclaimer, I’ll begin by saying that I’m not passing judgment on what the authors of these articles believe in their heart of hearts, whether they are nice people in real life, or how they themselves present their gender. As everyone knows, their intent is beside the point; however innocent or benign their motives might have been, it doesn’t change the resulting harm. To illustrate, here are some comments from Beaty’s article on The Mary Sue:
Meanwhile, all the gender nonconforming girls will be even more alienated even in the one section of media they used to be able to find some representation in. Yay, apparently.
Apparently the only way to be a “real woman” is to abide by the authors particular form of femininity. So gross.
It’s basically saying that boobs and femme-ness are the markers of ‘real women’. If the characters don’t have those, no one will know they’re women.
So whatever the goal, a very nasty message is what readers are taking away. I discussed the problem with Beaty and Andye, but neither of them saw fit to offer a correction, indicating that while the original posts may have been made in simple ignorance, neither of them is concerned enough with the consequences to set the record straight. That leaves the task to me.
It’s also tempting to preface a discussion like this with the disclaimer that yes, of course, girls should be allowed to be girlie, followed by examples of feminine characters I like and a description of the feminine characters who appear in my own work, but let’s be honest: Even if I appended that caveat to every sentence, someone would still accuse me of attacking feminine characters. The ingrained attitude that any discussion of women’s gender presentation must actively affirm femininity or else it’s anti-feminine is one manifestation of the undercurrent of bias that runs through this whole discussion.
So let’s take the enormous numbers of feminine YA characters (see below) as proof that girls are free be girlie whether or not they have permission from me and move straight into the subtext: When is an affirmation not simply an affirmation?
An affirmation is not simply an affirmation when it’s defending against a nonexistent attack.
Not a single one of these articles was inspired by someone actually criticizing a feminine character for being feminine. I have never heard anyone in the YA community attack a character for feminine gender expression. And despite the perennial complaints by adult men who don’t read YA that the genre is full of cooties, I’ve never even heard one of them complain specifically about a female character wearing a dress or liking the color pink. (They may have, but if so, it wasn’t what any of these people were responding to.)
In the interests of avoiding sophistry, I’ll note that attacks aren’t always direct and overt. An attack may come in the form of disproportionate fan hatred for a character who just happens to be female (Skyler from Breaking Bad is a well-known example). This is a serious problem that really does need to be addressed, although it’s not limited to feminine characters by any means…but none of the articles actually bring this topic up, so it’s clearly not the particular type of attack that they’re concerned about.
Lack of representation can also be a form of attack. The authors are right that, if there were a total dearth of feminine characters in YA, that would amount to a systemic problem. But on the other hand, if there are plenty of feminine characters in a variety of positive, empowered roles and the authors still feel attacked, that suggests that their real objection is not that feminine characters don’t exist, but that other kinds of characters do. So which is it? Read on.
An affirmation is not simply an affirmation when it’s one-sided.
Considering these articles are ostensibly defending freedom of gender expression, the entire focus is on attacking gender-nonconforming women. Have any of these people ever mounted a defense of female characters’ right to not be feminine? For that matter, when was the last time anyone in the YA community (I mean anyone other than me) wrote a thinkpiece defending gender nonconformity? I certainly can’t point to one.
When the community repeatedly, adamantly asserts the right to be one way, but never the right to be the opposite way, that’s not just a neutral observation that the former is allowed—it’s a strong message that the former is acceptable while the latter is not. And that’s before we consider what message the rest of society is sending.
An affirmation is not simply an affirmation when it’s based on untrue assumptions.
Kekai says “The problem comes when that [gender nonconforming women]becomes the only type of heroine in YA—or, at least, mainstream YA fiction.” But where’s the evidence that that’s the case? Kekai cites Katniss as an example and Karou from Daughter of Smoke and Bone as a counterexample. Andye gives four examples followed by four counterexamples. Beaty gives one example followed by six counterexamples.
And yet Kekai concludes that “every major fantasy or dystopian heroine in a YA fiction novel” has a gender nonconforming heroine and they’re “the only type of heroine in YA.” That’s right. EVERY YA heroine is a tomboy. There is not a single YA book with a feminine hero.
Not a single one.
How can anyone look at the enormous preponderance of gender conformity among YA heroines—and, for that matter, YA authors—and conclude that girls aren’t allowed to be girly? The answer is cognitive bias.
Cognitive bias is the tendency to have skewed perceptions based on what you expect or what you’re used to. For example, since men are considered the default in our society and women the aberration, women are perceived as talking more than men when in reality men dominate almost every conversation; the baseline cultural assumption is that women will say nothing, so if a woman speaks at all, she’s seen as talking too much. Similarly, people of both genders regularly overestimate how many women are in a group, judging groups to be about evenly divided when they’re actually almost all men.
The same kind of bias applies to gender conformity and nonconformity. The people you see on a day-to-day basis, in advertisements, on TV, or just on the street, mostly fall into traditional expressions of masculinity and femininity. If you saw Spikey Van Dykey walking down the street, that would stand out, because that’s not the type of gender expression you’re used to.
Thus, even a few gender-nonconforming women seems like a lot, because by default we expect every woman to have long hair, wear make-up, carry a purse, and so on. A dozen gown-wearing heroines can pass without notice, but if you read two books in a row where the protagonist cuts her hair short, it feels like a takeover.
Cognitive bias is a natural brain function that cannot be eliminated, only recognized. However, it isn’t a harmless quirk. Wrongly estimating how a group breaks down leads people to deliberately give even less attention to groups that were already underrepresented and to allow groups that already had an outsize influence to gain even more. And if the underrepresented group doesn’t comply, things can get ugly.
An affirmation is not simply an affirmation when it’s part of a larger societal pattern.
Let’s go back to Gender Studies 101 for a moment. Our society elevates masculinity and denigrates femininity. That’s well-established. As far as men go, masculine behavior is strictly rewarded and feminine behavior is strictly punished. The former is both taking on a valued trait and conforming societal norms; the latter is both taking on a less-valued trait and transgressing societal norms. This double reinforcement makes male gender roles extremely ironclad; complete flouting (eg, men in full drag) is vanishingly rare and usually restricted to subcultures where the pressures are not as strong.
But when it comes to women, the rules are more complex. Some forms of masculinity are still valued, especially interest in male-coded hobbies and careers, and women can gain some prestige that way (the “cool girl”). But gender conformity, especially in appearance, is also strongly valued and transgressions are punished, as we’ll see in this very post.
The patriarchy defines women’s value according to two traits: sexual appeal and subservience. Sexual appeal is the primary message girls are bombarded with from a young age; even when women are praised for liking guns or engines, they’re expected to present themselves in a feminine way for the benefit of the men around them, whether it makes sense or not. The ubiquitous female warrior in armor that exposes her midriff and cleavage is a standard example.
Subservience is what we see when assertive women are labeled “harpies,” “ball-busters,” or just plain “bossy.” Men couldn’t maintain power if women could simply take on male-coded roles and claim the power for themselves, so it’s imperative to the patriarchy that there be an overwhelming pressure on women not to do anything to upset the power structure. The more power a woman gains, the more pressure she faces to assert her femininity by sharing cookie recipes, emphasizing her role as a mother, and of course looking attractive and poised at all times. This is also why the “cool girl” archetype is so strongly associated with girl-on-girl hate: In order to be admitted to the boys’ club, the girl has to demonstrate her willingness to enforce gender roles on other women to prove that she is an exception instead of an actual challenge to the power structure.
So instead of a double reinforcement, for women there’s a push and pull between opposing pressures. Every woman learns to navigate these pressures in her own way, some choosing gender conformity, others choosing gender nonconformity.
But let’s get real. The pressures are nowhere near balanced. There are no stores at the mall that market combat boots to tween girls. Toy stores don’t have a whole aisle of trucks and action figures marked “girls’ toys.” It’s not a constant challenge trying to find women’s underwear that doesn’t have camo on it. Girls don’t get dressed up in neckties for family portraits or thrown out of prom for failing to wear a tux. Gender conformity is the rule. That’s why it’s conformity. I mean, for the love of God, the word is “girly.”
In Ivanka Trump’s book Women Who Work, she self-defines her appointed role as the ideal of womanhood. No surprise, this ideal is traditionally gender-conforming in every respect: Fashionable, glamorous, a daddy’s little girl and a doting mother, the CEO of a traditionally feminine industry. She describes her mother as “unapologetically feminine in a male industry;” in an earlier pitch slideshow, she said “the outdated image of a working woman—frazzled, androgynous and entirely one note—began to crack and an inspiring new image began to take shape.”
Notice that Ivanka is pushing the exact same message as these YA articles: To be a powerful woman, you used to need to sacrifice your femininity and become indistinguishable from a man, but now, you can have a powerful role while also being traditionally feminine. If you don’t like that YA blogs sound like Ivanka Trump, well, that’s not on me.
Ivanka demonstrates that, in terms of societal pressures, adhering to gender norms is far easier, more acceptable, and more highly rewarded than violating them. The respect gained through gender nonconformity by being seen as “one of the guys” is far outweighed by the punishment incurred for violating societal rules and no longer being a “real woman.” Those rules run deep indeed, even in circles that self-identify as feminist.
Unexamined gender-essentialist assumptions permeate Beaty’s article. Gender-conforming characters are “very relatable” while gender-nonconforming characters are not. She praises the works of Sarah J. Maas because “once Feyre is freed from the masculine role of providing for her family, she enjoys rediscovering the femininity she had suppressed out of necessity” and “Celaena is showing similar signs of embracing the life of a woman.” Gender-nonconforming characters “think and act like men” and their presence “tells them [girls]that their feminine instincts, thoughts, desires, and emotions are wrong.”
So we see from Beaty a very normative belief that there are innate masculine and feminine ways of being. To her, girls instinctively gravitate away from the “masculine” roles of defender and provider and towards the “feminine” role of, I guess, nurturing homebody. This is the state of feminism in YA? Because it sounds suspiciously like the same ideas we’ve been trying to dispel all this time.
Having examined the context, let’s look back at the initial statement: “Girls should be allowed to be girly.” In other words, “girls should be allowed to conform to their societally-defined role.” Since, as we’ve seen, there are already any number of girly girls in YA, this statement must mean “more girls should be girly” or “not enough girls are being girly.” Thus, the ultimate message “girls should be allowed to be girly” sends is “girls aren’t doing a good enough job of conforming to their societally-defined role.” If that’s not the role the original authors intended to send, then they need to think more carefully about how their words reinforce existing norms.
An affirmation is not simply an affirmation when it’s actively attacking anyone different.
Any of these articles could have simply noted a lack of feminine characters (real or perceived), examined the role of the patriarchy in elevating masculinity over femininity, criticized works and reviewers that treat feminine women with disrespect, and given a few positive examples of well-written feminine characters. But that’s not the approach any of them take. None of them discuss the actual treatment of feminine characters where they do appear and the tendency of writers to make them weak and useless, nor the severity with which they’re often treated by readers and critics, who may project uselessness onto them even when it isn’t present in the text. (Gender nonconforming characters, however, also often face negative reactions, as we’re about to see.)
Likewise, P-word doesn’t appear in any of these conversations. Two of them don’t place any blame at all on men, the people who create and enforce this power structure. Beaty does note the vast preponderance of male characters, but then she moves on to the real culprit: Gender-nonconforming women.
To Beaty, they’re “female in name only” and “unrecognizable as women except for the fact they had breasts – often hidden, of course.” (The transphobic subtext is also pretty hard to miss.) She accuses them of being “so masculine the reader had to be reminded frequently that they were women.”
Kekai, to her credit, is much more sympathetic, but “wannabe Katniss” characters are still seen as the problem and it’s hard to see any interpretation that doesn’t require them to get suppressed to make room for more girly girls.
Andye’s #cutyourenemiesnotyourhair hashtag is the simplest possible distillation: An order not to present in gender-nonconforming ways. Andye likes long hair, so no one in fiction should cut their hair. Period. She could have chosen a hashtag celebrating long hair—#longhairdontcare is right there waiting to be used—but no, it had to be an attack on short hair.
The fact that Andye didn’t mean it to be taken that way—that is, to be taken as saying what it plainly says—demonstrates the depth of the bias in favor of gender conformity: If you’re a feminine woman, a direct command to not present gender differently than yours speaking is taken as a harmless, neutral affirmation that your form of gender presentation is okay, while if you’re not feminine, your very presence is seen as an attack on other forms of gender presentation. (Imagine the drama if a girl with short hair told all other girls not to grow long hair!)
And the examples of “unfeminine” female characters are so broad as to be ludicrous, including characters like Alice in Alice Through The Looking Glass (who cuts her hair at some point, I guess?) and Katniss (who wears a gown at least once per book and practices archery, which has been an acceptable women’s sport since Victorian times). That’s right: The definition of femininity in the modern YA community is more restrictive than it was in Victorian times.
Hi, I’m Katz. I have a crew cut. I wear work boots. I don’t own a purse, a mirror, or a single piece of makeup. I’m not a man with breasts; I’m not a poorly written character; I’m not an attempt to overcompensate. I am a real live woman. If you identify as a woman, then you look female and act female by definition, no matter what you do. And I deserve to see characters who reflect my experience, just as everyone does. Come at me.
The “girls should be allowed to be girly” articles are, in fact, reinforcing the exact same gendered roles that all of society subjects women to, and punishing (or at least insulting) anyone who fails to conform. We can do better. If you want to discuss whether feminine characters are treated fairly, go ahead, but stop begging the question by pretending that gender-conforming characters don’t exist and that the very existence of gender-nonconforming characters is harming you.
And if you’re serious about defending the right to be feminine, why not take on a real battle and demand more feminine male characters?